Full disclosure: A review copy of À la Food Cart was provided by Button Shy.
We’re nearing the end of our Button Shy Review Extravaganza. To be fair, I did roll out of PAX Unplugged with a lot of Button Shy titles (I hadn’t seen them in a couple years), so, there was a lot of ground to cover. And we did! Tons of adventures, tons of themes, and a few more still to go! We’re handling food carts now and running an inn solo to wrap things up. So that’ll be exciting; look forward to that. Let’s see what’s going on with À la Food Cart!
In À la Food Cart, you’re in the midst of the Food Cart Festival! Naturally, you want to be the best one around, so you’re going to knock people’s socks off with a veritable world tour of recipes, as long as you can get all the ingredients you need to make them. The problem is, there are other folks who have their eyes on that prize, as well, and you’re going to have to work pretty hard to snag what you need to cook what you gotta if you want to win! Will you be able to take the top spot and make a name for yourself as a master chef?
A little, here, but not much. You’re going to want to shuffle the four Bonus Cards:
Give each player two. One will become their Bonus Card, and the other will be their Goal Card (on the other side):
Shuffle the Market Cards, making sure to flip a few of them 180 degrees as you do:
Then, reveal five face-up in the center to form the Market. Place the Starting Arrow and Pantry Cards on either side of the Market, turned so that the boxes are facing towards the Market, rather than away from it:
Choose a player to start, and flip the Starting Player Card so that the arrow points towards them. You should be ready to go! Deal two more Market Cards to each player, face-down, to be their workers.
So this is a pretty interesting one. Here, you’re trying to complete your Goal Card by filling it up with the freshest ingredients, sourcing them for recipes you hope to someday make. How are you going to do that? Worker placement. Yes, a worker placement Button Shy game. Let’s get into it.
On your turn, you may place one of your workers so that it covers two squares on any card or pair of cards, on the side facing you. The only exception is this: if your opponent covers any of the squares on the other side of the same card(s), you may not cover those squares. Essentially, only one player may play on a card. Some of those spaces have Actions on them, which you immediately take, if you are able to do so. One extra action that each player may spend a Worker to take, once per round, is the Pantry Action, which gives them an ingredient of their choice in the next phase. To take that action, players place a card so that its corner is on the pantry space. Once all players have played all of their workers, the Market Phase ends.
In the Cooking Phase, players use their collected ingredients to mark off spaces on their Goal Card. To start, the Goal Card has no spaces covered by the Bonus Card. Players choose either the bottom-left or bottom-right corner to cover with their Bonus Card (provided they have the pictured ingredient). They may move it up and across, provided they have earned the ingredients matching the indicated spaces. You cannot move past the other vertical line on your Goal Card, nor can you move past the horizontal line at the top of your Goal Card. As you move your Bonus Card up, you earn Bonuses, which can be used in subsequent rounds to help with your Market Phase and your Cooking. Sometimes, you’ll even unlock abilities that you can use during a round, or gain extra Workers!
After Cooking, take the remaining Workers in the deck and all played (and unplayed) Workers and Market Cards, and shuffle them up to create a new deck (again, rotating some cards 180 degrees as you do). Deal out another five face-up, and then flip the Starting Player Arrow to face the Starting Player (if needed). A new round can start!
If, after the Cooking Phase, either player has completely covered their Goal Card, that player wins! If both players have, look at the Starting Player Arrow. Whoever it’s pointing at loses!
Player Count Differences
I’ve been really locking down some two-player-only or solo-only Button Shy games, lately. So pleased to report, no player count differences here; it’s only for two players.
- Every round counts. This is a very tight game. You don’t have a lot of rounds you can waste messing around, since once you get behind, you’re playing a game of catch-up and it’s hard to both block your opponent and make progress yourself. You’d rather not be caught between that rock and that hard place, if you can avoid it. This mostly means that, as I’ll expand on below, don’t just take abilities for no reason; focus on getting what you need.
- Don’t just take spaces because you want the abilities. Genuinely think through what ingredients you want, and then target the quickest way to get them. The abilities can help you along that path, but just taking them for their own sake may leave you with nothing useful. It’s really tempting, since some of the abilities are fun and let you rotate a card so you can take three spaces instead of two, or flip a card over and get the surprise ingredients on the back, or exchange ingredients or save cards for next round, but if you don’t genuinely need the ingredients you’re getting, you’re going to end up with three breads when what you really wanted was a salt. That’s a waste of a round, and you don’t get many of those. Try to resist the temptation of abilities and instead try to gather ingredients that will help propel your game forward.
- Extra workers are helpful, but only so much. Eventually, you just run out of room to place workers, especially if you and your opponent are being space hogs and spacing your workers out with tons of gaps between them. It’s a bit wasteful to get a fourth worker that you can’t really use; could you have spent your previous worker on something more useful?
- Keep an eye on what your opponent is looking for, as well; blocking them in the late game can be pretty crucial if you want to stay in it. Ideally, you can block them by taking something that you both need, otherwise you’re just trying to stalemate aggressively, and that won’t work forever. They will eventually be the Start Player and / or get the card that they’ve been trying to get. Plus, stalemating, as a strategy, is kind of dull.
- Secret Recipe works a bit better earlier in the game than later. By the end of the game, you really need that spread of ingredients, and getting something at random is just as likely to hinder you as it is to help you. You’ll almost definitely need to get one of each ingredient to win; do you think that you can randomly get two of the six you need, especially if you’ve already got some other ingredients already? The probability isn’t your friend, on that front. Earlier in the game, however, you might be able to use Secret Recipe to guide where you move towards, which can be pretty useful.
- Trendsetter can really mess your opponent up. You can really just move them onto cards that they won’t be able to use that well, which is rude. Are they about to win? Just push them onto a recipe that doesn’t do anything for them. It’s unclear if pushing them onto an Action means that they get to use the Action, but that could possibly work in your favor, anyways.
- Keep an eye on what bonuses you’re getting; you may honestly change your mind about how you move through the rounds as a result. Generally speaking, the Bonuses peak in “quality” in about the fourth or fifth row; once you’re trying to make the last move of the game, they generally only give you one ingredient, tops. That may mean that it’s worth clearing out a few more columns before trying to make progress on the final row.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Worker placement is an ambitious shot for a Button Shy title to take. It is, to be fair. Generally, you expect a worker placement game to have a lot of components and details and such, but using the cards as workers is pretty ingenious (even if it is, functionally, what you’d have to do to get a worker placement game to work in Button Shy’s wallet game line; it’s still impressive that it works). I particularly like that the blocking is so easy and visual; it’s a nice touch.
- I really like games about food. I think they’re fun. It’s pretty much a perennially good theme for games. Food is good. People like food. People like games about food. Can’t go wrong with them. I particularly like the diverse array of foods included in this game, as well; it’s a smorgasbord.
- I appreciate that the game gets more challenging as you go along, but you also get better at gaining more ingredients. You, the player, improve your strategy, even when the game’s Bonuses start to slowly decrease, as you get a feel for how to play and how to collect ingredients. I think it’s a really interesting game in terms of how it enables that player agency. Even in my first game, I got a much better sense of how to play by the middle of it, just as I started experiencing a need for more ingredients and I knew what to do and how to get them. The progression feels good.
- I also like that the ingredient grids can be very different for players. There are a lot of interesting challenges, especially with how Minimalist has gaps in the grid or some of the players have completely shuffled grids versus patterned grids. It’s pretty cool.
- The art for the food is also very good; everything looks delicious. Just some really fantastic art from Astrid Abreu, here. Some of the recipes are making me hungry, and it’s basically 2AM right now, as I’m writing this.
- This is a very tricky little game. I kinda like that! This is one of the more difficult Button Shy games I’ve played (other than Scott Almes’s solo games, which are straight up terrors, at times). It’s a tough concept to wrap your brain around and a really interesting distillation of a gaming genre. I like that a lot.
- I like the bonuses system, as well. It’s just a cool way to offer some variability to your games and also let players determine how they want to improve (and eventually decline). I think it works well!
- Another very portable game. All of the Button Shy games are, but I continue to appreciate that a lot.
- The logo is pleasant, as well. It looks like a fancy restaurant menu! The wallet helps that a lot, I think.
- It took us a bit of time to wrap our head around the core concept of the game, just because it seems odd that recipes give you ingredients. There’s been some tension in the explanation because players aren’t really getting it, and I don’t quite get it either, but that’s okay. Just some light ludonarrative dissonance. Doesn’t negatively impact the game that much.
- The Starting Player Arrow is printed so it flips across the opposite side of the card that I expected, which led to some initial confusion. This is purely a personal preference, but I tend to flip cards along along the opposite axis than whoever printed these does, so I kept flipping the Starting Player Arrow card the wrong way for the entire first game. Genuinely frustrating.
- It actually can be a bit challenging to figure out which ingredients you’ve gotten on a particular turn without some sort of tracker. This is where bits would be helpful, but that’s not really a Button Shy thing. So it goes.
- Some of the power interactions are a bit confusing, and examples in the rulebook could help clear that up a lot. We particularly struggled with Trendsetter, since it would seem like some of the Actions are somewhat affected by Trendsetter, but Trendsetter also clears out space for you to take a Recipe that was just vacated. For instance, if I use Trendsetter to move a player off of the “Start Player” action, does that mean they don’t become Start Player next round (unless they would have normally, anyways?). But moving them off of a recipe means that they definitely don’t get the included ingredients. Just, more generally, some examples of play in the rulebook would have helped a lot.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, I thought that À la Food Cart was pretty fun! Worker placement isn’t my all-time favorite genre, generally speaking (not my least favorite either; just not my favorite), but seeing it adapted to a Button Shy wallet title was pretty cool! What I was a bit less pleased with was our initial struggles to figure out how a few abilities interacted or played out, and even the BGG forums don’t really seem to answer our questions much, unfortunately. The rulebook is meant to be small, granted, but some examples of play would have saved us a lot of time and confusion. Alas. I think that this is a pretty ambitious little title, and I respect that a lot! Plus, it’s a food game; who doesn’t enjoy a food game? Just a fantastic theme, all around, with great art to boot. I think worker placement enthusiasts might be intrigued by this one, but it may also not be a bad way to teach the concept. It’s got blocking, it’s got resources to manage; what more could you want, probably. Either way, I did enjoy À la Food Cart, and if you’re looking for a quick-and-simple worker placement game, an interesting resource management puzzle, or a game that looks good enough to eat, you might enjoy it as well!
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