Full disclosure: A preview copy of BitterSweet was provided by Coo’ Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
As I promised earlier in the month, it’s Kickstarter season! All hail Kickstarter season. The best part about Kickstarter season is that it’s always Kickstarter season, which is also the worst part about Kickstarter season. As usual, I will be here to provide dry commentary on new and upcoming Kickstarters that cross my desk, like BitterSweet, the latest game from the maker of Composition, a word game that Kickstarted a while back. Let’s dive in.
In BitterSweet, you’re just trying to have a nice time with your friends. You’ve bought a large box of chocolates and have decided to make a little game of it. Everyone will just take a few and bite into them and maybe have a good time? The problem is, you bought this box from like, a gremlin, and so some of the chocolates are nasty, like, a chocolate-covered-green-olive nasty. Even if that weren’t the case, your friends have opinions on which chocolates they like, so this could be a particularly bad time for the picky ones in your number. You may never know what you’re going to get, as the saying goes, but will you be able to weather whatever chocolates you decide to randomly eat?
It’s relatively low-effort, setup-wise. Each player gets a player mat, which they place brown-side up:
Next, shuffle and make a face-down grid of chocolates that we will call the box:
Your grid size depends on player count:
- 2 players: 4 x 5 (20 chocolates)
- 3 players: 4 x 6 (24 chocolates)
- 4 players: 4 x 7 (28 chocolates)
You can place the other chocolates nearby, face-down: They’ll be Empty Wrappers for this game. Each player then draws two of their Yuck / Yum cards, and chooses one to be their Yuck and the other to be their Yum. Keep those face-down:
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to start!
This is relatively short, as well. A game of BitterSweet is played until a player has won two rounds, with each round essentially being its own distinct game.
Players take turns in clockwise order from the start player. On your turn, you may do any two of the following three actions:
Take a Chocolate
This one’s pretty simple. Take any chocolate (face-up or face-down) in the box (the play area) and add it to your hand. Your hand is private; nobody can look at it.
The one thing to watch out for is, well, some of these chocolates have effects if they’re taken face-down. Those effects are typically not-good. If you take such a chocolate, its “when taken face-down” effect activates immediately. Be careful! If that happens, also read the effect out loud for Accountability Reasons.
Reveal a Chocolate
You could instead, as an action, flip any face-down chocolate face-up, so that you can use a subsequent action to take it without problems. That’s all well and good, but other chocolates have “On Reveal” effects that may switch a few things up. You cannot use this action to flip a chocolate face-down, either. Generally, “On Reveal” effects are good.
Return a Chocolate
If you’ve taken some garbage into your hand, you can use an action to return it to the box (the play area, not the game box itself) face-down. Maybe if you place something bad, one of your opponents will pick it up instead? If you use an action to return a chocolate, take one of the face-down chocolates from outside the game and place it by your player mat as an Empty Wrapper. They’re not worth anything, so don’t get too excited.
End of Round
A round ends in one of three ways:
- All players have two or more Empty Wrappers.
- All chocolates remaining in the box are face-up.
- There are no chocolates remaining in the box. Note that if this happens, the round ends immediately. Gotta prevent weird loops.
Once the round ends, all players calculate their scores by adding the values of the cards in their hand as well as any Yuck penalties and Yum bonuses. The player with the most points wins the round and flips their player board over! Play begins again with the instructions in setup, but discard your Yuck and Yum cards and use new ones.
End of Game
If any player is eligible to flip their player board once it’s already been flipped (signifying they won two rounds), they win the game! This does mean that multiple tied players can win at the same time.
Player Count Differences
I think this one might be a bit stronger at higher player counts. Stick with me on this. At lower player counts, since there are so many tiles and so few players, there’s a certain temptation to just grab as many tiles as you can and fix it in post, which honestly kind of works. Since you’re doing it, your opponent starts doing it as well until you just kind of end up with whatever luck you get. That’s not my favorite outcome, though it is rather funny, especially if it works out for you. At higher player counts, that doesn’t totally work. You’re not seeing a really commensurate increase in tiles that matches the player count increase, so there are fewer tiles per player available. While you’d maybe argue that means that pulling randomly is a better idea, I’d push back on that. If you get a rough tile, you now have even fewer turns in a round (likely) to return that tile, meaning you are taking on more of a risk of getting stuck with bad chocolates. Plus, assuming there are some number of bad tiles X, having more tiles in the play area means that you should expect more bad tiles to be in play, as well. It’s still probability and randomness, granted, but that’s additional risk, in my mind. The other advantage to more players is that there are more Yuck and Yum preferences around, meaning some players may reveal a chocolate and then skip it altogether, freeing it up for you. The dynamics of play do change the game quite a bit as player count increases. My one issue is that you also have an expected increase in game time. I usually think of this as a worst-case scenario, in that how many rounds need to be played before the game must end. In a four-player game, that’s five rounds, as there are more players who can potentially win their first round before any winning player must have won their second round. Honestly, given the fact that nothing really changes between rounds other than “Yuck” and “Yum” discards, I’d just say give it to the player that wins their first round at a four-player game if you want a quick game with no dependencies. I’m not that bothered by it, really, since the game still moves pretty fast, so I’d still probably place my preference slightly towards the higher end of the player count spectrum. It’s fun at two players if you’re looking for a quick game that might benefit a luckier player, though.
- Naturally, prioritize skipping your “Yuck” chocolates and getting your “Yum” chocolates. This can be challenging if another player has similar preferences to you, at least in the “Yum” space. If you and another player have similar “Yuck” chocolates, then you’ll just notice that a lot of chocolates are ending up revealed in the center of the box. This isn’t to say you should take 0 “Yuck” chocolates, either! Sometimes they overlap with your “Yum” chocolates and, depending on your “Yuck”, you may be able to take a couple without penalty. Either way, the “Yum” points really ramp up if you get enough of them, so it may be worth grabbing a few or searching for Wilds.
- Early in a round, I tend to avoid taking too many chocolates without looking at them first. You can get pretty hammered early on with the wrong chocolate, like one that forbids you returning chocolates to the box and basically puts you in the 1-chocolate-per-turn zone. There are some pretty bad late-game ones as well (ones that swap your “Yuck” and “Yum” or force you to get new ones), but hopefully they’ve been pruned a bit by other players.
- Naturally, don’t spend too many actions looking at chocolates; you won’t take nearly enough and you’ll just end up revealing useful ones for your opponent. Usually, the player that ends up with the most chocolates ends up doing pretty well, given the balance of probability in this game. That may change if, like me, you forget about “Yuck” chocolates for a round because you were tired and briefly spaced on that being a mechanic of the game you’re playing, but, you know, everything is flexible. Cautious play alone generally won’t win you this game, especially if your opponents are not being cautious, either. You can always hope they’re getting absolutely terrible cards, but, that’s less likely over time.
- If you get a Veggie Yum, you likely are in a decent spot if you start drawing cards at random. There is a card that forces you to discard your “Yum” and draw a new one, which would absolutely clown you, but picking up the veggies that players return to the box might work out for you until players figure out what you’re doing, you weirdo.
- Either way, keep an eye out for the one Veggie that swaps your “Yuck” and your “Yum”. There’s a deadly combo that works for this. One card adds an additional card to your “Yuck”, and another swaps your “Yuck” cards with your “Yum” cards. Annoyingly, this means you can end up with multiple “Yum” cards, which really benefits players that consistently pull cards at random, especially once they’ve taken those two cards out of circulation. Despite it being unlikely, it’s happened in nearly every game I’ve played of BitterSweet.
- Learning what your opponents’ “Yuck” and “Yum” chocolates are might be marginally helpful, but don’t invest too much time or brain space on it. You can’t really block your opponents to any intense degree unless you truly know what they’re looking for, and it may not even be worth doing so? The only one that I would potentially consider blocking are the nut clusters, since they are worth 4 points each to a player with the “Yum”. That’s … high. They’re rarer, but I saw a player rack up 12 points off of them one game.
- You’ll need to try and guess what your opponents are returning; either way, it may be worth revealing them. If your opponent returns a card and leaves it, it may be a veggie or it may be a card they don’t need. It’s possible that it’s something negative, but unlikely. If you’re curious, reveal it, or make a note of it and avoid it altogether. Up to you!
- Similarly, there are some cards whose “On Reveal” effects or “when taken face down” effects are beneficial enough that it might be worth returning them and activating them more than once in a round. There are some that can really boost your turn or give you extra bonuses, if done correctly, so keep an eye out for those and plan if you can.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Quite like the theme. I would say games about chocolate are generally fun, but I did play one that I did not enjoy, so I can’t make that across-the-board assessment. I still need to try Truffle Shuffle, on the subject. Anyways, I do have a generally positive disposition towards food-themed games (and especially dessert-themed games), so, BitterSweet is earning some points from me, here.
- I also think it’s a good-looking game, which is nice. They did an excellent job on the art! There are a few chocolates that look incredibly appetizing and a few that you’re just like, this is clearly broccoli with chocolate on top of it, which is a war crime as far as everyone but one extremely specific friend of mine is concerned. We refer to them as a food criminal. I think it takes a particular skill to make a game look good, but an even more particular skill to make something nasty seem nasty, and I appreciate that Ashleigh Miller and Olivia Raum were able to make that happen, here.
- Letting players choose their “Yuck” and “Yum” options is a nice bit of unimportant choice that helps reinforce player agency. I read a while back that a great way to make players feel more invested in a game is by giving them a “choice” between random options. So when dealing out role cards for a social deduction game, instead of just dealing them, fan the cards out face-down and let players decide. Similarly, this terrible anime that my housemate has been watching (Future Card Buddyfight) has a thing where in a few randomized cases, they force your opponent to choose between a few random options or call the result of a coin flip to build both narrative and gameplay tension. That’s smart game design, honestly, since it gets players more invested, and similarly we see that here with the “Yuck” and “Yum” card selection. In the first round, it’s no better than random, but the player choice helps build investment. In subsequent rounds you might try to pick things that you have seen your opponents discard, but, that requires you to have those options available as well. It’s interesting in a subtle way.
- Chocolate-covered vegetables are hilarious. They’re just a funny concept. Objectively. I’m just pointing out a fact. Finally, an Objective Review from What’s Eric Playing?.
- I enjoy the “On Reveal” and “when taken face-down” effects on tiles. I think they do a nice job instilling just enough fear in players to make certain actions a bit more risky. And I enjoy risky, when there are low stakes.
- I appreciate the empty wrappers, since they both prevent the game from stalling and add a consequence-free way to return bad tiles. Buyer’s remorse is a very real thing in this game, so having a simple way for players to put a chocolate back and be like “oh, I don’t want that one” is good. Prevents player frustration. That is, if you haven’t already taken the veggie that prohibits you returning chocolates.
- While I generally am mixed on memory games, I think this one has a nice bit of bluffing to it, given the “On Reveal” vs. “when taken face-down” effects. There’s something to the idea that I might return a good tile so I can take it again on a subsequent turn and try to trick a player into thinking it’s a bad tile. It’s tough to execute, so this doesn’t really counter my frustration with memory games, as when I place a bad tile it’s even odds that I won’t just pick it up myself and clown myself again.
- The game does kind of take longer with more players, since there’s a potential for a higher number of rounds before the game must end. As I mentioned in Player Count Differences, that’s a real thing based around the maximum number of rounds that can occur before a winner must be decided. Of course, the game may still just take two rounds, but then everyone hates one player even more. Deservedly. I would like a bit of an escape hatch for games that scale their playtime with player count, at times, but this one doesn’t quite do that, so, meh.
- Referring to the play area as “the box”, especially with regards to returning cards to the box, is an absolute recipe for confusion. This has mostly been frustrating me while writing the review, and it reminded me of a frustration when reading the rules. It’s a Gamer Penalty, which is fine, but if you play a lot of board games, there’s a “return to the box” statement that almost always means “remove this from play for the remainder of the game”. In BitterSweet, returning to the box explicitly means returning a chocolate to the center area so that it can be used again, which is super confusing. I’d almost rather have the rules call it the “chocolate box” or refer to the action as “Rewrap chocolate” so that it’s explicitly calling out that you’re returning the chocolate to play. Thankfully, this is a very petty frustration, so, it ends up in the Mehs as well.
- It does feel like there’s a certain temptation to just draw randomly and ride the lightning. It doesn’t make the game terrible, but it does mean that you’re putting all your money on riding the river, essentially, and you’ll just get what you get. It’s sometimes a legitimate strategic decision, but it doesn’t seem to reward player agency, that much, which can make the game feel less interesting overall. You can definitely have fun doing it, but that’s essentially like playing Cake Duel without looking at your cards or any other game where you can choose to play completely at random. The penalty is that you might lose, but I think in other titles they disincentivize it with more of a “you will probably lose”. It’s definitely based on just probability, but the games I played created that feeling from time to time, and it’s frustrating as a player. That said, it does make the game easier for players to just throw down if they’re not looking for a hardcore strategic experience, and honestly, that’s me some evenings so I’m not inclined to roast the game too harshly for it.
- It can be frustrating when your Yum tiles never / rarely come up, given that at most you’re seeing 28 or 29 out of the 45 possible tiles. The nature of this game is decently luck-driven, since you’re going to take a subset of a subset of tiles, randomly distributed, and hope that the subset you’ve taken into your hand is sufficient for the somewhat-random goal cards you decided at the start of the round. This can mean that occasionally, your best cards are just … not in the box. Which can be frustrating! There’s no way to plan for it, either. There’s no real difference from a player perspective if the cards weren’t available or their opponents just snagged them all, either, so I wonder if there will be a few instances of players blaming the game on luck of the initial draw when it was really their opponents accidentally snaking them.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I had a nice time with BitterSweet. I think I’m always going to be a bit hyped about food games, just because there are so many types of food that you can theme games around, from chocolates to burgers to dim sum to just having the Kool-Aid Man in Funkoverse as my personal champion. And I’m here for it. There’s something nice about the ludonarrative consistency of a game where you are just opening up a chocolate box and Forrest Gumping it as you pop a bad boy into your mouth with reckless abandon like you’ve never even heard of nut allergies. I’d love to say that that’s the energy we should bring into the rest of 2021 / 2022 but that seems like it would only continue an ongoing public health nightmare. Anyways, BitterSweet does have some things I don’t love, but they’re largely around that luck element sometimes feeling like it can outweigh my player agency and some minor stuff around player count time scaling and terminology. I do have a general antipreference for memory games, but I also like food games, so where does that balance lie? It’s complicated, and that’s what reviews are for. All in all I like BitterSweet, though. It’s relatively quick and simple, it has great art, and it’s a fun presentation of a good theme. The chocolate-covered vegetables are nasty, but it’s definitely fun to see a player’s reaction to one if you don’t tell them about them ahead of time. And isn’t that what games are all about? Unpleasant surprises for your closest friends, courtesy of you? Worth considering. Anyways, I’m generally here for quick and upbeat games with fun themes, so if you’re looking for something like that, you might enjoy BitterSweet as well!