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Designer Diary: Nacho Pile

by Ken Gruhl

Nacho Pile has had a longer journey than most of my other games. The game was originally called “Loot the Lair” and was about stealing gold from a dragon’s lair. The game was mechanically pretty close to how it is now, but with more components and less swagger.

This first draft was fairly simple. Each player starts with a stack of chips, and your goal is to score as many of everyone’s chips as you can by the time someone’s chip stack runs out. Each turn, you roll a die, then add a chip onto the board on that number. If you press your luck, you can do this again as many times as you like, but you bust if you roll a number that you already rolled that turn. If you bust, return all of your newly placed chips from the board; when you safely stop for your turn, for each number, move your chip on top of the stack for this number, whether you’re starting a new stack or covering one or chips already stacked. At the start of your turn, score any stacks that have your chip on top.

“Loot the Lair” prototype

The mechanisms of the game created a great ebb and flow of timing of when you wanted to press your luck, especially when one or more of the stacks started growing higher. It was obvious that the game had something special based on how quickly it got the playtesters cheering or groaning with each roll.

In early 2018, I had polished up the game enough to show it to publishers, but it never got serious attention. I received some great feedback from my friend Nick Bentley, who was working at North Star Games at the time. Nick could sense the fun in the gameplay and pushed me to explore the game more thoroughly, including finding a better theme and hook to get the game to stand out in the crowded marketplace.

I went back to the drawing board, thinking about what theme could pop a bit more. I landed on a casino theme and called the design “Big Stacks”. The name captured the tension that builds as chips stack higher and higher on the board — and as someone who enjoys poker, I could strongly feel the emotional appeal of winning large stacks of chips. I also added some small clay poker chips to give the game a premium feel. The game immediately came alive, and publishers could feel that, too. The updated edition had a much warmer reception at Origins in June 2018, and I ended up sending prototypes to a few publishers, including Pandasaurus Games.

“Big Stacks” prototype, version 1

One of the publishers that ended up not signing the game did make great development notes. They made the small change of adding special actions to the game, which turned out to be awesome and was something that I ended up keeping through the rest of development with what became the four types of spicy chips.

While I liked the casino theme and the emotional territory of winning big stacks of chips, I had received feedback that it might be a hard sell for families in the mass market.

“Big Stacks” prototype, version 2

That summer, I decided the game needed one more pass of development. I always hammer out my games to streamline them, and one aspect of “Big Stacks” that was nagging me was that each player had their own chip color. Because of how the game worked, you needed to see which player was in control of each stack of chips, so players were putting a chip of their color on top of a stack to show just that.

After brainstorming, I realized that if players simply moved the stacks they controlled in front of them, then different colored player chips were no longer needed. It was at this moment that I realized I could also remove the die and have players draw chips randomly from a bag. Each chip would just need to have a number on it to mimic the die roll. Everything clicked into place, without tarnishing the original fun factor from the press-your-luck element.

With this breakthrough on the gameplay and the streamlining of the game components, my final hurdle was updating the theme. I regularly struggle with finding the right themes, but this one came easily: Pulling chips out of a bag immediately sparked the idea of tortilla chips, and piling stacks of tortilla chips high on a plate reminded me of nachos. Hence, Nacho Pile was born.

Nacho Pile prototype

I signed the game with Pandasaurus as I have always admired its creative product design and it has a great track record. It’s been a pleasure working with the team, and I can’t wait for the game to be on shelves in November 2022.

Ken Gruhl

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