Full disclosure: A review copy of Chai was provided by Steeped Games.
Whew, this one took a while to review, for some reason. I’m never totally sure why that happens; I just can kick the can down the road for a little while. I think it might be slightly influenced by box size, being honest; larger boxes are a bit more intimidating, because then I worry that I’m going to have to take a lot more photos to get the game to a good review state, and that slows down The Process. Well, thankfully, I did it all and it turned out fine, so here I am. Ready for Chai. I say this even though I’m a bit late to the game with Chai, as the two-player duel game version has already come out and I’m still writing reviews about the base game, but hey, we get to games in our own time and as part of our own journey, probably. Either way, it’s a bright, colorful game and I’m into that for Photography Reasons, so let’s see how this one stacks up against the other titles this month.
In Chai, you’re finally living up your dreams and becoming a tea merchant! Hopefully not one of those super bougie overpriced ones, but I’m not here to invalidate your destiny. You’ve got some special teas, so you need to focus on those if you want to satisfy waves and waves of incoming customers. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in sales-themed board games, you happened to open up shop in the same part of town as several other enterprising new folks who are selling roughly exactly that you’re selling. It’s a traves-tea, for sure. You’re undaunted, which is good. Collect ingredients and additives and corral customers to help make your dreams come true. Will you be able to do enough and sell enough that you can reach prosperi-tea?
Player Count Differences
The first thing you’ll notice about player counts changing is that the market will churn a bit more, and frankly, that’s good! The last thing you want is to get stuck with bad market turns because nobody wants to take what’s in there. More players means more potential customers, more potential customers means more variety, and more variety means fewer things in the market aren’t currently useful. That’s all good! It actually means that this is the rare game that I tend to prefer at higher player counts. At two, the market can stall a bit if nobody wants anything in it, which isn’t … great. Eventually someone will cave and buy it, but in the meantime that can be a bit of A Process, which is occasionally frustrating. While it’s not guaran-tea-d to happen, it has a higher likelihood at lower player counts for the reasons I stated above, so, I prefer to try and avoid that outright by playing with more players. Even though the runtime increases as you add more players, I wouldn’t be too worried about that until you hit 5, so, I’d recommend Chai at 3 – 4 players, when possible.
- Make sure you’ve always got a bit of money on you. While it’s useful for being able to buy tiles, yes, it’s also critical for fulfilling certain customers from the center. If they belong to your opponent, you need to pay them one coin for the privilege of fulfilling that order. That can be really strategically interesting (and I’ll talk about how in a bit), but you still have to have the money in order to complete the order (and future tips don’t count). If you’re completely broke, you may have to wait until next turn to get it, and by then someone else might have swiped that customer.
- Naturally, fulfilling orders of your own color is good, but you do get a bonus at higher player counts if you fulfill some of your opponents’ colors, as well. It’s a small bonus, but points are points. Might as well try to get them where you can? At 4 / 5, it’s also more surprising if you get the full bonus, so this may give you a small edge over your opponents. Fulfilling your own orders is good purely because you don’t have to pay the extra coin to your opponents, so weigh the costs of that versus the benefits of getting the extra point or two.
- Generally, I just try to buy what’s available and easy to get, but at higher player counts it becomes increasingly difficult to rush the end of the game. It’s 5 customers per player to end the game, so you can’t rush 25 as easily as you can rush 10, even with more players. To that end, it may be worth reserving more valuable customers so that you can get those big 15+ point payoffs.
- Try to get your tiles grouped such that you can get a lot of the same tile with one big purchase, if you need it. This is just mechanically sound; if you can get more tiles for less work, you should almost always try to do that. Buying tiles to the left in order for the other tiles to slide into the right spot is critical to doing this correctly, though, so make sure that you plan ahead.
- The order you buy tiles matters, so save yourself some money by buying tiles such that the ones that you want end up sliding into the cheaper spots. Similarly, you can slide tiles into cheaper places. If you do that right, it means that tiles that would have cost you 5 money (1 / 2 / 2) can cost you 3 money (buy the 1, slide, buy the 1, slide, buy the 1). It’s useful to keep an eye on this, since it may allow you to get even more tiles if you’re careful and you jump on the right opportunities.
- There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling customer orders from the center, just be careful. Essentially, don’t telegraph which customer you want from the center until you can fulfill their order, otherwise you risk an opponent trying to swipe it from you.
- Conversely, if you can figure out what someone wants to fulfill, you can always claim that card to junk up their flow, especially if there’s little overlap between that card and others. Like I said, you can swipe a card someone else wants and leave them holding a bunch of resources that they wasted time and money trying to acquire. This is generally good for you and very bad for them, especially if the market doesn’t favor those resources. In that case, that might be a big enough swing to set them back significantly in the game. Less cruel and more cruel-tea.
- Either way, don’t hold on to Customers for too long. This one’s interesting. Essentially, each player can use their special tea tokens at most six times. Once they’re gone, all cards of that color are removed from the game, including if you’ve reserved them. That means if you’re holding onto a big 15-point card and prepping for a big swing, if someone else beats you to the last token of that color, that card is gone. It’s a great way to put the late-game screws to your opponent, but it’s also pretty wild. Wouldn’t recommend going for it as a strategy, but if the opportuni-tea presents itself, you might as well.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the tile collection mechanic. I think that’s probably my favorite thing about this game, up front. It’s an extremely good mechanic. It forces players to think spatially and allows you to price players out by strategically taking pieces to build large networks into the more expensive sections of the board. And that’s not even all! It just adds a lot of interesting spatial reasoning to resource collection that you don’t normally see, and I think that’s very good. Plus, the tiles also look great, so it’s just a very solid part of the game, mechanically.
- The art is also really nice! It’s very bright and colorful and approachable, and it really leans into the “tea is something everyone can enjoy” energy which the game is trying to exude. Approachable art and an approachable theme make for an approachable game, and I think Chai overwhelmingly exceeds in that regard. It’s the kind of game that someone would see on your shelf and be intrigued by, and it’s low-enough complexity that you can usually just show them a quick game, depending on how many people you have around. That’s a nice synergy.
- The flow of the game is fairly intuitive, which is great for a game of its weight / complexity. It’s very good that the number of things you can do on your turn is relatively low, and the things themselves are relatively straightforward (mostly take some tiles, take some chips, or take a card). That does a nice job of not overwhelming the players and it makes the turns fast, even with large numbers of players.
- The components in the deluxe version are excellent. The cups in particular are impressive, but it’s well-known that I am a sucker for a double-layered board of basically any kind in a board game. There’s some odd mismatches between wood tokens and cardboard tokens, but that’s kind of how Kickstarter games go, sometimes. There are also metal coins in the deluxe version, which is my go-to for “things I love but am always loathe to buy for myself”. They also have sprung for one of the better insert solutions, so everything fits super nicely. I’m into those, generally, but they can often require a guide to make sure you know what goes where.
- I’m generally a fan of keeping your fulfilled customers face-down; it prevents (to some degree) players trying to min-max other players’ scores. It makes it harder for players to keep track of your points. Naturally, the argument against it is that it’s not impossible; it now just benefits players with good memories. Usually, what I say to that is that the game is actively suggesting that you shouldn’t keep track of other players’ scores, so try to avoid it. I still prefer that games do things like that; it prevents a lot of targeting since players don’t really know who is in the lead. They might have some idea based on the few cards they’ve seen, but it’s hard to be exactly sure.
- I actually kind of like that the components stay in the cups between rounds? It’s a very weak sense of progression, yes, but it’s not nothing. It’s also a nice way to keep those components out of the game without just making a pile of components. A smart way to turn a problem into a thematic solution (and also necessary for an advanced variant).
- I appreciate that the game comes with a Garbage American variant. Even I don’t use the Fahrenheit version of the round tracker, and I’m American. It feels like it would just be disrespectful to the game. It makes me laugh that they included it, though, since 212 degrees is a terrible temperature to be like “ah yes, 212; the game is over”.
- It would have been helpful to have an extra “Extras” rulebook in the box. I used the cards, but still ended up needing to hit BGG up for clarifications. Just an all-in-one for that with a list of components would help a lot, for instance. It can be confusing to figure which things go where and which things are part of the main game and which aren’t and then what they do. Do they go with the base game? Or are they part of the Deluxe solo game? I’m not always sure.
- I know it would be exceedingly boring for Tips to always be the same amount (and not terribly thematic), but it can be frustrating to be the one player that always gets the 1-coin Tip. It ends up creating a “feels bad” moment for that player, since they’re negatively being impacted by a random event. Often, I see games address this by making the rewards all the same weight / benefit quality, but shifted so that they’re random gains of some resource or some money / points combination.
- I’m not as sold on the Pantry. It makes the natural motion of the game a bit choppier. The example I used with a friend is like running with two legs of different lengths; even if you’re used to it, it’s a bit awkward. I think games have sort-of “flow” to them, which is the natural progression of moves towards the end goal, and this essentially adds another type of resource that sometimes needs to be collected via a different type of mechanic. I feel like that messes with the flow of the game. It doesn’t always happen (and there are some ways to mitigate the disruption), but it still looms. It doesn’t feel as streamlined as the other resource-gathering.
- It seems that the playtime just … increases with each player added. I almost always fault games for this because it means that it’s difficult to estimate how long of a game you’ll play until you know how many people are playing (and consequently, if people are trying to figure out if they want to play or not, that decision affects how long the game will take, and vice versa). It creates annoying feedback loops at game night, so I tend not to bring games that have a wide runtime spread. It’s much easier to say “this game takes about 30 minutes” than it is to say “this game takes between 20 and 60 minutes, depending on how many people are playing”. The latter case usually turns people off.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Chai! I think I got a bit of the wrong impression with the two-player game. It’s fun, and all, but I think the game shines a bit more at 3 – 4 players. I think, at two, you end up getting more snared in market dynamics than you do at higher player counts, as you wait for the market to match up with the cards. When you’re not dealing with that, though, you end up with a fairly quick gatewayish game with great art and short turns, both of which are great for the players who I think this game will most appeal to. Chai does a nice job of situating itself pretty well in the appropriate market for the game, which is good! I think gamers who are looking for a more deep, complex experience probably won’t find it here, though. And that’s not necessarily bad, it’s just (strangely) a bit lighter than what I’m looking for in this style of game. I can think of a ton of people I know who would really enjoy this though, which is good, and its high component quality means that they’ll be proud to show it off, as well. It looks really good on the table. I’m not quite as sold on some of the functional components; I find the tips and the pantry to be a little clunkier than the tile market, but I love the tile market almost enough to get over that. Anyways, I think overall, Chai hits the spot quite well for its niche, but it may have some trouble appealing to players on the more complex end of games in this genre. If that’s not a big deal for you, then I’d suggest checking Chai out! I still enjoyed playing it, and I’d love to see more of what Steeped Games is up to next.