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Distilling the Essence of a Game (A Review of Parfum)

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Parfum - Box

Creating perfume was once a highly valued art form. Gifted perfumers often catered to the great and the good in society. They knew their customer’s favorite fragrances and took care to create exactly what those customers wanted. Those were the days before large commercial enterprises and modern technology started churning out mass-produced, lab-created fragrances that the perfume-wielding salesperson tries to hit you with every time you go to the mall. Parfum takes you back to that simpler time and lets you attempt to become that valued, master perfumer.

How It Plays

You are a master perfumer in Grasse, France. Your job is to distill and combine sweet smelling essences to create perfumes that your customers want to buy. If you are truly gifted in your craft (and a bit lucky that everything goes according to plan), you will earn the most money, have happy customers, and win the game. If not, well, there will be a few stinky people in France blaming you for their B.O.

A game of Parfum is played over three rounds and each round consists of three phases. The first phase is the Wake Up phase and it determines turn order and the number of actions that each player will have for this round.

The player in last place on the money track goes first and chooses one of the four clocks from the market, followed by the second-to-last player, and so on. The large number on each clock indicates turn order and the smaller number indicates the number of actions that the player gets this turn. There is an inverse relationship between the two numbers so getting an early turn order means that you will have first choice of actions, but you will have fewer total actions available to you.

Parfum - Game Board
The board is double-sided; one side is used for 2 or 4 players, the other side is used for 3 players.

The second phase is where players create their perfumes. In turn order, each player completes the entire second phase which consists of the following phases/actions:

Prepare distillation. For each action that you have, do one of the following things:

  1. Draw a fragrance note from the bag and place it on any free distillery.
  2. Take any aroma die from the market and place it in front of you.
  3. Take a water well token from the water well and place it on your perfumery, water side up.

For each action, you may choose any one of these options and may repeat actions if you desire.

Distill. Roll all of the aroma dice that you took during the “Prepare” phase, above. If the die shows a flask, the distillation was successful. If it shows a fly, the distillation failed. You can attempt to improve your results by discarding well water tokens. If you discard one token, you may either re-roll all the dice, or re-roll all flies of the same color. If you discard two tokens, you may rotate any one fly die to a flask. You can use as many tokens as you want.

If, after rolling and modifying your die rolls, you have successfully distilled the aromas required for a fragrance note, you may take the corresponding tile. Advance your scoring marker on the money track as many spaces as the coin of the fragrance note indicates and keep the fragrance note in front of you, perfume side up.

Compose fragrance notes. To create a perfume, first decide whether to use your fragrance notes for a minor or major perfume, then attach your fragrance notes to your perfumery accordingly. Once placed, fragrance notes may not be moved or covered by other fragrance notes.

If a perfume is completed while composing the fragrance notes, you receive 2 flacons from the supply for a minor perfume and three flacons for a major perfume. This perfume is now ready for sale.

The third and final phase is where you sell finished perfumes to customers. There are two sales cycles during this phase and during each cycle a player may sell one flacon to a customer, sell at a bargain price, or pass his turn. Players take turns in the same wake up order that began the round. 

Parfum - Completed Bottles
You’re working to create minor and major perfumes.

If you want to sell a perfume to a customer, it must contain at least the number of that customer’s preferred components shown on the customer token and you must have at least one flacon of that perfume. A successful sale advances your marker along the money track by the sales price indicated on the customer’s token. If there is no customer who wants to buy your perfume, you may sell it at the fixed bargain price of two coins for a minor perfume and three coins for a major perfume. If you sell out of a perfume (i.e. you have no more flacons of that perfume remaining) you immediately take two well water tokens as a reward.

After each player has either sold at least one flacon or passed their turn, the second sales cycle begins and proceeds exactly the same as the first.

A round ends when all players have completed their second sales cycle or passed. The game is reset for another round and play continues through three rounds. The game ends either when the Closing Time token is revealed while refilling the customer spaces or if, at the end of a round, the spaces of the distillery cannot be completely refilled with fragrance notes. Players turn over any remaining well water tokens in their possession and add those numbers to their total on the money track. The winner is the player with the most money/points. If there is a tie, the victory is shared.

The Sweet Smell of Success or a Real Stinker?

Parfum comes from the same design team that brought you Fresco and you’ll see a few similarities, the wake up mechanism being the most obvious. Parfum, however, is a much lighter family game than Fresco and is completely accessible to anyone who has never played anything more complex than LIFE.

Parfum is very straightforward without a lot of deep decisions or strategy. The most strategic aspect is probably the wake up mechanism. If you choose to wake up early, you’ll have first choice of customers and actions. However, you will have fewer actions to use. The choice between going first or having more actions requires some thought. Is it important that you land that high-paying customer, or do you need more actions to try and build something from scratch?

Even this, however, isn’t that difficult of a choice and you likely won’t suffer much either way. You’re not really penalized for going later. All of the dice are available to every player on their turn; players who go early don’t keep the dice that they use. Since the water tokens and fragrance notes are randomly drawn, it’s not like you can really plan far ahead only to suffer the agony of seeing what you want taken off the board. This is in keeping with the family level of the game, but will frustrate gamers looking for meaningful decisions. 

Parfum - Dice
Parfum’s dice are fun and chunky.

There is also some strategy in trying to create perfumes that will appeal to the highest paying customers on the board, but since the customers are available to anyone, there’s no guarantee that the one you want will still be available once you get your perfume together. You may have to settle for a lower paying customer, or a bargain sale. You could keep your perfume around and hope to sell it during the next round, but it may be more beneficial to start building something new. Again, this is a decision point, but it’s not overly complicated.

Some will bash this game for the luck of the dice which determine whether your distilling efforts are successful or not. This is actually thematic. Brief history lesson: There are risks in distillation that mean that not every effort goes perfectly. This was especially true before modern technology and controlled lab processes took over the distillation process. During the Renaissance, which is when Parfum takes place, the likelihood of getting a perfect perfume on the first try would have been relatively low. The wrong mix of heat and/or oxygen, and even what was last distilled in the equipment could make the difference between a sweet scent and a stink. So while the dice do introduce luck, if you were a perfumer during the Renaissance, you would need a bit of luck to create a sweet perfume. If you hate dice it’s still a problem, but at least they are used for a reason.

The good news is that the water tokens allow you to mitigate a bit of bad luck. You can exchange tokens for a chance to re-roll the dice, or outright change a fly die to a flask. However, at the end of the game any unused water tokens are worth money (although you don’t know how much until you flip them over at the end of the game), so changing your bad luck does come at a cost. And if you choose to re-roll you might not succeed, so your water tokens will have been wasted. You need to remember this and decide whether it’s worth trying to change your bad luck or not.

Parfum - Customers and Flacons
Some of the customers in the game, and the flacon tokens.

The problems I see with this game are its length and long term staying power. It plays in 45 minutes and there isn’t really any way to shorten that. Fortunately it’s not subject to AP, so at least it rarely goes longer than that. However, 45 minutes can start to seem long and repetitive. The game is so light that sometimes by the third round you’re feeling kind of bored because nothing really changes over the rounds. Some games get more tense as the rounds go by because some mechanism adds pressure with each passing round. This doesn’t happen in Parfum. This might not bother those just looking to pass some time, but those looking for a more engrossing experience might get frustrated.

The game also might not stay in your collection for long. While it is good to keep around if you frequently entertain non-gamers, this one is probably going to get old fairly quickly. It lacks the depth and strategy of other gateway games like Ticket to Ride, Fresco, or Alhambra. Parfum is just straightforward dice rolling and set collection. There aren’t any ways to increase the difficulty or challenge. Maybe some expansions could fix that, but for now what you see is what you get. Again, it may be perfectly acceptable for a family group but gamers (or non-gamers who are up for a bigger challenge) may soon find it lacking.

On the plus side, the game is lovely to look at and the components are all good quality, as most Queen games tend to be. The board is reminiscent of Rococo from Eagle Games, if you’ve seen that game’s gorgeous artwork. The custom dice feel nice in your hand and the tiles are thick and will stand up to a bit of abuse.

Parfum - Fragrance Notes
The fragrance notes.

The theme of this game is also a strength. It’s nice to see designers taking chances on different themes that appeal to broader groups. While it’s tempting to dismiss this as a “woman’s game,” it’s really for everyone. It’s not that different from any other game that seeks to replicate the process of creating something during a particular era of history, whether that’s a farm, a quilt, beer, or perfume. That Parfum takes place during the Renaissance only enhances its appeal, as all of the mechanics are much more thematic for that time period than they would be for perfume-making today.

Whether or not you like Parfum is going to be very subjective and the problem is going to be people expecting more from it than it can offer. Yes, it comes from the design team of Fresco, one of the best gateway games on the market, but Parfum isn’t in that same league. It’s light enough to be a gateway game, but it lacks the challenge for hard core gamers or gateway gamers who have progressed beyond the most basic titles that Fresco offers. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad game because it’s not. It is, however, an entirely different animal than Fresco and so it needs to be judged independently of that game.

If you’re looking for a light family game that’s not LIFE or Sorry yet which has a theme that will appeal to a broad range of people, then Parfum might be for you. If you’re looking for a gateway game that will ultimately convert non-gamers into gamers this might be for you, but I’d recommend using it judiciously. Play it too often and your potential gaming recruits might get bored and give up on the hobby. Hard core gamers should probably give this one a pass, unless you just want to keep in the game closet for the kids or non-gamer visitors. There’s just not enough going on to keep most gamers entertained. I’d definitely recommend a “try before you buy” approach if it will only be played with gamers.

iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Queen Games for providing us with a review copy of Parfum.

 

A Light Spritz Will Satisfy

  • 7.0
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Summary

Pros

Light game that's easy for non-gamers to learn and play. Family game.
Inoffensive and unique theme will appeal to many different groups.
Very attractive art, board, and components.
Water tokens give you a chance to mitigate the effects of bad die rolls.

Cons

Although the dice are thematic, people who hate luck in games will dislike this one.
Lighter than Fresco, so not for those looking for heavy games.
At 45 minutes, the playtime can be a bit long for what the game is.
Just not enough strategy or challenge to make it worth keeping around for a long time, especially if being payed with gamers.
Likely to be a love it or hate it type game. Try before you buy.

7.0 Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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