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!
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.
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