The rest of the book, it's... it's a cookbook!How to Serve Man is a 2-6 player worker placement game where, inspired by the classic Damon Knight story of the same name, the players are aliens competing in an Iron Chef-style competition with meeples as the featured ingredient. Players work to collect sets of ingredients that will satisfy the requirements of recipe cards, then score those recipe cards for points while collecting judge cards with their own point bonuses or penalties based on those judges' idiosyncratic food preferences. Meanwhile, various event cards will come into play, disrupting the players' plans.
The action curve in How to Serve Man is flat as a crepe, the competition for placing workers is all-but-nonexistent, and victory is far more dependent on the haphazard imbalances of event and judge card draws than on the skill of the players.
The game board. Only stations onWhat’s an “action curve” and how is it flat?
the left and right sides can be blocked.
Simply put, there is no strategic variety to the outcome of most of the action spaces in the game. All recipes (the primary means of scoring points) rely on one or more cooked ingredients. Cooked ingredients are cooked from raw ingredients. So far, this is fine. However, all raw ingredients are gathered via “take 2 raw” actions, and all cooked ingredients are gathered via “convert 2 raw to 1 cooked” actions, and these are always singular actions (that is, a cook action will only produce one cooked ingredient, even if the player has enough raw ingredients on hand for several such cook actions). So, each cooked ingredient takes exactly two actions: one to gather, one to cook. There is no predictable advantage to how the collective set of actions is scheduled.
I don’t care about placing workers?
Not really, no. I’ve never once cared about where the first player token sat in relation to me. There is no Allez cuisine! The first problem is that roughly half of the action spaces on the board are unlimited (those for gathering raw ingredients and presenting recipes). Because of the action curve issue above, unlimited gathering cuts the competition for specific locations in half (as roughly half of your actions will have to be on those unlimited spaces). Secondly, the cooking stations are all limited, but each player has one Master Chef worker (of three total) that can be placed on an already-filled cooking space provided that space doesn’t have some other player’s Master Chef. Thus, only the first Sous Chef worker placed in a round is likely to engage in any sort of space competition, and there are at least as many limited-access spaces on the board as there are number of players (the game matches at 4 players, but opens twice as many spaces at 5-6 players) Thirdly, while the Master Chef could be used for blocking, external pressures make the option unpalatable: the Master Chef awards bonus points if used to present completed recipes (an unlimited space), the Master Chef is the only worker that can be used to draw new recipe cards (admittedly a very weak action), and the low number of workers, combined with the flat action curve, means that blocking is not sustained enough to matter in total and not important enough to matter in the moment. With blocking being so inconsequential, this is the most multiplayer-solitaire worker placement game I’ve ever played.
A component shot that appears stagedWhat do you mean, haphazard?
but nonetheless is a decent illustration
of the lack of blocking.
Every time a player completes a recipe, they choose a judge from three face-up who provides bonus scoring opportunities for both the current recipe and those they complete for the rest of the game. They additionally flip over and resolve the top card of the event deck. Both items can substantially swing game positions. Events are frequently of the “Do X thing with your ingredients; if you cannot, lose 2 points”. Because the action curve is flat (and because limited component supply issues are resolved by stealing from other players), there is no incentive to gather or hold excess ingredients: one simply hopes that the arbitrary action will be something that isn’t a setback. Inevitably, though, some players will see more setbacks than others, and there is no player-controlled means of altering pace to catch up.
Judges are perhaps worse. Many are of a form “Gain +X points for these ingredients, lose -Y points for those” (such as a judge who likes fried food and hates boiled food). Those are fine in themselves, but because no mechanism exists to wipe the current slate of judges (or even to blind-draw from the deck), players can easily be stuck selecting from a set of three judges who are all neutral if not outright harmful to their plans. Note that the selection of a judge is not optional. Worse yet are the special effect judges, which are in several cases not remotely balanced, either within the scope of the game or among player count. Judges that can provide an immediate 20-point swing (in a game which plays to 50, and in which most judges will instead be in the 5-to-10-point range) are a failing of game design.
Because the particular order in which players choose to do things is flexible to the point of being arbitrary, these external impacts will provide the majority of the input into the final outcome of the game.
Toast! Butter! A... thing... on the left?What about the components and rules and stuff?
The wooden bits are generally nice (the two-tone toast piece is particularly good, the salt shaker thing the least clear), though the color selection for some of the players is odd. I assume colorblind considerations are at work, but the yellow player and the light olive drab player are close enough to cause confusion for my color-normal group. If the palette needed to be the same, the bright green raw vegetables and olive drab player could have been color-swapped. The scoring markers are unnecessarily tiny; larger discs (to stack on a shared score space, rather than being clustered) should have been chosen. The scoring track should have been better considered for run-over (the track ends at 67, which means that the highlighted 5s and 10s beyond are not helpful for final scoring).
The rules are frustratingly incomplete or unclear on several things. For example:
• Can players go below zero on the score track? When the starting player begins with 0 points and some stations cost points to use, this is an obvious and important question.
• The strict limit of one token conversion on the Boiler/Fryer/Oven cooking stations should be explicitly noted in the rules, player aids, and the graphic design of the board. The rules and player aids leave the matter to inference and the graphic design strongly suggests that the action is to cook a meat and/or a veggie (or perhaps even multiple meats and/or veggies).
• When playing with 5+ players (unlocking the second space on each cooking station), can a Master Chef worker be placed overtop a Sous Chef worker on Space 2 if Space 1 has a Master Chef? The rules say no, the player aid says yes (varying on the use of "space" or "station"; this is not the only such issue from inconsistent terminology)
• Judges are particularly poorly explained: Does a judge who likes boiled veg and hates baked meat score on the ingredients used in a recipe, on the ingredients left on a player’s board, or both? What about when the judge is used at final scoring? The rules are silent.
How to Serve Man is clearly a functional game — the rules are interpretable, the basic layout is clear — but it does not have a target market. No demographic is going to find a compelling reason to make this particular game the game they want to buy or play (except perhaps at the pursuit of theme to the exclusion of all other considerations).
I should perhaps note that I started this review (which started as just a comment) at a BGG 6 -- "OK, fine, I'll play it". I wasn't angry at the game; it simply started as "not for me".
But as I started writing down the reasons it wasn't higher, I found myself stuck asking "but why would I be willing to play it?" Well, because my friends want to. But peer pressure is a mediocre justification, and I was bored by my actions from a very early point in the game, so I'm down to a 4. And nobody's skill had any observable effect on final scoring, so I'm down to a 2. And because there wasn't space to make meaningful good decisions in an hour-long game, I couldn't find a reason to say "but in X circumstance, it's got a place".
"ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS... USE THEM TOGETHER. USE THEM IN PEACE."
Worse yet are the special effect judges, which are in several cases not remotely balanced, either within the scope of the game or among player count. Judges that can provide an immediate 20-point swing (in a game which plays to 50, and in which most judges will instead be in the 5-to-10-point range) are a failing of game design.
I could not agree more with this. In a recent play-through with players who had all played previously, a player went from 20 to 71 points via playing a big recipe and then selecting a judge that netted an additional 22 points. It was a very lack-luster ending to the game. Even that player was confused how they rocketed up so fast.
In previous plays, the same group encountered imbalanced recipes and a similar struggle with some Judges just being way too good compared to other Judges.
The game seems like it has a good core, and everyone chortles as they fry up their humans, but, wow, it needed a few more passes at the cards I think.