Design Pattern: It’s A Cover-up

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No, I’m not talking about politics, or make-up. I’m talking about the design pattern of using tokens of different shapes to cover up an area, which has experienced a major surge in popularity lately. Based on the mathematical concept of tessellation, or how to completely cover a surface with geometric shapes, this design pattern offers a lot of opportunities for creativity.

Patchwork: This is much harder to do in actual play!

Patchwork, a recent hit from Uwe Rosenberg, features players attempting cover as many spaces on their grid as possible by laying polyominoes (like dominoes, but made up of any number of squares, not just two) of varying sizes and costs. The game features two currencies and a resource-generation mechanism too, but at its core, the game is about the puzzle of fitting differently-shaped pieces into a regular square. Rosenberg also offers a similar puzzle as part of the larger and more complex Feast for Odin. In this one, the board begins with many negative point spaces showing, and players seek to cover them over with tiles to neutralize them.

Another approach to this mechanism comes from Blokus. In Blokus, players have identical pools of polyominoes, and are seeking to get rid of as many as possible onto the gridded board. What they cover is irrelevant, the goal is to lay all their tiles. However, the placement rules, which only allow players to lay tiles if they touch one of their own tiles, but only corner-to-corner, makes efficient usage of space impossible. Instead, play resembles Go, with players staking out areas with their tiles, trying to seize as much territory as they can and cutting players off like the light-cycle racers in Tron.

Bora Bora, a Stefan Feld game that is primarily about dice-as-workers, features a small tessellation mechanism. A central grid has resources printed on it. As you collect resources, you place them on the grid, which allows you to use another action to build 2×1 tiles over the grid to score points.

Not all tessellation games have polyominoes. Feld’s highly-regarded The Castles of Burgundy features players acquiring hexagonal tiles from a central board and placing them on a personal board to trigger bonuses. Scrabble and Latice both offer bonuses to players who can cover specific tiles, while restricting how players can play adjacent to existing tiles.

The ‘cover-up’ design pattern is intuitive, and offers enormous flexibility. Underlying spaces can trigger bonuses or penalties, they can operate as prerequisites or place restrictions on play. The tiles used to cover can be identical, as in Othello, or highly varied. A design can emphasize the spatial puzzle or attenuate its importance, and tile acquisition can be granted, or be the subject of other mechanisms ranging from a simple draft to much more complex and interlocking mechanisms. Even as many very simple and introductory games use this pattern, we also see it featured among some of the most complex hobby games on the market.

Your turn! What are some of your favorite games that feature the pattern of “It’s all a bid cover-up” ? What kinds of design problems do you solve with this pattern?

5 Comments

  1. Peter C. Hayward July 25, 2017 3:54 pm Reply

    Circle the Wagons! The best 18-card game ever made.

    http://about.peterchayward.com

  2. Rocky July 25, 2017 10:58 pm Reply

    In a similar vein as the tessellation you discuss here. If you are wondering about shapes to use for these kinds of games. https://www.quantamagazine.org/pentagon-tiling-proof-solves-century-old-math-problem-20170711/

    http://cravonstudios.com

    • Isaac Shalev July 26, 2017 4:51 pm Reply

      Thanks! The math behind tesselation is fascinating, and ancient Muslim and Jewish geometric mosaics demonstrate how deeply interwoven this bit of math is into human culture.

  3. Alex Churchill July 31, 2017 1:44 pm Reply

    There’s a tiny element of this in Caverna. Your dwarves dig out domino-shaped tiles of caverns/tunnels into a mountain, and when you reach certain rock pools you get a little fish. Your dwarves chop down domino-shaped tiles of forest, and when you reach certain glades you get one or two wild boar. It’s a tiny part of a big complex game but it does definitely add to the game, and it makes me want to play something where it’s a bigger element 🙂

    http://playsteamworks.com/

  4. Seth July 31, 2017 6:57 pm Reply

    I too have seen the rise in games featuring this mechanism, mostly by Rosenberg in Patchwork and it’s follow-ups Cottage Garden, Feast for Odin, and I think he’s got another game coming that explores the dynamic further.

    My favorite recent game that features covering space with tetromino pieces (or polyominoes, if you prefer) is Barenpark, by Phil Walker-Harding. It is a super-streamlined, elegant game in which you place a tile onto your board, picking up new tiles based on icons that you cover up. Each player has their own board, so in a way, you’ve got a very solitaire-y puzzle to solve, but at the same time, there is a race for just about everything — grabbing higher valued pieces, filling your boards, and achieving the 3 (variable per game) objectives — which keeps the game feeling highly interactive. I’m very impressed with Barenpark. It’s not the deepest game ever, but it’s very solid, very elegant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on the SdJ nomination list this time next year. for my money, it’s the best example out there of the dynamic you’re talking about in this article!

    This is tangential to your point, but as for your comments on Patchwork, I will draw 1 small quibble… you said “The game features two currencies and a resource-generation mechanism too, but at its core, the game is about the puzzle of fitting differently-shaped pieces into a regular square.” As Gil Hova descibed on his blog (https://gil.hova.net/2016/09/28/patchy-thoughts-about-patchwork/), I think that’s a little bit of a red herring, and maybe the only disappointing thing about Patchwork. It certainly LOOKS like the game is about covering your board, but in actual fact, it’s more about managing your resources. I don’t like that the game sort of tricks you into “playing wrong” so to speak — the thing it looks like you are supposed to do is not the best thing to do if you’re trying to win. Other than that though, I really do like Patchwork’s gameplay!

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