Behind the Board: Scott Almes on Food Chain Island

Luke: Welcome back to Behind the Board! This week, we’re going to be chatting with Scott Almes about his work on Food Chain Island, a Button Shy Games title on Kickstarter as of writing.

Welcome, Scott, thanks for sitting down with us.

Scott: Happy to be here, Luke.

Luke: So tell me; you’re obviously very well known for cramming big game experiences into compact containers, as you’ve shown time and again through the Tiny Epic series. What design philosophies have you developed over the years that tend to be reflected in these designs?

Scott: As I design small box games, I look for opportunities to trim and streamline components. Can I convey this information on one card instead of six? Can I combine these mechanics so they flow better together?

I apply that same approach to the rules. Is this rule needed? Does this add to the game, or is it an unfun complication? If I need this rule to keep things moving, but it doesn’t add to the experience, is there a better way to approach what I need the game to do?

Luke: Makes sense, especially when putting together a title that can only use 18 cards. Was that a restriction you put on Food Chain Island before you realized it would become a Button Shy game?

Scott: Food Chain Island originated with the card stacking mechanic. I had a fuzzy idea of a solo game where you had to splay out all the cards and then stack the cards on top of each other until you had a single deck. I was just playing around with a deck of cards, and it was very pleasing to win the game with a single stack of cards. It felt meditative.

As I developed the game further, I purposely imposed the limit of 18 cards because I thought it would be a good game for Button Shy. I’ve been looking for the right game to work with Button Shy on, and it seemed like a great fit!

Luke: Especially considering how this is the kickstart (pun intended) of the Simply Solo line. You’ve always been well known for the solo variants of your games, but what’s it like creating a solo-only experience?

Scott: They feel completely different. A goal for the solo mode of a multiplayer game is to replicate the feel of a multiplayer game for just one player. This means creating automated opponents, additional components, or mechanics to make it feel like you are competing against someone else. Sometimes, you may even have to alter some multiplayer abilities or add clarifying text to ensure that the solo game will run smoothly.

For a solo-focused game, you have a lot more freedom. You can set up the player to play against the game, and not have to worry about matching a particular feel or experience that happens during the multiplayer game. 

Luke: Yeah, it must feel freeing to not feel as restricted in that regard.

In terms of the various animals you see throughout Food Chain Island, how did you go about coming up with the abilities associated with each?

Scott: When balancing the powers, I looked at separating the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ powers as much as I was able to. It’s typical for players to have more higher numbers towards the end of the game, and that’s when I want the game to feel the most challenging. It’s no fun if you somehow lose and have 10 cards left. It’s fun if you lose and you have 3 cards left. So, since the higher cards are typically left towards the end of the game, their powers are more of a hindrance for players.

One of the biggest developments I had was making all the powers mandatory. Originally, the powers that were typically used to benefit the player were optional, and all the negative powers were mandatory. In an effort to streamline the rules, I tried having everything be mandatory and see how that felt. It was a big improvement! Now, if you don’t pay attention, a power that would normally be helpful could be a hindrance if it was used at the wrong time. It made the player’s decisions extra interesting!

Luke: Have you found specific animal combinations that players are often drawn to?

Scott: The lizard and the bat are both very useful! They can be used to get people out of tight situations if they have made a mistake.

Luke: How did you decide on the types of animals that you wanted to represent in the game?

Scott: I first wanted to make sure that all the animals would (somewhat) be able to eat the animals below them, and I honestly just picked a bunch of my favorite animals from the long list. I made an attempt to theme each ability after the animal itself. The bat flies across the map, the polar bear hibernates after eating, and so on.

The water animals were a whimsical way of keeping the types of cards separate. I didn’t want to use additional land animals for the one time abilities because it might feel confusing. So separating the special abilities into water animals felt the right way to go. And, then with the Tough Skies expansion I separated the animals that make the player’s life harder into the bird category!

Luke: Yeah, I certainly appreciate that each of the mini-expansions varies how difficult the game can be, modifying the experience for whomever is playing.

Speaking of difficulty settings, why did you choose the board shapes you did for the more difficult iterations of the game?

Scott: I didn’t have a scientific way of picking the shapes, other than playing around with 16 cards and seeing what I could come up with. When testing, ones that got too ‘long’ became far too difficult, so I tried to keep a rough square shape as I worked. It required a lot of testing to see what the outside limits were.

Here’s the most challenging one of the iterations for folks to try out. Best of luck, everyone!

Luke: One last question before we wrap things up, Scott; what advice do you have for aspiring small box board game designers?

Scott: I feel like the best thing a small box designer can do is question everything you want to put into the game. It may sound extreme, but if you are committed to the ‘small box’ aspect you need to ensure everything has a clear purpose in the game. And ask why it can’t be done in a simpler way.

Luke: Awesome, thanks so much for your time, Scott! What should we keeping our eyes out for from you and Button Shy down the road?

Scott: The next game we’ll have is called The Ugly Gryphon Inn, which is a whimsical game about running a fantasy inn. The occupants are a giant pain in the behind, are always unhappy, and tend to do destructive things if their needs aren’t met. It’s a good puzzley game with another funny theme.

I’m also hoping that Food Chain Island is successful enough to do another small expansion or two. And, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that people enjoy it enough that we can do more in the Simply Solo line of games!

Luke: The Ugly Gryphon Inn sounds awesome, definitely looking forward to checking that out later this year!

And thanks to you readers for taking the time to read along with us! If interested in learning more about Food Chain Island, you can check out our review from earlier this week and visit the Kickstarter page. Looking forward to seeing everyone again next week!

One comment

  1. Pingback: Behind the Board: Scott Almes on Cosmic Colonies – 1-2-Punchboard

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