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Designer Diary: Hey Waiter! Ready to Serve You the Goods

Anthony Rubbo
United States
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The idea started one day while I was playing around with a Sticheln deck and a set of poker chips. Sticheln decks are great for game design: a bunch of ranks, a bunch of suits, no artwork – just the simple building blocks of a potential new game. Also, I like poker chips. I like stacking them. I like throwing them into the middle of the table. It's a fun feeling! These elements could be merged in an enjoyable way, was what I thought to myself. After spending time tinkering with some basic ideas, I eventually came up with the following:

Components: A deck with 15 cards of four colors, each with no ranks, and a bunch of chips in the same four colors. Players receive two random stacks of six chips and some number of cards. The first to get rid of all his chips wins.

There would be two main options on your turn:

-----• Play a card to shift a color of that chip (in a number of different ways), or
-----• Play three cards of the same color to get rid of all chips of that color on top of everyone's stacks.

That was it. It was sort of amusingish. Something was there, not sure exactly what, but perhaps an idea worth pursuing. But what should be the next step?

What I sometimes do with my designs is I wind up taking a scoring system from one game and an engine from another game, then combining the two. This is what happened next in the design process of Hey Waiter! (The exclamation point is present as part of the title, not for excitement – though I guess this part of the process did turn out to be pretty exciting as well.)

I enjoy the many games these days that have the goal of VP optimization, including the majority of my all-time favorites: Tichu, Race for the Galaxy, Crokinole, the alea/Stefan Feld designs, etc. However, for variety's sake, I'm always on the lookout for games that have something other than VPs as the goal. Sure, you can say in Hey Waiter! the winner is the first to score 12 points (with "removal of a chip" = 1 point), but it feels different to me. Like LotR: The Confrontation, To Court the King, Dog, and the majority of the cooperative games that have come out lately, the progression through which players are taken during the game is a slightly different experience than in a VP-based scoring system – not necessarily better or worse, but different.

I felt my new design had a nifty and unique scoring system (deplete a stack of multicolored chips by fighting for color domination); the problem was, it did not have particularly inspired game play. At the time, though, I was simultaneously working on another design, which I felt had a solid game engine – create play effects by combining two cards in hand – but a rather dull scoring system. I decided to merge these two to make the guts of what is now the finished product: Using chips and cards of four colors, combine any two cards together for 4x4=16 different actions, with the goal of depleting your personal stack of chips.

Now, let me get back to the elements of the initial game. I briefly mentioned the ability which would "get rid of all chips of that color on top of everyone's stacks." This effect – known now as the Green "Everybody Serve!" action – is the only action that remained constant through the entirety of the testing process.

It felt simple, but elegant. Within the simplicity arose a number of interesting decisions:

-----• If I have a one chip advantage, do I wait to try to gain a two chip advantage or pull the trigger now?
-----• If I'm tied on a color but winning overall, is it worth pulling the trigger now, just to get to my endgame faster?
-----• If I serve a particular set of chips, which chips will then become visible underneath?

All of these interesting little questions emerged from a very straightforward concept. This was what I clung to through the entire design process, and the action ability of one color (Green) was officially set.

One down, three to go.

From the beginning there were abilities present which could help manipulate your stack in different ways – pulling chips from the bottom to the top of your stack, trading the top chip of your stack with the stack of an opponent, trading chips with the bag, etc. All types of methods were tested throughout the design process, until I settled on being able to split your stacks / manipulate your stacks based upon the color of the bottom chip moved. This was a drastic change as up until then, every iteration saw each player possessing exactly two stacks for the entirety of the game.

The reason I had resisted the idea of splitting a stack in earlier testing was that being able to split your stacks is a very powerful ability with little downside – yet like the green "Everybody Serve!" action, it was elegant and fun, and presented a great many decisions within a simple concept:

-----• Should I split so that the top of the new stack will help cut into the lead of a color the opponents want to serve?
-----• Should I split to increase the lead of a color for my team?
-----• Should I split my stack directly in the middle, so that the split will remain as long as possible?
-----• Should I split my stack to try to align the color order of my stacks as close as I can with my partner?
-----• Should I split my stack based on action color? That is, this game I'm going to take an attack-based strategy. Specifically I'm going to try to serve all my pizzas at once, so I can focus my future red cards on attack. (More on attacks in a bit.)

These decisions were just too delicious to pass up, so the concept of splitting stacks had to stay.

But what about the power level? Various methods were employed during the design process to attempt to solve the problem of Blue being too strong. Meanwhile, among other issues, I was grappling with the issue of how to deal with the players' hand size: Should it be fixed, or should it fluctuate? Fluctuating seemed more interesting for this game, but, exactly how to incorporate it?

The answer to both: the more stacks you have, the fewer cards you can hold! Having the sum of cards in hand plus stacks in play always equal seven made for a nice spectrum of strategy that different players can try. It immediately felt right, and it stuck. The "Move Dishes" action was complete.

Two down, two to go.

The third action had gone through multiple incarnations, but for the most part, it was an "attack" of some sort. There was already a great deal of interaction in the game in the battle for color lead, but having an additional way to muck with opponents' plans was the extra spice needed to make the interaction feel complete. For a large portion of the testing process, the attack revolved around forcing players to discard cards or recombine their stacks. The problem was that those actions were very frustrating for the victim, and while the game worked, the "fun factor" that was generated by the rest of the game elements had suffered greatly.

While the design was well received in this edition, it just didn't feel right to me, so I went back to work. What emerged was the addition of four colored pawns (i.e., the four tray covers). These represent four calamities that can occur within a restaurant, causing a dish to no longer be eligible for serving until the issue is resolved (by the victim on his turn playing a Red card in response). This "attack" fit the bill nicely as it was a temporary way of increasing a player's lead in a color / decreasing the opponents' lead in a color in a non-intrusive manner (by not messing with the fundamental structure of a player's stack or hand).

For me, direct attacks are typically a negative in games due to the politics involved with who you choose to hit. However, that issue disappears in two-team partnership games, so I was happy with the situation as it applied here. (The game includes rules for 2v1 play for those looking for a three-player partnership experience as well as rules for individual play for those who do enjoy such politicking.) The Red "Move Cover" action was complete.

Three down, one to go.

The fourth ("White") action always fluctuated simultaneously with the Red action. For each bubble in the wallpaper I pushed down with the Red action, a new bubble popped up with the White action, and vice versa. It was a lengthy process. With this latest edition of the Red action, however, it seemed that I reduced the number of issues to the following:

-----1. There needed to be a secondary way to serve chips – on an individual basis – to avoid undesirable endgame situations that could emerge. For a good deal of the testing process, this action was achieved by the rule "Discard three matching cards to serve any one chip." Under the newest set of Green, Blue, and Red actions, however, this was no longer possible.
-----2. There needed to be a way to make the game progress after an attack / defend cycle would occur.

Enter the Busboy.

He's so happy to help!

When the White "Call Busboy" action is played, two separate events can occur. First, the player can return the tray cover of the indicated color from one of his stacks to the center of the table. Second, the player activates his Busboy card of the indicated color.

Four Busboy cards, one in each color, are given to each player at the start of the game and placed Face-side up. The first time a player's Busboy card is activated during the game, it simply flips over. The second time it is activated, however, it serves an individual top dish of your choice from one of your stacks. (The Busboy is then flipped Face-side up, so he requires two more activations to serve another dish. He's a bit of slacker actually...)

Remember, this dish-serving action is in addition to the cover-defense action listed above. With this, both of the issues were solved. Individual chips can be served by activating a Busboy twice, and the game progresses after an attack-defense cycle (since the defense and Busboy card activation occur at the same time).

This is the most complicated action of the four. Now, I was trying to keep the actions simple and elegant, and admittedly the White action does stretch the definition of "simple" just a bit. Nonetheless, I am very happy with its implementation, and the decisions which emerge from it being in place, such as:

-----• I don't have any White cards. Do I want to use a Red card to remove the tray cover that is on my stack, or do a different action, hoping that I'll draw white and be able to also activate my Busboy card as well?
-----• I have no Covers on my stacks. Should I use my White card now, just to flip my Busboy card to Serve side up, or should I wait to see whether an opponent will play a cover on me?
-----• I have "Soup Advantage" – two white "soup" chips atop my stacks, while my opponent has only one. His Red and White Busboys are Serve-side up, while his Green and Blue Busboys are Face-side up. I have Red / Red / Green in my hand and want to attack. Do I play Red / Green to move the Green Cover (since his Green Busboy is Face-side up and not yet ready to serve)? Or do I play Red / Red (risking that the opponent can serve, but keeping my Green card which I can use to serve the Soup if I draw a White)?
-----• My teammate has her Blue Busboy Serve-side up, and all her other Busboys Face-side up. She's got a Blue Cover on her stack. I have the Red / Blue card combination needed to free her, but maybe I should leave it there since if she does have the White / Blue combination, she can both free her stack and serve a chip. But if she doesn't, then she might be stuck for another turn! (Rules note: Players can use Red cards to move Covers from anywhere – including partners' stacks – but Busboys will serve only a player's own set of chips, not his partner's set.) What to do?!

In the end, this action works well, and due to the iconography used on the cards, I don't feel the complexity is much of an issue at all. The White "Call Busboy" action was set.

Four down – Everybody Serve, Move Dishes, Move Cover, Call Busboy. Simple mechanisms, interesting decisions, and that indescribable "fun factor" all appeared to be present, and I was happy. After further testing across varying numbers of players, and testing minor tweaks and variants here and there, the game was complete. R&R Games signed it for a 2010 release, and the rest is history.

That's pretty much the story of Hey Waiter! It's an abridged account – listing every change and test would probably be as painful to read as it would be to type – but I hope you now have a nice idea of the background of the game.

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!

Anthony Rubbo

(This designer diary was first published on on Oct. 13, 2010. —WEM)
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