Creating Hard Choices in Board Games (Tasty Humans Pt. 4)

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One of the hallmarks of good board game design is being able to create hard choices. Particularly when hard choices come from simple mechanics.

Sounds easy enough to do, but it’s actually really tough from the designer’s perspective! Let’s talk about how you can create hard choices in your board game.

 

 

Many of you know that our Kickstarter campaign, Tasty Humans, has just debuted on Kickstarter! Both to celebrate the launch and to share knowledge, I’d like to share the thoughts of Ryan Langewisch, designer of Tasty Humans. He, after all, created the pattern building game that we call Tasty Humans, so it makes for a great case study!

His unedited original post can be found here. Below, I have lightly edited the original work from his blog and – in some cases – replaced images with ones from the production copy of Tasty Humans. Enjoy!

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

In my Tasty Humans Designer Diary posts so far, I have focused on the puzzle aspect of the game.  That aspect being players dropping pieces into the monsters’ stomachs and strategically arranging them to maximize their overall “satisfaction”. Monsters are eating adventurers with their stomachs being some kind of puzzle that you drop the adventurers into was the initial concept. The design process really started with the puzzle. Later, I tackled the question of how players select which adventurers they will eat.  In this post, I will explain the approach I used for that part of the design.  I will also address whether my eventual approach met the necessary criteria.

 

Hard Choices: Picking from a Selection of Delicious Adventurers

I knew I needed a mechanic that gave players a choice of one adventurer from several options. I already touched on how there is decent variety in how a single piece can be dropped into a monster’s stomach, but a key part of providing interesting decisions was going to depend on asking the player to determine the best piece for their situation. Immediately this pushed me into “drafting” territory. Drafting is probably the most common solution for having players pick from an array of options.

 

 

Drafting can come in a variety of forms. At the level of individual player choices, it simply requires the player to pick from several different options.  This usually results with their pick then being removed from consideration by other players. When selecting a game mechanic, it is the most familiar solution. That was the case here, as I visualized what a “7 Wonders/Sushi Go!” style drafting process might look like. In other words, each player has a hand of adventurers. After picking one, he then passes the rest clockwise around the table. There were really two reasons why I wasn’t a big fan of this solution:

  1. It felt really derivative. The fact that it came to mind so easily was a little bit of a red flag. This was a warning that I might be taking the path of least resistance when picking a mechanic. Even when your first idea is great, it is always worth your time to brainstorm some alternatives. You may still end up going with the original idea. However, at least you make it earn its selection instead of defaulting its way into your design.
  2. It didn’t feel right thematically. I liked the theme of adventurers coming to try and slay monsters, only to provide a nice buffet delivered straight to their doorstep. I wanted to lean into that wherever possible. Each player having a selection of adventurers and then passing them was purely a mechanical construct. This would force the theme even further into the background.

 

Fixing the Derivative Issue

As for the first point, I felt I had an opportunity to come up with a “twist” on drafting that might add some interest and differentiation from other games.  A simple drafting mechanic used by Bruno Cathala in Kingdomino inspired me. Cathala leveraged a simple twist. Players weren’t just drafting which tile they wanted most; they were also picking their turn order for the next round.

Is it worth taking that better tile at the expense of picking last next round? That is an interesting decision. It is much more interesting than if it was simply “which tile do you want most?” Not to mention it organically balances the game by attaching a cost to tiles that are strictly better. I wanted to try to come up with some ideas like that, where picking the “best” option was more nuanced than the inherent value of the adventurer.  (In this case, the piece that would be dropped into the monster’s stomach.)

 

Fixing the Thematic Mismatch

As for the second point, I tried to visualize it from the thematic standpoint of a group of adventurers marching towards the monsters. What if instead of hands of cards getting drafted, there was a grid of adventurers face-up in the middle of the table? The grid representing the “mob” making its way towards the players? Certainly not any breakthrough innovation in terms of mechanics, but it moved me back to the theme. It also pushed the mechanics into a different space that I could use as a starting point for additional brainstorming. At this point, I was picturing a 3 x 3 grid of adventurers. This concept would end up remaining true into the final design.

 

Hard Choices from the Player’s Perspective

I am looking at a 3 x 3 grid of adventurers, what will determine which one I should pick? The big opportunity I saw with drafting from a grid, was that there was now a spatial relationship among the cards. When drafting cards from a hand, there is no ordering or relationships based on position. (Although I may have just come up with a new game idea… Bohnanza meets Sushi Go?). I wanted the positioning of the cards in the grid to actually matter. I wanted it to influence which cards make sense to select on any given turn. The primary way I approached this was through the addition of damage.

At its most basic level, the idea for damage was to have certain cards that would hurt you if you picked other cards in the grid. For example, a swordsman might deal damage if you pick one of the cards that is orthogonally adjacent to it.  I definitely liked the thematic idea of the selected adventurer not dealing any damage. The nearby adventurers swiping at the monster emphasizes the helplessness of the adventurers. It was also a mechanics-driven decision.

By having the damage associated with a specific adventurer dictated by its surrounding cards, there are a lot of interesting combinations that can emerge based on how the cards are arranged in the grid. A specific adventurer could be eaten with no damage in one game; yet be positioned to come with three damage in another game.

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

An Example of Hard Choices

Consider the following grid of attacking adventurers:

 

 

When choosing to take a card, you must check for Swordsman and Archers to see if you take any damage. For example, taking the top left card in the grid would result in two damage. One damage comes from the Swordsman to the right (which hits adjacent cards).  The other one damages comes from the Archer two spaces below it (which hits cards two spaces away in a straight line). However, you could take the bottom-left Archer without taking any damage. This is because there are no other Swordsman or Archers that affect it. For each damage taken, you must drop a damage tile into your monster’s stomach. Damage tiles take up room where you could have been scoring points. They actually bring negative points if they end up adjacent to each other.

 

Adventurer Types to Create Hard Choices

In addition to the Swordsman and Archers that dictate damage, there are a few other special adventurer types:

  1. General (banner with arrow) – When taken, the other adventurers in the same row or column (based on the arrow) flee, and are discarded. For example, taking the General in the top-right corner would cause the Archer and the Swordsman in that column to be discarded.
  2. Wizard (magic wand) – After dropping the shape of the Wizard into your monster’s stomach, it causes a “magical burp”. This allows you to swap any two adjacent tiles in your monster’s stomach.
  3. Cleric (heart bottle) – After selecting the Cleric and taking any damage (2 in the case of the Cleric shown above), you can remove one damage from your monster’s stomach.

Each of these abilities adds opportunities and variability to the decision of picking an adventurer from the grid. Additionally, you will notice that some of the cards have either one or two crown icons at the top. This connects back to the Kingdomino inspiration that I mentioned earlier.  Selecting a tile in that game also affects your turn order for the next round. In Tasty Humans, each player is going to end up selecting two adventurer cards each round. At the end of the round, the number of cumulative crowns from each player’s adventurers dictate the order in which they get to draft the available Leader Tiles. Seeing as Leader Tiles are the primary scoring mechanism in the game, the draft order for this phase could be crucial. This makes crowns very valuable depending on the situation.

 

Tough Questions for the Player

All of this comes together to provide the kind of “adventurer selection” decisions that I was hoping to achieve. I wanted each turn to present interesting tradeoffs and unique situations based on the arrangement of the “Attacking Adventurers” grid. Here is a list that summarizes the common considerations that a player must make before selecting a card:

 

Which shape do I want the most?

The tiles that you drop into your stomach are typically the most important factor. Arranging tiles to maximize the scoring from your Leader Tiles and monster’s “personal craving” are what will ultimately win you the game.

 

How much damage will I take?

You may see the perfect piece, only to find that you would receive two or three damage from selecting it. This then becomes an interesting decision, as you must decide whether the piece is worth it. Or, perhaps, you simply can’t afford to take that much damage.

 

How many crowns will I get?

The Leader Tiles for the upcoming draft are revealed before the round begins. Players will have to evaluate how important it is for them to choose before the other players. If it is crucial for you to get a specific Leader Tile, then choosing cards with crowns may trump picking adventurers that give you more desirable tiles. Additionally, you will need to pay attention to how many crowns other players have taken this round. This will help you to know where you stand in the draft order and the implications of taking cards with or without crowns.

 

Are there any attractive General/Wizard/Cleric opportunities?

Sometimes you will find yourself in a position where one of these special abilities is exactly what you need. Maybe you took a damage that was really bad for you, and a Cleric would be perfect to remove it. Perhaps swapping two tiles in your stomach would perfectly align them with your Leader Tiles. A Wizard would allow you to make it happen. Or maybe you are taking back-to-back turns (play moves in a snake draft, with the last player taking two turns in a row), and you want to select the General to clear out cards so that you can see more options for your second turn. You would need to weigh each of these scenarios against the other consideration that have been mentioned.

 

Final Thoughts

At this point, I have playtested Tasty Humans over fifty times. I still find myself intrigued at the decisions and tradeoffs that arise based on the arrangement of the adventurer cards in the grid. The considerations listed above combine to achieve my design goal of having interesting and meaningful decisions whenever picking an adventurer card. It is also an example of the power of grouping several elements into a single option in a draft. The player is constantly being asked to rank their priorities. Evaluating which combination of those factors is best for them at that moment. This is accomplished by grouping shape/tiles, damage, Leader Tile draft order and adventurer abilities into each possible card that can be taken.

 


 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into Ryan’s creative process. By sharing our experiences in the development of Tasty Humans, we hope to help you create games that you are proud of, too 🙂

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

How to Add Variable Player Powers to Your Board Game (Tasty Humans Pt. 3)

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Of all the mechanics in the board game world, variable player powers remain a fan favorite. Games with this mechanic range from Gloomhaven to Terraforming Mars to 7 Wonders. Part of their popularity comes from the ease with which they add variety to games. Implemented well, variable player powers can drastically increase the shelf life of a game. So how do we implement them?

 

 

Many of you know that our Kickstarter campaign, Tasty Humans, has just debuted on Kickstarter! Both to celebrate the launch and to share knowledge, I’d like to share the thoughts of Ryan Langewisch, designer of Tasty Humans. He, after all, created the pattern building game that we call Tasty Humans, so it makes for a great case study!

His unedited original post can be found here. Below, I have lightly edited the original work from his blog and – in some cases – replaced images with ones from the production copy of Tasty Humans. Enjoy!

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

Using Variable Player Powers to Establish Secondary Objectives

In my last Designer Diary for Tasty Humans, I talked about how I approached scoring based on the arrangement of tiles in each of the monster’s stomachs. The Leader Tiles provided a lot of variety in the tactical decisions while trying to maximize your score. However, my initial testing indicated that it was not a perfect solution on its own.

One of the main problems I found was how easy it was to have sections of the board that were “unconstrained”. Regardless of what tile I placed there, it had no implication on scoring. I realized that it was inevitable that some squares wouldn’t impact scoring due to how the Leader Tiles were arranged. Nonetheless, I wanted to make sure that the player always felt like they had goals they could work to accomplish. I never wanted players to encounter a turn that had no meaning simply because the squares they needed to fill didn’t match up with any Leader Tiles. My solution was to give each monster board a unique “personal craving”. This would be a scoring condition that applied to the whole board.

 

 

Personal Cravings as Variable Player Powers

I introduced the unique scoring conditions for each monster board to provide a universal scoring constraint. The constraint helps to cover squares in the grid that weren’t affect by any Leader Tiles. While I found that it achieved that goal, it also added more interest to the squares that were affected by Leader Tiles. The layered objectives lead to tradeoffs when a single square can score in multiple different ways. For example, consider the following board.

 

 

The Griffin’s personal craving rewards the player for creating patterns (either horizontally or vertically) that alternate between two different tile types. Looking at the space above the top helmet tile, you may notice that it could score in two different ways.

If you placed a Hand tile there, you would score 2 points from the Leader Tile. If you placed an Armor tile, completing another pattern for the Griffin ability, it would score 3 points.

It may seem obvious that 3 points is better than 2 points, and so an Armor tile makes the most sense. But depending on the situation, it may not be that straightforward.

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

What does this mean?

Perhaps the shapes available to you make it easier to work towards your other goals if you place a Hand tile in that position. In Tasty Humans, you never simply play a single tile. It is always part of a larger shape that is being dropped into the stomach. So if a player is considering two different shapes, one that would place either an Armor tile or a Hand tile in that space, they will also need to consider the tradeoff of the other pieces that come along with it.

Another option is to play a Hand tile in that space. If possible, have the Helmet and Hand tile be the start of a new pattern for the Griffin ability. For example, if the player has access to a shape that drops a Hand tile and Helmet tile in that column, then they are only one additional Hand tile away from completing a new pattern. Aligning the Hand tile with the Leader tile creates a pattern worth 2 points.

Merging the monster’s personal craving with a unique combination of Leader Tiles acquired over the course of the game allows for an interesting combination of scoring opportunities that will be different every time you play.

 

Improved Variable Setup

I really enjoy games that have variable setup.  When elements are randomized at the beginning of the game, I feel as though each time I play it is a new puzzle to solve. The addition of personal cravings for each monster board further improves the variable setup. It gives each player a unique starting point at the beginning of the game. Each player is already receiving a random starting Leader Tile. Now the player pairs the Leader Tile with the monster board of their choice. This multiplies the number of starting combinations that are possible.

That starting combination is enough to push the player in an entirely new direction. The Leader Tiles they select after that only further ensure that it is a unique experience. This post highlights the four “basic” monster boards. There is also an interesting design space to explore other more advanced abilities. I am currently developing six other more exotic boards. It has been really fun to play with them so far. Hopefully at some point, I will be ready to share them in a designer diary. Then I can talk about some of the challenges that I encountered in the design process.

 


 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into Ryan’s creative process. By sharing our experiences in the development of Tasty Humans, we hope to help you create games that you are proud of, too 🙂

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

Creating the Perfect Board Game Scoring System (Tasty Humans Pt. 2)

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Creating a great scoring system in a board game can be a difficult process. Once you craft the basic concepts of your game and find the right mechanics to express them, you have to set rules. Scoring rules are among the most important, particularly in euro games. So how do you do it? How do you make an arbitrary point system feel fluid and connected to the underlying ideas in your game?

 

 

Many of you know that our Kickstarter campaign, Tasty Humans, has just debuted on Kickstarter! Both to celebrate the launch and to share knowledge, I’d like to share the thoughts of Ryan Langewisch, designer of Tasty Humans. He, after all, created the pattern building game that we call Tasty Humans, so it makes for a great case study!

His unedited original post can be found here. Below, I have lightly edited the original work from his blog and – in some cases – replaced images with ones from the production copy of Tasty Humans. Enjoy!

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

In my first Designer Diary post for Tasty Humans, I talked about the mechanics of dropping shapes (which represent the titular “Tasty Humans”) in order to fill up the stomach of the each player’s monster. Now I want to dive into the goals that players are actually trying to accomplish. Let’s talk about how those goals emerged during the design process.

 

Scoring on a Full Stomach

I decided that the basic gameplay was going to involve filling up a grid with tiles. Next, I needed to figure out what would work best as an objective. What determines how well that player did given a grid is filled with different tiles? What determines the satisfaction level of their monster? I needed some criteria that would score “satisfaction points”. It was clear that it would have something to do with pattern-building and positioning tiles in specific arrangements.

The first idea I had was for all players to have public scoring objectives that they are trying to achieve. Before every game, the objectives would be randomly selected. This would have likely worked fine. However, it didn’t feel like it captured the variety and interactions that I was looking for in the gameplay. I like the idea of having localized scoring conditions that could apply to different portions of the board. An example would be scoring for placing a certain tile type in a specific column. But how would the scoring objectives define what portion of the board they applied to?

 

 

So What Next?

This led to the following idea: what if the scoring conditions were actually inside of the grid? For example, maybe you have a special tile in your stomach that scores for being near a certain tile type. There would be a few implications to this approach.

One, the positioning of the objectives would matter. The positioning opens opportunities for a lot of interesting goals that deal with pattern-building relative to the tile’s own position. Two, it would allow each player to have entirely different objectives. This caused the goals among players to branch asymmetrically as the game went on. Lastly, based on the combinations of scoring tiles and their position relative to each other, it could lead to a varied interest based on the combinations of scoring tiles. This idea developed into what ultimately became the backbone for scoring in Tasty Humans. Players have the opportunity to draft “Leader Tiles” throughout the game.   Dropping the tiles into their monster’s stomach add to the definition of what “satisfaction” means for that monster.

 

Layering Scoring Interactions

Each time a player drops a new Leader Tile onto their board, it creates a new layer of scoring opportunity on top of the same grid of tiles. Every game these combinations are going to be different. Players will need to tactically drop adventurers into their monster’s stomach in an effort to maximize the cumulative satisfaction points. Consider the partially filled board shown below.

 

 

At this point in the game, the player has acquired three different leader tiles. The tiles are one that scores 3 points for every column that has each of the four tile types. Another that scores 2 points for hand tiles that are diagonal from it. And, finally, one that scores 2 points for each boot tile in the same row or column.

Examples of the Scoring System at Play

In Column 1, I should really try to place a hand next because it would actually serve two purposes. It would score 2 points for being diagonal from the hand leader tile. Since it would also be the first hand in the column, it is moving closer to scoring the 3 points for having each tile type.

Neither Column 3 nor 4 has spaces that apply to the hand and boot leader tiles. Therefore, they may be good candidates for dropping “collateral” tiles that come when I am trying to drop specific tiles into some of the neighboring columns. However, if possible, I should try to make that “collateral” move towards having each tile type in column 3 (whereas column 4 already has all the tile types).

All the spaces in Column 5 can score from boot tiles. However, I know that it is unlikely I will be able to find the right pieces to completely fill it with boots. The second empty space from the bottom could also score if it was a hand tile. Maybe I should target that as a one of my “non-boot” spaces. I also need to decide whether I want to try to get each tile type in that column. However, that directly conflicts with trying to fill it with boots. Maybe I will try to go mostly for boots. But when that isn’t possible, try to fill it in with the other tile types to keep that option available.

 

The Optimal vs. The Tactical: Scoring Decisions on the Fly

All of these observations stem from only looking at the player board. If you recall from my post on dropping shapes, there is also a lot of variation in how you can drop a new piece into your board. These elements combine to create the central puzzle of each turn in Tasty Humans. How do I rotate and position my piece in order to best work with my various Leader Tiles? You won’t be able to optimize everything perfectly. Therefore, you have to make tactical decisions about where to make sacrifices and where to focus your scoring efforts.

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

As I explored the design space created by these Leader Tiles, I found that they fell into two categories. The categories where the position of the tiles mattered, and where it didn’t. For example, in the board shown above, the boot and hand Leader Tiles both score spaces relative from their own position. For column variety, you can place the Leader Tile anywhere and it wouldn’t make any difference.  From a design standpoint, I definitely preferred the positional effects. I find it makes for a more interesting decision when you are placing them into your board. I realized that some cool effects only makes sense being universal. Column variety is one such example. In the end, I tried to strike a balance between having mostly positional scoring effects but including universal effects.  I included the universal effects where I felt that they added enough interest to justify their inclusion.

At this point in the development process, there are 30 total Leader Tiles. They are all unique (though many are the same effect for each tile type, e.g. scoring for tiles of a type in the same row or column). Let’s take a look at one more example that shows some of the more interesting effects that may come into play.

 

Breaking it All Down

Let’s break down these Leader Tiles from left to right:

In column 1, we have a Leader Tile that scores for the number of spaces to the nearest hand tile in each of the eight directions. So we want to place hand tiles in line with it. Ideally they would be separated by several non-hand tiles to maximize the distance.

In column 3, we have a Leader Tile that scores 2 points for each boot tile that is next to any Leader Tile. We will want to keep this in mind for the three Leader Tiles we have now, and also when we are placing any future Leader Tiles.

In column 5, we have a Leader Tile that scores 2 points for each tile in the longest chain of the same type, starting from the Leader Tile itself. For example, the three helmet tiles represent the longest chain on the board. This would score 6 points.

 

Profound Impacts of Subtle Scoring Rules

You can start to see how the considerations based on Leader Tiles are not always trivial. For example, which tile type should you pursue for the “snaking” Leader Tile? Right now the helmet tiles have the most. Nevertheless, there is potential to string the armor tiles together as well. Additionally, getting a string of armor tiles to move up the far left column would also pair well with waiting to place a hand tile until the very top. This would maximize the distance from the Leader Tile in the bottom-left corner.

On the right side of the board, it is clear that a hand tile would be best in the far right column. However, what is the best approach for the spaces above that? A boot would score next to the Leader Tile. However, a couple of helmets could also extend the chain of helmets to five tiles, while still keeping it “alive” for extension higher up in the board. The bottom-left Leader Tile also requires you to be careful not to prematurely drop a hand tile somewhere too close to it. For example, if you were to accidentally drop a hand tile in the second column while positioning other tiles, it would only score 1 point on that diagonal. If you could space the nearest hand all the way out to the rightmost column, you would score 5 points.

Of course, these questions can only be answered once the player considers what adventurers are available. This will dictate the shapes and tiles that they have to work with. But even before checking which shapes are available, a player can mentally prepare much of their approach from simply analyzing the current state of their board.

 

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the question posed by this design was, “how do you score a stomach (grid) full of tiles?” The desire for a high level of variability led me to these Leader Tiles; scoring objectives that are actually included in the grid itself. Hopefully the examples in this post give a taste of the decision space that these tiles create, and why I ultimately felt it was the right direction for the design. Leader Tiles didn’t solve all of my problems when it came to scoring though… In my next Designer Diary post, I will talk about how having Leader Tiles as the sole scoring objective often left many spaces in the board that had no scoring impact. This led to the addition of “personal cravings,” which are universal scoring conditions that are different for each monster in the game.

 


 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into Ryan’s creative process. By sharing our experiences in the development of Tasty Humans, we hope to help you create games that you are proud of, too 🙂

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter