Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Wok Star

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I also enjoy co-op and real-time games, even when those two are combined. Finally, I'm not really a fan of most Chinese food (though I can wield chopsticks with fairly good skill), but I'll happily join folks at Chinese restaurants and fill up on fried noodles, white rice and fortune cookies.

The Overview:

The box cover artwork. However, the box is not actually square. It is 6.125" x 9.125" x 1.75". 

What's inside the (2nd edition) box. 

Wok Star is a cooperative real-time game where the players work together to prepare ingredients to serve Chinese dishes to awaiting customers. At the end of each round, players receive money for each customer that they successfully served in time and that money can then be spent to improve the restaurant or purchase new menu items that customers may purchase. At the end of the sixth round, players need to earn enough money to pay back the loan on their business.

The game is for 1-4 players and plays in about an hour, although failure could result in the game ending earlier. The number of players does not really increase or decrease the time of play, other than possibly adding a little debate between turns on what to do with the money.

The game has three scaling difficulty settings and once one is chosen, set up begins.

Each player begins with 3 six-sided dice of a specific color and every player begins with one recipe for the restaurant. The starting recipes are for low-ingredient, low-paying recipes. Each recipe has 4 customer cards associated with it. The customer cards for each of the active recipes are shuffled together and then a few cards (depending on the number of players) are taken out of the deck to create the "Potential Customer Deck". The remaining cards make up the regular Customer Deck. Since each recipe has 4 Customer Cards associated with it, this ensures that the customers coming into the restaurant will be seeking the dishes that the players have the recipes for. It also means that (at least for the first turn), you are not sure how many of the customers for your recipe will be in the Customer Deck. All four may be in there, or perhaps fewer. This makes planning for that fist turn a bit tricky. Two random Event Cards are drawn and shuffled into the Customer Deck. They will be resolved as they are drawn during gameplay.

Anyhow, each recipe also has a number of ingredients needed to create it. The tokens for each ingredient needed are taken out and placed on the game board, which tracks the available number of each ingredient. For example, if you have the recipe for "Wonton Soup", it requires the ingredients "Chicken Broth" and "Eggroll Wraps". The Broth and Wraps ingredient tokens need to be placed on the game board. Each player also receives a Preparation Card in front of them for each ingredient in their recipes. The Preparation Card is used to gain more ingredients during the game, and each Preparation Card can be Upgraded during the course of the game, allowing more ingredients to be received with each use.

Wonton Soup Recipe Card. It shows that it requires Chicken Broth and Eggroll Wraps to serve it. 

Depending on the difficulty setting of the game, each player may take a number of Bonuses at the start of the game. Each Bonus can be used to either Upgrade one Preparation Card in front of a player or to allow the player to take an additional die.

Finally, each player is dealt a Family Character Card, which gives them a one-time use special ability that will be available to them in the game. Gameplay then begins and runs through a total of six rounds (considered to be weeks in the game). Each round has the following Phases:

ACTION PHASE: This is the meat of the game and also the most hectic portion of the game. The first 20-second sand timer is flipped over. The first Customer Card is flipped over, showing what recipe needs to be served first. Each player then rolls all of their dice and the chaos begins.

A number of things can happen at once, and each is done in real-time. First of all, if a player wants to get more ingredients, they can "spend dice" to get more ingredients. Dice rolled are communal, so I can spend the dice rolled by the other players and they can spend mine. Each ingredient's Preparation Card gives you three ways to get more of the ingredient. For example, the Eggs Preparation Card lets you spend any die to get one Egg ingredient, spend a die that rolled a 2 to get two Egg ingredients or spend two dice with even numbers rolled on them for three Egg ingredients. The Upgraded version of the card lets you get more ingredients, so any die gets you 2 Eggs, a die with a rolled 2 on it gets you 3 Eggs and two dice with even numbers get you 5 Eggs.

Egg Preparation Card. 

Upgraded Egg Preparation Card. 

Also, while this is happening, the current Customer Card needs to be served. This is done by a player expending all of the required ingredients. For example, Wonton Soup, which requires the ingredients of Chicken Broth and Eggroll Wrap, would require the players to deduct one from the Broth and Wrap ingredient totals to serve it. If the Customer is served before the timer runs out, then the player with the Recipe takes the card and places it face-up in their pile. If the timer has run out, but the players still spend the ingredients to serve the Customer, then the card is taken, but put in your pile face-down. Players may opt to "Turn Away" a customer if they either cannot or choose not to spend the ingredients to serve a customer. They are placed in the "Bad Publicity" pile. If too many cards end up in that pile, the game ends with the players losing.

As soon as one Customer is resolved, then Customer Card is flipped over and needs to be resolved. There is a second 20-second sand timer, so you do not get to wait until the first timer has run out before moving onto the next Customer. Any Event Cards drawn from the Customer Deck are resolved as they are drawn and then removed from the deck.

This Phase continues until the last Customer Card is resolved. Any dice not yet spent for ingredients may be spent at this time before moving onto the next phase.

ACCOUNTING PHASE: The real-time aspect is over for the moment, and players now take the time to collect their dice again. If any player has more face-up served Customers in front of them than they have dice, they get enough dice to make up the difference. For example, if you have three dice in your pool, but have five face-up served Customers this round, then you get two more dice to bring your total to five. Each player also then adds money to the restaurant's money track for each face-up served Customer they have in their pile. Each Customer pays from 2-5 dollars, based on the Recipe was required to serve them. Generally, smaller recipes that only require 2 ingredients pay $2, while a Recipe such as General Tso's, which requires four ingredients, pays $5 per face-up Customer served.

If no Customers were "Turned Away", then a random card from the Potential Customers Deck is added to the Customer Deck. Two new Event Cards are added to the deck as well, so there will always be two Events in each round.

PURCHASE PHASE: The money totaled in the last Phase is now available to be spent. The cost for items increases with each Round, so it is cheaper to buy something in Round 1 than it is in Round 4. Any money not spent, carries over into the next round. However, the money counter is reset to $0 for the last round, and the final amount will need to be made without using any saved money from previous rounds. Three types of things are available for purchase each round:

New Recipes: Recipes have a base cost depending on what round it is, then each specific recipe adds a little more to the cost, depending on which it is. Generally the "smaller" recipes are cheaper, while the large, more ingredient-dependent recipes (that pay more) cost more. When a new recipe is purchased, the appropriate Preparation Cards for the ingredients are placed out, and the ingredient quantity markers are placed on the board. The four Customer Cards matching that Recipe are taken. Two are shuffled into the Customer Deck and the remaining two are shuffled into the Potential Customer Deck.

Upgrade Preparation Card: Players can spend money to upgrade a Preparation Card. Upgraded cards produce more of each ingredient when a die is spent on it.

Advertising: Players may spend money on advertising to add a random card from the Potential Customer Deck to the Customer Deck. This means that more customers will need to be served, however, it means that more money can be made each turn.

Play continues like this each round, until the 6th and final round, where players need to earn enough money in the final round to pay back their loan amount and they will either win or lose. The amount required to win in the last round depends on the number of players and the difficulty level.

The Theme:

The pressure of a making enough money to sustain a starting restaurant and the hectic-pace of food service are both well represented here. However, of course, a lot of the theme is abstracted. As a cooperative game with real-time pressures on it, the game carries the same feel and pressured theme as games like Space Alert.

For me, who doesn't really enjoy (or know) Chinese food, the tokens could be anything for me. I mean, I really had no clue that you needed eggroll wraps and chicken broth for Wonton Soup. I would have just assumed that the required ingredients would have been wontons and soup and left it there. And, actually, my lack of knowledge of Chinese cuisine leaves me to wonder if that is even the same thing or not.

However, part of the challenge is that some recipes require the same ingredients. For example, beyond just Wonton Soup, the Potstickers and Eggrolls recipes also require eggroll wraps. This can add a lot more pressure and challenge to making sure that you have enough ingredients to serve everything. This also makes planning out your recipes that you intend to purchase all the more important.

Learning the Game:

The game's rules are actually rather simple. The rules are laid out in an 8 page 6" x 9" booklet that is full of pictures and examples. Still, I think that the rulebook still leaves some things to be desired in its rules presentation. I've got a lot of games and I'm our group's regular game explainer, but there were a lot of little rules that were very easily missed and a few that were a little confusing from the first couple of readings.

The layout of the rules could be better, but a play-through or two really helps to define the gameplay better. I think that, despite the real-time aspect of the gameplay, the rules would have benefited from a long-form written out example of play to help understand the pacing of some of the actions.

The basics of the game, however, do really come quick from a sample play. I highly suggest teaching the game with one round without the timers first, then starting over and including the timers.

The Components:

The game board which tracks the quantity of each ingredient. 

Ingredient tokens used to track quantity of each ingredient. 

 Cards for the game. 

The board tracking the quantities of five different ingredients.  

The version that I have is the second edition Gabob printing. Z-Man Games has recently acquired this title, and I would not be surprised to see some production differences between this and the next printing.

That being said, I do not see what Z-Man games would have to do to improve the components of this game. They really are very excellent. The board is thick and sturdy and I actually like the puzzle-build of it instead of having a bit of a fold in the material.

The wooden tokens to mark the ingredient quantities are sturdy and well-produced and the artwork used throughout the game is crisp and thematic.

The cardstock on the cards is a little thin, but nothing too terrible and completely usable and I'm certain most players will immediately solve this problem by sleeving them. There are a number of dice, which are all of fine quality as well.

Really, for a small production run, I really see no problem with the components. My timers differ in time by about 1.5 - 2 seconds, but that is just a problem with sand timers in general.

Playing the Game:

Game play is relatively easy to learn. Again, I think one round without timers, then restarting is probably the best way to learn this game.

Actual game play can be very chaotic with the real-time aspect thrown into the mix. Like most co-op games, there may be a problem with the alpha player, but with only 20 seconds per Customer, you really do need someone to be making certain decisions and quickly.

The game also may seem almost impossibly hard at first. It takes a few plays to really start to develop a sense of what kinds of strategies need to be used. However, once those strategies are understood, the game can actually start to become a bit easier.

However, part of the fun of the game is with a group that is determined to find that strategy that will pay off; the group that will reset the board again and again to start over to try from scratch to perfect it. You will find out how important menu planning is, as well as doing things such as getting more recipes to make more money as well as to max out dice pools.

I feel a little bad since we've won at the game. I almost miss that combination of determination and frustration of those early games that we had. That isn't to say that the game does not have any replayability - it does. However, learning what kinds of strategies worked best was a very interesting and fun part of our early games.

And for the hell of it, here are two major rules blunders that we had in our early games, making it seem nigh impossible to win:

*If you served more Customers than you had dice, you only gained 1 die. This is instead of gaining enough dice to equal the Customers you served. As a result, we never came near maxing our die pools.

*Each Preparation option could only be used once per round. So, if I used a die with a 2 for more Eggs, I couldn't use another 2-die for more Eggs that round. As a result, we were always struggling for ingredients.

Figuring out what we were doing wrong actually made the game seem suddenly so much easier, since we had determinedly played incorrectly like this for a handful of times.


Here is where this edition of the game starts to run into a couple of little problems. The game is playable from 1 to 4 players (though the 1 player game is essentially one person playing the 2 player game). The game is fully scalable and playable with any amounts of those people, but the game is progressively more difficult for fewer players. So, a two-player game is much more difficult than a four-player game.

Part of the reasoning behind this is because with fewer players, there will be fewer dice rolled overall, which are essential for getting enough ingredients to serve all of the recipes. Every player begins with 3 dice in their dice pool and can make out at 8 dice in their dice pool. That means in a two-player game, the players begin with a total of 6 dice and can max out at 16 dice. In a four-player game, the players begin with 12 dice and can max out at 32 dice. Sure, fewer recipes need to be completed with only 2-players and a smaller total dollar amount must be met in the 6th round, however, the fact is that fewer dice equals fewer options to really optimize your dice expenditures. For example, if using a die with a 1 on it gets me 3 Pork from my Upgraded Preparation Card, the more dice I roll, the more likely that I will have a 1 to most efficiently get the ingredients.

This doesn't break the game, but it does really alter the difficulty levels with fewer players. There are unofficial variants on BGG to aid gameplay with fewer players, but it would be nice to see official changes made in the Z-Man edition of the game.

More players does add a bit more chaos to it, and there is more of the potential problem of alpha players to arise or for players to want to take different approaches, but these are more limitations of specific groups and even then, they do not really off-set the fact that more dice give more variability and more of an opportunity to optimize spending your dice.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she's generally a big fan of cooperative games and she has had experience with Space Alert and enjoyed the real-time aspect of the game's challenges. She also really likes Chinese food more than me, and unfortunately for her, our relationship has lessened the amounts of times that she's been able to eat it. That being said, she really enjoys this game. In fact, she has this "has to beat it" mentality when it comes to cooperative games, and despite the fact that we had played it wrong our first couple of times (making it next to impossible to come near winning), she eagerly suggested setting up the board again to play one more time after we lost. Since learning how to play correctly and learning which strategies play out best, our games are less likely to end in the humiliating levels of defeat we had in our early games, and this has actually made the game more appealing to her. So I may not want to order out for Chinese food often enough for her, but at least I can offer this game as a sort of weak substitute.

The Pros:

*Real-time cooperative game makes it fit into a small (but fun) niche sub-category.
*Hour playtime makes it a good length without overstaying its visit.
*Excellent components that will probably only improve with Z-Man's printing.
*Challenging gameplay that also has multiple difficulty levels.
*Artwork is simple, but thematic.
*Decent, cute theme makes it family friendly (though the pace may stress many families).
*Figuring out the best strategies of play make for a very interesting game.
*The chaos of the action round is a lot of fun to try to manage and maintain.

The Cons:

*Scalability issues make the game much more challenging for less than four players.
*Rulebook could be laid out better and some rules explained a little better.
*Scarce, small print run, making it either expensive to purchase or hefty to trade for (will be rectified with the Z-Man printing, however).
*Part of the fun is determining the strategies that win, and once you have it, the game is still fun, but some of the challenge is gone.
*Alpha players, as with most cooperative games, may try to dictate other players too much.
*Card thickness is a little thin.
*Bad die rolls can make it impossible to serve all customers, though this is more of a factor with fewer players. But dice do impact the game, so those who fear luck in games should be warned. However, for those who like mitigating the luck of die rolls to still try to succeed, it can be a plus.
*Game has some stereotypes of Asians and Asian cuisine, which may be uncomfortable for some (the worst offender is an Event card which allows the players to immediately gain more meat ingredients, implying that cat and dog is used).
*Game actually doesn't satisfy my wife's craving for Chinese food, but rather adds to it.


Wok Star is a cute, fun real-time cooperative play game. There are not a lot of other games in that category, but they usually make for fun gaming experiences. The theme and art style of the game makes it seem like it may be a family game, but the frantic and hectic pacing may turn off many families. The game's length is perfect, and it never wears out its welcome during the hour or so that it is on the table. Part of the game's initial challenge is to figure out the types of strategies that work best, and once they are found, the game loses some of that exploratory charm. However, the game still remains challenging to win, especially with differing difficulty levels. Replayability may suffer slightly from the discovery of successful strategies, which become paths to follow in later games, but this isn't the type of game that really feels like it should find its way to the table every time. Like Chinese food, it's better when it ends up being the occasional treat of a meal instead of a regular weekly diet. Still, there are enough variables in play that make each game itself challenging and offer just enough replay value that the game doesn't feel "solved" by always employing certain strategies.


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