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Subject: [Review]Elegant but Far from Simple rss

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Seth Brown
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OVERVIEW
King Chocolate is a production chain game with tile placement and meeple placement, where you aim to gather the most money by moving the cacao to the next stages in production.

COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
A starting hex ring and 57 double-hex tiles, and 99 coins, all of standard quality chipboard. 5 cardboard player screens, 20 wooden meeples (4 each, 5 colors), and 85 small brown wooden cubes.

GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF
Each player starts with 3 tiles and 4 workers. On your turn, you must first place a tile and add it to the board. Then you have 3 action points to spend, taking any of the following actions:

Place Worker (2 AP) - Place one of your four unplayed workers on any unoccupied group (a contiguous set of same-stage hexes), and fill that group with cubes.

Move Worker (1 AP) - Move one of your previously played workers to a different unoccupied group.

Draw Tile (1 AP) - Draw one of the four face-up tiles, or the top tile of the face-down stack. You may hold a maximum of five tiles, but must end your turn with at least one.

Produce (1 AP) - Fill a contiguous group of Stage-1 tiles with cubes.

Refine (1 AP) - Move any number of cubes from one group to a group of the next stage (or remove cubes from board, if already at stage 6). Whoever has a meeple on the group from which the cubes are removed is paid $1 per cube. If nobody has a meeple there, the acting player receives the money.

The game ends when there are not enough tiles in the stack to refill the four face-up tiles, and whoever has the most money wins.



GOOD POINTS

*Quick setup and simple rules. The starting hex ring means you don't have to waste any time laying out opening hexes. Just hand each player their screen, 4 meeples, and 3 starting tiles, and you're ready to play. And the entirety of the rules are pretty much written above: Place a tile, then spend 3 action points to draw tiles, add/move workers, or produce/process cubes. This is a very fast game to teach and start playing.

*Lots of emergent complexity. While the rules of the game are exceedingly simple, playing the game well is not. While it's obvious that you want to place tiles to give yourself as large a group as possible, your desired size for other groups will vary widely depending on how your particular game shakes out. In fact, every possible action has its own set of interesting considerations, which will not lead you from the same conclusions from game to game.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
The ability to place and fill a group is naturally very powerful, and limited to four times per game. Doing it early won't grab you a large group, but doing it late leaves you little time to benefit from your move. And the fact that it uses two of your three actions means it takes most of a turn -- or all of one if you had just placed your last tile.

Drawing tiles is another tricky thing; obviously having more tiles gives you more options for which to play, and perhaps most importantly, the option to spend your turn on 3 non-tile-drawing actions to accomplish a big refinement chain. But taking a turn to draw multiple tiles is a quick way to feel behind, especially if playing with 4-5 players where the games ends swiftly and every turn is a desperate scrap for points.

Moving a worker may seem like a diluted action you take only after placing all available workers, but that isn't always the case. The action point you save may be more valuable than not losing ownership of another group, especially if the filling with cubes is counterproductive because you want to ship cubes in from a previous stage group that you own. As the board evolves, bottlenecks will occur at certain stages, which naturally leads to a dynamic valuation of owning different groups.

Producing cubes isn't always an attractive action, since it doesn't immediately pay you like refining cubes does. But if there's a stage-1 group not owned by another player, then producing there at least sets you up to make some money with refinement on your next action -- especially if you own some more groups on the low end of the refinement process.

Refining, naturally, is where the money is. But each game (and each instance in the game) will pose different answers to questions such as: Can I just leave the cubes on my group and hope an owner of a next-stage group will move them for me to score me points? Is it worth taking a refining action to give another player points in order to set myself up for an action giving me points? Is it worth refining the few cubes on my large group now, or should I try to move more in first to refine them all at once? Should I refine the two cubes lying on the unowned space before someone else grabs them? Is it better to clear my groups for possible incoming cubes, or run a single set of cubes through 2 of my stages and 1 opposing?


All of these factors will weigh on your mind as you try to muddle through your turn, and your answers may be completely different if there are three 4-hex groups of stage 2, or if there's a large unclaimed stage-5 group, or if you own groups in two adjacent stages, or if you're playing with a certain number of players.

*Works with any number, but feels very different. In a 2p game, there will always be at least two stages not controlled by any opponent, naturally leading to a very open sort of game, especially as your opponent may not have time to use cubes on unclaimed spaces. Meanwhilst, the 4p game is much tighter, not only finding competition at every stage of the refinement process, but also leaving you half as many turns in which to accumulate cash. Where the 2p game has much more moving workers around to jockey for the best groups long term, players in a 5p game will want to earn whatever money they can as swiftly as possible.

*The player-created board leads to high replayability. Twice when sitting down to play this game, both 2p and 4p, after the first game my opponents requested an immediate rematch. While the game could induce a lot of thinking, absent AP players the game plays surprisingly swiftly, and is done before you know it. The "dominant strategy" in the first game can suddenly become much less effective in the rematch, because the different board layout offers players alternate options. It seems likely that no true "dominant strategy" is likely to exist that will be correct for all boards, and this is a good thing. The differing sizes and ownerships of groups in various stages really changes the game each time, which is likely to speak well for longevity.

*Atypical theme makes sense. There aren't a lot of games about chocolate on the market (although apparently this did have to change from the original name Cacao, which was already taken). And this one does its best to make use of it, from the chocolate-box-insert-print pattern on the rulebook, to the note on the game that the game is not actually made of chocolate. Most importantly, it does sort of make sense, the idea of refining the chocolate along the various stages. However...



BAD POINTS

*Looks like a bland game with pasted-on theme. This may be a poster child for people who dislike Euro games, as it consists entirely of pushing brown cubes between hex tiles of different colors, with a theme that (while supported as mentioned above) you may well forget once you start playing. Nobody talks about refining nibs, everyone wants to move the 3s to the 4s.

*Kingmaker is a serious factor in 3+ player games. Admittedly, this is largely inevitable in any sort of game where you pay others for using their facilities, but the fact is that if you and an opponent control the two large groups of stage 3, and everyone always moves their cubes through your opponent's plant, you are not likely to win. This can be mitigated somewhat through pro-active play, e.g. taking the action to pay other players and move cubes to your own plants, or trying to monopolize a single stage.

*Rules/Player Aid mismatch/confusion in first printing. We had some confusion over whether not ending your turn with a tile is illegal or simply penalized, depending on whether you read the rules or player aid. According to the designer and publisher in this Rules Question Thread, both are actually correct -- it is illegal to end your turn without a tile, but if for some reason you accidentally do and cannot rewind the game, penalties are levied.

CONCLUSION

King Chocolate was a surprising game for me all around. I did not expect it to be as easy to learn as it was, after which I did not expect it to be as interesting to play as it was, after which I did not expect it to play as fast as it did, and after playing some games both 2p and 4p, I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. I had heard about the game expecting a cumbersome production chain like Neuland, but this is a very different (and more accessible) beast. I think the combination of low bar to entry with high emergent complexity will likely give this one some legs. It's not often that I'd call a production chain game "elegant", but that's how I feel about this one. Both groups I played it with twice want to play it again, and were doing lots of post-game analysis. To me, that's a sign that this game is one worth having.

IS IT FOR YOU?

If you turn up your nose at games about moving cubes around on an uninspiring board, one look at this is probably all you need to flee in terror. Or if you want a lot of bells and whistles on your games, this doesn't have it. But if you appreciate games that manage to take a few simple mechanics and put them together in a way that creates a lot of interesting gamespace and a dynamic board that will change your tactics every game, King Chocolate may be worth a try.


*Review copy provided by publisher
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Jay Cat Five
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Thanks for the well-written review!
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Kent
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Glad to see a review. My only disagreement would be with the characterization of the two player game.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Control of all production stages could certainly occur, with exclusive control of at least two per player likely. Alternatively, only one temporarily uncontrolled for mutual benefit, if two or more reasonably sized regions are formed for that production stage.

This is most likely to be the state of the board after it is fully seeded with supply along the chain(s), thus allowing players to begin to specialize in profits from the beginning or end of the supply chain.

The ability to move workers among temporarily unowned regions of the same stage can cause particular tension, requiring calculation to determine if new openings could become profitable or are just a kind of feint by your opponent who has already calculated the possible impact and weighed it against possible changes in ownership.

This all depends upon how long of a production chain a player can guarantee profit from, and which portions of the chain allow for the most profit per action point.


That's what I love about this game. When calculating profit from action points spent, a constant tension exists between actions that affect or that are affected by:

- ownership of production supply chains (stages, length, width)
- length of production supply chains
- width of production stages
- maximizing flow through supply chains
- money generation (VPs) by each production stage
- tile investment into production stages and supply chains
- tiles available for investment
- the activities of eacb opponent
- three action points per turn
- the minimum and maximum of possible turns left in the game

Awesome game experience where time can disappear for all players while experiencing FLOW.
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Seth Brown
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icarusmustburn wrote:
Glad to see a review. My only disagreement would be with the characterization of the two player game.
Control of all production stages could certainly occur, with exclusive control of at least two per player likely.

Sure, but in a 2p game, at least two of those stages won't be controlled by any opponent, whether you control them or not, they remain as a stage you can always profit from. To me, this is one of the two biggest differences between the 2p and 4-5p game (the biggest difference being the constricted game length.

icarusmustburn wrote:

That's what I love about this game. When calculating profit from action points spent, a constant tension exists between actions that affect or that are affected by:

- ownership of production supply chains (stages, length, width)
- length of production supply chains
- width of production stages
- maximizing flow through supply chains
- money generation (VPs) by each production stage
- tile investment into production stages and supply chains
- tiles available for investment
- the activities of eacb opponent
- three action points per turn
- the minimum and maximum of possible turns left in the game

Awesome game experience where time can disappear for all players while experiencing FLOW.

There is definitely a lot going on for a game with such simple rules.
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Kent
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Osirus wrote:
icarusmustburn wrote:
Glad to see a review. My only disagreement would be with the characterization of the two player game.
Control of all production stages could certainly occur, with exclusive control of at least two per player likely.

Sure, but in a 2p game, at least two of those stages won't be controlled by any opponent, whether you control them or not, they remain as a stage you can always profit from. To me, this is one of the two biggest differences between the 2p and 4-5p game (the biggest difference being the constricted game length.


I misread your original statement in the review.
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Stefan Alexander
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Great review! I liked how you included some of the emergent strategies but put them in spoiler tags, so those who like to discover those things for themselves can do so.
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Seth Brown
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s2alexan wrote:
Great review! I liked how you included some of the emergent strategies but put them in spoiler tags, so those who like to discover those things for themselves can do so.

Heh, and I just consider that emergent considerations, don't think I'm good enough to have hit on much in the way of useful strategy. The one actual strategy (or, technically, tactic) that suddenly apparated during our games which is definitely something that was cool to discover was one player's maneuver we all marveled at and then sometimes copied, but to everyone aside from Stefan, DON'T SPOIL YOURSELF UNTIL YOU'VE PLAYED THE GAME A LOT:
Spoiler (click to reveal)
At the cost of all three of your action points, you can produce on ANY group you own, even if it's not stage 1. How? Well, if you have an unplayed meeple, you can use 1 AP to move your meeple off of your desired refill group and onto another group you'd like to own, and then 2 AP to play an unplayed meeple on your formerly owned group, reclaiming and refilling it. Very handy if your ownership is concentrated in the higher stages and you'd like to populate your stage 4 farm without having to waste time producing and handing out money to other people for lower stages or worrying if the cubes won't make it to your stage4 rather than an opposing one.


EDIT: Also, I should thank Stefan for posting here; always nice to hear from the designers on these forums, and I hope you don't take any negatives personally!
 
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Stefan Alexander
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There were so many variations of that rule that I tried

Spoiler (click to reveal)
(the way workers are placed and moved, and the way cubes fill the new groups "out of order", which was essential to keep the game moving)


and every time I changed it, my playtesters loved to find ways to exploit it. So many versions of the game were just to fix those exploits. I like how the current version works well, but still has a few tricks.
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Oliver Hague
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Thanks for the in-depth review. I've been reliant on video reviewers (especially Tom Vasel and his crew) for most of my board game information, but their recent review bashing King Chocolate's visuals rubbed me the wrong way, since King Chocolate's aesthetic is delectable and greatly appeals to me. (And if you're reading this Tom it was definitely and obviously the work of a skilled graphic designer!)

I appreciate your thoughtful perspective that was informed by multiple playthroughs. I hope you continue to post content like this in the future. A lot of people in the board game community are really fetishists of a particular theme or plastic miniatures or what-have-you. They forget that the game's the thing. I felt enriched by your comments, and I thank you.
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Seth Brown
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oliver_hague wrote:
Thanks for the in-depth review. I've been reliant on video reviewers (especially Tom Vasel and his crew) for most of my board game information, but their recent review bashing King Chocolate's visuals rubbed me the wrong way, since King Chocolate's aesthetic is delectable and greatly appeals to me. (And if you're reading this Tom it was definitely and obviously the work of a skilled graphic designer!)

I appreciate your thoughtful perspective that was informed by multiple playthroughs. I hope you continue to post content like this in the future. A lot of people in the board game community are really fetishists of a particular theme or plastic miniatures or what-have-you. They forget that the game's the thing. I felt enriched by your comments, and I thank you.

Glad you enjoyed the review! I always give games multiple playthroughs, with differing numbers of players (except for 2p-exclusive games, natch), and attempt to find the pros and cons in every game, so if you enjoy that sort of thing, do read my other reviews. The two most popular reviews I wrote last year were for Mage Knight and Isle of Skye.

In fairness, I do think some people will find the visuals of this game a bland turn-off, which is why I listed it as my first negative point. But I figure the purpose of a review is to give a reader a sense of whether they will like the game, so if you don't mind cubes on a hex grid, then as you say, the game's the thing, and this one has got game.

Thanks for reading.
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