Review: Chai

(Full disclosure: the copy of Chai we were provided was a prototypical review copy, and was not representative of the finished product, so while I’m happy to comment on the way the components worked together and the vision that Steeped Games has for their product, I can’t offer as concrete of a viewpoint of the design as I have on previously reviewed titles.)

The relationship between games, gamers, and theme can be a contentious one sometimes. Sometimes games lack much in the way of concrete theme at all, or the theme is present but not really part of the game itself–just window dressing, a way to make the mechanics and gameplay look nice. Sometimes theme can truly inform a game, and every move you make hearkens back to the core theme in some way; sometimes that makes for a game that’s more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, and sometimes it holds a game back from really shining.

In our own lives, Bri and I know people from all points of the spectrum. We have gamer friends who adore theme and prioritize it above all else,who won’t touch a game with a theme that they don’t care for regardless of how much it is present in gameplay; and we have friends who don’t give a hoot what the theme is, or if one is present at all, focusing on mechanics and strategy over immersion. And all are valid!

But for the two of us, a game that has a theme near and dear to our hearts–such as Wingspan, our last reviewed title–is always going to shine just a little bit brighter. Theme in a game is something that makes us care; it gets us invested not just in the score and the question of who’s going to win, but in the gameplay itself and in the stories we are crafting around the table. And just like there are few themes as dear to Bri’s heart as birds, I have yet to encounter a theme that strikes as close to home for me as does tea.

(I’ve taken courses to become a certified Tea Sommelier–a.k.a., “fancy tea snob”–through the Tea Association of Canada. Not certified yet, but tea is definitely one of the foundational hobbies in my life.)

Now, there are games out there about tea, whether directly or tangentially. Matcha, for instance, is a clever little two-player puzzler about serving Japanese tea ceremony, and Darjeeling applies the oft-used farming-and-commodities structure to developing a tea plantation. Dinosaur Tea Party is a silly, whimsical game of light social deduction; and Elevenses approaches the “tea party” theme from another perspective. But these games are all about tea as a social construct, or as an industry, and not so much tea as a drink.

Enter: Chai.

Overview

The game is simple to learn, but provides a lot of fun, light puzzling. During the course of the game, players take on the roles of tea house owners, each specializing in their own varietal of tea–the four categories of camellia sinensis, plus the lovely, warm rooibos. They compete to fulfill the orders of the discerning tea afficionado customers, combining flavours and pantry ingredients with their tea leaves in order to brew the perfect cup. The more complex tasting notes, the more points they score for satisfying that customer. Players will visit the market and pantry for ingredients, and utilize special abilities in order to make sure they’re the best tea shop in town, buying and selling their own tea varietals as well to the market and to their competitors in order to get ahead.

Each customer order filled not only provides the player with points, but also a tip, randomly drawn depending on which cup they pour their tea into. (The published game does come with cups of its own, reminiscent of the classic clay cups used by the chaiwalas of India; we used an old gong fu cha set that was gifted to me by my grandmother, for extra theme and tea nerd points). Those tips can be used to purchase more ingredients from the market, or can be saved up and converted into game-end points. The game lasts five rounds, indicated by the increasing temperature of a thermometer, after which players all total their points from satisfied customers and left-over earnings.

First Impressions: 4/5

The first and, in my opinion, greatest thing about Chai is that this game is about as local as it gets for us! Connie and Dan, the designers and the minds behind Steeped Games, are based out of Calgary–a mere stone’s throw from us up here in the provincial capital. From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to do our part to shine a spotlight on local designers and publishers, and Chai was a perfect candidate for that.

Like so many others these days, everything in the game–or at least everything that was representative of the final product–is beautiful, with tons of attention given to the art and the components. Every component is differentiated using a combination of shapes, colours, and graphics, which makes it easy to analyze the table at a glance for colourblind players. The art is vibrant, bright and saturated without being overly garish, and has just the right touch of whimsy.

The character cards–your prospective customers–are a beautiful, diverse bunch, representing cultures from around the world that are iconic in the history of tea; a Moroccan man pouring out a cup of Moroccan tea, a Japanese woman preparing traditional tea ceremony, a 19th-century Brit enjoying his tea with milk and sugar, a chaiwala plying his trade in India…and there’s some great representation of Canada in there, too, with an Inuit woman drinking tea under the aurora borealis and a Mountie waving from his kayak in the middle of a mountain lake. The cast of colourful characters is rounded out by some fantastic imagery, like Alice and the Mad Tea Party or the Tin Man from Oz, as well as folks from more mundane walks of life, including the creative couple themselves.

What we would have loved to see is just a bit more LGBTQ+ representation; though Dan suggested to us that it’s hard to adequately illustrate or represent the community “with most cards featuring just one person”, this is an envelope I really feel could stand with just a bit more pushing in the game design world. The idea that it is hard to illustrate a member of the LGBTQ+ community without showing them, by necessity, with a romantic partner contributes to the idea that our identities are defined by who we love, and not who we are. It is an idea that feels more and more grating the more we hear it; it reminds me of conversations happening in the AAA video-game world a couple years ago, about how women are under-represented as playable characters in games due to being “more difficult to animate”. Maybe, in a future expansion, we might see a character sitting on a cafe patio, sipping a cup of tea while a Pride parade passes by in the background, or sitting in a circle of friends on a university quad with a thermos of tea in their hands and an identity flag proudly displayed on their backpack.

All that being said, like any other change, representation of this sort is a matter of awareness. Dan & Connie have shown in other ways that they are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, and the more attention is brought to where games miss the mark–and the more suggestions are made about how that could be rectified, and the more conversations we have with one another about the hows and the whys–the more natural and obvious those solutions will become on future projects.

COMPONENTS

All right, so, obviously–take this segment with a grain of salt. As mentioned above, the copy of the game we received was a prototypical one, not fully representative of the finished product. However, the design of the game and the components clearly shines through. The market is probably my favourite part of the game, physically; the puzzling nature of trying to maximize the efficiency of your purchases, the satisfaction of sliding each row of tiles down in the most delightful, Tetris-like manner. The exactitude of the construction of these components speaks highly of the design, and I am certain that the finalized game will echo that same attention to detail. Everything fits together; there is a place for everything, and everything slots into place, making for a very satisfying game experience. Plus, as touched on earlier, the design of the components ensures that the game is accessible to all sighted players, using variant shapes, colours, and images to make sure they are easily distinguishable.

I can also speak to the utter beauty of the deluxe metal coins. One of each valuation was included along with the cardboard ones, and they are one of the most beautiful sets of game coins I’ve yet to see. The designs are lovely and elegant, evocative of the game’s theme, and they are obviously of an exceptionally high quality. It’s enough to make me wish we’d backed the Deluxe game! (Budget restrictions being what they are, and extraneous tea service components being plentiful in our home, we opted to support at the Print ‘n Play level.)

The artwork for Chai is really beautiful!

Also, despite them just being what I must assume were cheaply 3D printed approximations of the finished product, I absolutely loved the tea tokens! The design took the time to not just differentiate them by colour, but associate each colour with a different type of tea, and represent them as different shapes of tea leaves as well. It looks like this design choice is echoed in the final product, and along with being helpful for those with less visual acuity, it’s also just a nice little attention to detail that really demonstrates how much Dan and Connie love the theme behind their game. It shows a love and a passion that you won’t find in games where designers don’t have personal investment in the subject, and as a huge tea fan myself, I can say I really, really appreciated it.

Gameplay: 3.5/5

The beauty of Chai for me lies in the theme, and the way the theme interplays with the gameplay mechanics. It doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, or innovate an entire genre, but what it is is a very solid, well-made game. It’s quick and relatively intuitive to learn and to teach; I was able to teach it to both gamer friends and to my mother with ease. (Mum beat me, with a minimum of strategy help from yours truly, in case you were wondering.)

A friend of ours (hi Nick, you better be reading this) described the gameplay as Splendor-esque, and I agree that it bears a certain similarity of feeling–gathering resources, using those resources to resolve cards, reserving cards from a pool to resolve later. It can feel very like the card management of Splendor. However, the added economic aspect–having to make choices about how you spend your currency, rather than simply adding to your pool–and the puzzle aspect present in the market board are significant enough differences to keep Chai from feeling like just another Splendor.

That market board, by the way, is one of the more unique aspects of the game, and part of what I enjoyed the most. To explain: the market board consists of three rows of tiles, separated into copper, silver, and gold cost columns. When you purchase a flavour tile from the market, you purchase all orthogonally connected tiles of that type, and only pay the cost of the most expensive tile in the group. This leads to some puzzling as you try to determine which tiles to buy in what order to maximize your purchases. While the rest of the game is fairly straightforward, trying to puzzle out the market board in order to give yourself the best advantage, and trying to forecast what your opponent’s moves will be and how to block them at the same time lends the game a bit of crunchiness. It isn’t excessively complex, but it does take the strategy up a level, and gives this relatively meditative game experience a bit of teeth.

In that way, Chai reminds me a bit of Morels, another game that Bri and I enjoy a great deal for its theme (Bri is an amateur mycologist, along with being an ornithology enthusiast). There isn’t a ton of player interaction, and most of the game passes by at a fairly peaceful rate; but players are still able to find subtle ways to make the win just a little bit harder on their opponents, and keep from ending up on autopilot.

We didn’t try the co-operative mode, but I did give it a couple of run-throughs on solo, and I enjoyed it there, as well. It was actually quite lovely to sit down at the table in the early morning with a cup of tea and quietly manage my little tea shop. The solo game is much more about maximizing your points than it is about beating an imaginary opponent; you are racing against the clock, and there is a dummy player to help somewhat limit your options, but all in all much of the tension bleeds out of the solo game. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable! In fact, of all the games in our library with a solo mode, Chai is currently one of the front runners for me. It carries a significantly lower requirement for upkeep than many of our other solo titles, and I’m able to just focus on playing with what I’ve got, rather than moving this here, that there, changing those, discarding these, etc., etc., etc.

Pros

  • Easy to learn and teach
  • Beautiful and striking art
  • Awesome representation when it comes to gender and race
  • Theme of the game really shines through

Cons

  • Might not feel like a “standout” title to folks who don’t connect to the theme; doesn’t do a lot to innovate the genre
  • Missed opportunities for LGBTQ+ representation in card art
  • Gameplay is straightforward without a lot of strategic depth

Final Score: 4/5

It’s hard to give Chai a definitive “final score”, seeing as how we can’t really comment on the end product itself, only the prototypical game pieces. However, from everything that I saw during the Kickstarter and based on the few finalized pieces that were included in the review copy, I feel confident giving Chai a 4 out of 5 rating. This is a game that I can’t wait to have in our library, even if it’s a somewhat roughly cobbled-together Print n Play that uses spare tea cups and teapots from our china cabinet to fill out the setup. It’s beautiful, and highly impressive coming from first time game designers–we personally can’t wait to see what Dan and Connie come out with next!

Steeped Games is currently in the midst of production on their first title, Chai. They’ve also begun playtesting for their two-player follow-up, Chai Duel. Chai is scheduled to start shipping in September of 2019–look for it later this year at your FLGS, or make a late pledge to their Kickstarter here!

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