Only a few months before I discovered Kitchen Rush existed, my wife and I got into a little arcade game called Overcooked. Certainly not the first hectic restaurant-inspired game (I think that title goes to Diner Dash and later Cooking Dash – the first that had you preparing meals, not just taking orders), it is certainly a brilliant one. Simple controls, fast paced, requiring communication between players, my wife and I mastered the game and played til we had 3-starred every level. We just recently started playing Overcooked 2 for similar thrills.
So, imagine my excitement – and trepidation – when I discovered a board game variant of the same genre. I love playing cooperative games with my wife, so one question loomed: could a cardboard implementation of this type of gaming using sand timers possibly be worth playing?
How it plays
Kitchen Rush tasks you the players as a team of over-worked chefs and waiters trying to serve customers, make delicious meals, earn prestige, and somehow eke out a profit.
This is a real time cooperative game with 4-minute rounds, during which each player controls a few sand timers that they can move around to activate different actions. You can only move a sand timer once it has run out, and only to an empty spot on the board, and you’re not allowed to touch other players’ sand timers. There is one “helper” (potentially two) sand timer that can be used by anyone.
The board is organized into different sections for the different actions you can take. The Maitre ‘d is where you head to seat new customers (mechanically to draw or replace order cards). The Waiter lets you grab an order card, or deliver a completed meal early for a tip. There are storage rooms for ingredients, ovens to cook your meals, a spice rack, and a sink to wash dishes.
You also have the Office, where you can buy upgrades and re-hire workers, and the Store where you head to refill your supplies.
To make money, you’ve got to complete orders. Each order card has a plate size (or two), a set of ingredients, and a cooking level. Utilizing the different areas of the restaurant, you’ve got to grab a plate, fill it with the correct ingredients, and use the ovens to cook it to the right level. You may also need to add spices.
You can deliver a plate early to earn an extra tip, but you’ll score all completed orders (even if not delivered) at the end of a 4-minute round. This earns you money and sometimes Prestige. Failure to complete an order within the round will actually cost you 1 Prestige.
Reaching certain Prestige levels unlocks new abilities you can use in the following rounds – earning extra money for certain tasks, for example, or increasing the flexibility of your kitchen.
Also at the end of each round, you’ve got to pay your workers at 3 coins per sand timer. Any sand timers you cannot afford are set aside, and can’t be used until you re-hire them.
The game ends after 4 rounds of hectic activity. Depending on the Objective for the game (a deck is included featuring different challenges or unique goals with varying levels of difficulty), victory requires a certain number of orders to be filled, Prestige to be earned, and money to be saved.
Can’t Stand the Heat?
Is Kitchen Rush a good game? The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated than I expected. In short, I think it’s a whole skillet of fun to play and the experience is rewarding… but there are a few reservations that keep me from out-and-out declaring that it’s great. Allow me to present my argument in 3 parts with over-dramatic titles.
Part the 1st: This game is incredibly thrilling, exciting, and fun!
Does Kitchen Rush capture the spirit of these hectic restaurant management games? Yeah it does! Does it do it in a way that’s enjoyable on the table? Yeah it does! Does it offer its own features unique to board games so it’s not just a rehash of an existing product that isn’t as good as the original? Yeah, it does!
From the moment you step into the kitchen, you know exactly what you need to do. Sure, there are a few mechanical hooks you’ve got to be aware of – how drawing orders works, when you get money, how to buy new ingredients – but these small details are much less of a problem when the overall gameplay is easily intuited from real-world experience. Need to collect ingredients? Head for the pantry. Need to cook food? Ovens. Need to wash dishes? You get the idea.
That allows the rush part of the game to really take hold. It’s not what do I need to do and how do I do it? it’s what do i need to do and how fast can i do it? You’ll frantically send your workers all over the place trying to get things done so you can make a profit.
Guess what? It is quite a challenge to earn a profit. You can’t solve the puzzle of the kitchen and leisurely work your way through now that you know all the steps. The frantic nature of the game means the challenge is in doing everything as fast as possible, paying attention to too many things at once. What ingredients do you need? Does your pantry need restocked? How long does this need to be in the oven? Is it possible to get another order in before the timer ends? Who’s washing the dishes? Why is this timer just sitting here!
This is the best-implemented sand-timer game I’ve ever played. Look, sand-timers are not typically that great at making fun. In a real time game, sitting for 30 seconds and waiting for your next action isn’t particularly thrilling with a few sparse exceptions. Sitting and waiting for a sand timer typically means you’re not engaged with the game.
Having multiple timers at your disposal, plus a shared timer or two, all with short fuses, means that you’re rarely waiting that long to move a timer. Instead you’re trying to finish your action as quickly as possible so you’re ready to move the timer when it clocks out. Any element of the game has the potential to run aground if you goof off too much, mistakes happen, and there’s the game.
Part the 2nd: This game is broken and riddled with bugs
Look, there’s something not right under the hood here. The numbers just don’t add up, and there are many parts of it that just aren’t intuitive.
This game is difficult. More specifically, it’s unforgiving – I have yet to beat the game with my wife on the basic, normal difficulty setting. This is the Bloodborne of cooperative board games. Simple mistakes cascade into big failures, and it’s easy to run straight into a wall.
Looking at orders,you’d expect things to be pretty straightforward. Tackle the big, complex orders that carry a higher risk of failure to earn more profit. Squeeze in the smaller orders to get a last-minute dish together with a few spare ingredients.
You’d be wrong, though. As you’ll soon discover, the smaller orders are the most profitable and the higher orders are only useful for Prestige, once you take into account the cost of ingredients and time.
You might think that it gets easier to earn a profit as the rounds go on – perhaps earning Prestige attracts more customers with deep pockets, or lets you mark up your prices, so that if you do well enough early on you can take it to the bank by the end. Again, wrong. You can earn bonus abilities for higher Prestige, but they’re not game-changers, and it’s tough to balance prestige with earning the profit you need to keep running.
If anything, it gets much much worse as the rounds go on. You start the game with enough ingredients to complete the first round of orders and possibly well into the second round. However, as soon as you have to go to the store, you run into problems.
Shopping is painfully, painfully slow. Having to spend your hard-earned coins on packs of 5 of the same ingredient is painful enough, but you can also only buy 1 thing per trip to the store. I don’t know why this rule exists; all it seems to do is make the 4th round nearly impossible to get anything done because you’re running low on everything, but it takes half your team or half the round to re-stock.
One could argue that you should be forward-thinking and buy ingredients in earlier rounds when you have time, that takes the emphasis off “let’s get these orders done as quickly as we can” and onto “how do we solve the mathematical formula to maximize the number of orders that can possibly be completed this round.”
The harsh penalties don’t stop there. Paying workers is incredibly costly. You end a round, feeling like you have a neat stack of cash – only to watch it dwindle down to a coin or two after paying. It undercuts any sense of reward or accomplishment.
And heaven forbid you don’t earn enough to cover your workers. As much as I said above that this is the best sand-timer-based board game I’ve played, no sand timer game has figured out a fair penalty for making mistakes. Losing a whole worker for the next round means you somehow have to make more money with 10% fewer actions. In other words, it is now mathematically impossible to win, especially if any form of profit is required. It also penalizes one specific player, and it’s just not a fun challenge to simply *get fewer actions.* This is why Profit trumps everything else in the game – Prestige earns you some nice bonuses, but profit keeps you playing.
So there are a lot of frustrating elements that turn this game into a complex analysis of a spreadsheet; which orders are most valuable, which two orders can you complete with the ingredients available, which matrix of ingredients do you need to purchase so you can actually afford to make the meals you’re serving? It takes the focus away from the frantic fun of just trying to do things quickly without making a mistake that ruins a dish, and makes you start thinking about it in bland mathematical ways like counting how many actions you can possibly do per timer per round.
I’d feel more forgiving of this if it was mostly required to defeat the harder difficulty levels, but like I said – I haven’t truly won the normal difficulty yet, and there are 2 higher difficulty levels for the standard game. I honestly don’t know how it’s physically possible.
My last minor complaint is that players can’t really help each other with their orders. Oh, you can run to the store to stock an ingredient or add new spices, but you can’t fill in gaps on the fly – such as grabbing some spices to add to another player’s dish at the last minute while they finish up the cooking, meaning you might end a round waiting 15 seconds with nothing you can accomplish in that amount of time.
Part the 3rd: But it’s still so darn fun.
Fine. It’s broken. The game is ruined, right?
No. Because honestly, as long as the stuff that is “broken” doesn’t interfere with the actual gameplay, this game is still terrifically fun. It nails the frantic, fast-paced nature of the video game genre. It keeps you on your toes, forces you to think and plan as well as fly through the kitchen like a Tasmanian devil. You really have to cooperate. You have to take risks. Sometimes you’ll through an action, or move so fast you make a mistake and grab the wrong ingredient, and those are the things that get you. Play on Easy mode if you like! Play one of the dozen different objectives that come in the box, each one offering a slightly different twist on the formula and a new challenge to overcome.
The difficulty level begs you to do better. Frustrations are frustrations; as you play, even when you lose, you feel like you can do better next time. You get so close and you want to try again. That’s the feeling that keeps you coming back – wanting to try again, instead of wanting to throw the game in the garbage.
It’s a personal feeling that the numbers in the goal cards aren’t quite right, and the profit margin on orders is poorly balanced. The penalty for finishing a round without enough money to pay your workers is downright devastating – honestly if it happens, I just start the game over from the beginning. I haven’t yet figured out how to recover from that. I wish the goals were higher numbers and it was easier to accrue money – at least you’d be left with a sense of accomplishment, of so close rather than too bad I had to let go my entire kitchen staff.
But as far as just playing, I have a delightful time, I feel engaged and challenged, and I look forward to trying again when I lose, whether playing with my wife or my whole family (honestly it’s better with all 4 players). I want to get better. I want to win, and the process to get there is fun. What more can you ask out of a frantic real-time coop game?
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing a review copy of Kitchen Rush.