Thoughts • Chai

Ah, the simple joys of a cup of tea. I’m usually a peppermint guy myself, how about you? Nothing quite like that first sip on a cold winter morning. Running a tea shop must be just as relaxing, right? Nope, not in the least.

Designed by Connie Kazmaier, Dan Kazmaier
Art by Mary Haasdyk, Sahana VJ
Published by Steeped Games
1-5 Players
45 Minutes
Review copy provided at cost by Steeped Games.

At its heart Chai is an order fulfillment game, a mechanism I tend to enjoy. Collect some resources from various pools, put them together and voila! A lovely cup of tea. Who doesn’t love that idea? There’s even a tipping mechanism once an order is complete. Chai has two resource pools, the market and the pantry. The market is Chai’s most alluring hook, as it work a bit like match-three type video games: allowing players to collect multiples of a single flavor as long as they are orthogonally adjacent.

Playing Chai is sort of like eating a stale apple: it looks good and certainly doesn’t taste bad, but something is inexplicably off. After the charm of the art and components wore away, the game just didn’t feel right. The core issue rests on the game’s reliance on random distribution for every element of the game. Order cards are balanced a bit, but then shuffled and set out randomly. Both the market and the pantry are randomly distributed; and the market has the potential to provide a lucky player with a rather severe advantage due to this. Even the tips are randomly distributed; and one or two good tips can be difficult to catch up with. Order fulfillment as a mechanism fundamentally relies on some modicum of balance; either supplied from the start, or as a mitigation achieved through engine building. Chai makes no attempt to provide any semblance of balance, rather it seems to revel in the chaos. All of this isn’t particularly bad per se, but it sits at odds with the eurogame presentation that Chai puts forward.

The other issue I have with the game should be annotated as “extremely subjective,” but I feel it bears mentioning as it ties in to my previous point. In short, I found Chai to have a bit of a player engagement problem. I noticed that people consistently had to be pulled back into the game. Maybe the theme wasn’t working for folks? I quite liked it. To be fair, there really isn’t a good reason to pay attention while it’s not your turn, as you can’t depend on anything remaining available by the time your turn comes around again. For my part, I felt like I was on autopilot most of the game. On any given turn I would look at the table, and of those actions available, one always seemed like the obvious choice. I usually like a game to give me at least one interesting decision per turn. I didn’t feel like Chai gave me any.

All that, I’ll offer a cliche in critique of my own comments, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…” And the journey in this instance is quite nice. Physically and thematically Chai offers a very luxe experience for the money. The components are an absolute joy to handle, and even if the theme doesn’t work for you, it’s impossible to deny it’s charm. Everyone seemed to have a nice time playing it, but no one wanted to play again. I think the designers made some brave choices that didn’t work- but it was a strong first effort. I look forward to seeing what this duo accomplishes in the future.

Finally, I don’t wan’t to skirt around this, so I won’t- about that Steeped Games controversy… The Steeped Games Kickstarter experiences so far haven’t been great. They’ve been late with the fulfillment on each of their projects thus far, and lot of folks are understandably frustrated with them as a result. Many of these individuals have felt the need to voice these frustrations in some very unproductive ways. Steeped Games have been pretty quiet in response. Not a good mix. At this point, I probably won’t support another Steeped Games project, but as they’ve secured the rights to produce a new Deluxe 25th anniversary version of Through The Desert, I might be tempted to give them another chance. In the end, I’d suggest you steer clear of the hostility, and make up your own mind on this issue.

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