Note: All images show prototype artwork and are not representative of the final game.
In each of the design diaries that I have written so far, I have focused on a specific game mechanic or isolated portion of the game. Now I want to zoom out a bit and look at the design as a whole, focusing more on the arch of a game of Tasty Humans and some of the decisions that I made in an effort to improve game flow and the overall player experience. It became clear early in development that the game would be best if I could fit the experience into a 30-60 minute time frame, and so that also became a design beacon when making decisions around the flow of the game.
The progression in a game of Tasty Humans comes from the gradual filling of each of the monster’s stomachs. As the players fill up their boards, there is also an escalation in strategy as they acquire more and more Leader tiles. Each Leader tile provides an additional goal for how to maximize the “satisfaction” of their monster. At the beginning of the game, a player’s objective is simple with just a single Leader tile, as well as their monster’s unique “personal craving.” Acquiring more Leader tiles gives the player more to balance, which I have found gives a satisfying feeling of progression from the beginning of the game to the end.
However, there were several possible implementations that would maintain this sense of progression, and an early design question became, “what should dictate the pacing of players receiving new Leader tiles?” In my first prototype, I had special “Draft Leaders” cards shuffled into segments of the Adventurer deck, leading to uncertainty in when players would get their next Leader tile. This proved to be awkward, as it caused sudden interruptions of the rounds, requiring players to put their tactical planning on hold to make an unforeseen decision about their next Leader tile. Additionally, it caused me to lose control of my own design; that is, the randomness of the cards could lead to suboptimal player experiences if the cards came up too early or too late. A simple solution turned out to be the most effective: Leader tiles always get drafted on the same cadence, after each round. This allows players to plan for it, and also gives the game a much better rhythm.
Speaking of planning for Leader tiles, the original design waited to reveal the Leader tiles until right before the draft was going to start. I initially liked the idea of it being a surprise, but in hindsight it was a silly decision because it trivialized the “crown” mechanic that I had included to determine the drafting order. How can players valuate taking crowns to improve their order in the draft if they have no idea what their options will be? This led to the decision of revealing the upcoming Leader tiles at the beginning of the round, giving players the opportunity to better estimate how important it will be for them to secure an early pick in the draft.
Based on the pacing that I wanted of Leader tiles getting dropped into the players’ boards, I decided that a Leader tile draft should occur after each player has selected (and eaten) two adventurers. This ended up feeling a little clunky though, as it required players to remember if they were on their first time around the table, or the second. Rather than having a natural pattern to each round, it felt like the round was “repeat the same thing twice, but remember if it is the second time.”
Striving for a more elegant solution, I played with the idea of making it a snake draft; that is, going around the table, but then reversing the turn order back and finishing with the first player. With this approach, each player would still pick two adventurers, but the end of the round would be more clearly defined when play moved back to the start player. In testing, I found this to work well. It made rounds feel much more natural, but also had some interesting side effects. Namely, the player that gets back-to-back turns in a round has some opportunities to be clever in how they manipulate the adventurer grid to their advantage. The decision wasn’t without its downsides though… the main one being that the first player has to wait twice as many turns for it to get back to them. While not ideal (especially if some of the players are struggling with analysis paralysis), I deemed that the advantages tipped the scale in favor of the snake draft, and in playtesting, the time between turns has rarely been an issue.
Race to the Finish
From the beginning of the design, it was clear to me that filling the monster’s stomach should trigger the end of the game. It is not only satisfying for the players to completely fill their grid, but it is also thematic for monsters that are appeasing their hunger. I quickly learned that it was not a good approach to have the game end immediately when a player fills their board. Even though other players technically could have the awareness to see it coming, it almost always left a bad taste in the mouths of players who weren’t able to finish what they were planning. In a game like Tasty Humans where each player is primarily lost in their own world of puzzle-solving, I found that I needed to err on the side of letting players follow through on their plans without any sudden interruptions. The simple solution (funny how it’s often the best one) was to always finish out the current round (i.e. snake draft) once one monster filled their stomach.
This still left one question unanswered though: should the player that filled their stomach first receive any kind of reward? At first I was a little afraid to give the fastest player points, as I didn’t want a “rush” strategy to be the most effective way to play. I wanted winning to ultimately come down to who best maximized their scoring conditions with how they arranged the tiles in their monster’s stomach. However, there was another design incentive to rewarding a player for triggering the end of the game: shortening the play time. I mentioned how keeping the game length within the 30-60 minute range was an important design goal, and my end game condition basically meant that the fastest player would determine the game length. By encouraging players to push to the finish instead of stalling for more points, I am able to align their goal (winning) with my design goal of keeping the game from running too long. In the end, I made filling your monster’s stomach first worth a modest (but not insignificant) 2 points, and then ran some specific tests to ensure that a “rush” strategy was not dominant. Fortunately, due to how points are scored and how damage can be detrimental, the “rush” strategy not only wasn’t dominant, but was far inferior to a slower and more precise approach.
Another big obstacle in the way of a consistent 30-60 minute playtime was scaling based on the number of players. Obviously, if it takes two players a certain amount of time for one of them to fill their board, it is going to take even longer with four players as there is more time between players’ turns. For my design goal to be met across all player counts, I needed something to change that would compensate for the slower board-filling of games at higher player counts. The only obvious solution I saw scared me a bit: using a smaller grid with higher player counts. The reason this concerned me was because so much of the satisfaction of the game came from filling your board and having a lot of space to work with and score points. I was afraid that if I reduced the rows in the grid, players would feel stunted, as if they were just getting a teaser of what the “full game” would be like.
This ended up being a good example of where simply playtesting a change trumps what you, as the designer, “think” the effect is going to be. Despite my skepticism, scaling the number of rows in the grid based on player count worked flawlessly. Even at the highest player count (4 player), every game still felt like players had the full experience. I have frequently received feedback that players are surprised how much they felt like they accomplished in such a short playing time, which is one of the best indicators that the game pacing is on the right track.
If you have been reading along as I have posted the designer diaries for Tasty Humans (first off, thanks!), hopefully you are starting to see how the different pieces and mechanics come together into a single game experience. I still have some more entries on my list of design topics to explore and share my thoughts on as we move closer to launching the game on Kickstarter, but feel free to check out more information about the game at the Tasty Humans Website.