Words by David C. Obenour
The Great British Baking Show captured our collective interest with each episode’s beautiful spread of baked goods along with a mix of well-mannered, good-natured competition and quirky humor. Little did we know that while we binged through seasons on the couch another treat was being diligently worked on, promising even more of the same fun!
The smartly named, Filler is a quick to pickup and play in between game. Folding a number of clever mechanics and delicious art into a small box, Jonathan Chaffer’s game for Green Couch Games makes for a great half hour around any kitchen, dining or game room table. Just enough time for awaiting that perfect soufflé rise or a short chill of a cake before icing.
Off Shelf: When working on Filler, did the theme or the mechanics of the game come to you first?
Jonathan Chaffer: I don’t have a set process for finding inspiration, but in this case the “time card” mechanism was the design seed for the game. Everything else—including the theme, the point system, and even the fact that it is a hand-building game—springs from that initial decision. During the design journey, I often challenge assumptions by asking, “What is the core of this game? Does everything else support that core?” Many times it turns out that the core element of the game is something other than where it started, but with Filler that time-selection core stayed true the whole time.
OS: What about pastries and baking stood out to you as what you themed Filler around?
JC: Initially the game was themeless, using cards as a straight money currency to purchase other cards. However, this was too simple. Since cards don’t trigger lots of actions when played, I didn’t have design space to add variety the same way something like Dominion might. Instead, cards needed to be situationaly better for some players than others merely based on their purchasing power, which meant there had to be multiple currencies.
The baking theme allowed the idea of ingredients as currency, which meant that variety in cards came naturally. Then the pun-y title slotted in nicely, and I knew that there could be a great artistic treatment by making the game’s cards literally recipe cards.
OS: What are your favorite parts about how the theme engages directly with the gameplay?
JC: I know the theme is working when I can explain a game to new players in terms of the theme, not the mechanisms. Certainly seasoned gamers will look at the ingredients and call them “money” and will refer to filling a pastry as “buying a card,” but to those outside the hobby, the thematic terms work very well. Showing up to the bakery at different times immediately resonates with people, and I often hear players joking with one another about their lazy bakers who slept in… or the eager ones who arrived very early only to restock their pantry and go home for the day.
OS: I’m curious what went into the decision making of what you ended up including. How much research did you do in determining the ingredients, finished pastries and other different icons?
JC: The distribution of ingredients was math-first. There are two common ingredients and three rare ones, and I use a spreadsheet to determine the appropriate cost of each card based on its time, the ingredients it provides, and special actions. This was all done before trying to slot the cards in thematically. The ingredients themselves started with vanilla and chocolate, the obvious ones, and then expanded based on colors that would provide a good contrast and ingredients that would have distinctive silhouettes for color-blind accessibility.
I came up with a long list of potential pastries which went to Claire Donaldson, our illustrator. She picked the most distinctive ones and from that I did my best to slot them in with the appropriate fillings. There are some compromises in the service of gameplay, but in general the choices are appropriate and if a given pastry shows up on more than one card, they have similar times, ingredients, and special actions.
The game was already well into development when I saw my first episode of The Great British Bake Off and fell instantly in love with it. A few of the recipes, like the Dobostorte, were ones I specifically requested because I saw the gorgeous finished products on that show.
OS: Did working on Filler inspire you to try your had at baking? We’re you much of a baker beforehand?
JC: I’m not at all a baker, though my wife loves to bake. I’m much more a cook than a baker. When cooking you can see your mistakes happening and change course. Baking is chemistry, and an early error can go undetected and have disastrous results. I don’t have the courage for that!
OS: How did you connect with Claire Donaldson? What about her art excited you in how it brought your game to completion?
JC: Claire had previously worked with Green Couch Games on Best Treehouse Ever: Forest of Fun, and had the unenviable task of mimicing another artist’s style in a game that had to be compatible with another one. She knocked that out of the park! Jason Kotarski, the publisher, asked her for some sample sketches of pastries and it was clear she was a good fit.
OS: In one of your Design Notes threads on BoardGameGeek, you talk about liking “light and tight games”. What do you see as the best parts of these smaller, 20-30 minute games?
JC: Short certainly doesn’t mean good, but I am always willing to try something new if I know that in the worst case it will be over soon. That means I simply try more of them, and find the great ones more easily.
Small games are more likely to do one simple thing well. I love it when I see a handful of simple rules and yet interesting emergent gameplay is the result. That moment in No Thanks when a player can take a card without any penalty to themselves, and yet lets it go around the table to try to soak other players for their chips? That is sublime, and not something most people will think of until the first time it happens naturally in the game.
OS: Much of game design seems to be taking inspiration and rules or ways of play from other games – you talked about a number that you utilized for Filler. With the explosion of modern gaming, do you ever find it hard to create something unique and individual with your games?
JC: It is certainly a saturated market. It’s still the case that new products can innovate, synthesize, refine, or some combination of these. Filler doesn’t have much in the way of innovation but it synthesizes turn-order bidding with hand-building which I think may be novel, and it refines the hand-building from something like Century into a smaller package that focuses on the cards themselves. If a game does none of those three things, it’s less likely to find any success.