Saturday, 1 January 2011

A la carte

This is one game that I have been keen to try because (a) the components - mini pan, mini stove and mini bottles of spices - are absolutely gorgeous, and (b) it's designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel, designer of Die Macher and Tribune. A la carte is something completely different from these two games, so I'm interested to see what a light game by Schmiel is like.

The Game

Players are cooks preparing dishes based on a variety of recipes. A recipe requires a minimum number of specific spices, and needs to be cooked within a specific temperature range. A player can only work on one recipe at a time. On your turn you have 3 actions, which you can use for rolling a die, or adding spices to your pan. Die rolls usually result in heating up your pan further. Sometimes you heat up others' pans too. Sometimes you get a special power token - a coffee cup. Adding spices means trying to pour one or more pieces of spice from one of the four spice bottles. This is tricky because it's not easy to control how many will drop out of the bottle. Sometimes the pieces get stuck and none fall out. Sometimes too many fall out, and when you get 3 or more of any spice type, your dish is ruined. Also there are some salt pieces mixed into the bottles, so sometimes you get salt instead of the desired spice.

Your little frying pan. Once you decide which recipe to attempt, you put it inside your pan to indicate so. This particular recipe requires one yellow spice (lemon?) and one green spice (leaf?), and it must be cooked at temperature level 2 or 3. Once completed, it is worth 2pts (chef's hat icon). At the moment I had two yellow spices and one salt in the pan.

Players race to complete dishes, and when one completes five dishes, the game ends, and everyone compares scores. Simple dishes are worth 1pt, but difficult ones can be worth 6pts. There is a rule that prevents you from doing only simple or only difficult dishes. There is another way the game can end - when one player completes 3 dishes with the perfect combination of spices (you can complete a dish with a surplus of spices and even salt, as long as you don't have 3 or more in each type). This player wins instantly without comparing scores.

Now, the special power tokens, a.k.a. coffee cups. Some let you cool your pan a little (normally it only heats further up, and it resets only when you start the next dish). Some let you swap your stove with another (probably) unlucky soul. There is one special recipe - the crepe - which everyone has access to, but just one. To cook the crepe successfully you need to flip it with your pan, each attempt costing one action. No spices required. But it's not easy trying to flip the darn thing.

From top to bottom: (1) the bin, where you discard failed recipes (i.e. ruined dishes). (2) coffee table for coffee cups, i.e. special ability tokens. Green side is the back of the token, pink side the front. You randomly pick a token when instructed to collect one. Once used, they are returned to to pink side of the coffee table. (3) Kitchen sink. Used spices (and salt) go here. The star tokens on the top right are used for marking recipes that you complete perfectly.

The Play

We played a "four"-player game. Chong Sean, Michelle, myself, and the team of Wan, Shan and Chee Wee. The three of them were graciously offering one another the last seat, and they eventually played together as a team. One action per team member, just nice.

All available recipes start at the centre of the table. Yellow ones are the easiest, blue ones the hardest. The spice bottles are on the right.

Chong Sean got himself three swap-stove tokens. He was the only one to have used such a token. Chee Wee did a successful crepe-flip on his first attempt! That's a valuable 5pts. Chong Sean managed to do the crepe-flip too. I decided to go for it too, and kept practising when it was not my turn yet. My success rate was like 1 in 20. Very bad. I couldn't finish the dish even by game end. There was one turn when Michelle tried to pour spices from a bottle, and none came out on all three attempts! The spice bottles are transparent, so I think it is important that before you try to spice your dish you shake the bottle a bit to try to position the right spice pieces near the opening, and to make sure the salt pieces are out of the way. But even then, you can't be sure you'll get what you want.

Eventually the team of Wan, Shan and Chee Wee won the game by a wide margin, by completing five dishes.

Another dish that I tried to cook.

The Thoughts

No doubt the components are excellent. However, I find the game rather random, and there isn't much decision-making, or at least I don't see it yet. It feels like you are going through the motions, and you just hope that you're lucky enough to be able to complete the recipes that you have chosen quickly, or perfectly. I don't mind simple games, but in A la carte I find that the depth of strategy is shallower than the rule complexity. The rules are not complex, but not exactly simple either. So I feel that learning the game is more effort than the gameplay fun I get is worth.

Still, I've decided to buy a copy, because I think my daughters will love it. They love playing with cooking related toys, and I hope this game will be one that I can enjoy playing with them.


Chong Sean said...

I thought i explain the rules in 2 minutes?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

From listening to the rules I had the impression that it's a light strategy game. But after playing the game it felt like a no strategy game. Maybe it is my own expectations that made me feel disappointed.

Chong Sean said...

the is a little bit strategy when choosing dishes... but it is a fun random game. strategy is not important, dexterity is :p

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

yeah, there is some thought that need to be put into picking dishes, deciding when/whether to use the crepe, whether to roll the die, etc. that's why it gave me an impression that there is some strategy, although more to the light side. what disappointed me a little was that the decisions made didn't seem to matter much (because i'm so bad at flipping crepes...) :-D