#783 – Boba Mahjong [Preview]

Base price: $15 for one, $36 for all 3.
2 players.
Play time: ~20 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Check it out on Kickstarter!

Logged plays: 2 

Full disclosure: A preview copy of Boba Mahjong was provided by Sunrise Tornado Game Studio. 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. 

We’re back with more Sunrise Market games! I don’t think I’ve ever done basically an entire month of reviews ahead of a Kickstarter, but Ta-Te knows how to throw a party. This time, we’re leaving the piers behind and sticking with a cozy two-player game of boba and subterfuge, Boba Mahjong! I’m excited that all of these games have such a wide player count variety; there’s so much to try! Let’s dive in and see how it plays.

Rice Cake and Pancake (our delightful mascots) have decided to have a boba competition! Choose your fighter and start making drinks, taking what you need from the shared mixing area. Your drink will be evaluated, and you’ll need to make a good one if you want to win! Can you hit all the necessary elements of a good drink? You’ll have to be fresh, smooth, complex, and present it well if you want to take home the gold! Will you be able to make boba for the ages?

Contents

Setup

Set the Victory Tokens to the side; you’ll use them later. Each one is worth 5 points; more on that later. They’re brown cubes, so I didn’t take a photo of them; there’s only so much I can do. To start a round, shuffle the cards:

Deal five to each player to form their starting hand, and then make three piles of one card each in the center. If any of those piles are a card with a 0, place that card on the bottom of the deck and draw a new card until all three piles are not 0. If you had to do that, shuffle the deck.

If you’re playing with the Advanced Variant, reveal one additional card and place it next to the draw deck; this is the bonus Scoring Card for the round.

Gameplay

A game of Boba Mahjong takes place over multiple rounds as players try to get over 30 points. As soon as a player hits 30, the game ends!

During a round, players will take a series of turns where they try to create sets. To start your turn, you may draw two cards from the deck or one card from any of the mixing piles. Once you do, you may create up to three sets or choose to draw again (two from the deck or one card from the mixing piles) in lieu of creating any sets. Either way, once you’ve done your turn actions, discard down to 7 cards in your hand if you have more than 7 cards, and then your opponent takes their turn. If, when drawing, the deck runs out of cards, remove all cards from mixing piles except for the top card of each, shuffle them with any discarded cards, and form a new deck.

Creating a set can be a bit tricky, so let’s go through it. A set consists of three cards (of any color) that obey some set of rules:

  • Straight: A set of three consecutive increasing values. {1, 2, 3} is a straight; {7, 8, 1} is not.
  • Three-of-a-kind: A set of three of the same value. {8, 8, 8} is a three-of-a-kind; {4, 2, 1} is not.
  • Toppings: A set of three toppings is also valid.

0s are wild cards, and can be used as any value for the purposes of creating a set. You may even have more than one 0 in a set, if you’d like. You cannot make a set that is toppings and 0s; toppings have no numeric value.

When creating a set, you may use three cards from your hand or two cards from your hand and one card from anywhere in one of the mixing piles. After creating the set, choose one card to keep in your scoring area, and discard the remaining two cards to any mixing pile (in any order; you can split cards across piles). If any mixing pile is empty, you must discard to that pile first. If you choose not to keep any 0s, remove them from the round rather than placing them in mixing piles.

Once a player has five cards in their scoring area, the round ends after their opponent takes their turn. Then, you move on to scoring. To score, you may choose up to six cards in your tableau. That set of six cards is scored (as any good boba tea should be) along four dimensions:

  • Freshness: This rewards sets of the same number.
    • Two cards: 3VP
    • Three cards: 6VP
    • Four cards: 10VP. The four cards must all be different colors.
  • Smoothness: This rewards straights.
    • 3-card straight: 2VP
    • 4-card straight: 4VP
    • 5-card straight: 6VP
    • 6-card straight: 10VP
  • Complexity: This rewards how many toppings are in your scoring set.
    • One topping: 2VP
    • Two toppings: 4VP
    • Three toppings: 6VP
  • Presentation: This rewards based on color:
    • Presentation A: This one rewards how many cards of the same color you have.
      • Three of the same color: 3VP
      • Four of the same color: 6VP
      • Five of the same color: 10VP
    • Presentation B: This one rewards how many different colors you have.
      • Four different colors: 3VP
      • Five different colors: 6VP

You’ll note that Freshness and Smoothness are specifically mutually exclusive. While 0 is a numeric wild, it is simply a 0 of its color during scoring, if one is in your scoring area.

Scores round down to the nearest 5, meaning if you have 10, 12, or 14 points, you’ll take two Score Tokens at the end of the round (for 10 points total). Then, discard all cards and set the game up again for another round.

End of Game

After a player ends a round with 30 or more points, the game ends. The player with the most points wins!

Advanced Variant

If you’re looking to play a more challenging version, try adding these rules:

  • Bonus Scoring Card: Add a card next to the deck when setting up; this is a card that both players may use in their Scoring Area at the end of the round. You’re still limited to using six cards, though.
  • Topping Powers: All topping cards have special abilities when kept in your scoring area after being used to make a set. You can activate these powers in the Advanced Variant to change things up a bit. Just keep in mind:
    • Using a Topping Power to add another topping to your score area does not activate that topping’s power.
    • If a Topping Power has you draw cards, draw them from the deck unless otherwise stated.

Player Count Differences

None! This is a purely two-player game.

Strategy

  • Don’t necessarily make every set that you can possibly make as soon as you can make it. There’s an impulse to just dump sets as soon as you have the ability to do so. I’d advise against that for a few reasons. For one, it’s not necessarily to your advantage to use every card in your hand basically immediately. If you do, you’re left with fewer cards and fewer options, which may require you to play sets that aren’t particularly ideal in subsequent turns. Also, you may not be playing a cohesive scoring strategy if you just play every set you can as quickly as possible. Another thing to consider is that playing a lot of sets adds a lot of cards to the Mixing Areas, which gives your opponent more cards to choose from for their own sets. Play strategically, get sets done, but don’t rush it; otherwise, you’re just accelerating your own defeat.
  • You do want to play some sets, though. You have a hand limit of 7 cards; you can’t just hoard forever and hope you get exactly what cards you need. Get creative! Or just hope your opponent has a garbage hand.
  • Sometimes it’s best to let your opponent finish the round first, so you can play reactively. This allows you to mess with their scoring area (if you have the right Topping Powers) or at least see how many points they’re planning to get so you can try and exceed it. Just make sure they don’t catch you off guard! You really want to be able to also complete your fifth (or sixth+!) set on the last turn of a round, otherwise you’re screwed for scoring.
  • Keep an eye on which sets your opponent is making; that may influence which cards you send to the Mixing Pile. If your opponent clearly wants some cards for making sets, it may be worth sending those cards to your scoring area so that they’re (relatively, depending on your variant) inaccessible. That said, while I love and recommend playing purely out of spite, that’s a very easy way to make sure that your scoring area isn’t cohesive. Sometimes you just need to play what you need to play for your own benefit, not to mess with your opponent. That said, using 0s is a great way to do both; they complete your set, which you like, and they’re removed from the round if they would be sent to the Mixing Area, so your opponent can’t use them, either.
  • You can combo off of your own plays to get a few sets made; you don’t always need to just play out of your hand. There are some fun combos you can do, as well, especially with Topping Powers. Playing a set that lets you draw cards, and using the cards you returned to the Mixing Area with those drawn cards to play another set and then using that set to take the cards you sent to the Mixing Area back is something that’s mostly doable in this game, which can be neat. I used that in one game to keep a card in my hand so that my opponent couldn’t have it in the final round, and I needed to do that. Even if you’re not playing with Topping Powers, look to the Mixing Area for help making sets. Making sets out of your hand every turn just means you’ll burn your own cards faster. Even if you don’t need the Mixing Area, unless you’re really looking for a specific color or value, I’d recommend pulling the card from there every time you make a set. Save your own cards!
  • Try to keep a running tally of what your Planned Score will be; you don’t want to end up with 4, 14, or 9 points if you’re always rounding down to the 5. This is a mistake a lot of folks make when they play; they try to maximize their score without thinking too much to the strategy of scoring. There’s no value in doing something complicated to try and get 14 points if you can easily get 12. Either way, you end up with 10 points. Risking it all for 16 points, however; that might be worth something. Try to think a bit about what score you expect to get and see if you can push it to the next scoring tier without burning yourself out.
  • If you’re playing with the Advanced Variant, take the Scoring Card into account, as well. Your opponent probably is! Just keep in mind that that card can be used by both players, which incentivizes collisions, a bit. If you’re both going for a straight around that card, it might be challenging to get the exact cards you need, unless you both are pretty lucky. The problem is, if you just ignore the common Scoring Card, then you’re essentially just ceding a free card to your opponent. And you can’t do that! This is a two-player game. The push and pull is just … part of the magic, I suppose.
  • Don’t forget about Topping Powers! They can be game-changers (in the advanced variant). Topping Powers can be huge. They let you draw cards, take cards, and occasionally even steal cards. Swapping a card in your scoring area with your opponent’s can be incredibly useful (or at least neutral) for you and absolutely disastrous for your opponent. Bonus if you can knock them down to 4 or 9 points with a move like that; it’ll pretty much mess them up for a couple rounds. It’s rude, but, hey, you’re reading this section for tips on how to win. I don’t really have a “How To Be Nice To Other Players” section in my reviews. I’d add it, but, let’s be honest; these are plenty wordy as-is.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • What a fun theme! I mean, beyond the boba shortage (is that still a thing?), I think everyone likes boba in some form or another, unless they have allergies. I don’t personally like tapioca that much (and I find the texture unsettling), but I can get stuff I like at boba places, so this is a very pleasant game theme for me, as well. I feel like there are going to be a lot of folks who like this (and it could be a nice companion for Renegade’s Bubble Tea game). I also just like food / beverage-themed games. They’re almost always just fun and refreshing! There’s a lot of food, y’all.
  • The scoring is cute, as well. Not the “round down to 5” bit; I mean evaluating the boba on Freshness, Smoothness, Complexity, and Presentation. It’s kind of abstract, but I think it’s nice that they went to the trouble of trying to link it up to the game’s theme. It’s a bit of polish that goes a long way.
  • A very simple two-player spin on rummy. It doesn’t take too long to learn this one, especially since you can only play sets of three cards at a time. I actually like that limit? It lowers the complexity without meaningfully affecting the strategy. A lot of players have trouble deciding what kinds of sets that they want to play; here, sets are just a means to an end of building the perfect tableau. Focusing on that is a much lower-complexity task for folks, and I think that makes the game easier to pick up.
  • I appreciate that there’s a simple and a complex variant. I like starting with simple variants for games where I can (though I tried this one out with my Expert Gaming Friend, first, so she and I went straight to Advanced), but more than anything else I appreciate the option to have both in a way that doesn’t add a ton of extra weight to the game! I think Ta-Te shows his design skill when he does stuff like that and reminds me why I enjoy so many of his designs.
  • Wildly portable. It’s basically a deck box with some cubes inside. I can fit the review copy I got in my pocket; this will definitely fit in a Quiver or something, if you’re looking to take this one with you.
  • The Mixing Piles are a neat concept. I like that you can sift through them for whatever card you want, but that makes them dangerous. If you place the right cards in there, your opponent can really just reap whatever they want! That’s not great for you. So it adds a nice bit of Mandatory Strategic Thinking. How do you play the cards you want without giving your opponent the cards they need? It’s the ideal dilemma for a two-player game, I think, because it has implications for both players.
  • I really like the light comboing potential that can happen with the Topping Powers. It’s not particularly intense, since it’s a fundamentally finite combo, but you can pull off some interesting ones if you get the right cards in the right place that can either bulk up your hand or let you steal pretty useful cards from your opponent. Or you can even add extra common Scoring Cards, which means you don’t have to worry as much about your opponent going after your supply.

Mehs

  • I’m required to mention this, but while I don’t mind it, some players will find the “round down to the nearest five points” requirement during scoring to be frustrating. It came up a few times in our first game. I like it! It makes even scoring pretty challenging and strategic. But it doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially if they get 4 or 9 points in a round. To be fair, that’s a lot of points to leave on the table. But it also makes me laugh because it feels like a component-informed restriction? I mean, you don’t want 75 cubes with this game, and now you don’t need them! I wonder how Ta-Te landed on this for his game.
  • I couldn’t find a few things in the rules, which made our games slightly confusing. Most of my rules questions were around whether you discard every card to start a new round, and we arrived at “probably”. I might have just missed it, but that’s the hazard of having a Google Doc for a rulebook rather than a finished product. Honestly, this isn’t Sunrise Tornado’s fault specifically, but this is probably my least favorite part of doing Kickstarter previews, generally; I struggle with rulebooks on a good day; not-fully-finalized ones are extremely hard for me to play through with confidence. But I’m getting better, and this one wasn’t too bad (hence a Meh, rather than a Con).

Cons

  • Whew, this game can lead to some min-maxing. This usually happens on the last turn, but players are strongly incentivized to take all the time in the world to make sure they’re coming up with an optimal set of cards to push through and maximize scoring. It’s not really the players’ fault; the game kind of incentivizes that with the scoring tiers, I think. Nobody wants to end up with 14 points, so your last turn matters a lot. This can make that turn take forever; even I take a bit longer to make sure I’ve done what I can (and pre-calculated my score for the round). It’s strategically wise, but min-maxing does take away from the experience for the other player.
  • I think a major piece that I have a problem with is the card that allows you to take a card from your opponent’s score pile and swap in a card of yours. It really doesn’t help min-maxing, and it also makes it impossible for your opponent to start their scoring. What you should do is essentially save that Topping for last and then decide if you can swap a card that will drop your opponent’s score below one of the tier thresholds. And that’s annoying! But I have to recommend it as being strategically optimal. Honestly, I’d rather the ability be “treat this card as a card in your opponent’s scoring area during the scoring step”. It still has all the danger of the original ability, but without the intense take-that that can follow. I think that would honestly speed things up, because now I have no incentive to not just play it straight out the gate. The card just creates an unpleasant tension between players, because one of them now has the explicit power to really mess the other player up (break up a straight, give them a color that doesn’t score, etc). It’s … just pure take-that.

Overall: 7.75 / 10

Overall, I think Boba Mahjong is great! I think I’ll probably prefer the simple variant to the advanced variant, all things being equal, as some of the Topping Powers, while fun, introduce take-that in ways I don’t like. The basic game, on the other hand, is short and cute and a great game to introduce to folks who are just getting started with modern board games. You’ve got the classic card games, and then you’ve got Boba Mahjong, which isn’t too far off. People like that sort of thing. It helps that the art is cute, as well, though I kind of miss the various animals of the Cat Sudoku series. You can’t have it all, I guess. I think my major issues with Boba Mahjong are around the game’s incentivizing players to min-max, but when you’ve got a (fairly amusingly harsh) scoring tier system, there’s not really a lot you can do. If a player gets a 9, they lose 4 points (since you always round down scores to a multiple of 5), so players get kind of antsy at the end of the round trying not to lose points that they don’t feel like they have enough of. And I get that. It’s tough. It just slows down what should be a quick-and-peppy two-player game. That said, it doesn’t happen all the time, and when it doesn’t, the game’s great! It’s quick, snappy, and you’re trying to manage a lot of different scoring avenues to make the perfect boba, which, I mean, is probably the dream. Fun themes go a long way towards making the game itself fun, I feel, and this is the kind of theme that is going to resonate with a lot of people. Then again, given that Ta-Te also made Macaron recently, I think he’s just going for an entire Snack Collection. And I’m into that. If you’re looking for a solid little two-player card game, you really like boba, or you just enjoy set collection, I’d recommend checking out Boba Mahjong! I certainly think it’s a pearl. Because they call boba pearls, sometimes. Like the boba tea pearls, not a pearl in an oyster. I’m making a joke about the double meaning of pearls because they’re in bo


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