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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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