For a game to work, its design has to answer one important question first: why? Or more accurately, why should I bother to play this game? Depending on how you found your way to gaming, your answer can vary dramatically. The competitive type might rely on the wisdom of Conan: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you…”. If you had the misfortune of being raised bougie, you might see games as a way to educate yourself and gain new skills. If you define yourself by your work, games may be a respite from the stresses of daily life. Most designs use these or comparable approaches to appeal to players. Many of them overlap when it comes to looking at the challenge a game offers, and how it tickles players’ ambition.
Coffee Roaster by Saashi (here the localisation by dlp games) offers such a challenge. It is a game about roasting coffee beans, much as the title would suggest. Coffee beans are represented by numbered tokens. The roastery is represented by a cloth bag. Each turn a set number of tokens is drawn out of it. Each such “roasting step” leads to most of the drawn tokens being swapped for higher rated ones and returned to the roastery. Some are removed from the game altogether. In order to score well at the end of the game, you want to draw coffee beans of the right strength from the bag.
But in a surprising move we are denied the type of decisions we might have expected to make, to win the game. We can’t choose how many beans to draw per roasting step. We also don’t decide what happens to the beans we draw. The most important decision we get to make, is when to initiate the game ending scoring. It’s a decision that’s highly tense and exciting even the twentieth time you play the game.
It would be too pat and easy to point at the familiar psychological cycle of a push your luck mechanism here. As that would ignore the subtle craftsmanship that went into making this game. Because a successful coffee roast isn’t simply thrilling question of how long to risk it. A good score feels like a hard-earned accomplishment.
Like most solo games Coffee Roaster is less playful activity than a tricky problem you are asked to solve. You don’t just have to weather the adversities of randomly drawn tokens. You also have to nudge the roasting process just right to get a good score at the end of your roast. Because while Coffee Roaster might not hand you the decisions you expect to make, it still does grant you small decision spaces. Depending on the type of coffee bean you’ve chosen a number of colored tokens are included in the bag, which allow you to trigger special actions that don’t seem all that powerful at first glance.
A typical roasting step changes six or more of your tokens, whereas the efficacy of your actions are small and subtle. They often affect one or two of your beans directly, if at all. This leads to each roasting step feeling like a landslide that you’re trying to deal with by putting up paper flags and stern words. And yet somehow, when the end rolls around, it’s enough to put victory in reach.
Winning a game of Coffee Roaster feels so valuable and satisfying, because of the wide gap between what we want to change and what we actually can change. Something that’s subtly underlined when you compare the administrative effort it takes to complete a roasting step, compared to taking a special action. The tactility reinforces the appeal of facing the game’s challenge. Every time you decide to reach into the bag, the game threatens to spin out of control. Each special action is a deliberate risk we take, that will only pay off at the end of the game.
Saashi manages the kind of balancing act that a lot of designers are envious of. A game which draws you in despite a manageable number of decisions it lets you make. It’s a design that works, because it cleverly builds up tension and lets us choose when to resolve it. In other words: Coffee Roaster is a gaming delicacy.