The Loaded Die: A la Carte, For Sale, Nefarious

In All, Board Games by Kyu

Welcome back to The Loaded Die, a biweekly feature here at the Kraken where your host, Kyu (that’s me!) reviews three new board games in every delicious post.

For each game, I’ll give an overview of what it is, a description of how to play, and my subjective thoughts (typically based on a single play-through). Looking for numerical ratings? Generate your own with our helpful guide! Simply roll the listed number and type of dice to discover your personalized rating. Remember, it’s not a meaningless number if you believe in it.

It’s Career Day at The Loaded Die! This week’s games are all about being the best at a particular occupation. We’ll learn how to be a gourmet chef, a real estate broker, and a mad scientist. It’s all in a day’s work for a board gamer.

A la Carte

What is it?

A la Carte is a family game designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel. I know nothing about him or any of his other games. Informative! This game is about cooking, a theme expressed through the performance of ridiculous physical tasks.

How do you play?

In A la Carte, each player is competing to be the best gourmet chef. Players choose recipes and add them to their frying pans, then try to heat and season them to perfection. Heating involves rolling a die, but there’s a chance you’ll roll too much and burn the dish. Seasoning is the heart of the game; you take one of those little bottles and try to shake out only the crystals you need, avoiding salt or overseasoning. Do it right and you’ll earn a gold star for perfection (three of those and you’ll win the game!); do it wrong and you’ll end up trashing the food. Players can also choose to make a crepe, which needs no seasoning but must be flipped in the pan. The winner is either the chef who cooks three perfect dishes or the one with the most points when someone completes their fifth recipe.

So is it good or what?

This is, hands down, one of my favorite games to play with people who aren’t hardcore board gamers. All games are tests of one skill or another, but A la Carte‘s tests are totally unique. Seasoning these dishes is trickier than it sounds, and being a successful chef has much more to do with dexterity and control than any strategic talent. Not only does this provide a new experience for experienced, jaded players like me, but it puts us on an equal footing with people who haven’t played a board game more complex than Monopoly in their life. Any skills built up from playing other games simply do not apply, which makes this a great game for children as well as uninitiated adults.

The game is also simply a joy to touch and behold, from the rough, irregular plastic seasoning crystals to the cardboard stove (complete with working dial!) and tiny metal frying pan. Not much about this game gives me more joy than carefully pouring out used seasonings into the game’s “sink,” holding and tilting the pan like some Brobdingnagian erudite–unless it’s successfully flipping a crepe. One time the chef at GameHäus came over to our table and showed us how to flip properly (yes, it’s all in the wrist). Even more than the colorful pieces and funny recipe names, the real beauty of A la Carte is the playful simulation. I won’t ever be a chef, and my real-life kitchen skills are limited to toast and spaghetti, but that won’t stop me from chasing those gold stars with my friends in A la Carte.

Rating: 2d20

For Sale

What is it?

For Sale is an auction game about buying and selling real estate. Designer Stefan Dorra is reasonably prolific–I reviewed his Medina in the first Loaded Die–and it looks like most of his games follow the same pattern of small but fun.

How do you play?

It’s pretty simple! In the first half of the game, properties are auctioned off in rounds, with players using limited financial resources to bid for cards of a particular value. Each player wants to get the best real estate value for their buck, because in the second half, the properties you won are then sold for sweet, sweet down payment checks. Once all properties have been sold, whoever ends up with the most money in checks wins the game.

So is it good or what?

Yep! Like said above, simple but fun. I’m usually not a fan of auction mechanics, because they rely on the skill of valuation, which is not my strong suit (neither are the kind of psychological headgames common to open bidding scenarios). In each of its two halves, For Sale works in my favor, confusing or minimizing the need for valuation. To start with, the properties players bid on range wildly in value, using an unexpected number set. A particular draw of property cards might contain the numbers 18, 19, and 34, giving novice players the notion that the 34 is better than the 2 but no clue as to how much–ie., does the scale go up to 35, or 50, or 100? Does it go all the way down to 1? By presenting a small pool of relative values with unknown absolute values, the game hampers the ability of even skilled auction participants to determine just how much money to commit to any one of the four properties up at any given time.

A similar result is achieved in the game’s second half, with each player bidding their property values to try and win the down payments, whose values are predetermined. Instead of a normal auction, where you must successfully evaluate not only how much the item is worth to you but how much it is worth to your opponents, all questions whose answer could be any of a wide range of values, For Sale only requires you to determine which of four values you and your opponents prefer. Ie., instead of having to figure out how much a check for $12,000 is worth to everyone at the table, I only have to determine how much the third- (or fourth-, or first-) best check in the group of four is worth to them. If, as Keskel is wont to say, games are about interesting choices, fun games are often about clarifying and condensing those choices down to a handful of options. For Sale still has a decent range of strategy, including bluffing (for example, I could have been screwed in the first half and forced to settle for an outhouse worth 2, but in the second half I could use that card to trick my opponent into selling a higher property for a check than they otherwise would). But it’s simplicity, not depth, that is the real selling point here.

Rating: 4d6


What is it?

Nefarious is a game of mad science designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. I don’t think there’s another famous Donald Vaccarino, but if my middle name started with the letter X I’d probably use it too. Vaccarino’s most famous work has gotta be Dominion, but he’s also responsible for Kingdom Builder, a handful of smaller games I haven’t played, and Infiltration (which makes sense, because Infiltration and Nefarious share an action card mechanic). The game itself is a worker placement variation where the victory points (here, mad scientist-type inventions) come with special abilities that help you or hurt your opponents.

How do you play?

The way it works is that, in rounds, players choose and simultaneously reveal an action card, then resolve their actions. They can draw invention blueprints or spend money to execute them; earn a nominal amount of money or move workers on their sheet. Each time actions are revealed, you earn money based on how many workers you have assigned to that action. So part of the game is predicting what your opponents will do. Over time, players construct a series of inventions, some of which have special effects. The inventions are all worth varying amounts of victory points, and the first player to 20 points wins.

So is it good or what?

Not really. It’s unfortunate, because here we have another game where the theme is great and the artwork pretty stunning, but the rules themselves just don’t add up to a fun experience. The prediction aspect could have been interesting, but the game doesn’t allow you to respond fast enough to really take advantage of it. Plus, it quickly became clear that some actions are simply going to be used more often than others, so parking your workers on “build invention” and ignoring that mechanic for the rest of the game was a completely viable strategy. The invention effects were too normalized, a handful of symbols and arrows conveying a limited list. This takes all the fun out of the complexity of goofy science-fiction, where shrink rays, teleporters, and weather controlling machines all do totally unique, specific things.

Even though Nefarious is a fairly simple game, it still feels like it suffers from that additive game design that I’ve talked about here before. Each mechanic feels like it was shoehorned in to account for another mechanic’s deficiencies, rather than all of them reinforcing one another’s strengths. The prime example of this are the Twist cards. You’re supposed to draw two of them at the beginning of the game, adding two new rules for that playthrough (for example, one makes it so that inventions are worth double the victory points). This feels like a klugey way to try and add replay value by artificially imposing destabilization from outside the game’s system. In the end, though, the game’s cardinal sin is the only one that really, truly matters: it’s just not fun. I have no doubt there’s a great mad scientist game out there, but this isn’t it.

Rating: 1d4

That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.