Board Game Gumbo: Sagan Says Chai
Board Game Gumbo is pleased to present another new review from Sagan Ezell, fellow game group member. Sagan is an omni-gamer from Lafayette, Louisiana, and helps run the Southern Board Game Festival. Here are his thoughts on the game. You can reach him on Twitter @SaganEzell
It's time for a pop quiz. Fill in the blank: “I really like to sit back and relax with a nice hot cup of _____.” Whether you realize it or not, the correct answer here, of course, is tea. IT'S TEA TIME, LET'S GO!
*Disclaimer: the components pictured here are not finalized*
What is Chai?
At its most basic, Chai is a set collection game. Designed by Dan and Connie Kazmaier and published by Deep Aqua Games, Chai tasks players with running a small tea shop and managing the tasks that come with that territory. Players will shop for ingredients to stock their shelves, market themselves to keep customers in their shop and out of the competition’s hands, and ultimately find just the perfect flavor combination to brew and give each customer the pick-me-up that they need.
Chai has a simple flow that’s easy for any player to pick up within minutes. On a turn, you choose one of 3 actions to complete.
Go to the market to buy the base ingredients for your tea. (gather resources)
Pick out the additive flavors that certain blends require. (gather different resources)
Reserve customers from the common area. (keep opponents from ruining your plan)
After choosing one of these three actions, players may fill the order of any customer reserved in their cafe, or in the common area of the board, assuming that they have the proper ingredients to brew what that customer desires. After a set number of rounds, the game ends and the player who has earned the most points from satisfied customers will win the game.
Naturally, this is a very simplified breakdown of the game flow, but there are some interesting mechanics that can be used to great strategic effect here.
Let’s look a bit more closely at the mechanical ideas that Chai uses to keep things interesting.
First up, we have the reserve a card system that’s seen in many other titles (Splendor, Grand Austria Hotel, and Gizmos to name a few). The way that this mechanism has been used time and time again is the same. Reserve a card that you want, but can’t afford yet, to deny an opponent the opportunity to grab it away from you. Usually games with this feature have this option as a way to secure something otherwise just a little bit out of reach. It’s not as efficient as buying the card directly, but it's certainly better than having a plan ruined because your opponent happened to be one turn faster than you to the goal.
Chai ties this standard reservation system to a bonus action. A random set of bonus actions is introduced at the beginning of each game and changes round after round. These bonus actions are available only when reserving a customer. Now, instead of using reservations to play defense around your plan, there are other implications to taking this action. Instead of reserving being a clearly less efficient gameplay choice, there are other aspects to consider.
Maybe one of the bonus actions lets you grab more ingredients along with your reservation to set things up for a future round. Maybe a bonus action gives some extra coin to help your next market phase. My favorite idea here are the actions which give you a bonus when filling an order during that turn. It encourages players to take the risk of leaving a customer in the common area a bit longer than they otherwise would , because they want to get that bonus for reserving and filling an order in the same turn. It's a clever twist on a very well worn mechanism.
Next, we have the market itself, which will likely be one player’s best friend and another’s worst enemy in this game. The market is where the lion’s share of all ingredients in the game will come from, and it is essential to filling orders. It is also very dynamic from one turn to another, due to a combination of factors. First, when a player makes a purchase, they get every single matching tile that is connected on the grid, and they only pay the cost of the single most expensive tile in that set. 3 coins could get a player 7 or 8 tiles in one shot if they are lucky. This is compounded by the way the market board can be manipulated. Players can make any number of purchases in one turn, being limited only by their available coin. The board also immediately slides down to fill in the gaps left by any purchases.
In practice, this means that players with deep pockets can adjust the board how they see fit in order to snag huge groupings of ingredients that they need. Each time I’ve played, at least one person has taken two-thirds of the board in a single turn at some point in the game. The final piece of the puzzle that makes the market so volatile is the way money is earned. In Chai, any player who visits the market gets 3 coins BEFORE they buy anything, to represent them selling their tea there. This means that any player can make at least one purchase from anywhere on the market board. Unlike lots of other games, where a player who has no money is forbidden from taking an action to purchase things, everyone has the potential to entirely restructure the market on their turn. The effect of this is that while planning ahead is still a good idea, adaptability is key, especially in games with larger player counts. It’s entirely possible for literally every tile in the market to be different from the way you left it at the end of your last turn. Depending on your outlook, this might seem fun or frustrating, but I know for me it’s certainly fun. Even if another player ruins the combo you had in mind, it's likely that there is another option out there for you if you can spot it. Quality ingredients are the lifeblood of a good tea shop, and this quality marketplace is the lifeblood of this good tea game.
What is Chai Like?
The core gameplay of Chai is accessible to everyone. This is a game about tea, after all, and like its theming suggests, this one can be played with a simple, relaxing, enjoyable outlook, win or lose. Underneath that simple exterior, though, if a player wants to take it seriously there is a little more there to tide them over. Due to the volatility of the market, Chai is certainly a game that leans much more heavily on turn-by-turn tactics than on long term strategic decisions, and in a close game the right draw of new ingredients to refill the market can be the difference in filling one last order as the game closes, or of failing to keep your customers satisfied. Because the game is on the lighter side, it tends to play fairly quickly. Turns rarely last an excessive amount of time, and the game scales fairly well with different numbers of players. Because of the way players can force the rounds to advance, the time difference is fairly low between a two player game and a 4 player game.
I can’t speak for the final component quality of this game, as I played a prototype copy, however, cards were lovely and incorporated cheerful stylized art of the customers along with very clear gameplay information of the points each customer was worth and the ingredients required to fill their orders. The player boards and player aids were both functional and aesthetically pleasing and kept all of the relevant information of the game readily available for everyone at the table to see at a glance. The review copy did come with a single metal coin of each denomination, and they were certainly high quality pieces. If all of the other components in the retail version are produced with such care and attention to detail, this game will be sure to stand out in a good way at most game nights.
Chai at a glance:
Chai is a game that would be good to play at family game night, with non-gamer friends who appreciate an interesting theme, and, most importantly, for a relaxing evening game with a cup of tea. It’s quick, simple, and fun, presenting interesting (but not necessarily complex) choices every turn. It can be taught in minutes and played in less than an hour, even for the most AP-prone players. If you like games like Splendor, Century: Spice Road, and Potion Explosion, consider looking into Chai for a different flavor for your next game night.
Easy to teach, Easy to play
Quick playtime, even for players who like to plan thoroughly
When someone takes your move, there’s usually another one that’s just as good
Wonderful art that fits the theme perfectly
Competitive enough to be fun, but not so competitive that you can't stand to lose
Interesting twists on familiar systems
The board state can be very volatile with the larger player counts. Don’t plan too far ahead
Optimal moves are usually fairly easy to spot
Someone WILL take your move, every time. Just get ready for it