Making chocolate is complicated. You’ve got six steps in the production chain, cubes to manage, foremen to oversee–it all gets a little confusing, and that’s why there aren’t a lot of people who do what you do.
But there are enough to get in your way.
As much as you dream of being a Captain of Cacao, a Chancellor of Chocolate, a Prince of Production, a King of–well, you can’t control everything. So gather your best chocolatier hat, a winning smile, and a cunning plan. It’s time to make chocolate–and frenemies.
How It Works
King Chocolate is a tile-laying/production chain game for two to five players. Players are chocolatiers striving to earn money through controlling various steps in the chocolate-making process. The player with the most money wins.
To begin, place the starting ring in the center of the table. Each player receives a player screen, four workers in their color, and three starting tiles. The tiles in the game are shuffled and placed facedown in stacks, with four tiles flipped face-up that players can choose from.
Each turn follows two steps: play a tile, and take actions.
Tiles can be placed anywhere adjacent to tiles already on the board, including inside the center ring.
Players have three action points to spend. Actions include drawing tiles, placing new workers on the board, moving a worker already on the board, or activating the production chain.
Activating the production chain is the heart of the game. There are six steps in the chocolate-making process, and each tile has two hexes that matches one of the six steps. Each grouping of tiles that matches in color/step is a production group that players can control. When a player activates the production chain, they can move cubes from one group in the chain to a group in the next step (or place cubes on step 1, or move them off the board for step 6). Whoever owns the group the cubes are leaving gets $1 per cube moved. (If no one owns the group, the player who activates the production chain gets the money.)
Play continues until a tile is taken from the tile lineup and the lineup can’t be refilled. The game ends immediately, and whoever has the most points is the winner.
Hot, Hot, Hot, Hot Chocolate, or Bean There, Done That?
When I was a kid, I used to hate dark chocolate. It was bitter, and it tasted like solid coffee (not a compliment at the time). Milk chocolate, on the other hand, was a delight. It was sweet and therefore TASTY. Eating too much of it–which inevitably happened if I was unsupervised–resulted in a stomachache, but better a sweet stomachache than a bitter aftertaste. As I’ve grown and matured, though, I’ve come to appreciate dark chocolate and now even prefer it to its sweeter cousin. It’s a more complex flavor, and there’s more to appreciate about it once you know what to expect.
So how does this relate to King Chocolate? King Chocolate is a dark chocolate kind of game.
King Chocolate is very subtle. The rules are simple: play a tile, use three action points, repeat. They fill a mere two and a half pages. You look at the rules and think, I know what kind of game this is. I know what a good strategy is. Whether that good strategy is the monopoly route, or controlling a variety, everything makes sense, and what you need to do is clear: earn points.
And then you play the game, and what you think should work doesn’t work, at least not quite how you’ve planned. Your chocolate is either sitting in your warehouses, waiting for you to ship it (which you refuse to do because doing so would give points to opponents!), or you are frustrated at how your opponents seem to be conspiring against you. And then halfway through that first game, you think, I could have done this so much better. For some, this is frustrating and reveals clear “flaws” in the game. For me, it made me eager to play again. And when I did, I saw more, and my opinion of the game grew. Like dark chocolate, it took some maturing in me to appreciate it.
The reason is that interaction in King Chocolate is not at all clear. It’s a competitive game with only one winner, so helping other people seems like a terrible idea. But the reason King Chocolate is so fascinating is that you must help others if you want to accomplish anything. (In this sense, it is reminiscent of Catan.) The tricky bit is knowing how much to help opponents in order to further your own interests.
All players can activate any portion of the production chain, whether they control it or not. It seems like poor planning to move cubes in such a way as to give points to your opponent, but when you consider that if they move their cubes down the chain, they might cut you out, it makes sense for you to lend a helping hand. If your opponent has chocolate sitting on step 2 and there are two step 3 groups with equal capacity, should you leave it to chance that your opponent will choose you–or that your other opponent won’t consider moving the chocolate on his own turn? Similarly, expanding another player’s control on one of the steps of production seems like industrial suicide–until you consider that if their capacity grows, it might make your actions more efficient too. But again, if you help your opponents too much, you’re handing them the victory.
As I said, this is utterly fascinating. King Chocolate puts players in this awkward situation all the time.
Scarcity is what makes King Chocolate so interesting: scarcity of control, scarcity of actions. Each player can control only four groups on the board, and there are six steps in making chocolate. It is impossible for one player to control the process start to finish, so players have to find their own ways to get things done. Since new chocolate only enters the board when meeples are placed there from a supply or when a player activates step 1 of production, players have to rely on each other to get points. Actions are also scarce–players could easily use five action points per turn instead of the allotted three–so using two points in a turn to place another marker on the board is not always the wisest choice.
Neutral territories are another interesting consideration in King Chocolate. Building large areas that no one controls can help you cut out a monopoly player–but big territories don’t usually stay neutral for long, so you’re likely to have to contribute to another player’s gains at some point. But because claiming control of an area costs an action–a precious resource–there have been many games where neutral areas (even seemingly lucrative ones) have gone unclaimed.
There has been some comment that it’s silly that drawing a tile costs an action. Essentially, the argument goes, because each player has to play a tile every turn and will eventually run out of tiles, players really should draw a tile every turn, effectively reducing the number of actions a player has to two, and it would have been better to make drawing a tile a free action. There’s some truth to this: you really do have to draw a tile most turns in the game in order to not lose a future turn. However, I disagree that drawing tiles should be a free action.
There are several interesting considerations around drawing tiles. For starters, with the tile lineup, you can see four choices for tiles. Occasionally there will be times when there are several tasty options to choose from, and it’s nice to draw as many tiles as I want when the market has what I’m looking for. Further, part of the strategy in King Chocolate is knowing when to “overclock” your factories. The first game, I used up my two “extra” tiles quickly, and I was drawing one tile per turn most of the rest of the game. For subsequent games, though, I realized that it’s best to wait for the opportune moment to use three action points in a turn rather than two. And because the game ends when the tile stacks can’t refill the four face-up tile options, sometimes players will want to draw more tiles (or hold off on drawing) in order to bring the game to a timely conclusion. While most turns this doesn’t affect anything and you will wish for a free draw (if only to stretch those limited actions!), I’m glad that when and what to draw is under the players’ control.
The theme in King Chocolate is attractive and provides nice window dressing for the game, but it is virtually absent from gameplay. It’s not that the theme is unsuitable; it’s just that it doesn’t matter. None of us playing the game cared what the different phases of chocolate making were called (although occasionally saying “nibs” was fun), and there was no additional explanation in the rulebook had we cared to learn. The game has a nice look to it (although, if the video reviewers are to be believed, this is very much up for debate), and I don’t mind the chocolate theming, but this could almost literally be anything else that involves a production chain.
Perhaps a more substantive negative is the (perceived?) problem of seating order. King Chocolate has a variable end, so the game can end on anyone’s turn as long as the four-tile lineup can’t be filled. What this means practically is that usually there is at least one player who receives one less turn than everyone else. In my first game, the player last in seating order complained about getting one less turn, and indeed, he was much farther behind than the rest of us. In another game, the last player was similarly crushed by the players ahead of him. (In this game, I was second in seating order, and I effectively didn’t have a last turn either, simply drawing tiles to end the game, but I was still able to pull off a victory.) I decided in another game to occupy the last slot in turn order–I had won all the other games up to this point, so it seemed a good bet if someone could pull off a win from the “worst” position, I could. But I came in second, I did not win, and I did receive one less turn than all the other players.
Now, in that final round, the other players scored 14, 10, and 6 points respectively. I scored zero (obviously). The player who won ended the game 19 points ahead of me, so even if the game had ended the round before, I wouldn’t have won, and if the round had ended after my play, I doubt I could have made 20 points. From a data standpoint, this didn’t really matter. And the designer discusses this apparent disadvantage on Board Game Geek, taking a similar data-led approach, and comes to a similar conclusion, that there isn’t a last-player disadvantage. From my one play of keeping track (and from my other plays of just examining the strategy of the players in the last seat), I think this is probably true. However, for the players at the table that day, it didn’t matter that, datawise, the player who won would likely have won anyway. What mattered to them was the perceived imbalance, and I don’t know how to correct this perception. Indeed, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t have won, I still didn’t like having one less turn than my fellow players–and scoring 0 points to their 6, 10, and 14. Sure, it’s possible that, similar to Lost Cities‘s deck (which serves as the game’s timer), I could have budgeted tiles in the stack to make sure I got that final turn (although with more players in the game and players able to draw multiple tiles, I’m not sure this would have worked anyway). All I know is that in a strategy game, the less players can blame the game, the better. The player last in turn order in each of our games had sour grapes, for what that’s worth.
The components in King Chocolate are mostly nice. The tiles and money are thick and sturdy, and while there are some sprues from where tiles were hard to punch out, these don’t affect gameplay. The look of the game is definitely love it or hate it. I fall into the love it camp, although it can be hard to distinguish the subtle shade changes that mark the different steps in chocolate making. I didn’t have much trouble distinguishing these in gameplay (I played in a well-lit area on a white table), but some players found it difficult. I love the look of the player screens and the money, which are understated and classy. Some of the player screens were miscut, and there wasn’t much bleed on the punchout sheet, so these could be better. The wooden bits are simple but effective. All told, the quality of the package is sufficient, but it likely won’t wow anyone.
King Chocolate is a fascinating game unlike anything else in my collection. Its mix of cooperation and competition, its combination of tile-laying and production chains, its simple rules and short playtime, and its distinctive look and theme make it a worthy package. While I doubt King Chocolate will top most players’ lists of exciting games to play, it is a very good game, one that rewards repeat play and fills the one-hour slot quite nicely, even with a rules explanation. The flavor of King Chocolate is subtle, and it may not wow first-time tasters, but I think those who look past the initial impression will find a game worth playing.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing us with a copy of King Chocolate for review.