Pattern building board games are really popular among the hobby board gaming crowd. Board Game Geek cites Azul, Sagrada, A Feast for Odin, and Quadropolis as pattern building board games. These titles earned – and keep – respect in the hobby gaming community. There are many, many more as well.
But how exactly would you make one? Like with all things in board game design, there is no linear path. You meander through the game design process, iterating and tweaking your work until you’re happy with it. There is no satisfactory “10 steps to create a pattern building board game” guide out there.
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!
Background of Tasty Humans
The original idea for Tasty Humans can be traced back to a single thought that I had twenty-four hours into Panjam, a 48-hour board game design contest with the theme “they tasted quite delicious.” I had been struggling to find the fun factor with my entry, which involved players taking control of fantasy monsters and managing resources to try and eat adventurers without taking too much damage. Out of nowhere, a thought popped into my head: “what if you were still monsters eating adventurers, but the game was all about dropping them into a puzzle that represented the monster’s stomach?” This proved to be a valuable idea, as the choice to pivot in the design at that moment ultimately led to Tasty Humans (previously Fantasy Feast) not only winning Panjam, but now being on track towards publication. In this post, I want to dive a little deeper into the design decisions that I made with the mechanics of this “stomach puzzle,” and some of the interest that has stemmed from those decisions.
How Pattern Building Arose from the Dropping Mechanic
From the start, I knew it made thematic sense to have pieces drop into the stomach from the top. This immediately drew strong parallels to Tetris, which certainly played a part in the original inspiration. However, I didn’t want the game to necessarily feel like Tetris. All I knew is I wanted some sort of spatial puzzle that ultimately determined the monster’s satisfaction. This raised the very important question: when filling the stomach with tiles, what is the player’s goal?
In Tetris, you complete rows of blocks, so they can clear and prevent the grid from filling to the top. While we (my brother Daniel was also there for the inception of the design) briefly considered the humorous approach of having completed rows “clear” and leave the monster’s digestive system, it didn’t seem like the right objective for the game. Additionally, a video game like Tetris can handle upkeep automatically when rows clear. A board game would end up being really fiddly.
Theming the Abstract Gameplay
Thematically, the game is about a fantasy monster enjoying a feast. It seemed appropriate that players should try to completely fill their monster’s stomachs. But what constitutes the stomach being “filled?” The Tetris approach naturally leaves many gaps where the pieces did not fit perfectly; would filling the stomach just mean the player is unable to fit any more pieces in? This didn’t seem ideal, and I felt that it was more thematic if the final board ended up being completely filled. If I wanted to achieve this, I needed to find a way to eliminate gaps between the shapes.
The solution to this problem ended up being one of the key components of the final design. Instead of having the Tetris-like pieces stack rigidly and leave gaps, each tile of the shape would always collapse to the bottom. Shapes that dropped into the stomach could be broken apart. (I love the visual of the pieces “settling” in the monster’s stomach). What I didn’t realize at the time, was that the ability to break pieces apart by dropping them in certain orientations would end up being one of the primary sources of strategic/tactical interest in the game.
Collapsing Pieces to Make Pattern Building More Challenging
The design shifted to players trying to completely fill their monster’s stomachs. Thus, the objective shifted to involve forming certain patterns in that completed grid of tiles. It made more sense that way. In a future Designer Diary post, I will talk a bit about how the game handles scoring through pattern-building, but for now I want to look at some of the implications of the shape-dropping mechanic I have been describing.
The first side-effect of the tiles collapsing, instead of holding their shape, is that different rotations of the same shape can have very different results. Consider dropping an “S”-shaped piece made of four tiles:
Rotating the shape significantly changes how tiles settle, even when the grid is empty. When a player is trying to decide which shape to select, they not only need to visualize how each shape can be rotated, but also the implications of how those rotations would collapse and fit into the current state of their grid. Things get significantly more interesting once the grid has already been filled up partially. Consider dropping a 3 x 1 shape into the following board:
Simple Decisions Create Immense Variety
These are just four of the many ways that you could choose to rotate and drop that particular shape. You can see how different each of the results are. In many cases, the tiles that make up a single shape won’t even end up close to each other! This only really becomes interesting once you consider that the goal of the game centers around pattern building. If I want to place a specific tile in a space to maximize my points, I consider two things. One, how will I get that specific tile to fall into that space? Two, what side effects will the shape’s other tiles cause?
The best moves in Tasty Humans are often the ones that find a way to have multiple parts of the shape contribute to different goals simultaneously. The following image shows an example of a shape dropping into a board. The board has a Leader Tile that scores points for having Hand tiles in the spaces diagonal from it, at any range:
Before reading on, go ahead and think about how you might choose to drop the shape!
There are several ways to drop the shape to get one of the hands to score on the diagonal. If understand how the tiles will collapse, you can even get both Hand tiles into scoring position. The following image shows the most effective placement:
This is a simple example. Still, imagine how things would change with a board full of additional tiles and several scoring tiles in play. All things considered, I am happy with how the mechanics came from the theme. It creates emergent tactics that keep the stomach puzzle varied and compelling.
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 🙂