Thank you for checking review #111 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: This review and photos based upon a prototype version of the game. Final quality and components will vary from those in final production.
An overview of Chai
Chai is a board game designed by Dan and Connie Kazmaier that is published by Deep Aqua Games. The box state it plays 1-5 players and has a playtime of 20-60 minutes.
In Chai, you will step into the shoes of a tea merchant, combining tea flavours to make a perfect blend. Specializing in either rooibos, green, oolong, black or white tea, you will buy and collect ingredients to fulfill your customers’ orders.
As a tea merchant, each turn you will do one of the following:
Visit the Market – The player immediately receives a gold coin and selects a tea flavour tile (mint, jasmine, lemon, ginger, berries, and lavender), adding to their tea box. If the flavour tile is touching tiles of the same type these tiles are also taken. Payment (gold, silver, or a copper coin) is placed in the money pouch corresponding to the furthest-right column the tiles were in. Players cannot have more than 12 flavour tiles in their tea box at any time.
Select Additives – Tea additive cards (milk, sugar, honey, vanilla, and chai spices) are also needed to complete most orders. A player may conduct two actions in the additive area: selecting all of the additive cards of one type (with new cards drawn after the first action), resetting the visible cards, or drawing a card from the additive deck. Players cannot have more than 6 additive cards in their tea box at any time.
Reserve a Customer – A player may also reserve a customer card from the customer pool from the visible cards or draw deck. If drawing a visible card, a new card is immediately drawn faceup into the customer pool to replace the card taken. A player cannot have more than 3 unfulfilled customer cards at any time in their tea box. If a player has more than 3 cards, a card is discarded and placed faceup in the customer pool with a copper coin from the money pouch placed on top.
At the end of each turn, a player may complete a tea order from one customer card in their hand or visible in the customer pool. A base tea token, tea flavours and additives shown on the card are needed ingredients, and placed in an empty tea cup. The player flips over a tip and receives a coin bonus, moving the thermometer round tracker up one notch if all cups are filled.
The game ends when five rounds of cups have been fulfilled. When the final order is completed, other players complete their last turn so that each player has played the same number of turns.
To score, players add up their victory points from fulfilled customer orders, and add their leftover money to this total. In 3-5 player games, additional points are awarded to the player(s) who fulfilled the most orders and most diverse tea recipes. Award ties are friendly with each winner receiving 5 points.
The player with the most victory points (from customer orders, money, and awards) wins the game as best tea merchant! In the case of a tie, the person with the least number of fulfilled customer cards wins. If still tied, the person with the least amount of money wins. If that does not break a tie, the victory is shared.
—description from the publisher
The first thing I noticed, even as a prototype, were the colorful and exciting components. I love the feel of the tiles, and I know that the final production ones are going to be even better. This game is great to look at and to feel as you’re moving things around. I question whether they needed to have such large cards (I think tarot sized?) but it does help make the artwork stand out. The only real issue is that the bag is too small for the tiles to all fit into, something I assume will not be the case with the final copy.
I really like the concept of the market and how the tiles slide as you make each purchase, and how getting them to line up well can make your purchases more efficient. This encourages careful manipulation of the market, and in a multiplayer setting even makes for some serious interaction as you try to capitalize on the moves other people make – or ensure you don’t leave the next player with a great and inexpensive combination of tiles. Although I do wish the Chaiwalla would impact this (and the circle of ingredients) during his turn.
The Chaiwalla is what makes the solo game interesting (more on the solo game itself later). All he does is take a card from the market after your turn. This means over the course of 10 turns in a solo game, you’re opponent has 10 scoring cards and, usually, you will have at least 2-3 fewer than that. Which is why it is a good thing he takes the lowest value of the three cards showing – which can be as low as 4 or as large as 13 in unusual circumstances. This creates a lot of tension as a player, because you need to figure out a way to score a card most turns, as well as consider how taking card X might impact what the Chaiwalla takes. Sure, you might be able to score that 5 or 6-point card this turn…but what if the other two cards are a 10 and an 11 and then a 9-12 flips out? Suddenly you LOST points that turn, essentially, by taking that small card. But if it flips out a 4, you’re further ahead. This is the point where the game in a solo play is at its most interesting.
The rules of this game are really simple and the game is straight-forward in terms of gameplay. This is one that is easy to open and learn the day you get it, and it is going to be really easy to teach to other players. The way the solo rules are done are mostly intuitive as well, although I was confused enough to play without the Chaiwalla in my first play since it was listed as a separate thing from the solo rules. And maybe it is intended to have a standard solo beat-your-own-score meditative version as well as a try-to-beat-the-Chaiwalla variant in there. For me, only one of those versions would see repeat plays, especially since adding the Chaiwalla literally only does one additional thing each turn.
Tying in with the above, each turn has three actions to choose from and you only get to execute one: go to the market to buy tea flavor tiles, select some additives from the additive wheel, or reserve a customer from the display and do one of three special action cards. Regardless of which you choose, you can always serve a customer at the end of your turn if you have the correct items to do so – but you can only serve one customer.
Mixing in the entire deck of customers makes things interesting as you play. Most customers will require you to PAY a coin when serving them (and then you’ll likely get at least that back in a tip). Which makes it seem insignificant until you are in a spot where you need exactly X to buy those tiles you need to serve a customer, and X is exactly what you have for cash. Meaning you can buy those tiles but you can’t serve said customer this turn. However, if the customer is your color then you don’t have to pay that valuable coin! A small detail, but it adds a nice touch to the planning in this game.
The special action cards are nice in theory. After all, it makes reserving a customer an action that doesn’t completely waste your turn. However, at least in a solo game, I find I rarely should use this action as it is almost always better to hit the market or grab some additives. Maybe I’m still learning the strategies for the solo game, or just haven’t had the right action out under the right circumstances. But so far this action of the three is the “forgettable” action – usually reserved only if there is a card I really want to make sure I can serve on a future turn and the Chaiwalla might take otherwise (or in the rare case that all three cards showing are high and I can find no way to serve any of them this turn, therefore this is the only way to hopefully get a lower value out for the Chaiwalla to take)
The solo game without the Chaiwalla is the standard fare of optimization. You get 10 turns to score as many points as you can, with the optimal level being 60+ points. And since each turn you get to do one of the three actions, you are really only racing to make sure you can average 6 points per turn (which isn’t quite as easy as it sounds some games!). Without the Chaiwalla, the customer lineup can become stagnant with a bunch of cards that are either too cheap to be worth the turn or too expensive to fulfill without dedicated effort – something the market itself can suffer from with only one player taking tiles.
I need to apologize to the designers of Chai. They sent me this prototype about a month after their Kickstarter campaign ended, and I did play it once shortly after it arrived. In the midst of the chaos that followed, the blue box this game was packaged in failed to stand out on the shelf. So I forgot what was actually in the box for months, and it was only about a week ago when I realized this game was in there – after opening the box to see what this mysterious game was on my shelf. Because based on the box, it was a game I would have no reason to own.
And so I dutifully got this back to the table a few times. I remembered back to my first play and how unimpressed I was with that initial play. Well, it was because I misunderstood the solitaire experience, not using the Chaiwalla. And so it became a “score as much as you can in 10 turns” game, which is always a disappointment in a solo game. But this time, well, the Chaiwalla was implemented properly. Yes, there is still a beat-your-own-score approach in there but now there is an opponent to defeat as well who removes a card every turn (the lowest value). And holy cow did this open things up in a good way.
Sure, some turns are simple. I should do anything but take that 4-point order card out there because I want him to score only 4 points this turn. Because he is nabbing 10 cards over the course of the game, he’s going to get a lot of points. Which is why you might think twice when the time comes about taking an order card. Maybe you can fulfill that 8-point card this turn, but the other two showing are 11 and 12 points each. Odds are the next card to flip out will be lower than those, but what if it is another 12? Suddenly he’s getting 11 points, whereas you could ensure he only scores 8 this turn by doing something different.
And let me tell you, the worst turns are when you cannot fulfill an order. Because you know he’s gaining ground, because he needs a smaller average to score well with 10 cards versus the 7-8 you might end with. This tension right here is what made this go from a forgettable solo experience and turn it into something really fun. Because every decision you make could potentially set him up for more points, either during this round or the next round. Sometimes getting greedy will pay off, and other times you’re going to be wishing you had been a little more conservative. And this is where reserving cards can really come in handy, because you can set up to score that card later with no risk (during that turn) of boosting the Chaiwalla’s score.
All in all this game was quite enjoyable, far more than the first impression it left upon me. As someone who enjoys drinking tea, but never does it often enough to really call it a habit, I was curious about the game. Like many games, this one is a great game with others at the table. But if you are one who would pick it up with the intention of playing with a spouse or game group, as well as playing it solo, the experience from the latter will prove better than you’d expect upon reading the rules. It isn’t marketing itself as a heavy thinker of a game, but there are plenty of tense and interesting decisions packed into this vibrant package. And while you’re letting this review steep, don’t miss out on a chance to get the game still at Kickstarter pricing.