For a magic trick to succeed, you have to be able to draw the audience’s attention away from what’s actually happening. If I want to slide a coin under a piece of cloth with my left hand, the audience should be looking at my right. So when I pull the cloth away, people will be delighted and surprised to find it there and not in the hand they’ve been looking at the whole time.
While surprises can be fun in a board game, most consider this kind of misdirection a design flaw. The part of the game that holds our attention should also be the part of the game that is fun. Veteran players can often tell with a glance what parts they should be paying attention to. If victory points determine the winner, you obviously need to focus on how to get them. This is called “player skill”: the analytical ability to quickly grasp which actions get you victory points and which do not.
With “Candy Lab” you can really show off that skill. For example by reading the instructions and noticing the part that says, you get victory points for played cards and collected tokens (or in this case colored, translucent plastic “candy” bars). The expertly skilled, veteran player will cleverly deduce that by playing cards and collecting tokens, they will gain victory points. Assuming the game is well designed, this will result in fun. That is how game design works, right? (Or at least gamification does.)
To many an experts’ eternal annoyance, Candy Lab doesn’t do that. Playing cards and taking “candy bars” from the display is a patently uninteresting affair. In terms of fun, it’s only a few steps above stacking dice or putting your game back in the box. Sure, there are some additional actions you have to perform after picking up the bars, but that’s a secondary concern. And yes, you do get to mess up other people’s plans by taking away their bars or cards. But that can’t be the point of the game? After all, you don’t get victory points for doing that. What is the (board gaming) world coming to when you can’t identify what is fun by the amount of victory points you get?
Whether Candy Lab will succeed or fail at your table will come down to what is going to draw your group’s attention during play. If you put your entire focus on how to get victory points, you run the risk of missing out on the clever and delightfully entertaining game that unfolds alongside the hunt for victory points.
The open buffet of colorful bars on the table is not just an offering of victory points, but also a selection of carefully numbered actions you will look to execute in order to claim victory. This small change in perspective has a surprisingly large effect how the game feels to play. Instead of mindlessly playing cards from your hand to take bars, you are looking for actions (or action combos if you draw multiple bars at once) to give yourself an advantage.
Every action, once taken, will provide a new incentive for other players. Draw new cards to your hand, and you make the swap action more attractive. Before you know it, your full hand is gone again. Play a valuable 3-point card, and others might want to take the action that lets them remove it from the game entirely. The same is true for 3-point bars, which others may want to pull back into the display with the respective action. Picking an action to make them unavailable to other players is as much a tactical consideration as is planning ahead to replenish your emptying card hand when needed.
If playing board games has conditioned you to focus exclusively on victory points and how to accumulate them, you will repeatedly be frustrated by your points often and quickly vanishing out of nowhere. Ironically, it’s the children’s variant in the back of the rules, that gives you the kind of game that a singular focus on getting points creates. You get to ignore the actions on the bars, and your card hand replenishes at the end of your turn. Candy Lab becomes a game of picking out color combinations on the table, that match those in your hand.
If, however, you shift your attention to the actions you take, Candy Lab unexpectedly unfolds a tactical layer that keeps you involved for its entire playing time of 15 minutes. The back and forth between players is quite clever. Your options continually shrink with each turn. There’s tension in figuring out, if you can still play a card before having to return a bar to the display to draw new cards into your hand. You may even have to put an action back into circulation that might cause even more instability and surprises as the game goes on. With just a few small rules, Candy Lab offers up exciting and risky decisions that are easy to grasp and enjoy.
Candy Lab is an inviting and tactical little game, that manages to evoke emotional responses in just 15 minutes. That’s not a magic trick, it’s just good game design.