Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Prototype2Publisher: ...ABER BITTE MIT SAHNE (PIECE O' CAKE)

A Mouth-Watering Idea
I always liked the concept of “pie division” in a game, and the only real example of that kind of mechanic that I had ever come across was in Alan Moon’s San Marco and his two-player card game version Canal Grande. In both games, the pie division takes place between two or three players, however, and I’ve often wanted to design a game where one player divides the “pie” into multiple offerings for more than two players.

One of the challenges, of course, was to avoid making it so complicated that the task of dividing the pie would induce “analysis paralysis” in the players. The other challenge was to make sure the game was not too chaotic. Each player needed to be able to make meaningful choices each round that had some influence on the outcome of the game. At the outset, I was not certain this was even possible, especially for up to five players.

Finding the Right Ingredients
So I considered the abstract idea for a pie division game for quite some time before I finally decided that a theme might help flesh out a playable design. That’s when I finally settled on the obvious choice of dividing an actual pie and collecting the slices.

However, I always like to have multiple strategic options in the games I play, so I needed an option other than set collection and majority battles. That’s where the theme informed the design by providing the option of “eating” slices for guaranteed victory points. This game mechanism not only presented players with an interesting choice for each slice they took, but it also made the majority battles into a kind of perfect-information poker. I also liken it to “playing chicken”: are you going to challenge my majority in chocolate pie with that slice you are taking, or are you going to play it safe by “eating” the slice?

The theme also helped solve the potential problem of analysis paralysis mentioned earlier. Since the offerings that were to be divided were pie slices placed in a circle, it was only natural to keep the positions of the slices fixed, while deciding where to cut the pie. This limitation was vital in keeping the options manageable, and served to add excitement as the new pie slices were revealed each round. If players could have moved the slices around however they wanted (as they can with the cards in San Marco and Canal Grande), the dividing would have taken too long, and some of the challenge would have been missing.

name of my prototype was also an obvious choice for me, having enjoyed the song American Pie in my youth (and, for the record, I have no desire to ever see the film). Pie is also something my wife enjoys making for our German friends to give them a taste of America.

Putting it in the Oven
After thinking about the idea of the game for so long, it all came together rather quickly when I finally had the theme and these two mechanics written down. I made a quick prototype and brought it to our play-testing group, but I was almost too embarrassed to bring it out because I had not tried the game by myself yet and honestly didn’t know if it would even work. It did, of course, and Bernd Eisenstein especially liked it, which is always a good sign—every game of mine he’s been excited about has landed a publisher now! I did not need to make any changes before showing it at the Game Designers’ Meeting in Göttingen last year, where Winning Moves Germany snatched it up.

It was such an intuitive design, but I was still surprised at how everything fell into place. Because I had written the rules in such a relatively short period, playtesting the game was a voyage of discovery, exploring the different ways one could play the game. All of it worked smoothly from the start. And although I usually like to design through the prototyping process – often making mock-ups that are seen by no one but me – this one was mostly developed in my head.

Adding the Whipped Cream
After Winning Moves play-tested it, however, they requesting increasing the number of slices so that there would always be unequal divisions, even with 2 and 5 players. With the original 10 slices, for example, players would often feel pressured in a 5-player game to divide the pie into 5 portions of exactly 2 slices each. Since my original intuitive design was so well balanced (between majority points and guaranteed points), I now had to “do the math” to maintain that balance while adding more pieces to the game.

The theme and name were also slightly changed to reflect German cakes and a popular song here titled …aber bitte mit Sahne (“but please, with whipped cream”). The eating points were then cleverly symbolized by dollops of
whipped cream on each slice. When Rio Grande games picked up the game for U.S. distribution, I was asked to brainstorm English names, and submitted a list that included my original "American Pie." They chose "Piece o' Cake." Local publishers chose the titles for the French and Dutch versions.

I was also asked to work on some bonus slices with special effects that might be given away at Essen or other promotional events, or used as future expansions. The basic game can very easily be added onto, and even a powerful special action tile can be balanced out by a skillful divider. One of those, the Joker Slice, was later released in Spielbox magazine.

I almost forgot to mention a nice suggestion from Eric Martin, my esteemed Boardgamenews editor. Before I was offered a contract for the game, Eric and his wife came to visit me after the Essen Game Fair, and he gave me his copy of Qwirkle for being their Berlin tour guide. I wanted to give him something in return, but I knew that he did not have a lot of extra luggage space after the fair, so I gave him an American Pie prototype. After playing the game many times, he was the one who made the suggestion to divide the pie into four pieces in the two-player game, giving each player two turns to choose each round.

Many thanks to Michel Matschoss and Uli Schumacher at Winning Moves and to Eric for their input during the development of the game!

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Video Review

Read the lyrics to the song ...aber bitte mit Sahne in English and German