Buzzworthiness: Wok Star

I had a chance to play the cooperative game Wok Star this weekend.  Since this was one of the first games I covered on this blog, I wanted to give a review, especially since the Z-Man version is purportedly coming out this summer.  I won’t go into a lot of detail on the way the game plays, but here’s a quick rundown: the game is played over six rounds, and in the sixth round, you must make enough money to pay off the loan you took out for the restaurant.  This amount varies depending on the number of players and the level of difficulty.  In each round, there’s an action phase, an accounting phase, and a purchase phase.  In the action phase, recipes come out that you must fulfill using ingredients you have on hand, or ingredients that you purchase using dice.  Filled orders get you money, late orders get you nothing, and orders you can’t fill get you bad publicity – get too much bad publicity and lose the game.  In the accounting phase, you add up the money from the filled orders and adjust the income track.  In the purchase phase, you can purchase upgrades, new recipes, or advertising, which brings in new customers.  Money left over rolls over from round to round, but you have to reset to zero at the start of the sixth round.  If you make enough money in this sixth round to pay off the loan, you win.  If not, you lose.

On to the review!

COMPONENTS: I think we were playing the first edition of the game, so the components might be different in other copies.  But I will say that they were all very nice.  The game was self-published by Tim Fowers’ company Gabob Games, so that the components were as good as they were was pretty remarkable.  The board came in four interlocking pieces, which I thought was a fairly novel solution to fitting a board in a box.  What it means is that there’s no crease down the middle of the board from folding.  The pieces fit together well with no gaps and none of the connectors sticking up higher than the piece they connect to.  The cards are a bit flimsy, but fine in quality.  The tokens are nice and well labeled – there’s no doubt as to which token represents which ingredient.  I like the inclusion of two timers, so you don’t have to wait for one to run out before starting the next customer.  The dice are very small – good for rolling lots at once, bad if one rolls off the table.

Now the art.  The art is fine, but it seems like it uses a lot of stereotypes.  One of the most eye-brow raising cards is the “free meat” event card.  It’s a good event that you want to see while playing because it allows you to increase your chicken and/or pork.  The weird thing about the card is the picture of a cat and a dog.  Make of it what you will.

The other thing I want to bring up is the graphic design.  Now, it’s nice that the backs of the cards are all different colors depending on the type.  That makes sorting easy.  However, during gameplay, the event and customer cards are all face down while the others are face up.  The card faces are all pretty similar, and while you can distinguish them if you’re looking, it’s a lot harder to keep them separate at a glance.  It’s a subtle thing, but it’s there.  Also, I’m not really sure I like the setup of the rows on the board.  The tokens slide around fine, but they’re all using the same rows.  I’d rather see some separate tracks for each ingredient.  With the speed of the game, it’s very easy to knock pieces out of place and mess up your totals.

I should mention that the components in this game are FANTASTIC considering that the game was self-published.  I’m sure we won’t ever see another print run by Gabob Games, but since Z-Man has picked it up, these are just some concerns that I would like to see addressed.  They’re really kind of minor – the quality is pretty great the way it is.

THEME: There are only about 50 food-themed games that are ranked on BGG at the moment (meaning that at least thirty people have given them a rating).  So food is a theme that has not been over-explored.  I’m not aware of many of these games that are specific to the Chinese food genre (Cookie Fu is the only one that comes readily to mind, while Wasabi and Sushizock im Gockelwok both deal with Japanese cuisine), so Wok Star is coming into a relatively fresh field.  The theme works pretty well, too – you can really feel the pressure of trying to run your restaurant without going belly up.  You may find yourself wondering why it’s so stinking hard to raise $80 to pay off a bank loan in six weeks.  You also may find yourself wondering why you get so few ingredients, and why the replacements are so dependent on luck.  You may also find yourself wondering why future Biff Tannen can change the past but return to a future where he’s still a pathetic old man, while whenever Marty McFly returns to the present after changing the past, everything’s completely different.  You may find yourself wondering these things, but you may just want to ignore the plot holes and enjoy the ride.  It’s worth it.

MECHANICS: The biggest complaint people have about cooperative style games is that they can easily be taken over by someone telling everyone else what to do.  Now while this is something that can come up, I think the complaint has more to do with people being frustrated about not being able to divide themselves into winners and losers.  However, I admit that strong personalities can overwhelm a cooperative game, but they can really overwhelm any game.  Ever played with someone who has watched your carefully planned out move, said “Really?  OK,” then proceed to destroy your entire game plan and leave you struggling with next to no units for the next two hours?  I have, and it’s a big reason why I won’t play Borderlands again.  I just fail to see how someone trying to help the group win is as much of a detraction from the game as someone playing to destroy everyone else.  I think that when you complain about how people can take over a cooperative game, you’re complaining more about the people you play with than the game itself.  A gaming experience is only going to be as good as the group you’re with, and that’s the case with any game (for the record, I really liked the group where I got destroyed in Borderlands; however, I just did not enjoy the game at ALL).

Rant over.  I think the speed element of this game will help to mitigate the “problem” of people taking over a game.  Each player gets one recipe at the start, which means they’re in charge of adjusting ingredients and talking about what they need.  In between rounds, there’s some time to strategize together, but I think that the level of ownership people get during the action phase increases the boldness level of everyone, and I suspect that the strong personalities will have a much more difficult time taking over.  In my original post, I compared it to Space Alert, and I think that comparison stands as I know of no other real-time co-ops.  There is far more going on at a time in Space Alert, so you may want to use Wok Star as a first step.

I also really appreciate how there are two timers in the game.  While playing Word on the Street, for example, I’m always frustrated by how you have to wait for the timer to run out before you can take your turn if the other team placed their word quickly.  Adding a second timer allows you to move on if you have time to spare.  Initially, I couldn’t imagine needing it, but it’s a necessity.  During our game, we had several times when we had to wait for the last few seconds to tick off the first timer after finishing our second order before moving on to a third.

STRATEGY VS. LUCK: There’s a lot of strategy in the game, but much of it is determined by luck.  You roll dice to determine numbers used in gaining new ingredients.  You’ll have to decide which numbers to use where and when.  Customer cards determine which orders need to be filled, and the potential customer deck adds a level of the unknown to gameplay.  This adds to the necessity of strategy in determining where to assign your dice.  Completed recipes give you money, which you must then decide to spend on upgrades, new recipes, or new customers.  Upgrades increase the number of ingredients you can get.  New recipes add new ingredients and more potential for money.  New customers come out of the potential customer pool and add even more opportunities for earning cash.  Finding that balance seems to be what the game is all about.  In our game, we made it through the first five rounds with no late orders and only one customer turned away due to a lack of ingredients.  We thought we were doing well, but after the sixth round (when we turned away three more customers), we only had $69, $11 short of the $80 goal.  Even if we had been able to serve those customers, I don’t think we would have won.  I think that you probably want the potential customer pool to be empty (or almost empty) by the time you get to that sixth round.  I’ll need to play again to be sure.  There’s definitely a lot of opportunities for strategic play.

THE WIFE FACTOR: When telling my wife about this game, she brought up two other games: Wasabi, which she really enjoyed mostly due to the amazing components (I don’t particularly care for the game, but the bits are fantastic); and a al Carte, which we haven’t played but that she heard about when it was nominated for the SDJ last year.  I think food games appeal to the cook in her, and I think she would enjoy this game simply for that reason.  She really likes the idea of cooperative games (winning or losing together), though they stress her out due to the high stakes.  However, she likes Forbidden Island and Red November, so I think this will work for her.  It’s pretty simple to understand, particularly after playing a round, so I think we’ll be able to pull it out with friends, even those who aren’t that into games.  It’s quick, too – another plus in her book.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  The game currently sits at about 1012 in the BGG rankings, but that’s mostly due to its limited print run.  Once Z-Man comes out with their version, I predict that it will skyrocket.  I’m very happy to have gotten to play it, and definitely have added it to my wishlist.  If you get an opportunity to try it out, go for it.  I think you’ll have a blast.

Hope you enjoyed the review!  Happy gaming!

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