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What’s for Dinner: Food-based Game Design


It seems a far stretch from game design, but it turns out to have puzzles and challenges of its own, and some of them could be great designs for board games too. So, this week, I wanted to talk about a few food-related design problems that have shown up in games (and one that perhaps hasn’t), because they could all be expanded and used more.

I feel like it’s a space that’s just ripe for plucking new ideas.

I Cut, You Choose. This is a classic problem that’s already been put to good use in the game space. It answers the problem of how you divide up a resource (like a slice of cake) between two different people, with the answer being that one person cuts and then the other person chooses his portion. Easy, peasy. The goal here is to force the cutter to equally apportion the parts, else he’ll get the lesser selection.

But that’s not how games approach this problem at all. Instead, games tend to twist the classic food problem by instead encouraging the divider to divvy up the resource so that the other participant will be forced to take the lesser portion because it’s more valuable to him personally, even if it leaves the divider with a bigger piece.

I feel like there are two classic games in this design space. San Marco (2001) divides up cards that players will then play for actions, while Piece o’ Cake (2008) divvies up a more literal pie, with pieces going toward majorities of each type.

Dividing up an actual cake. Picture courtesy of binraix on BGG.

Besides encouraging unequal selections, these games also change the traditional two-player problem into a n-person mechanic, with the divider always getting the selection that no one else wanted.

These two twists show how you can change a traditional food problem into a great game mechanic (and with it being more than a decade since the release of Piece o’ Cake, it’s clearly time for the next foundational I-Cut-You-Choose game).

Making the Hot Dogs and Buns Come Out Right. A lot of food problems are about resource allocation, which is why they work great for game design too. Take the hot-dog-and-bun problem. It’s built around the fact that hot dogs and hot dog buns come in different packages, often with different quantities: say, four frankfurters and six buns per package. So you have to work to use all of your resources correctly without wasting any

In a game design, this problem becomes a question of efficiency, which is the margin of victory in many eurogame designs. If one player can make the dogs and buns come out right, he’ll win, because he doesn’t have unused (and thus wasted) resources, like his fellows.

To a certain extent, the hot-dog-and-bun problem appears in every resource-management game which is about turning one resource (or set of resources) into another — and ultimately into victory points. Take Catan (1995) as an example. If a player loses the game while holding a brick, a wood, a wheat, and a stone, he didn’t make the dogs and buns come out right, because that’s not quite the formula for producing any victory-point structure. Conversely, if he’d ended the game with a sheep instead of a stone, then he would have been able to create an additional settlement (and perhaps win).

However, the best game I’ve seen to utilize the dog and bun problem is The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017), by my friend Eric Vogel (and by my Designers & Dragons publisher, Evil Hat). I think it uses it well because it’s so specific and explicit in its usage.

Basically, you have two types of hot dogs: clues and hits. They’re put on two types of buns: cases and foes. Hexenwolves  (a foe) might take 8 hits to kill, while figuring out Which Wolf is Which (a case) might take 7 clues. You want to make the dogs and buns come out precisely right because any excess clues and hits placed on a case or foe are wasted … and it’s a very tight co-op, so every wasted token puts you that much closer to loss.

A bunch of buns waiting to be filled. (This picture is taken from the Dresden Files computer adaptation, because somehow I don’t have good pictures of the tabletop game despite 26 plays to date.)

A few characters’ special powers build on this foundation by allowing more precision in hot dog allocation. Where cards might dump 2-5 tokens  on a bun at a time, a player’s special power might allow the more delicate placement of a single token of a specific type.

So if you were going to ask how game have varied this food problem, you might say that they’ve given more variance of package size (like in Dresden) or that they’ve created more complex formulas for what all needs to go on a bun (like Catan)

Eating the Food Before it Goes Bad. My wife is a prime player of the eat-the-food-before-it-goes-bad game, where you have to constantly figure out what’s about to go bad in your fridge, so that you can eat it — irrespective of whether you really want it at the time or not. We played it more when we lived in Berkeley — which was a more urban locale than our new home on Kauai, and so we were more likely to have restaurant takeout in the fridge.

This is of course another problem of resource allocation: you’re trying to not waste resources (much as in the dogs and buns problems), this time by using them before they go away. I’m not sure I’ve seen any game directly use the problem (though I’m surely missing some), but I’ve seen some close approximations, mostly in supply-chain games.

Macao (2009) is one of the most interesting games of this sort, mainly because it’s built around very abstract supply chains. In Macao, you’re setting up resources that you’ll receive on a certain future turn, but then you can only use them on that turn, so you have to make sure the resources received on that turn all fit together and can be used immediately. It’s the ultimate in resource rotting, where you must use it immediately or lose it.

Setting up the supply chain in Macao.

I think there may be a lot of mileage for this sort of mechanic in resource-management games, though the problem with resources rotting is that it can become fiddly and bureaucratic, so it needs to be a really simple and natural part of the game (as is the case with Macao).

The Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. I wanted to end with one food-based design problem that’s recognized in game theory, but which I’m not aware of being used in any game design: the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. Wikipedia says that it’s an n-player Prisoner’s Dilemma, another game theory problem that hasn’t been well adopted to game designs. It goes like this:

A large number of people are all eating out together and have decided to split the bill equally. When ordering, they could either get a cheap dish that’s good, or an expensive dish that’s great, but whose greatness isn’t worth the extra cost. On their own, they’d get the cheap dish, but since the bill is being split equally, getting the expensive dish has a much lower cost for each individual. (For example, if a diner is getting an expensive dish that’s $20 more expensive, and there are 20 total diners, he’d only pay $1 extra, instead of the full $20 of the dish.) So, each individual is encouraged to get the great dish that they like better. Unfortunately, the fact that each individual is encouraged to get the more expensive dish means that the group as a whole is encouraged to do so, which means that most or all of the will do so, thus each person ends up paying the much higher cost that they didn’t find worthwhile!

Like any Tragedy of the Commons, the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma ultimately comes down to individuals making selfish decisions about resources that spoil things for the group as a whole. It’s a unique combination of competitive self-interest with cooperative group dynamics — which is probably why you don’t find game theory problems like this in many game designs.

Could it be part of a semi-cooperative game, where players are playing for their competitive good, while still trying to stave off the game-ending effects of not cooperating enough? Maybe — though a similarly Tragic design in Bruno Faidutti’s Terra (2003) showed off the Free-rider Problem, but let free riders win.

Could it be part of a more completely cooperative game? Maybe, though here you’d have to figure out how to maximize self-interest and minimize communication about it without spoiling the cooperation itself. (And we wrote about this class of problems a bit in Meeples Together exactly because I think they’re apt for exploitation in cooperative game designs.)

So that’s my first four thoughts on food-based game design. If you have any food-based problems or challenges that you think would fit well in the realm of game design, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples

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