Grand Rapids Area Boardgamers
I keep a journal handy with me at all times. One section is full of mechanisms I like, which I want to fiddle with and which sometimes result in full-fledged games. Another is full of "feelings" I want designs to evoke. This part is esoteric but occasionally very useful. A third is a collection of puns and strange phrases that come to mind. Some of those become game titles, or card names, or just spark other ideas.
This is the story of a stolen mechanism, a warm and friendly feeling, and a horrible pun.
The "design seed" for Filler came from an ironic source. One of my favorite Friedemann Friese games — right up there with Foppen and Fiji — is Copycat, his homage to seminal modern board games that overtly co-opts elements from Dominion, Agricola, and Through the Ages in particular. These mechanisms interlock in puzzling ways, and I'm always happy thinking through the ramifications.
One of the most intriguing facets of Copycat is a mechanism that I don't think was lifted directly from any other game — please correct me if I'm mistaken! — which is the way turn order is determined. Each round starts with a bid, of sorts, for turn order, with players setting aside one of the cards from their hand. The more powerful the card, the earlier the player's turn.
However, these cards can't be used for their normal effect, so this becomes a fraught decision. How important is it to go early in the round? Other games have methods of bidding for turn order, of course (Fresco springs first to mind), but this card-based system seemed particularly interesting to me.
Bidding for turn order in Copycat
From a mechanical perspective, Filler began with the thought experiment of how to capture this decision point in a much smaller game. I gravitate toward "light but tight" games, with a few rules and a lot of emergent behaviors, like No Thanks or Linko. The obvious approach was to pare back the mechanism to a deck-building game, but I felt this territory was too well-trodden for this twist to be interesting enough. After a few false starts, it became clear that the right fit was not deck-building, but hand-building. By making this shift, players formed a stronger relationship to their cards since they saw them much more often. This meant the decision to use a card for its early start time was a bit harder to make as you otherwise would be planning on using the resources generated by the card.
In addition to the turn order mechanism from Copycat, in Filler you'll see bits and pieces harvested from a number of hand-building games, such as Concordia and Lewis & Clark, as well as the card flow of something like Mission: Red Planet, but stripped down to the basics.
Oh, and lest we forget, Century: Spice Road, which had not yet been announced when I started working on this title. It's of course another hand-building game that fits in a short time frame, and it's excellent. Filler occupies a somewhat different niche, though, since rather than focus on a Bazaar-like resource trading mechanism, it goes all-in on the hand-building itself, which means it is shorter and in a smaller package, with more of the decisions around the turn order mechanism than on creating card combos.
Keen eyes will also uncover a mathematical detail lifted from a classic Knizia title. Can you find it?
On Your Marks, Get Set, Bake!
A mechanism does not a game make, however. A great theme can do a lot to increase enjoyment by drawing in players, providing metaphors for easier teaching, and inspiring beautiful artwork to savor.
As I was staring at this fledgling deck-building or maybe hand-building game, I wasn't happy with the standard process of cards granting currency that was then spent on other cards. It was important to the design that cards be situationally good, rather than universally good; having some cards grant three coins rather than two coins was just not interesting enough.
Earlier I mentioned the puns, themes, and feelings I collect for later use. The solution presented itself from that list of themes: "a filler game about filling pastries". (Even better, this twenty-minute filler game called Filler would go on to be published by the creator of the podcast 20 Minutes of Filler, Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games.) Now I knew what would make the "currency ladder" more interesting: The currencies would be ingredients in a recipe, and purchasing a card would require specific ingredients, not just "enough".
A delicious dobostorte to make Mary Berry jealous
As a funny bit of synchronicity, this shift in direction happened a couple of months before my household became obsessed with The Great British Bake Off. Most people who know me assumed the inspiration came from there, and while that's not the case, TGBBO certainly shaped the later development direction of the game! I was so taken with the gentle, warm, loving feeling of this show that I knew that's what the game needed to evoke —not just competition, but good-spirited, friendly competition. I think Claire Donaldson's art style captures this warmth perfectly and makes the whole game experience feel like "home"...or at least like a friendly tent in an English country garden!
In a meeting of our local design group, GRUBS, my compatriot Gray asked whether I had thought about solo rules for Filler. To be honest, I hadn't. The core of the game is the jockeying for start times, and this didn't intuitively make any sense to me in a solo context.
This did prompt me to start thinking about it, though. I imagined something along the lines of Sagrada's solo mode, in which the player's choices would determine their own score but also influence the score to beat. In my first draft of this mode, you would choose a card from your hand and compare the time on it to cards in the middle of the table. Cards with a time earlier than the one you chose would be hoovered up into a pile, and the points there would be compared with yours. This didn't work for a long litany of reasons.
Before our next meeting, Gray had been busy and came up with a system for playing against a virtual opponent. He worked out the basic interfaces with other opponents, patterning this after the Automa system. (See episode 154 of the Ludology podcast for more on this concept.) Since the main interface here is bidding on start times, this was the primary thing to model. We would reveal cards from the deck each turn to determine the other chef's start time, and that chef would claim cards automatically based on their start times.
Sample recipe cards
I liked the basic idea but was worried gameplay would get too stale with the randomness of the opponent, or worse, that a player's choices would get too obvious. The next step was inspired by the fantastic solo mode in Mint Works in which each play is against a different AI opponent. I set us the challenge of coming up with six different AIs, each of which would be tied to one of the chefs in the game. That way, every player could have a number of experiences in the solo game that would feel different from one another, while sharing the basic rules.
Within a couple of days, Gray had a slew of personalities to test. A few dozen playtests later, and we scrapped some of these, tweaked others, and came up with new ones, landing on a set of fiendish rival chefs to battle.
The Tyranny of Time
The most difficult aspect of Filler to balance has been the central mechanism itself: the turn-order bidding. Since this is the source of tension in the game, it needs to lead to a meaningful choice, so turn order needs to be a powerful thing. At the same time, since early cards stay in a player's deck once obtained, it needs to be balanced against the potential of a runaway leader.
A starting time and ingredients card, ready to go
The costing of cards has changed a lot over the course of development. I mentioned earlier that first drafts used a single currency for card purchases, which was uninteresting. The multiple currencies helped with this, but added an interesting wrinkle. There was suddenly the possibility of a "dead end" wherein players couldn't purchase a card because they simply did not have the right ingredients and couldn't get them.
Addressing this led to two outcomes. First, starting player hands were adjusted so that every player has exactly one of each of the five ingredients available to them. (Early drafts included a wild among these, but that was too powerful a card with which to start the game.) Second, the costs of cards now never repeat an ingredient, so that some player will be able to fill the recipe with their starting hand. Third, the number of ingredients required was capped at three (and that is in extreme cases) for the same reason.
These requirements set boundaries on ways to address the balance of early cards. I now knew the most I could make any card cost was one common and two rare ingredients, so the earliest card got this cost and requirements scaled down from there. However, this wasn't enough to counteract the power of early turn order. The solution was to further increase the cost, but how?
The answer here was adding "any ingredient" as a potential requirement. The flexibility of this allows recipes that include it to have four requirements rather than three. While it's generally easier to come up with a few general ingredients than one specific one, the important part is tempo. The cost to obtain a card with an early time near the start of the game should almost always mean that a restock turn follows, allowing other players time to react and counteract that move. Doing this, along with putting more points on later cards, solved the problem as statistics began to bear out.
Ready to play...
But even though I saw from the numbers that the issue was mostly resolved, there was still a difficulty with perception. Although I knew it wasn't always an optimal play to pick early cards, I saw that players felt like it was and began to believe that the earliest card would win the day. To balance this perception further, the advanced cards introduced an "arrive early" mechanism. These cards let you adjust your time card by an hour, so the player with the earliest card in their deck is no longer guaranteed to go first when they play it. Doing this requires you to play two cards instead of one for time, so there is a tempo tradeoff here as well.
(Side note about Arrive Early: When this was introduced, I wanted to preserve the uniqueness of times so that tiebreakers would not be needed for turn order. The solution for this was to adjust the times so that all cards with even hours have even minutes and odd have odd, so subtracting an hour from a card will never leave you with a time that collides with another card.)
After all this balancing work, it was a real relief to read this in Jonathan Liu's review of Filler:
I did have some concerns after my initial experience that the player who grabbed the earliest starting time would have an unfair advantage, but after repeated plays that hasn't proven to be the case. Going after the cards with early start times can help you in certain rounds and may even allow you to fill more recipes, but victory depends more on which recipes you choose rather than just sheer quantity. There have been some games where a player managed to get an early start time and dominated the game, and there have been others where the player with the earliest start time was in last place by the end.
I hope this design work makes your experience feel just as varied!