Wok Star Review

Wok Star board game in play

A game that sounded very interesting to me after reading a review was Wok Star (sorry, no Amazon link).

In Wok Star, you are running your own fast food Chinese restaurant. Because of this, you are constantly serving customers whatever they order - and you better hurry up and do it before you start turning away customers (or giving free meals for taking so long). How this works in game terms is that you will flip over a "customer" card. This card represents a customer that has placed an order. Next, you must locate the corresponding "recipe" card to determine what ingredients are necessary to complete that order. If you have all of the necessary ingredients prepared, then you can decrement them all by one and serve the customer. If not, then you must prepare the ingredients (by using different dice combinations) before serving them. And the unique part is that a sand timer is running as soon as the customer card is flipped - if you do not serve the customer before the timer runs out, then you have to decide whether you still serve them (but without making money), or whether you turn them away (where they will go about telling people how horrible your restaurant is; maybe even making up lies about what is in your "special sauce"). Play continues until all of the customers in the customer deck are either served or turned away. Now the end of turn cleanup occurs - this is where you can get extra dice, and you can use money to buy new recipes, upgrades to your ingredient preparation cards, or advertise to get more potential customers. Play six rounds, and then see if you have made enough money to pay off your loan. If so, then congratulations - you can keep serving these whiny customers that barely pay you and don't appreciate your business! Otherwise, you go bankrupt (and can go get a different job where you get paid more and work less.... is this really losing?).

The first thing that I like about Wok Star is that it is nothing like any other game that I have ever played. It has enough real-time strategy to it to remind me of a few games (like Jab: Real-Time Boxing and Frenzy), but it also has down time where tough decisions have to be made. If your motor and cognitive skills are too slow to serve the customers that get flipped, then you're going to lose. If you make bad decisions about when to advertise as opposed to upgrading or buying new recipes, you will also lose. I am very impressed with how these elements play together. After my first (only) time of beating the game, I thought to myself "oh, this is easy. I have the strategy down - I've conquered this game." Then I played it a few more times. And it reminded me of a little characteristic called "humility" that I need to work on - by destroying me.

Now to talk about each of those two aspects of the game in a bit more detail. This game helps break people of "analysis paralysis" (thinking too long and making the game drag along). Yes, there are decisions to be made about which dice to use for preparing each ingredient, and yes, these decisions are incredibly important, but they must also be made quickly. If you wait too long, then you will wind up serving the customer for free, or even turning them away! And turning a customer away means you can never make money from them again (oh, and you can instantly lose if you turn eight customers away)!

Next is the "thoughtful" strategy element. I firmly believe that it is important to purchase all of the $0 recipes (easy recipes) early in the game. You can only get extra dice by collecting more customer cards in a round than the number of dice you own. The easiest way to do this is by serving the easy recipes that only use two ingredients. However, beyond this, I do not know how to carefully balance my money. I also like that you win the game by how much money you make in the last turn. This forces you to spend your money to upgrade things; you cannot win by simply serving the same customers repeatedly and keeping the income. I also think that this "thoughtful" strategy element varies between number of players. I cannot confirm this (having never won in anything other than four player (on Easy mode)), but I believe that the ideal decisions made may need to be different based on the number of players in the game.

Before getting to cons, there is a point of note that I need to make about Wok Star. Wok Star isn't your traditional "let's play that again" kind of game. It's more of a "that was awesome, let's play it again next week" kind of game. You really have to be in the right mindset to want to play it because the real-time element forces your brain to go into overdrive.  Whenever I have played it, our group has felt a bit too drained after the first game to want to play it a second time in a row - we normally switch to something else that has more thinking and less moving.  Oh, and we get soda... because we like soda.

With all that said, my biggest frustration with Wok Star is that I always felt like I was missing something. There are so many things going on in the game that it feels like you must be forgetting things or doing them wrong. When I take a little while to serve a customer and look up to see the timer has expired, I sometimes am forced to ask myself, "Did that actually run out, or did I forget to flip it?" In addition, sliding the ingredients up and down the track very rapidly often causes them to wind up somewhat on two different numbers, and nobody has any idea of how much of that ingredient is actually available.

The other thing that I must mention about the game is the double timers. Wok Star has two sand timers. At any given time you only actually pay attention to one of them. This is useful, as you are able to have one timer that is mostly expired whenever you need a timer to flip. However, the problem with the timers is that there will often be times when you will complete your customer's order quickly and both of the timers will be mostly full. When you run into this situation, you often wind up waiting (stalling) to let one of the timers be closer to expired before flipping the next customer. This creates a weird pendulum between playing as quickly as possible and waiting before starting again.

Overall, I give Wok Star an 8.5/10. I really applaud the designers of Wok Star for creating a very unique and innovative gaming experience. However, the cons that I mentioned keep it out of my absolute upper echelon of games.  It is still a game that I would highly recommend to anyone that enjoys real-time elements in board games.

If Wok Star sounds interesting, you might also check out Hanabi (another interesting cooperative game), Space Alert (another real time game), and Glory to Rome (just because it's a great card game).

I would like to thank Tom from Gabob Games for loaning me his copy of Wok Star so that I could try it out and write this review. That was really cool.

1 comment:

  1. Is now an appropriate time to whine because it's out of print? Are you listening Z-Man Games?!