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Thematic Research For World’s Fair 1893, Part 1

Thematic Research for World’s Fair 1893, Part 1

Here’s a look at the research we did World’s Fair 1893 to take players back to this grand exposition, with tips for researching themes for your own game.

World’s Fair 1893 takes players back in time to experience the wonder of this grand international exposition. Players have responded well to this unique setting for a game, and we’ve received many positive comments about all the great historical details. In this two-part series, I look at the extensive research we did and share tips for researching themes for your own game.


ExpoThe Devil in the White CityFor many topics, you can find a book or documentary aimed at a general audience. Find a book source like that. For World’s Fair 1893, I found the book The Devil in the White City and the documentary Expo. Neither was perfect: the book had a grim half dedicated to related topic, and the documentary had a lot of cheesy content. But they gave me a solid overview of what happened, what was important, and what kind of names and categories would make sense to include in the game.

As you go through these sources, it is really important to take copious notes. You want to make it as easy as possible for you to review what’s important when you finish. If it’s a book you own, don’t be afraid to mark in it: write your thoughts in the margins, circle or underline important names or phrases, write a brief summary at the end of each section or chapter. (If it’s a movie or a library book, have a notebook and pencil at the ready.) It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture as you read through each chapter in a book; reviewing your summaries and notes will help you see connections and get a solid grasp on the full scope of the topic.



As you do this research, you’ll want to figure out what role the players take in this theme. Who are the players? Why are they competing? When you first decided to work on your theme, you may have known this: players could be opposing armies in a war for victory, or rival farmers competing to outperform each other. World’s Fair 1893 originally had a different theme, and we had a strong idea of the mechanisms before I started the research; we had to figure out those mechanisms could map to the theme.

Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham

The book spent a lot of time covering the preparations for the fair, and I was surprised at how much effort organizers had to persuade businesses and foreign governments to send their exhibits to the fair. (One organizer even died in a jungle; that’s … a strange story.) I was also struck by the role of competition, rivalry, and social influence among the people involved.

For some, the success of the fair opened doors and led them into the best years of their careers; others saw their popularity and success wane immediately after. That seemed like an ideal place for the competition in something that might seem better as a cooperative activity. (We had something similar with Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, with players competing as they decorate the palace lake together.)

Looking at specific elements, the game originally had 5 regions (Venice, Bern, and others) plus 5 types of regular goods (glass, wheat, and others) that were related to the regions. It also had one special kind of good not related to a region: amber. With the old theme, we had a couple of nagging thematic concerns, and I wanted to avoid those in the new theme: (a) the thematic connection between the regions and the goods wasn’t as strong as we wanted, and (b) the difference between the 5 regular goods and the 1 special good didn’t feel natural or intuitive.

(a) It seemed natural to map the goods with exhibits at the fair; organizers were traveling to secure these exhibits for the fair just like the traders were travelling around to secure goods. The 5 regions also mapped nicely to the main areas of the fair. (There were more than 5 areas, but they weren’t all equally distinct or interesting.) This also made for a stronger connection before the exhibits and the areas: every specific exhibit was displayed in a certain area of the fair.

Glass from Bern Becomes Transportation Exhibits

“Glass from Bern” Became “Transportation Exhibits”

(b) The difference between the two sections of the fair, the prestigious main exhibits of the fair proper and the fun attractions on the Midway, really stood out to me. The fair proper had a single admission fee that let visitors see all 10,000+ main exhibits, while the Midway, was a mile-long strip of attractions outside the fair that had their own individual admission fees and generated much of the profit for the fair. That made the Midway attractions the perfect mapping for amber, the special good that differed from the others.

Along the Midway Plaisance

Along the Midway Plaisance


World's Fair 1893 - Logo for Market ResearchSome people who will play your game may have some knowledge about the theme already. (A few people may even be experts!) I recommend talking to potential players about the theme to find out what they already know and what they might expect the game to include. I bought a stock logo and modified it with the title, then showed it around at game nights and other events to feedback and input from people.

One group suggested that we should have a Ferris wheel in the center of the board. The very first Ferris wheel was built on the Midway for the 1893 World’s Fair. (Today Ferris wheels are the most common attraction at amusement parks, making it really hard for us today to appreciate how novel it was at the time. The fair organizers wanted an engineering marvel that would outdo the Eiffel Tower — built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris — and the Ferris wheel delivered.) I had already planned to have the Ferris wheel as a Midway card, but it seemed obvious after this group suggested it that it should be more prominent and could help draw people into the theme more.

World's Fair 1893 - Ferris Wheel Board

We originally had a fourth type of card that triggered the scoring phases; we simply called them “trigger” cards. We already had a board for tracking these triggers, and we mapped that onto a central Ferris wheel board as best we could. It wasn’t a great thematic fit at first, but that mapping helped us see that the Midway tickets would be a better way (both thematically and mechanically) to do that. We scrapped the trigger cards and let the Midway tickets serve that additional purpose, as well.

Just as the excitement and the profits from the Midway attractions made the fair itself go ’round, so too do the Midway ticket cards make the game move forward. Each time a player collects a Midway ticket card, the Ferris wheel car moves one space around the wheel. A scoring phase occurs each time the car makes a complete cycle and returns to the beginning of the wheel, with each game consisting of three scoring phases. Players love (thematically) that the Ferris wheel goes around and (mechanically) that it gives players control over the game’s timer.

Looking at these popular secondary sources and talking with people, I was able to finalize the overall structure for the game. Players would be playing organizers, working to secure exhibits to be put on display. There would be 5 main areas, each with its own exhibits, plus the Midway attractions that would score differently and move the game’s timer forward.

In the next post, I will look at the research required to identify all the individual exhibits.

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