#996 – Dulce

Base price: $40.
1 – 4 players.
Play time: ~30 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 2

Full disclosure: A review copy of Dulce was provided by Indie Game Studios.

I mean, the holiday season, at least for me, is mostly about sweets, so this seemed like the natural place to take that. We might be a little post-holiday by the time this one posts, but at least for me, there’s a certain amount of necessity to getting ahead of the curve in time for the new year. I’m thinking a lot about what to do after review #1000, and how to structure content moving forward so that it doesn’t end up eating up my entire life, especially with big personal changes on the horizon in 2023. More on that later. But in the meantime, we’ve got Dulce! Let’s see how it plays.

In Dulce, players take on the role of rival confectioners, trying to make the ideal sweets. The best ingredients are the ones you grow yourself, they say (I assume someone says that), so you’re going to take farm-to-table pretty seriously on your way to the top. Waste not, want not, though; everything you use can potentially be reused further down the line so that you can really get the most out of the crops you’re harvesting. If not, well, the chickens will eat them, so someone’s getting something out of it either way. You’ll have to be more than delicious if you want to win; you’ll need to be efficient. So who’s going to end up with the sweetest victory of all?

Contents

Setup

Not a lot! Each player gets a board:

And they get a set of twenty-four cards, as well:

The cards are double-sided! That may come in handy later.

One player shuffles their deck and removes four cards; the other players keep their decks in order from 1 – 24. Each player takes the player tokens in their corresponding color:

Place the meeple on 0 and the chicken above the 0. Then, place the cubes nearby, organized by color. You should be ready to start!

Gameplay

Over the course of a game of Dulce, players will work up a storm of confections across a variety of cafes as they plant and harvest resources to power chains and chains of candymaking. As they do, they’ll be able to use the byproducts of some cafes as ingredients for others, and feed whatever they can’t use to the chickens. Make sweets to score points; how difficult could it be?

In any given round, there are three phases: Draw, Action, and Scoring. After twenty rounds, the game ends. Let’s talk about the phases.

Draw Phase

This one’s the simplest. The player with the randomized deck draws the top card and calls out the card number. Don’t just call out the name; that’s unhelpful (sorry, Antoine). All other players take the corresponding card from their deck, so everyone has drawn the same card.

Action Phase

Now, players can do one of three actions with their card: build a cafe, plant fields, or harvest crops.

  • Build a Cafe: To build a cafe, place the card in front of you, cafe-side up. You already have four cafes in the corners of your player board, but these will provide additional candies for you to create during the Scoring Phase.
  • Plant Fields: To plant fields, place the card face-down on the board so that it covers any four spaces (including any of the cafes in the corners). Then, place one cube of the corresponding resource on each of the four spaces on the card. If you cover any resources that are currently on the board with your new card, they are fed to the chickens, moving the chicken meeple up one space for each resource discarded. If you cover a space with a space of the same type, you get a bonus! Add two cubes of that resource type to the new space instead of one.
  • Harvest Crops: To harvest, simply discard your card out of play. You may then choose any row or any column on your board and take all the resources from that row or column, placing them onto the spaces on your various cafes that correspond to that resource. When a resource is collected from the field, it may be placed on any three-, two-, or one-ring space of the same type. If you cannot place a resource, you may feed it to the chickens to advance your chicken meeple up by one. Before the Action Phase ends, you may move the chicken backwards three spaces to gain one Egg (a wild resource), placing it on any space of your choice. You must place all resources before the end of the Phase (or feed the chickens with them).

Scoring Phase

The Scoring Phase is only available to players who chose to Harvest Crops as their action. By doing so, they will have placed resources (three-ring, two-ring, or one-ring) in their various cafes that can be turned into candy (and points).

Activate any cafe with all of its resource spaces covered to score 1 point. Any three-ring or two-ring resources in that cafe can be placed on any matching two-ring or one-ring resource spaces on your other cafes (or fed to the chickens to move the chicken meeple up one space per cube spent). Note that one-ring resources, once spent, are returned to the supply. This all means that cafes can produce byproducts that earn you points and supply other cafes with resources, so the order that you choose to activate your cafes in can matter a great deal. If you spend an egg to activate a cafe, the egg is returned to the supply; it does not create any byproducts.

You may always choose any cafe with its resource spaces filled to activate, there is no set order. This may mean that you activate a cafe more than once during the Scoring Phase, if you play your resources right. Once there are no cafes remaining with filled resource spaces, your Scoring Phase ends. Any partially-filled spaces can be saved for the next Scoring Phase.

End of Game

After twenty rounds, the randomized player will have no cards left, signaling the end of the game. The player with the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

I mean, structurally none. You could play this solo if you wanted (and indeed, there’s a solo mode that plays the same as the base game). There’s essentially one control player who does all the game’s execution, and then the other players mirror that on their own boards. To that end, you could functionally play this remote, asynchronously, or even in a 100-player system, probably. You’ll need a lot of cubes, for that, granted. The one thing worth noting is that with more players, you’ll get to a point where every round, one player is likely Harvesting and Scoring, which will slow the game down, to some degree. It’s not an enormous dealbreaker, for me, but if you’re looking for a quicker iteration of Dulce, fewer players will probably help you, there. Either way, I don’t have a strong preference on player count for this one.

Strategy

  • You really want 2s and 1s of various types. I use 2s and 1s here to refer to cafes that require ground beans (2 rings) and butter (1 ring) ingredients to produce their confections. Your four cafes on your board are all threes, so they’ll generate some runoff ingredients every time you use them. You want to make sure that you’ve got a good downward slope so that you can take the leftovers and consistently use them for the next thing you want to produce. The better you are at that, the more efficient your production will be, and the more likely that you’ll be able to turn a whole lot of cubes into a whole lot of points.
  • You don’t need to go too wide on your production; just a few strong paths that earn you points will be good. If you go too wide on your cafes and create too many unique ones, you’ll have cafes that you won’t be able to fill and you won’t have enough crops planted to get you the resources you need. Building your engine is critical, yes, but making sure you have the resources to start it up is also critical. Finding that balance based on what cards get played is what makes Dulce fun.
  • Placing resources is pretty critical to making your production engine work. You absolutely need resources! You should try to have pretty consistent lines of resources available so that you can take them and pour them directly into your engine. Without resources, as I mentioned, you can’t earn any points, and you really don’t want to end up with an engine that starts and stops every round; consistent flow of resources from café to café is how you’re going to earn the most points.
  • Don’t forget that placing matching resource spaces lets you double up! You can even use that to donate a lot of resources to feeding the chicken. You can place the same resource space on top of another; doing so earns you two resource cubes of that type, regardless of whether or not there were already resource cubes there. Any cubes there get sent to the chickens, so you can use that to generate some Eggs without (effectively) losing any resources. There’s some mild opportunity cost to it, but you’re not going to be able to always pull complete or useful lines of resources, so I argue that it largely evens out.
  • Similarly, while Eggs can’t produce byproducts, they’re very helpful for patching up any holes in your engine. Just make sure you don’t produce too many! You have to decide how many Eggs you’re going to produce ahead of actually scoring your cafes, so make sure you take some time to math it all out. Making too many is wasteful, and making too few means that your engines aren’t going to be able to fully run between all of your cafes, since you’re not producing enough secondary resources to continue production. The Eggs are meant to allow your cafes to generate those byproduct resources, so they’re critical to production (unless you have all the resources you need, you lucky scoundrel).
  • You can leave resources on your cafes between rounds, but make sure that you don’t do so in a way that you junk up your engine. Leaving resources behind instead of feeding them to the chickens denies you a chance to produce Eggs, granted, but it might be just what you need in lieu of an Egg to keep your engine going. Just make sure you weren’t counting on that space being empty for another cafe’s result, otherwise you’re messing with the core of your engine in a way that I wouldn’t recommend.
  • Your starting cafes can be handy starting points for your various resource engines, just because they don’t require two resources to get up and going. Those will earn you a point with only one resource of each type, which is great. You can then immediately use the byproducts in other cafes, making the four corner cafes excellent places to start an engine. That said, they consume valuable real estate, so the enterprising player may decide, at some point, to eliminate one or two in favor of farm space. I can’t recommend removing them all, though.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • I like the theme a lot! It’s candy-making; what’s not to like? It’s a pleasant theme that I don’t often see in games, and I’m always on the lookout for a wide variety of themes.
  • The art style is very pleasant as well. It’s a bit more pastel than I usually care for, but that’s not the worst thing. If anything, it actually makes the game a bit easier to play, since there’s so much contrast between the cards and the cubes. I do wish that the cubes were slightly more distinct, though.
  • This is a pretty nice lower-complexity combo-heavy game. The combos are still an important part of gameplay, but they’re not particularly complex combos to pull off. You just need to keep track of ingredients and gradually move them around between various cafes so you can collect the byproducts and use them for the next link in an ongoing chain. It’s a pretty satisfying process, all things considered. I appreciate that you’re really just moving a cube into a cast-off pile or to the next link, so the combo doesn’t necessarily impose too much of a mental strain on the player to execute.
  • I really like games where one player has a random deck and everyone else follows suit. I’m not sure why this mechanic appeals to me so much, but I think I like the mixture of strategy and tactical play that results. Everyone starts on equal ground, and sure, there are some lucky combinations that emerge, but it very much feels like anyone can win at the start of the game. There’s no special board placement or starting bonus resources; it’s a level playing field. That changes rapidly as players make different choices, but I appreciate all the possibility bundled up in the beginning of the game.
  • A fairly easy game to pick up, especially since you can only do one of three things on your turn. You play a card face-up, play it face-down, or discard it to collect and use resources. Everything else just follows from one of those three core actions. It’s one of the reasons a three-player game is kind of neat; players can literally all choose a completely different thing to do.
  • I appreciate that “wasted” resources can become eggs so they don’t just end up being nothing. It’s a nice way to avoid penalizing players who get unlucky or can’t quite get the combo that they want to build to fire. It also provides a nice way to pad out your engine so that you can get a few good runs of it to score points, even if you don’t quite have the production of a resource or two fully nailed down.
  • I also like that the ingredients essentially can have up to three uses if you play your cards right. You can use them as a three-ring, a two-ring, and a one-ring resource as they make their way out of play, which gives you a lot of utility for just one cube. It’s really satisfying when you can pull off the complete lifecycle of a resource like that, and that mild satisfaction drives a lot of strategy. It’s good design.

Mehs

  • For your first game (or first half of a game) (or really as much as you want), you might want to let newer players buy their eggs a bit later in the Scoring Process just so they can figure out where the holes in their engine will come up. I don’t expect new players to really immediately intuit how the full engine-building process works, so what I’ve been doing is just having them place their “to the chickens” resources in a pile so that they can feed the chickens in a batch at the end of the Scoring Phase. This means that during the Scoring Phase, they can then spend their chicken token freely and buy eggs to cover holes in their engine they weren’t originally predicting. Granted, there’s a bit of rules massaging that has to happen so that, say, a player doesn’t use multiple eggs on the same cafe in one Scoring Phase (since that wouldn’t be possible in the standard rules), but we’ve found that this helps players understand how eggs factor into their engine-building process for the first couple Scoring Phases. By the end of the game, we can play normally, and we keep an eye out so that players aren’t doing anything they wouldn’t be allowed to do under the actual rules.
  • I wish the cards were a bit heavier so that they’d stay in place when you add them to the field. This would probably help if they were tiles, not cards, but the cards slide around a bunch, which can both make your play area look messy and also knock other tokens around (which might be more of an actual problem). This is one of the reasons I don’t love playing what is functionally a tile-laying game with cards in lieu of tiles, especially since the board is smooth enough that they don’t really stay on their own.

Cons

  • No matter how many times I look at the rulebook, it usually takes me about half of a game to intuit which colors are which resources. I really can’t tell which one is chocolate or coffee off the top of my head, so I end up having to consult the rulebook every time. This is a problem that would have been much more easily solved with specific tokens or, honestly, cardboard chits of some kind. I’m surprised they went with cubes. From a texture standpoint, they’re nice to play with, but from a usability standpoint, they’re almost too generic.
  • Some players are just going to struggle with this one because of how combo-heavy it is (and how much forethought the combos require).

Overall: 7 / 10

Overall, I think Dulce is a fun game! The key here is that it’s an engine-building game that I find much more approachable than some of the more aggressively combo-heavy titles I’ve played in the past. While I’m getting more used to their complexity (and starting to enjoy it), I can say that Dulce is a game that I wish existed when I was first getting started in board gaming. It’s got a fantastic theme, it’s not overly complicated, and I think the core schtick (that resources can generate byproducts that can be used again) is an interesting and compelling concept to build a game around. Plus, Dulce features one of my favorite mechanics in a game, which is all players getting the exact same randomized sequence of cards or tiles or what have you. I really like it! It’s part of why I like Legendary Forests so much. Here, since the cards can be used for three different actions, you have a wealth of options open up to you, so you also won’t necessarily see players copying each others’ strategies at any point. It’s much more likely that players will just do their own thing after they achieve a bit of differentiation from each other. But learning the strategy will take some time, and some players are going to struggle a bit with the upfront cost of planning your scoring round when you harvest resources. That’s really where the game slows down, particularly when players are trying to decide how many Eggs they need (as many players will essentially do a dry run of their engine and then use Eggs to patch the holes they observe). There’s not really anything that can be done about that, since players aren’t allowed to buy Eggs during the Scoring Phase. It just ends up giving players a bit of a headache. Another spot that confused me was having the resources all represented by cubes in the white to brown to gray range. I get what they’re meant to represent, but boy howdy was I confused during my first game trying to figure out which cube was coffee. I got there eventually, but as much as I hate to say it, this is a pretty good argument for just having cardboard tokens of each resource type; they’re more visually distinct. That all said, you’ve still got a fun game with Dulce, so if you’re trying to learn how to get into engine-building games, you enjoy games on the lower end of the player interaction spectrum, or you’ve just got quite the sweet tooth, you might want to check Dulce out!


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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