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A la Carte

[David Rapp started out gaming with the Long Island Gamers and was a stalwart at our weekly gaming sessions for a number of years. An early contributor to the pages of Gamers Alliance Report, Dave made his GAR debut in the Fall 1999 issue with a review of Brawl from Cheapass Games. Dave would continue to be a steady contributor over the next several years doing a total of 14 reviews. But life can interfere with gaming and Dave left New York to pursue his education, earning Professor status at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. We are delighted to welcome him back for his first appearance here since 2002 (!) as he cooks up his 15th review for us: A la Carte.]

(Fantasy Flight Games, 2-4 players, ages 8 and up, 30 minutes; $49.95)

 

Reviewed by David N. Rapp

alacarteI love watching cooking shows. There are entire channels devoted to cooking, with chefs giving tips on how to best compose and season recipes, and hosts traveling to distant locales to sample exotic dishes with bizarre-looking ingredients. Some shows are less about the food and more about competition, involving battles between chefs, both novice and expert, with races and challenges that put their cooking prowess to the test. A La Carte is in many ways a sampling of all of these types of shows, with chefs working diligently to put together their best, often bizarre dishes while occasionally sabotaging their opponents along the way. And you even get to use fancy steel cookware, ovens, utensils, and ingredients like a real chef!

The designer, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, has been lauded for his more complex and lengthy strategic games (Die Macher), as well as his games that might see the table more frequently as intended for more general audiences (Attila, Was Sticht? and Tribune [Summer 2008 GA Report]). On this continuum, A La Carte is about as family-friendly as you can get – the kiddies will love playing and us older folks will enjoy seeing it hit the table every once in a while. The goal in the game is to be the most successful chef, which in play terms means completing five dishes however you can, or better yet, completing three dishes perfectly.

Each player receives pieces that look like they could have been boxed with an Easy Bake Oven or “Let’s play chef” toy set. They include a stand-up cardboard stove with a temperature knob, a metal pan, a cardboard tray for completed dishes, a cardboard crepe, and a coffee cup token that gives a one-time benefit to the chef (there are five different kinds of benefits a chef might receive). In the center of the table the players set up twenty cardboard tokens that depict bizarre dishes you’d likely avoid if you could (e.g., hippo in burgundy wine; elephant trunk with spinach), and four aspirin bottle-sized, transparent condiment containers, each of which is filled with 15 plastic ‘crystal’ pieces of a particular color as well as 5 errant salt crystals. (I suppose you’d prefer actual aspirin in those bottles if you’d actually have to sample these dishes.)

alacart2Three cardboard spoons are placed in front of the start player to count off the three moves that each player makes on their turn, and we’re ready to prepare our dishes. For each of the three moves on a turn, a participant has one of two options, both serving the goal of successfully completing whichever of the twenty dishes they have opted to try and complete. Those options are to either (1) roll a die and, based on the result, change the temperature of your stove or sometimes an opponent’s stove, or (2) select a condiment bottle and, with one sweeping movement, dispense crystals into your pan, in the hopes that crystals actually fall out, and that you never have more than three of any single condiment type, including salt, in your pan. Each dish includes a temperature at which it should be prepared, and a list of the condiments that are required to make the dish. If your stove ever reaches an inappropriate temperature or you have too many condiments in your pan, the dish fails. Alternatively, a player can opt to try to flip a crepe in their pan for some points too if none of the dishes seem all that appetizing. Players can also exchange a coffee cup token on their turn for additional moves, extra points, or opportunities to re-season dishes.

If a player prepares a dish perfectly with no extra seasonings, a star token is awarded, with three star tokens granting the win. Alternatively, if any chef completes five dishes, each chef then counts up the victory points associated with their dishes (for the most part, more difficult dishes offer more points), and the chef with the most points wins. Like those earlier mentioned television shows, chefs are racing to put together weird but well-constructed dishes, relying on their dexterity in doling out seasoning, while also counting on a little luck so that their ovens don’t fail them in their time of need. (Note: A small expansion produced for Spielbox magazine, and a recent boxed expansion entitled A La Carte: Dessert, both add additional dishes and coffee cup abilities, but are by no means necessary to enjoy the base game. The Dessert expansion also includes bits to allow for 5 players.)

A La Carte has never failed to make the players I’ve introduced it to laugh about the game, and they often get a little competitive about their recipe-following skills. It’s a great showpiece given the wonderful bits and colorful artwork. Needless to say, kids love it. It’s not going to necessarily appeal to folks looking for the next Die Macher, but for folks who love to peruse (but only sometimes use) cookbooks and menus, it might be to your taste.

 


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