I love gingerbread houses. Well, any sort of baked good that can be made into art, really. Insanely decorated cakes, donuts, cookies, cupcakes and the like all excite me more than they should. Heck, I have entire Pinterest boards dedicated to things like this. So when I saw Gingerbread House and how much the components looked like cookies, my radar pinged into action. Oh, and it’s by Phil-Walker Harding, designer of some of my all time favorite games like Barenpark and Sushi Go? Well, let’s just say the ordering process took about three seconds. Possibly less, and I may have sprained a finger in the process. Let’s see if it was worth it.
How It Plays
Gingerbread House is a tile laying puzzle game in which you are witch who loves to bake and build your home out of your gingerbread creations. The problem is, the fairy tale characters who live in your neighborhood keep breaking off bits of your house and eating them. To stop this appalling behavior, you’ve decided to lure these characters to your home with their favorite gingerbreads, and then trap them. *Cue evil cackle.*
To do this in game terms, you’ll be placing tiles to earn gingerbread tokens and converting them into “captures” of fairy tale creatures. The goal is to earn the most points by capturing valuable characters, and earning bonus points through things like completing levels of your home and having left over gingerbread bits at the end of the game.
Each player has their own board on which to build their house. The board shows a 3×3 grid with cookie icons and some special action icons printed upon it. You’ll be covering up these icons with 1×2 tiles you draw from your supply of fifteen tiles. These are placed face down in front of you, and three are drawn and turned face up to begin the game. These are the tiles you must choose from when placing.
On your turn you must do one of the following actions: Build and trap a character, or take two stairways. If you build, take a face up tile from your supply and lay it on top of either an empty space on your board, or on top of already placed tiles. The new tile must be placed so that it rests entirely level with the layer beneath. It can’t lop over onto uneven ground, and it can’t hang outside of the 3×3 grid. It also cannot rest solely on another 1×2 tile. Tiles must be placed in a cross-hatch pattern, or placed over two single tiles/staircases. Note that the tile does not have to match anything beneath it.
Also note that it’s not the tile you’re playing that will determine your actions, but rather the tile you’re covering up. This is key to the game.
If you cover up a gingerbread icon, take a matching token. You can’t have more than ten tokens in your supply, however. If you cover up a stairway icon, you get a staircase tile (you’re limited to having four at any one time). These are useful for filling in single holes so that you create an even level for your tiles to rest upon. The exchange icon lets you trade one gingerbread token for another.
The cage icon lures fairy tale characters to your gate. Take a character card from the face up line and place it above your player board, or take the top 3 cards from the draw pile, look at them, and choose one to place face up above your board. These characters are now reserved for you to trap later. Only two can be reserved at any given time.
If you cover up two of the same icon, you get to take that action three times instead of two. And if you cover up two wild icons at the same time, you can choose any three actions. They can all be the same or different. It’s up to you.
After you build, you can trap a character if you have the resources to do so, but you do not have to. You can choose a character from either your reserved characters, or from the face up line on the table. Pay the number of gingerbread tokens shown on the card and the move the character to the area below your player board. This character will be worth the points indicated on the card at the end of the game. If you trap a character, you also get to immediately take and play a wild tile from the supply, taking the resulting action, as well.
If your build completes a level of your house, take a bonus card for each completed level. In the basic game, these cards are worth straight points. In the advanced game, they present a challenge for you to complete in order to earn their points (i.e., completing a certain number of levels, or trapping certain types of characters).
If you don’t want to (or can’t) build, you can discard two of your 1×2 tiles and take two staircases, instead.
Once you’ve taken your turn, turn another tile from your supply face up so you have three again. If necessary, replenish the character cards so that 4 are visible. Now the next player takes their turn.
The game ends when no player has any 1×2 tiles remaining. Scores are tallied. Each trapped character is worth the points shown on the card. Bonus cards are worth either the points shown (basic game), or the points indicated if you achieved the stated goal (advanced game). Any gingerbread tokens remaining in your supply are worth one point for every two you have. The player with the most points wins.
Revenge Against Fairy Tale Characters is a Dish Best Served with Gingerbread
Phil Walker-Harding is quickly becoming a designer whose games I will buy based on the designer’s name alone. Barenpark, Imhotep, Sushi Go, and Cacao have been huge hits in this house, and I’m hopeful for Gizmos, although I have yet to get it to the table. His designs tend to hit the sweet spot for me in terms of being easy to play and learn, yet offering some interesting decisions and strategy in a quick playing package. They’re also great in the family/non-gamer setting. Bonus: They’re usually very attractive and have excellent components.
So when I saw Gingerbread House, I dived on it like it was the last piece of gingerbread at a holiday party. Did it meet my expectations. Spoiler alert: Oh, yeah.
First, the components are excellent. The gingerbread tiles are super-thick cardboard. They have a heft to them reminiscent of actual gingerbread, and when they’re stacked it makes for a satisfying-looking structure. Thin tiles would have worked just as well, but I appreciate that someone took the time to make it look gingerbread-ish. The character artwork is cute, and the cookies look appetizing. Well, as appetizing as a drawing on cardboard can be.
The rules are very simple and easy to understand, and the game is quick to play. It’s a family-weight game with a little heft for gamers. Walker-Harding’s sweet spot, in other words. As with most of his games, the thing I enjoy here is the puzzle. Where are you going to place your tiles in order to maximize your scoring? Since you only have three tiles to choose from each turn, it is a game of making the most of your chosen tile. Where can you put it so that you’ll leave yourself open for the most opportunities on the next turn? Can you avoid closing off a great scoring opportunity?
In a sense, it feels a little like a beefed up, 3-D, Kingdomino. You have to keep your tiles inside the grid. While you can place anything you like on top of anything else (icon-wise), you can’t make your structure uneven, and you can’t place your 1×2 tiles on top of other 1×2’s. You can’t just keep stacking tiles, in other words, and build a huge wall. You have to layer them into a structure, and that means finding ways to fill in holes with staircases and wild single tiles.
What I enjoy about puzzle games is that the puzzle is different every game. The tiles never come out the same, and since the player boards offer two sides in this game, you don’t have to choose the same one each time. Also boosting replayability here is the fact that there are 20 bonus cards included in the game, but only a maximum of 12 are used in any game (dependent on the number of players).
What Gingerbread House offers over some puzzle games is the fun of chasing combos. In the beginning, you’re simply placing a tile onto the best place on your board and taking tokens. But as you go along and build up your board and reserves, you can put yourself in position to pull off some awesome moves. If, for example, you cover up two of the same icons, you can take the benefit three times instead of two. If you cover up two wilds, you can choose any three actions to take. This can lead to you getting more tokens that you can use to trap more characters. Then, when you trap a character, you get a wild token which you place immediately, giving you possibly more gingerbread, which might allow you to trap another character. And you might complete a level, giving you a bonus card while you’re at it. You see how this can snowball. For me, chasing those sort of moves is the fun of the game.
I said earlier that this was a family-weight game and it is. Particularly the base game where the bonus cards you get for finishing a level are worth just points. But if you’re playing with gamers, you can take it up a notch and play so that the bonus cards require you to complete an objective in order to score their points. In either game, the bonus cards are placed face up on the table so that all can see what they are and what they’re worth. However, a certain number of randomly drawn cards are used depending on the number of players, and when one is taken it is not replaced. So as the “good” ones get chosen, it’s the less desirable ones you have to work with. This makes completing levels important, and something you don’t want to overlook while you’re chasing characters and tokens. You want to make sure you leave yourself in a position to get the cards you want.
The next point has nothing to do with gameplay, but is something I wanted to mention. In my review of the Home Alone Game, I noted how difficult it can be to find good holiday games and that when you do, the downside is that you probably won’t want to play it all year long. Gingerbread House avoids this problem. The gingerbread part of the theme is loosely holiday related. When else do you see people building gingerbread houses, after all? But the fairy tale part of the theme takes this out of the realm of Christmas and makes it something you can play any time. It makes a great holiday game, but it’s also one that can be played all year.
I don’t think Gingerbread House quite overtakes my previous favorite Phil Walker-Harding game, Barenpark. At least not overall. But it’s pretty dang close, and Gingerbread House wins the ease of setup category hands down. Barenpark offers a bit more for gamers, I think, with the achievements and perfect information creating a more challenging game. Gingerbread House has more luck with the tile draw and which characters come out for scoring. Plus, Gingerbread House offers fewer options for increasing the difficulty of the game. It can feel a bit simplistic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you want the more “gamery” option, Barenpark may be the better choice. Gingerbread House offers a light, fun experience for those seeking such a thing, but those looking for heavier fare might want to look elsewhere.
Still for a game of this intended weight and audience, everything feels right. With three tiles available each turn, you can make some plans, so it’s not a total luck-fest. With fewer players, Gingerbread House feels more strategic because the character and bonus cards you might want are likely to stay in play longer, giving you a better shot at getting them. (Or giving your opponent a chance to take it first.) At higher player counts, those cards can go fast, leaving you at the mercy of whatever remains.
Finally, there is one other potential negative to mention. The theme, while fun and adorable to me and the adults I played with, might be off-putting to some. You are playing as a witch who’s trapping fairy tale characters. In other words, the script is flipped and you’re the “bad guy” simply trying to defend your house against the “good guys” who keep eating it. The implication is that you’re either locking these characters away for all time, or possibly eating them, a la Hansel and Gretel. I find a little subversion funny and delightful, but you or your kids might find it upsetting. You know your group best, but I’m just putting it out there.
Regardless, Gingerbread House is a fine family game, and a good game for gamers seeking something a little lighter to draw in non-gamers, or to take a break from the brain burning stuff. The theme is excellent and the art serves as a draw to the table. I’d say that the whole thing feels a little like actual gingerbread: Chewy and filling with a hint of crunch; sweet and leaves you wanting a little more. Like gingerbread, though, some people won’t like it, either because they prefer a more filling dessert option, like cheesecake, or because it’s just not their taste preference. And you might not want it all the time. Still, though, like most desserts, if you put it on the table, someone will love it. (Unless we’re talking about lime Jello, in which case… Why?)