At a slow and steady pace life returns to normalcy. Farewells have been said. Some sudden and unexpected, some packaged in grief and sorrow. But there are always board games to center you.. or at least remind you why you enjoy spending time with people.
Kitchen Rush – A recent release, I picked up last year at Spiel ’17. A real-time cooperative game about running a restaurant, or more precisely running the kitchen of said restaurant. It was one of the very few games I picked up right after playing (and enjoying) it at the fair. It hasn’t seen much play since then – my collection is simply too large to give every game its due – but every game I’ve had since then was fun, even if it never quite reached the panicked heights of the very first game. With a little distance the unique features of this game have become more apparent to me. One of which is the ratio of depth and width of the game. It is, as far as I can tell, not a particularly deep game. You have a straight-forward task: take orders & prepare food. Underneath that deceptively simple objective are a number of supporting tasks, like keeping ingredients stocked, optimizing the use of action spaces among players and the simple physical challenge of up to eight hands grabbing, pulling and placing things on the board. I can imagine that with regular plays our group would get better at optimizing our use of sand-timers (i.e. workers) and coordinating who grabs what from where… and when. But it’s not the potentially hidden depth of this game, that makes it appealing. Nor is it the authentic feel of stressfully running back and forth in a restaurant’s kitchen. Something I happen to have personal experience with, and I can confirm it transports that feeling very accurately into a board game. What struck me about the game was the joy of simultaneously handling a number of seperate tasks. In other words, what makes Kitchen Rush stand out is the challenge of handling all the bits and pieces while the clock is ticking and you need to communicate with your fellow cooks. There really is something of a rush that comes over you when you find yourself mentally stretched thin keeping a number of seperate processes in mind at the same time. What ingredients are missing? Who will buy them? What about the spices? How much time does the dish need on the stove? Do I have the time to run out and deliver it to the guests, or should I save my sand timer for another, more important action? All while you’re waiting for your sand timer to run through and become available for use again. I’ve talked about A Tale of Pirates a while back, but whereas that game seemed to slow down whenever you placed your sand timer, Kitchen Rush just seems to speed up as you play. You are far more invested in your individual objective (finishing the order you’ve taken), than in everybody else’s. You’re just trying your best to not get into each other’s way and help when you have some time on your hands. This gives the game a very distinct type of cooperative feel, that is probably most closely related to a game like Space Cadets. Some planning and coordination before the turn starts, individual tasks carried out during the turn and hoping that in the end, it all adds up to victory. (It hasn’t so far.) Kitchen Rush isn’t deep or strategic. But it is a great cooperative experience, that avoids the dynamics of committee coops like Pandemic, in which coming to an agreement as to how to proceed is the heart of the game, and the challenges tackled are just a means to funnel the conversation. Kitchen Rush is very much about the challenge, with every player contributing as best as they can. The smartest design choice may just be that player roles are not assigned through the game (“You are the cook, you get +1 on cooking.” “You are the Maitre d’ you get +1 on snooty dismissals.”) but need to be agreed upon before each round. Giving more agency to the group over how to tackle the game’s challenges, instead of reducing it to a question of how to best combine the game’s rules.
Paper Tales – This game is basically what 7 Wonders would be like, had it been released today. A quick, easy-to-play card drafting game with very short achievement cycles. Only 4 turns in total, in which you draft cards to combo and you score points at the end of each of those turns. The comparison to 7 Wonders is a little unfair, considering the splash that game made when it came out 7 years ago. Paper Tales doesn’t have the luxury of feeling innovative and novel. Card drafting is a well-established mechanic by now. Instead the game benefits immensely from being so short-lived, or rather sped-up compared to its genre predecessor. This shouldn’t be dismissed or underestimated. My continued fascination with and enthusiasm for Memoir ’44 (despite my reservations about the setting) mostly stem from the fact that it plays so quickly. I would not be surprised that fans of Paper Tales are drawn to this game for similar reasons. Unfortunately when played with my regular gaming group the response was positive but muted. It didn’t pull us in to experiment with combos and explore the many ways in which things can be tweaked to squeeze more VP out of each turn. In part because Paper Tales suffers from the same problem that most games with a significant card pool suffer from: it takes a few games to get a feel for the deck. In other words, you need to play the game numerous times before you have a sense of actively pursuing a strategy and adapting it to changing circumstance. Until then you are completely at the whim of the cards going around the table. Once you’ve accrued enough experience with the deck, the game opens up and allows for more engaging play. But a long learning curve is basically the death knell for a game to people like me. Considering the size of my collection and the frequency with which I play with the same set of people, I am unlikely to play a game multiple times for it to reveal itself to me. If it doesn’t grab us enough right from the start, there are a dozen other games I am far more keen to revisit instead. So there is a decent chance that Paper Tales is actually deeper, smarter and far more nuanced than my first few plays suggest. The times I did play were lackluster, though. Randomness was one reason. In addition to that, the game doesn’t lend itself particularly well to strategic decision unless you have a very deep understanding of the cards. Our group’s verdict was unanimous in recognizing the polished design and clean flow of play, but it also failed to evoke any excitement to return to this game next week. A good game that is not a good fit for our gaming habits.
Kanagawa – We had a somewhat similarly well-meaning reaction to this Bruno Cathala design from 2015. As is the case with many, if not all, Iello games the presentation is incredible. Beautiful to look at, pleasant to play with and production values that elevate a simple set collection game into something that at least suggests a calm, relaxing and almost meditative experience. It’s a smooth, somewhat sleight little game with a small push your luck element. There’s a little bit of tension as you race to score certain tiles and try to expand your sets and abilities. And it’s perfectly fine. In fact the biggest issue I’ve had with the game is that calling it “fine”, seems a disservice to it. As if it’s faint praise meant to politely hide some awfully dull experience. It fits a particular niche of a non-taxing game, with small stakes and low involvement. The equivalent of pleasant music at a dinner party. It adds to the social gathering in small, but noticeable ways. But it never becomes the evening’s main attraction. Kanagawa is a game you play while you’re spending time with friends. This it does pretty much flawlessly. It doesn’t demand your undivided attention. You don’t need to focus intensely to make a valid and satisfying choice on your turn. Your options and their consequences are easily read and understood. Even what little information is kept from you, is still transparent enough so that you never feel like you’re choosing blindly or randomly. It’s a calculated risk, with easily manageable negative consequences. It’s refreshing how little of this game is about deliberately exposing players to sources of frustration for them to avoid. Kanagawa is not a game of emotional peaks and lows. It is more akin to putting on the radio on your drive to work. Most of the time it will not produce particularly memorable moments, but it does make thinks less dull and grey. Which is something at least.
Ilôs – In the simplest and most reductive terms, Ilôs is Archipelago – the Card Game. It shares a similar setting: exploring and exploiting islands in the Pacific for their resources. But where Archipelago plays like an advanced (and politicized) version of Settlers of Catan, Ilôs more closely resembles a straight-forward market manipulation game. I do appreciate how it ties certain individual actions to changes to the overall game state, creating a highly interactive game without resorting to simple attacks. Even activating a pirate spot (the openly negative action of this game) only slows down other players, but doesn’t actively set them back. The one weak point so far seems to be that Ilôs is very susceptible to group think, in that a group that rushes to the end makes themselves far more dependent on lucky card draws than one that tries to spend some time building up their position. I generally like it when games give players more influence over the basic parameters of the game: actions available, end-game conditions, game length, etc. Ilôs can suffer from impatient players. But shouldn’t a solid design be robust enough to withstand such behaviour? I am torn.
Ada Lovelace: Consulting Mathematician – The people I follow on social media (it’s not stalking if I never talk to them, right?) seem quite taken with the Roll&Write genre. I’ve only ever played Qwixx and was less then enthusiastic about it. It seemed both random and pointless in a way that not even Bang The Dice Game could beat. If Kanagawa is the type of game you play, while you’re enjoying people’s company. These are the type of games you stop playing, as soon as you’ve found something to talk about. My expectations were reasonably muted. But then a number of things caught my attention. First, it’s print’n’play game, which is a type of game I’ve always liked in theory but never sat down to actually explore in practice. Then it was a solitaire game, which is yet another style of game I don’t often pick up. But recent events had led to smaller, less regular game nights so all of a sudden, solitaire game moved from curiosity to viable alternative. Finally, it was a game named after a woman. Next to Greek antiquity, having a game based on a female main character is always going to make me look at a game at least once. In this case, the other aspects made me play it, and I will say that I had a good time with it. I find the genre particularly well-suited to solitaire play, much more so than the competitive vibe of Qwixx. It is unpredictable enough to be replayable, yet coherent enough to feel like an actual game. I’m still not convinced that there is much to this type of mechanic outside of solitaire fun, but this game at least is worth revisiting to me.
Blueprints – Sometimes pulling an old favourite from the shelf is a sobering experience. Or rather it reminds you that all things have their time and place, and sometimes those pass. In this case, Blueprints sadly doesn’t fit into my collection any longer. I remember liking the game quite a bit, appreciating its clean design and the clever way it played around with probabilities (at least a little). It was easy to teach, not too confrontational for most players I play with and just overall a very neat package. But a few years have passed since then, and the cleverness of the design doesn’t quite translate into longevity. It is undoubtedly still well thought-out and smartly designed, but when I play it that cleverness fades into the background. What remains is a game that I am sure can still delight people, just not me and my group. Whereas Kanagawa’s pleasantness of play emerges in concert with its art, Blueprints feels a little cold. It’s similarly focused on the individual player and their obectives, but it culminates in a brightly coloured, toy-like dice construction that doesn’t really feel special. Blueprints lacks a sense of achievement when played – although the special scoring cards help a little in that regard. But more than that, there is a sense of randomness (“In a dice game? How preposterous!”) that undermines this feeling of having accomplished anything in particular by putting dice on top of other dice. The common reply to this is usually, that Blueprints only lasts three turns, so it’s over before you can get upset about it. But I don’t agree with that at all. A game’s length shouldn’t be an excuse to overlook a design’s weaker points. A shorter reward cycle in a game (like in Paper Tales or Memoir ’44) should enhance the experience not make you overlook its flaws. So with a minute tinge of sadness, I will sell this game off. I’ve enjoyed it for most of the time I’ve owned it, but it’s time to move on.