Review: Bubble Tea

I stopped counting the number of games coming out with farming themes a long time ago. It’s not that games about farming are somehow less valuable, less inventive–heck, less fun!–than games with other themes; but once you’ve got a good couple of farming games on the shelves, there’s not really a need to keep looking.

Much like with movies, board games seem to go through phases, many of which echo the trends of the silver screen: zombies, super heroes, Sherlock Holmes, edgy modern retellings of classic fairy tales…for those who are fans of any specific genre, there is usually a period of three to four months when everything coming out seems like it was tailor-made for them. For those who aren’t fans of the particular theme, they just have to sit tight for a little while, because the ever-rotating wheel of time will, guaranteed, bring something new and intriguing to the fore.

These patterns don’t exactly make game release schedules predictable, but they do still have an effect–which is that when something really unique and off the wall comes by, it has the ability to make people do a double-take and take notice. And that’s what Bubble Tea was for us. Amid heists and dinosaurs and sprawling story-telling games, suddenly we were looking at Aza Chen’s precious, vibrant artwork on the box of a game about boba: pearls of tapioca or chunks of coconut jelly, suspended in a sweet mix of tea and fruity flavour.

Image result for bubble tea
Image credit: hokkaidosushiottawa.ca

The positive spin on “they really will make games about anything, these days” is that games are being made about everything, these days. Everyone’s niche gets their time in the sun, and apparently, bubble tea is no different.

Note: We were provided a copy of Bubble Tea in exchange for an honest, comprehensive review of the game. 

Overview

Bubble tea is a quick-playing spatial puzzle game for 2 to 5 players. The game itself has two modes–one that uses the cute, chunky wooden dice that come with it, and one that uses a deck of customer cards that truly put Chen’s art on well-deserved display. Regardless of whether you are playing with dice or cards, players are simultaneously racing to be the first to complete a customer’s bubble tea order by carefully layering their set of transparent cards onto a tea base, ensuring that the correct quantities of all ingredients are visible before claiming that round’s victory.

When playing with dice, all players are competing to be the first to complete the same order, based on the symbols that come up on the rolled dice. Whoever gets the order first claims a customer card to symbolize their win, and the first player to have three cards in front of them is declared the overall winner.

The second mode gives each player a hand of five customer cards, each one worth a different number of points, the values of which are displayed on the fronts of the cards. Players each choose a customer order from their hand and play them down, flipping them over to the recipe side all at the same time and racing to get their customer satisfied before anyone else can do the same. The first player to complete their customer’s order keeps the card, and the points that come with it, while everyone else must proceed to the next round empty handed. The hands are passed to the left, and everyone selects their next customer from their new hand. Once all five rounds have been played, players tally up the points from their satisfied customers to determine the overall winner.

Regardless of what mode you play, each player is given an identical set of nine square plastic cards, ingredients printed on the fronts. Using just those nine cards, plus two double-sided “base” cards (depicting coffee, green tea, black tea, and milk tea), allows players to complete any order requested, based on quick and careful layering.

The game plays in about fifteen minutes, making it the perfect selection to start or end a game night, or cleanse the palate between heavier titles.

First Impressions

The first thing anyone will notice when looking at this game is the packaging. Despite being relatively component-light, the box is a decent size, and that is mostly down to the fact that it comes with a martini shaker.

Yep. A martini shaker.

I mean, in this case, it’s obviously meant to be a bubble-tea shaker, used to mix up the flavours and milk with the tea base that gives boba it’s unique, delicious taste. But the point stands. It doesn’t serve a ton of purpose in the game: you can use it to roll the dice, of course, and in the race to be the first to finish it makes a convenient item to grab from the centre of the table to proclaim your completion. You could also, potentially, use it to mix up drinks for your gaming group (don’t quote us on that; we haven’t tried it yet. We’re a little shaker-shy, given that the last shaker we bought was the opposite of air-tight.)

Once you open up the box, you’ll immediately be greeted by the distinct characters of Aza Chen’s artwork. The flaps of the box feature the recognizable Shiba Inu from Shiba Inu House, and one of the precious kitties featured in Kitty Paw. His artwork flows throughout the whole game–boba ingredients are reimagined as characters like Tapioca Dog and Chocolate Bear, and the animals from his previous games frequently feature as customer characters on the cards in the deck. Along with these cute furry friends, however, are a number of human characters, many of whom wear smiles along with their traditional Taiwanese garb.

I talked earlier about the various themes that we see, recurring again and again, in the world of table top games. We are eager to use the media of board games to explore worlds outside our own sphere, whether they are distant worlds existing only in fantasy, exotic locales from our very own planet where we’ve never gotten to travel before, or times long-removed–future or past–that we can visit and live in for an hour or two. This is amazing, and wonderful, and incredibly unique to our hobby–a game about Middle Earth can sit on a shelf next to games set in ancient China, feudal Japan, Victorian London, modern day New York, or futuristic worlds we have yet to find, much less name.

The one downside, in my experience, is that there is always a lingering taste in my mouth when I look at the designer of one of these games–specifically those set in non-Western locales–and see names that I associate with France, or Germany, or the United States. It isn’t that I dislike the idea of a Western or European game designer setting their game far from home–far from it! But there is always some level of worry that the game I’m about to play is going to be based on stereotypes, or an outdated sense of Orientalism, rather than the lived experiences and history of someone whose home rests on that soil.

Now, for those not in the know: though bubble tea has quickly spread throughout much of East and Southeast Asia, the original home of this delicious concoction is, in fact, Taiwan. And what makes Bubble Tea really, really cool–what excites me, a lot, about it–is the fact that this isn’t a game designed by someone who loves bubble tea a lot, or even loves bubble tea and Taiwan a lot. It is designed, and illustrated, by a Taiwanese game designer; a game about a Taiwanese food, featuring Taiwanese characters, inspired and informed by the actual lived experiences of someone who is entitled to that culture in a way Bruno Cathala or Richard Garfield or Vital Lacerda could never be. This is not to say that a Cathala or a Lacerda game on the same theme couldn’t be respectful, couldn’t be good; but there is something extra special about this theme being shared with the board game community by someone who is uniquely positioned to share it.

The characters–at least, the human ones–are all very obviously not white. As I mentioned before, many of them, humans and animals alike, are wearing traditional Taiwanese garb (which makes sense–given the backdrop of many of the cards, it looks like the game is taking place at a festival of some kind!). Even the flavour text on the cards, featuring short phrases uttered by the customers, is presented in English, phonetic Mandarin (the official language of Taiwan), and phonetic Japanese.

All of this together means that playing Bubble Tea doesn’t feel like visiting a museum exhibit, or taking a tour, or even backpacking across another country like some games do. It feels like being invited into someone’s home–welcoming, fun, a little bit foreign, warm and filled with hospitality. For such a light game, it’s a powerful experience, and one that I keep coming back to.

COMPONENTS

Everything in Bubble Tea feels extremely well made–though we haven’t tried to actually make any drinks in the martini shaker. (Let us know if you do!) The cards are a lovely thick, glossy stock that feels like they will hold up for quite some time. The transparent ingredient cards are flexible, and a really interesting touch in a time when we are seeing so many games that focus on using polyominoes to create their spatial puzzles–although I’m definitely keeping a close eye on them, as I’m worried that with the amount of wear and tear they get during a typical game, they will become scratched and milky sooner than some other games that use the same type of material (AEG’s Mystic Vale and Custom Heroes come to mind).

The dice aren’t terribly substantial–though they’re big, they’re also light, and I definitely worry about the long-term longevity of the stickers used to designate the sides. But they’re actually really nice to hold, a nice, soft wood, and they don’t make an enormous racket the way they would if they were a more sturdy material. And while the dice goblin in me might wish for more permanent dice–laser etched wood, maybe–I can’t argue against the fact that this method does keep the cost down.

Especially for a game that comes in a martini shaker. (This still alternatively amuses and bemuses me, to no end.)

Gameplay

Bubble Tea is definitely not going to be for everyone–my dad, for one, hates games that require speed, as he is a methodical thinker, and he was absolutely done with this game as soon as he played the first round. There is no happy medium between the strategy and the lightning-quick placement of your cards, regardless of which game style you prefer. But if you enjoy games that play at a frantic pace, where you’re racing against the other players at the table to be the first to complete a task, then rest assured that Bubble Tea does that very well.

The first game mode, which uses dice to randomize a customer order that you must all race to complete, is the less preferred for the two of us. As fun as it is to roll those cute wooden dice out of the shaker, the utter randomness of the resulting task feels a little too daunting for us; and because of the necessity of balancing them, it feels like there is a little less variety in the orders you’re presented with.

However, the second mode presents its own challenges as well. While drafting your customer orders seems logical in theory, what typically ends up happening is that whoever selects the easiest, lowest point cards will inevitably succeed the fastest, and steal the win. The only way to bypass this is to try to grab a 3 or 4 point customer card; but if anyone else has taken a 1 or 2 pointer, it’s almost guaranteed that they’re going to beat you to the punch, increasing that tiny lead in a way that gets harder to close the longer you play. Sure, you can take a 5 point customer in the final round and attempt to beat out everyone else with their paltry 1- and 2-point cards; but your chances of success, especially if you’re the only one with a complicated order, are slim.

Either way, the game probably could have used a little more finesse in terms of actual gameplay design. Maybe dealing out hands to all players and drafting final hands from that, then racing to be the first to complete all 5 of your own orders, would allow for a little more equity on the table, while scratching the strategic itch that the straightforward draft doesn’t quite reach.

Pros

  • Quick and easy to learn and play
  • Awesome cultural representation–a game about a culture by someone who lives it
  • Adorable artwork surrounding a decent party game

Cons

  • Very little strategy or long-term planning
  • Components that might not have as long a life as could be wished for
  • No mitigating factors for individuals who don’t enjoy games that rely on speed

Final Thoughts

That all being said–Bubble Tea is fun. It’s the one we’ve started grabbing on game nights when we want to fill in a little bit of time between heavier games, when our brains are fried from the latest case of Detective and we aren’t quite ready to dive into the next chapter of Pandemic Legacy. It’s a game where victory feels less important than the utter ridiculousness of stacking and restacking cards featuring anthropomorphic boba ingredients; we scream and screech, we laugh, we race to snatch up the martini shaker before anyone else can, and we butcher the Mandarin and Japanese text to varying degrees, feeling like we are touching something just a little bit outside of our own white, Canadian experiences. This isn’t one we’d be quick to suggest for families or other mixed-age groups, at least not without some house ruling. Younger ones would definitely find this game terrific fun, but it’s going to be hard for them to beat out mum or dad when it comes down to the wire. However, if you’re looking for something to keep a group of kids–or kids at heart–entertained, it’s definitely a great option. The adorable art style is endearing to young and old alike, and it’s quick enough to learn and play that even if someone doesn’t like it, it’ll all be over within fifteen minutes. (Right, dad?)

Bubble Tea is definitely going to be a staple of our game nights going forward, if for no other reason than being an excellent palate cleanser that is cute as heck, with a unique, quirky theme.

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