A customer just arrived and ordered egg rolls. You’ll need some pork, egg roll wraps, bok choy and bamboo. Oh, but you’re all out of egg roll wraps—somebody will need to prepare those for you. But you better be quick: if you don’t serve your customer in 20 seconds, they get their meal for free … and another customer is on the way. Wok Star is a brilliant, fast-paced new game reminiscent of Diner Dash and other restaurant-management games, but with one major difference: it’s a board game. That’s right—you and up to three friends are running a Chinese restaurant, and you have to be quick to survive.
Wok Star is the first board game from Gabob, a tiny independent game developer, It’s for two to four players, ages ten and up, takes about an hour per game (though that hour will fly past) and is cooperative. The game takes six rounds: in the first five you earn money which you can spend on new recipes, upgrades, and advertising for new customers; during the last round you need to make enough money to pay back your restaurant loan. The goal amount depends on the number of players and difficulty level. For instance, a 2-player Easy game has a $35 goal, but the 4-player Hard game requires $90.
The game is currently available for pre-order at $39.99, which includes shipping to the US, or $49.99 for international shipping. I’ll explain a bit more later, but you’ve got until August 20 to place an order, and the game is expected to ship late October.
How it works
Each player starts the game with one recipe, three dice, and one or more ingredient preparation cards. Each recipe uses between two and four ingredients (though you’ll start with the easier recipes). You build a deck of customer cards showing the recipes currently in play. Once the round begins, the players roll their dice, turn over the top customer card, and flip a timer.
Now, you’ve got twenty seconds to serve the customer. Let’s say the customer wants Egg Drop Soup, which requires chicken broth and an egg. Whoever has the Egg Drop Soup recipe slides the corresponding ingredient counters down one and claims the customer card, and then the next customer is revealed (and the second timer is flipped). If you complete a recipe after the timer is out, you claim the card but turn it face-down, showing that the customer was served but didn’t pay. And in the worst-case scenario, if there are no ingredients to make the required dish, the customer is turned away, and goes into the Bad Publicity pile. Accumulate eight cards in Bad Publicity, and you lose the game.
Of course, making the recipes is only part of the game. The other part is preparing the ingredients and keeping them stocked. Each ingredient has a preparation card: you place dice on the cards to prepare ingredients. Each card has a “wild” slot which creates one ingredient for any die, as well as a particular number which will create two ingredients. Then there’s a third slot, a combination of two dice (for instance, two odds, or two dice that add up to five) which creates three ingredients. Players can give each other dice, which means there’s often a lot of swapping to get the best dice for a particular card, but this all has to be done within those same twenty seconds.
The round lasts until the customer deck has been exhausted, and you only get to use each die once during the round, so you have to plan ahead and use them wisely.
New Recipes, Upgrades, and Advertising
At the end of each round, you count up the money earned from the customers, and spend it on new recipes, upgrades, and advertising. The new recipes will add new customers and sometimes new ingredients to keep track of. An upgrade allows you to flip over your ingredient preparation card, so that instead of making 1/2/3 ingredients you can now make 2/3/5 at a time, reducing the number of dice you need. Advertising brings customers from the Potential Customer deck into the Customer deck.
You also have the opportunity to gain more dice, up to a total of eight per person, by serving more customers than you have dice. Earning more dice is great, because it helps you make more ingredients, but getting too many customers can also deplete your ingredients supply, which can ruin you quickly.
There are also Event cards which can help or harm you, giving you free meat, or spoiling ingredients, allowing you to re-roll dice, or downgrading an ingredient preparation card for a round. Each player also has a card depicting one of the Wang family, which gives them a special ability to use once during the game. One of my favorites is Grandma Wang’s “Scraping the Barrel”: move any ingredients that are at zero to one.
I love looking for games with unique game mechanics and engaging gameplay, and Wok Star definitely fits the bill. I haven’t ever played any other board game like it, and the real-time play keeps you on your toes. I’ve taught a bunch of people to play it already and just about everyone has enjoyed it, win or lose, and it’s fun to watch other people play, too. Sometimes, depending on the luck of the draw, you can get a pretty difficult starting set of recipes (in one four-player game I played recently we started off with eight of the ten ingredients in round one, which is rare) but overall I think the game has a pretty good balance. Mostly I’ve been playing four-player games, which is really the best way to go. I player with two players once and it seemed really tough—but I may give it another shot later to see if I can improve any.
The other thing I like about Wok Star is that, unlike other cooperative strategy games, you really need everyone to work together. In games like Forbidden Island or The Isle of Doctor Necreaux, it’s easy for a strong player to basically take over, directing all the other players in what becomes almost a solitaire game. Wok Star moves too quickly for that, and if you’re not watching your own recipes and ingredients then things are going to fall apart.
The theme is well done and it does have the frantic feel of working together to satisfy customers quickly. The artwork is excellent as well, and the fortune cookies on each customer card are a fantastic touch (though you certainly won’t have time to read them while you’re cooking).
Finally, I love independent game designers, and Gabob is basically three guys trying to make something different. They’ve got two computer games so far and Wok Star is their first foray into board games. They had some sample copies made up (and were kind enough to send me one to try out) and after running some demos at Gen Con last weekend are now taking pre-orders so they can have their first batch professionally printed. I can’t comment on the quality of the components in the final version, but the beta version was pretty nice in itself. Here’s your chance to support a small game company, be one of the first to get an excellent game, and help to ensure that it goes beyond the beta version. I’d love to see Wok Star start showing up in game stores.
For its innovative game mechanics and the sheer fun of playing it, I’m giving Wok Star the GeekDad Seal of Approval.
Pre-order Wok Star before August 20.
Still not sure? Check out the Wok Star gameplay video, which explains how it all works and shows the game (prototype version) in action:
Wired: Fast-paced cooperative game doesn’t allow bossy players to micromanage; support indie game designers.
Tired: You, after running a Chinese restaurant for six rounds.
Disclosure: Gabob provided a sample version for review.