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Designer Diary: Gods Love Dinosaurs, or Making Mechanisms Mesh

Kasper Lapp
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Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs
I have never played the game Silk — but I heard Shut Up & Sit Down's review of the game, and they really liked the moments when the monster ate worms. ("Nom, nom, nom!")

That made me want to make a game in which animals eat other animals, too. This then turned into an idea of making an "ecosystem manager" — a game in which you have to keep the balance between populations of animals in an ecosystem.

I decided to use dominos to build the ecosystem. My aim became to make "Kingdomino, but where your kingdom comes alive." (I have a special relationship with Kingdomino because it won the Spiel des Jahres the same year that my Magic Maze was nominated, but that's another story.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The inspiration — Kingdomino image by Henk Rolleman

I chose the first animals that came to mind for the ecosystem. Rats, rabbits and frogs are all at the bottom of the food chain, and they are all eaten by tigers and eagles. I chose them because...well, because they are cool. But what would eat tigers and eagles? Something even cooler, hmm...

Dinosaurs, of course!

From gallery of Kasper Lapp
I never imagined that all the animals I chose would make it into the final game, but I think the fact that these animals don't make sense with each other in a zoological sense has a certain charm to it — and this mismatch fit what ended up being the narrative: Crazy gods building ecosystems.

The goal I wanted players to have in this game was to keep a fine balance in their ecosystems, but how do you measure this balance in a simple way? I realized that a balanced ecosystem would be one that allows a lot of top predators (dinosaurs) to live. If, for example, there were too few tigers and eagles, the dinosaurs would starve, but if too many tigers and eagles existed, they would eat all the prey and end up starving, ultimately making the dinosaurs starve as well.

Initially, points were given based on how many dinosaurs you had alive in your ecosystem at specific moments of the game. Later, I decided that you would score a point each time a dinosaur ate a tiger or eagle because then points were tied directly to the most exciting moments of the game: When your dinosaurs come ravaging down from the mountains to eat. (I don't think dinosaurs actually lived in mountains, but again, it just seemed cool.)

During the game, players draft tiles with two different (or similar) terrains and often with a new animal on one of those. That didn't change during the design process, except that I changed the spaces to hexagons instead of squares. That made the placement of tiles less frustrating. It can be surprisingly hard to keep similar area types together using square dominos, but it became a lot easier with hexagons. In Kingdomino, keeping area types together is a central part of the challenge, but in Gods Love Dinosaurs the challenge lies elsewhere, so I wanted to make that part easier for the players.

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

The most important development of the game was the flow. In the first version, the game consisted of a set number of rounds. In each round, players were presented with tiles and picked one each to add to their ecosystem, then a card was drawn that dictated which animals would move, e.g., rabbits and tigers.

There were two problems with this. First, it was often obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem. Second, you didn't get any chance to plan ahead since you wouldn't know which animals were going to move.

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

Even though the game didn't really work, the playtesters clearly enjoyed the "eating moments" of the game a lot, so I knew the game had potential and set out to fix those two problems.

First, I tried less random movements. You now knew ahead of time that the rabbits were going to multiply soon, or that the dinosaur would have to eat in a few turns, but you still didn't have any control over it, and it still didn't solve the issue that your best tile choice during drafting was often too obvious.

I needed more reasons for players to want one tile instead of another, and then it came to me: I could perhaps solve both my problems at once by introducing five columns of tiles, one for each non-dinosaur animal. Whenever the last tile in a column was taken, that type of animal would move.

Suddenly, you have a lot more to think about when choosing tiles. It might still be obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem, but what if it were in the wrong column? Players now have to balance the choice between "which tile is best" and "which animal should move". Problem one was solved! At the same time, players now had control (collectively) over which animals ended up moving instead of it being decided by random card draws. Problem two was solved as well!

From gallery of Kasper Lapp

I love the moments when a rule change suddenly makes a game "click". This was one of those moments. The rest of the design process was just about getting the details right, and it ended up being my fastest idea-to-contract-proposal process yet (three-and-a-half months).

Pandasaurus Games did an amazing job with the visuals and made ani-meeples for all the animals, so I can't wait to get my own copy once it's released on October 21, 2020.

Kasper Lapp

Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs

Board Game: Gods Love Dinosaurs
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