How to Create a Pattern Building Board Game (Tasty Humans Pt. 1)

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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.

 

How to Create a Pattern Building Game

 

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!

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

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.

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

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 🙂

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

Tasty Humans Launches on Kickstarter Tomorrow

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The latest game from Pangea Games is launching on Kickstarter. Tasty Humans is a 30-60 minute, tile-laying, pattern-building game for 1-4 players.

You are a fantasy monster trying to sate your insatiable appetite. As you and your fellow monsters toss around the village king, you attract a steady buffet of adventurers who try – poorly – to put up a fight! Then, take turns selecting which adventurers to consume, dropping various body parts into your stomach. Once you or another monster fills their stomach, the most satisfied monster wins!

 

Tasty Humans Kickstarter

 

Needless to say, all of us at Pangea HQ are pretty amped about this campaign. To celebrate the launch, I’ll be releasing a five-part case study on the development of the game every week for the next five weeks.

I didn’t write these articles – Ryan Langewisch did. He is the designer of Tasty Humans. His writing provides an excellent analysis of all the important decisions he made when designing the game. These articles will provide you with tremendous insight into what it’s like to make board games from the designer’s perspective.

Another reason I wanted to share these articles is to push Ryan’s work. This guy is a freaking legend. He won Panjam, a 48-hour board game design contest that Pangea ran in 2018. That is how we found out about him. In his retrospective on the contest, he said that he basically made the game in 24 hours. He scrapped a bad idea mid-contest and started fresh!

I didn’t intend to publish another game at the time that I ran the contest. In fact, it was only when I noticed that his game ranked head and shoulders over the rest that I paid attention. Tyson Mertlich, game developer and member of the GameSmiths, insisted that we publish the game. After playing, I agreed. It would have been a crime to leave this game unpublished.

Cover Your Kingdom: Adapting a Well-Loved Game for a New Market

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Many long-time readers of this blog know that I like to talk about long-term strategy. In fact, I’ve even said: “don’t build a board game, build a business.” You’re probably focused on making it – and you should be! But what happens when you do “make it” and it’s time for your next move? For that situation, Cover Your Kingdom is an excellent case study.

It is also currently on Kickstarter! Check it out and see what you think!

 

 

Allow me to introduce you to Jeff Beck of Grandpa Beck’s Games. You might know their company through Cover Your Assets, their breakout game. They captured lightning in a bottle, marrying modern board game aesthetics with a larger market. It’s a big seller. An intimidatingly big seller, basically never dropping out of Amazon’s top 20 card games.

How on this sweet earth do you follow that? To answer that, I’ll turn it over to Jeff…

 


 

Who is Jeff Beck?

I’m Jeff Beck. I am the developer of The Bears and The Bees and Cover Your Kingdom, published by Grandpa Beck’s games. Tauni and Brent (aka Grandpa) Beck – my parents – founded the company about a decade ago. They were looking for extra income to help their five kids through college. They thought creating and selling games would be a simple and easy way to make a little extra cash.

Long story short – it wasn’t. To give a full account of the setbacks, failures, and challenges they encountered and overcame in the early years of the business would require a whole series of separate articles. What’s important is that they emerged with a whole line of games. This includes Skull King, our well-liked and best-selling trick-taking game. But our best seller of all time? That’s a take-that set-collection game called Cover Your Assets.

 

It All Started with Cover Your Assets

You may not know what Cover Your Assets is. After all, Brandon’s blog caters more towards the casual and hobby gaming market. But Cover Your Assets has quietly grown into one of the top 10-20 best selling card games on Amazon. Ninety-nine percent of the reviews are positive. In addition to being a best seller, this makes it Amazon’s highest-rated card game.

My parents earned success and exceptional reviews the hard way. They established the game by personally teaching it to hundreds, maybe thousands of people at conventions. Let’s be honest though – as any developer knows, even your friends and family won’t buy your game unless it’s truly entertaining.

 

Cover Your Assets

 

Cover Your Assets is a fairly simple game. The narrative is minimal – the first player to accrue $1,000,000 wins. The monetary theme doesn’t break a lot of new ground, and the rules are basic enough I can relate the gist of them to you in a single paragraph:

Each player forms pairs of matching assets of varying values which are placed one atop the other in an alternating stack. The top set in each player’s stack is vulnerable and can be stolen by other players who present a matching or wildcard. You can defend sets with another matching or wild card. This goes back and forth until one player wins. They take (or keep) the set, adding to it all the cards used to challenge and defend, increasing its value.

 

How Cover Your Assets Won Over So Many

How has this seemingly simple game garnered so many rave reviews and established a presence amongst the top-selling card games in the US? The reason is that Cover Your Assets’ core mechanic is deceptively quite compelling. The game begins rather slowly but grows in momentum and intensity. As players steal sets, each set’s value increases, along with the desire of other players to acquire it. The best way to defend a valuable set of assets is to cover them, either by creating a new set or by stealing one from another player.

The rush of successfully stealing valuable sets from other players, paired with the nervous anticipation of others coming after your own sets, creates a roller-coaster of elation and frustration that generates laughter and playful banter. With every interaction, players step into the role of the villain; smugly swiping a set from another player, or that of the victim when their own assets are stolen. It’s hard to do this without a smug smile or a murderous glare.

The core mechanic of stealing and defending sets of cards that increase in value is essentially the whole game. If it were a vehicle instead of a card game it would be a rumbling V8 strapped to a bicycle. It doesn’t offer a ton of control or creature comforts, but it has plenty of power to create an exhilarating experience.

This simple, yet actively engaging mechanic, paired with its broad theme and snicker-inducing name, are strengths with the game’s core audience of parents and grandparents who grew up playing games like Uno, Monopoly, and Sorry.

However, the strengths of the game with the family game crowd can determine whether or not it is discovered by younger generations of gamers (myself included). We’ve found that most people really enjoy the game once they try it, but it’s not a game that’s as likely to attract attention from this audience on a store shelf or Amazon listing as some of the myriad other casual game titles that exist.

 

Cover Your Kingdom, or Creating a Variant of a Well-Loved Game

Wide audiences find the core mechanic of Cover Your Assets really compelling. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince larger numbers of true gamers to try and buy the game. I concluded that the best way to broaden the game’s appeal and expand into a new market would to build a new version. Cover Your Kingdom stemmed from this thought.

 

Cover Your Kingdom

 

To better understand the needs of the group the game would be built for, I looked for feedback. I evaluated every review of the game I could find, on blogs, BGG, Amazon, and YouTube, looking for common themes. I noted the elements of the game people really enjoyed that I needed to maintain or enhance, as the issues, annoyances, and dislikes of those who didn’t enjoy the game. This is what I found.

 

Elements to Retain
  • Emotionally driven
  • Cutthroat and competitive
  • Easy to learn
  • Playable with a wide range of ages/skill levels

 

Areas to Improve
  • Greater depth and strategy
  • More decision making
  • Broader player count (Cover Your Assets is for 4-6 players)
  • Less reliance on luck
  • Hard to overcome an early advantage.

 

Modifying Cover Your Assets to Create Cover Your Kingdom

Armed with that information, I set about building a new frame to contain the spitting and rumbling engine at the core of Cover Your Assets. My aim was to retain the heart, energy, and emotion of Cover Your Assets while also adding new elements that gave players more opportunities to make decisions thereby increasing their sense of control. Expanding the player count in both directions was also a high priority.

 

10 Rulers

 

After several months of brainstorming and playtesting, we settled on the mechanics of Cover Your Kingdom. During the brainstorming time, we considered a lot of thematic options. Ultimately we landed on the quirky fantasy creature theme. It allowed for a narrative that fit the game’s mechanics really well and also provided some comic relief that helped soften some of the game’s highly cutthroat mechanics.

We made a number of changes to the rules that provide additional opportunities to make decisions and new player interactions.

 

Two Stacks Per Player

Players maintain two stacks each instead of one. There are strategic advantages to placing all your sets in just one stack, so a mechanic had to be implemented to restrict the placement of sets in one stack or the other. We implemented the UI element of the kingdom mat and region symbols on the cards. This helped players easily remember where each different cards could be placed to ensure that the game remained intuitive.

Increasing the number of stacks from one to two doubled the number of options a player had each turn when evaluating which sets to attempt to steal. It also facilitated reducing the recommended minimum player count from 4 to 3 (with the possibility of adapting to 2 players).

 

Action Cards

We added 5 action cards (2 copies of each) to the game to create new interactions and new strategy. This also increased emotional response and provided some balancing mechanisms that prevented the formation of massive piles. This, in turn, curbed runaway leader issues.

 

Two Actions Per Turn

Allowing two actions per turn instead of one also increased the strategy/decision making. While you can often encounter a turn where you only have 1 or 2 actions you can take in Cover Your Assets, you will typically have 5-10 options in Cover Your Kingdom. Choosing which actions to take and what order to take them gives players a greater sense of control.

 

Larger Hand Size

We increased hand size from 4-5 cards to 6 cards in Cover Your Kingdom. This was in part to provide an additional “slot” for action cards, but also to once again provide additional choices to players.

 

Increased Card Count

Cover Your Kingdom increases the card count from 110 in Cover Your Assets to 150. We needed additional room in the card count for the action cards. Collecting 2 piles each instead of one distributed the cards into smaller stacks. It felt a bit sparse at 6 players. As the new box was already larger to accommodate the Kingdom Mats, there was room available to also increase the card count.

 

Optional Mechanics

These mechanics were unlocked as stretch goals in the campaign. They add further intrigue to the game. They are not necessary to play the game, but will likely be included by most casual and hobby level players as they add new variables ramping up strategy even more. Full explanations are in the updates of the Kickstarter campaign.

Individual Player Powers: Each player is granted a unique power/ability that gives them a strategic advantage over other players.

Constellation Prize Expansion: This expansion added new components to the game and a secondary method of earning points that are tallied at the end of the game.

 

Cover Your Assets and Cover Your Kingdom

 

How These Changes Made Cover Your Kingdom Unique

We added, balanced, and optimized new mechanics one by one. Along the way, casual and hobby gamers tested the game. This was to ensure we’d added enough to make the game more compelling and strategic. However, we were careful not to induce analysis paralysis or kill the pace of play. When testers from both groups consistently reported their enjoyment of the game, I knew it was ready to go.

We started with a popular and exciting mechanic, then enhanced its best features. At the same time, we addressed the weaknesses of Cover Your Assets. On top of that, we added a compelling new theme and narrative. It’s for these reasons that I’m hopeful that Cover Your Kingdom will introduce the fun and excitement of Cover Your Assets to a wider audience.

With its greater depth but an intuitive UI, we designed the game to be accessible to inexperienced gamers but still satisfying to those who crave heavier games.

 


 

Following up a breakout game is a tall task for anyone. By sharing Jeff’s story, I hope to better prepare you not just for success, but the day after success 🙂

If you like the sound of Cover Your Kingdom, check it out on Kickstarter!