Recently I’ve come across a computer game that I wanted to talk about, becuase it’s basically a deckbuilding board game with sprinkles and has some interesting ideas. It’s called Space Food Truck.
The gameplay will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever played a deckbuilder:
The game is cooperative and each turn starts with a random event (usually but not always bad, escalating in severity as the game goes on). Once that’s done you play all of the cards in your hand. These let you do things related to your job, which in aggregate will let you fly your truck around, pick up ingredients, cook them and deliver them to the target planets winning the game. Then you discard all of the cards you have left over and buy one or more cards to add to your discard pile. Finally you draw a new hand, shuffling your discard pile if your deck has expired.
So far, so standard. So why bring it up?
The devil is in the details. This game uses a host of different mechanics, some of which I’m wouldn’t usually to think of as a deckbuilding mechanics, in interesting ways. There’s nothing you won’t have seen before in this game, but there are times that the mix of mechanics generates something more than the sum of it’s parts. This is a good goal for any designer, so I’d like to explore them by way of looking at how using a mechanic in a new context can generate new gameplay in the hopes of inspiring ideas for other genres.
All cards have a power value. The most important cards in your deck will scale based on how much power you choose to supply them with. For example if you play a repair card you might need to discard one power for each thing you want to repair. But of course a card that’s discarded for power can’t be played.
I’ve always been a big fan of “choose cards to discard to be allowed to play other cards” as a mechanic, meaningful choices are central to good gameplay and this is the sort of mechanic that helps to develop it. It also provides extra delineation between cards, allowing the presentation of choices between buying cards worth lots of coins, cards which have good abilities or cards which provide a lot of power.
It’s not used to its fullest possible effect here though. It could have been a means to flatten out some of the luck of the draw and make player skill more central. In a lot of games a hand of all of one type of card then a hand of all of another is often less desirable than getting a good mix. If important action cards had high power values then drawing them all together would lead to thoughts like “Huh, all three repair cards, well we’re not repairing for a few turns after this while I draw through the rest of the deck – but at least this turn I can fix everything!” Instead important actions have been assigned low, or even 0 power, which means the mechanic instead exacerbates the luck of the draw.
That seems like a missed opportunity.
The variation between playable roles is quite intensive and well implemented.
The captain is the only person who can move the ship and restock the supply. If the ship doesn’t move there’ll be no new cards to buy at the end of the turn – if you don’t buy a card you get a useless leftovers card that bloats your deck to no advantage.
The scientist is the only person who can improve people’s ability to do their core job. Everyone can buy cards each turn, but these come from a common pool of generic cards. The captain can never buy an extra “Fly the ship this turn” card, which is bad news since decks will inevitably get larger as the game goes on so the main jobs get done less and less consistently. The scientist’s research power adds new core cards to everyone’s decks, letting them do their main jobs more effectively.
The chef is the only person who can cook meals, necessary to win the game. However that’s a skill that’s only needed on a few turns, so the designers needed to give him a second strength. What they’ve settled on is an exceptional ability to destroy cards in both their own and other people’s decks. Even the most expensive “destroy card” options in the generic deck are typically less good than the chef’s starting options.
The engineer is there to make sure you don’t lose. Events will damage the ship and crew, lowering its capabilities in various ways. If it’s hull gets damaged enough it explodes and everyone loses. On the other hand different sorts of damage might cause people to draw fewer cards each turn or be unable to play some actions. The engineer decides what to fix in what order.
Given that the distinction between the roles is generated by approximately 4 cards in a 10 card initial deck (plus whatever the scientist researches over the course of the game) the roles feel very different. They all involve some sort of meaningful decision – whether it’s research priorities, which deck to burn cards from or where to fly – and they all wind up feeling very different to play.
Asymmetrical roles can add a lot to a game and give it some decent replayability. I suspect some of that is wasted here as I reckon the average person playing the game is probably on single player as all four roles – but as a primer on how to make asymmetric roles interesting and distinct it’s got some good ideas.
One of the defining features of a deckbuilder is how it limits which cards a player can buy to add to their deck. Dominon established the genre by selecting a limited number at the start of the game, but allow players access to all of them every turn. Others, like Legendary, have a limited supply drawn that’s refreshed after players take cards from it.
Space Food Truck takes an interesting step in treating “available options” as a resource. If the captain is willing to play a jump card and expend fuel and avoids crossing the path of places she’s visited before then she gets to draw a random selection of cards which she may add to those that are available to buy. There are a limited number of slots for these cards and it’s up to her which ones are discarded and which ones are available for the rest of the team to buy.
Having stocking the cards that people can buy from as an explicit game event opens up more meaningful choices. The actions that will lead to the most frequent restocks and doing several restocks to get the ideal mix of choices rather than “whatever was lying around” will often conflict with other desirable outcomes like “take the most efficient route” or “move primarily through systems where we know that we want what will happen to us on that planet to happen”.
This is a mechanic I’d like to see someone do more with. The decisions in Space Food Truck are often relatively trivial “everyone getting a leftovers is sufficiently bad that the jump to a new planet is worth it regardless of other consequences” or “we have fewer new cards from this planet than we have slots so we’re taking everything” aren’t tense, exciting, decisions. I’m sure a game built around playing with the stock situation some more could do a lot with it, but this shows how the potential is there to be realised.
Space Food Truck is not the best game I’ve ever played (well worth the price though) but it demonstrates the power of taking mechanics into unfamiliar territory and messing with assumptions. As much as there are ideas from this particular game I’d like to see taken forward, I think more generally it’s good to bear in mind how we don’t need to always be trying to come up with something new as much as innovative mixes for ingredients we’ve already got on the shelf.