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Subject: Chocolatl - A First Impression/Session rss

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M.J.E. Hendriks
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This is going to be something right in between a session report and a review - after one play I wouldn't want to call it a review, but it'll get fairly close.

Chocolatl is a bidding game, lasting anywhere under an hour, even with first-time explanation, so too with us. Yes, our eyes glazed over soon enough as we had had a long day of gaming, but once we were playing the game turned out to be really straightforward.

In Chocolatl you are a... errrr, well you're a person making offerings to the gods, harvesting cacao, helping to build pyramids (and not caring if they actually get finished). Hmmm... this brings me to my first point.

THEME

Chocolatl is a beautiful game with a fantastic (not literally of course) theme. However, who you are, why you are doing what you're doing, and how the game mechanisms correspond to the theme never really becomes clear. In fact, it feels very much like Lost Cities in that you enjoy the artwork and focus on the gameplay, totally ignoring the accompanying theme.

In area 2, for example, there are 3 white cacao dice and you're apparently harvesting the cacao in that area. Having been taught the game, I didn't even know what I had been doing there - the game mechanism I understood, but the thematic link - nope.

What's more, the bidding you must do to win an area is not always thematically linked either. In the first area the person making the largest sacrifice to the gods gets a bonus, and the person with the smallest sacrifice a penalty, which is totally understandable - you could see this as the happiness and wrath of the gods. However, in the second section, how would a large "offering" (your bid, as described per the rules) actually relate to harvesting cacao which in fact gives point. In the third area your offering can win you the possibility to build a hut! It just doesn't make all that much sense.

Theme-wise I believe there's room for improvement.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

The game has 6 phases and 1 extra phase in which you discard one of your 13 cards (0-12) which will give you points outright at the end.

This first card you play you only play once, at the very start of the game. A safe bet here is to dump a 5 or 6, as you really do need the higher numbers. You could store away 12 points, but then you won't be winning many of the bids.

The first area sees you making an offer to Quetzalquatl. The highest bid wins the Chocolatl figure, letting you win any tie-breakers in the game (which otherwise go to the player furthest back on the score track) and you get 1 VP. This isn't particularly interesting. More interesting is avoiding coming in last, as that'd win you the Old Man figure, and -1 to each next bid that round.

The second area sees the players bidding for the points on 3 randomly rolled dice, with the winner winning the highest point total, and the losing players getting nothing (or the least,depending on the number of players I guess). This is huge. For example, the three dice rolled are 6-4-3. Winning this area gains you 6 points, the nr 2 gets 4, the nr 3 gets 3, and the nr 4 (etc.) get nothing!

The third area is the city of Tenochtitlan and here you bid to build a hut or get a die. Winner chooses one of the two, the second highest bid gets the other. The hut is a +1 for the rest of the game for all areas but this one, while you get a -1 for this area, making it a bit harder to win in the future. The die can be rolled to add to a bid at any point in the future, but (only one of them, should you get more) can be rolled at the end of the game to give you the number of points displayed. In the beginning of the game, the hut is extremely useful. The die is not something I'm too crazy about as it makes the game awfully luck-dependent.

The fourth area sees players bid to help build a pyramid. Winning this bid by three or more lets one player add two blocks, otherwise the first two players get to place a block. This gives bonus points during the game and at the end of the game, and can add up. Fairly interesting choice.

The fifth area sees the players bid to make a cacao drink (again, I was blissfully unaware about this until I referenced the rules for this review). Highest bid gets some very nice points. Second bid gets a couple of points in the first few rounds. Point is, the points get less and less in this section as you approach the end of the game. The losing bid here loses two points, so this is another area you wouldn't want to lose.

The sixth area allows the two winning bids to replace any of their cards (you'll naturally start with your 0, as that's your worst card) with one of two cards lying open here. These can be fairly good cards - I even saw a 10 - so this can certainly be worth it!

GAME PLAY

Game play is fast and even if players need to think a little now and then it's really hard not to maintain game flow.

Despite the seeming lack of a connection between the theme and the game mechanics, they do work. After the first round all players are clear on what they need to do and what the goal is (to get most points!).

Bidding is simple and quick, and since it's simply the placing of two cards, blind, there's no time lost on calculating whether or not it's worth it to overbid someone, as would happen in other, similar bidding games, like Ra. Of course, this does increase the random factor.

GAME MECHANISMS

Some interesting game mechanisms were used in this game, such as the concept of winning ties if you're behind on the score track, and if you're tied on the score track too, to win it if you made it to that spot later than the other player (meaning your score marker disk is on top of that other player's).

A very interesting mechanism was created for the bidding, with three different methods being included. The first is simply laying 2 closed cards down with each section, and then going through the areas one by one, but the other two involve playing each area individually. This way you can see what numbers other players have played and can adjust your tactics. The final method involves placing one closed and one open card for an area - we didn't even get the chance to try this out. Personally, I feel this is very gamey and not really fitting with the theme. On the other hand it livens up the game and doesn't overcomplicate anything, so why not?

The game lasts 7 rounds or ends in a round in which a player passes the 40 mark. Since in our game the latter occurred, I'm not so sure it would last 7 rounds all that often, but I've been told this is the case more often than not. It at least keeps the game nice and short, but it doesn't feel like the game ends too quickly.

COMPONENTS

I played a factory edition which will see a few changes, but from what I can see this game will look really good! It breathes authenticity! Or coffee. Or both.

The only thing that bothered me was that the score track didn't go all around the board. The score track finishes at 45, whilst if you end the game by someone reaching 40, as happened in our game, this player will definitely go over 45 with game end bonuses. I got 59 points in our game, and it was weird to have to jump over the interrupted section in the score track and end on 14. This also makes counting your final score somewhat difficult, though the winner is obvious.

FUN FACTOR

I'm really big on theme, and this is a game that delivers in theme if you like beautiful artwork and a cool theme. If you want the game mechanisms and game story to fit the theme, then this doesn't really work all that well. However, does it get in the way of the game? I would say it doesn't. Something I wouldn't say of Vikings or Vasco da Gama, where I feel improvement of the theme-game connection would actually improve the game.

No, this is more along the lines of Lost Cities - perhaps a lost opportunity with regard to the exciting theme chosen, but still very nice, with cool artwork that gives the vibe of an Aztec game.

The game plays fast and is fun. It's not difficult, there's little to no AP, and players can even socialize whilst playing. On the other hand, there are some very meaningful decisions to be made, which does keep it interesting for players who like deeper games like myself.

REPLAYABILITY

Having only played the game once, I cannot say too much about this. However, I have already got a good insight into what areas are more valuable than others. Especially if these areas give you lots of points over the other players, they become no-brainers. With a couple of pluses you'll win those no problem.

Hence I am a little worried about replayability. I'm not sure this will not turn into a huge luck-fest when playing with 3 or 4 other experienced players. Still, I guess this was never meant to be a game high-level gamers would be playing a lot of - more a filler they might like to play at the end of a long gaming night or at the start of one when not everyone has arrived yet.

VERDICT

Thumbs up. A fun, quick, family-game that can be played as a filler by the more serious gamers. Recommended!

EDIT: Added the Replayability section
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M.J.E. Hendriks
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someotherguy wrote:
Even if you assume that gods are bogus (which I do in real life, but I can accept them as a concept in fiction or in a game), you could assume that the guy who made the biggest sacrifice is favored by his fellows for awhile. Everyone wants to build a hut on a good piece of ground, who gets approval from his peers to do it? The guy who is currently popular for his recent big sacrifice. Who is the group going to help harvest cacao? Same answer. I don't think that these are, thematically, that big of a stretch.


Yes, but harvesting cacao gives you points based on 3 dice. Somehow, this next step, as well as the hut is just not closely enough linked to the theme.

I agree that the theme and the game mechanics could correspond, yet they don't. Somehow, neither in the game nor in the rules, is this worked out as it could've been.
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Maarten D. de Jong
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Mr Mjeh wrote:
I agree that the theme and the game mechanics could correspond, yet they don't. Somehow, neither in the game nor in the rules, is this worked out as it could've been.

Blind bidding only works as a mechanic in bluffing games. Chocolatl is not a game of bluff; there's too much planning involved. Not that the planning amounts to much in my opinion, as I have a strong suspicion that the game in its current form only rewards a single strategy (with two real choices) thus making it boring as hell in the long run.

Added much later: This sentiment proved to be incorrect. Players who know the intrinsic value of every spot on the board can make bidding very difficult, and as a consequence the single strategy I spoke of disappears.
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Wyckyd
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cymric wrote:
Blind bidding only works as a mechanic in bluffing games. Chocolatl is not a game of bluff; there's too much planning involved. Not that the planning amounts to much in my opinion, as I have a strong suspicion that the game in its current form only rewards a single strategy (with two real choices) thus making it boring as hell in the long run.

Added much later: This sentiment proved to be incorrect. Players who know the intrinsic value of every spot on the board can make bidding very difficult, and as a consequence the single strategy I spoke of disappears.


I am still wondering which strategy you felt was dominant. Care to share?
 
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