Dale Yu: Review of Cacao

Cacao

  • Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
  • Publisher: Z-Man/Abacus
  • Players: 2 to 4 tribal chiefs
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times Played: 7, between review copy provided by Z-Man and with their demo copy at the Gathering of Friends

Cacao

I first played Cacao at the Gathering of Friends, and I’ll start off the review by saying that I fell in love with the game after the first play. So much so, that when we had our annual contest to prognosticate the SdJ winners, this game was my pick to win it all. (Of course, this probably completely jinxed the game as I’m rarely correct in my guess as to what the jury will pick – and in fact, Cacao wasn’t even named as a finalist for the award though it did garner a recommendation…)

In this game, players try to have the most gold at the end of the game by placing their workers (found on their personal tiles) adjacent to action tiles on the board. Each player gets a player board at the start of the game which shows their storage spaces for cacao fruits, sun worship tokens, and their personal water track.

One of the player boards

One of the player boards

 

Each player places their meeple on the lowest space of the water track, the space marked negative 10. Additionally, each player takes the stack of worker tiles in their color, shuffles them, and draws a hand of three tiles to start the game. The board – which is built on the fly – is started with two tiles placed touching only at one corner. The rest of the jungle tiles are shuffled and then two tiles are turned face up next to the shuffled supply pile.

On a turn, the active player must play one of the three worker tiles from his hand to the board. It must be played so that it is adjacent to at least one jungle tile. The worker tile can be oriented in any manner. Then, check the board to see if a new tile should be placed – if there is a empty space on the board where a jungle tile could be placed such that it was adjacent to at least two worker tiles, the active player selects one of the two faceup jungle tiles to play in that space. In this manner, the board will be built up in a checkerboard pattern with jungle tiles always alternating with worker tiles in all directions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once all the jungle tiles have been placed, then any workers that are adjacent to a newly placed tile are activated. There are four worker meeples printed on each tile, though in varying arrangements. For each side of the worker tile that is placed next to a jungle tile, the player is able to take that adjacent action as many times as there are meeples next to it. Note that due to the placement on new jungle tiles, multiple players may have activated workers. Also, each meeple will only be used once in the course of the game (unless players use sun worship tokens). Players can simultaneously take their actions at this time as it really should not matter what other players do. Players may also choose not to take an action though there is no compensation given for a skipped action.

There are six different types of tiles –

Cacao plantations – These tiles produce one or two cacao pods per worker adjacent to them. You may hold up to 5 cacao pods at any time.

Markets – You can sell one cacao pod per adjacent worker for 2, 3 or 4 gold pieces.

Plantations and Markets

Plantations and Markets

Gold mines – Collect 1 or 2 gold pieces per adjacent worker

Watering holes – you can move your meeple forward on the water track one space per adjacent meeple. There are 8 steps on the track, and at the end of the game, you can score anywhere from negative 10 points to positive 16 points based on your position.

Gold Mines and Watering Holes

Gold Mines and Watering Holes

Sun worshiping sites – for each adjacent meeple, you can collect a sun worship token which is placed on your player board. These will come into play in the end game

Temples – for each adjacent meeple, you exert one point of influence over a temple. These are not scored until the final endgame scoring. 6 points are awarded to the player with the most meeples adjacent to each temple and 3 points are given to the second most.

Sun Worshipping sites and Temples

Sun Worshipping sites and Temples

The endgame begins when the supply of jungle tiles is exhausted. While the game does not end until all players have played all their worker tiles, there will obviously be no further jungle tiles placed on the table once the supply is empty. However, the sun worship tokens can finally be used once the supply of jungle tiles is empty. On a turn, if you discard a sun worship token, you can overbuild one of your previously-played worker tiles. You now perform any actions adjacent to your newly-placed worker tile. If you overbuild next to a temple, only the meeples on the visible tile count towards the scoring of that temple.

Once all players have played all their tiles, there is a final bit of endgame scoring. Each of the five temples is scored. Players receive one gold for each sun worship token that remains unused at the end of the game. Finally, you gain or lose gold based on your position on your water track. The player with the most points wins! In case of a tie, the player with the most cacao pods on their board wins.

My thoughts on the game

When I picked up the box, I knew that I recognized the designer’s name, but I couldn’t think of any of his designs. Later investigation on BGG shows a number of games including Sushi Go! and Elevenses – so this is definitely not his first good idea!

Cacao is a very interesting combination of the worker placement and tile laying genres. I like the mechanic of having the workers being printed on the tiles. Though you are limited to choosing from only the three worker tiles in your hand, you have to pay attention to how you choose and orient them when played so that you can take advantage of the actions on already played jungle tiles as well as leaving yourself open to picking up actions on newly placed ones later in the game.

The decision of where to place your own worker tiles on your turn may also be influenced by the two jungle tiles available for play. You may end up choosing to place your worker tile in order to place a new jungle tile where you want it. You might also get the chance to play a jungle tile in a position where your opponents cannot take advantage of it – perhaps placing a water tile next to an opponent’s worker tile with no meeples on that side or placing the 4 gold market next to a player who does not have any cacao pods at the time, thus wasting his meeples.

Turns go by fairly quickly, and you really don’t get that many of them in the game – only 9 turns in a 4-player game – so you need to make the most of each chance to place tiles. There are four main ways to score points that seem to be even in weight:

  • Selling cacao – though this is a two step process because you have to use an action first to pick up the cacao and then another action later to sell it
  • Gold mines – a more direct route of instant scoring though at a lower payoff
  • Temples – the end game scoring of 6 points for winning a temple can be quite meaningful (scores in the 50s often win our games)
  • Water Track – the competition for adjacency to water tiles can be fierce, but with a swing of up to 26 points on your track, it’s hard to ignore this.

Note that I am not including the one point for a sun worship tile on this list. The reason for this is that there is rarely a time (IMHO) when overbuilding one of your previous worker locations wouldn’t payoff more than the point that you would get for the sun tile remaining unplayed. Typically, the sun tile will allow you to play in a location where you can both collect and sell cacao in a single turn, place workers next to a watering hole to move on the water track, or next to a temple where you can instantly change the situation to move into position to score 3 or 6 points from it. Generally, by the end of the game, most legal locations to play worker tiles will only be adjacent to a single jungle tile whereas most of the interior spots where you would rebuild are fully surrounded and thus you get the chance to use all four of your meeples on that worker tile.

During the game, I really try to make a point of being adjacent to at least one watering hole (even if there are no workers next to it) and to make sure I get at least one sun tile. In that way, I’ll be able to at least overbuild in that spot to get ahead on the track. Even if it is only two spaces on the track, that is a net gain of 9 victory points for that one placement, and that alone is more value than I’d get than any other play. With only two sun worship sites and three watering holes, you pretty much have to jump on the opportunities to play on those two when they appear on the board.

The rules are six pages total – 4 pages in a “rulebook” and two pages of a tile overview. When you learn the game, be sure to read all six pages as there are a lot of important rules on the overview sheet that aren’t in the main rulebook. The game packs up nicely is a custom made vac tray that neatly holds all the components.

The pieces in the vac tray

The pieces in the vac tray

Though there have been a number of good games in this pre-Origins time period, Cacao has been my favorite, and one that looks to be earning a permanent slot on my game shelves.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Chris W: Like Dale, I immediately loved this game after my first play. Cacao is easy to learn — a rules explanation will generally take less than three minutes — yet there is strategic depth and an interesting decision space. The different scoring mechanisms seem to be well-balanced, and the production value is solid.

 

Cacao has been frequently compared to Carcassonne and described as a “next step” for fans of that game. I fully agree that the Carcassonne comparison is apt, and I think Carcassonne players will enjoy Cacao. I personally like Cacao much better: in many ways, it is the game I wanted Carcassonne to be. I don’t think Cacao is any more complex than Carcassonne (and BGG gives them similar weight ratings), yet I find the gameplay decisions to be more interesting and strategic.

 

Patrick Brennan: At first blush it’s got that old-school Carcassonne-y feel, maybe because the game’s been in gestation for quite a few years, of choosing where to place your tile for best point-scoring effect. It then departs. There’s a number of things you can place your tile next to in order to fulfil various point mechanics – water, suns, shells, straight VP’s, end-game area-majorities and the like. But the neat thing is, in the final few turns, you can overlay a tile you’ve previously placed and score it all again. So your 9 turns are not just about doing the best you can right now, but creating end-game setups to take advantage of as well. It’s otherwise a fairly standard tile placement Euro that works well for what it is, but that twist did elevate it a bit, earning an immediate second play which doesn’t happen too often in that genre for me.

 

Lorna: It’s a fine game, I think a bit too light and limited for me. I think moves are fairly obvious. I’ve only played 3 times so maybe I need to give it more chances. Would make a nice intro game I think.

 

Alan: I’m in Lorna’s camp. It’s pleasant, it works, but it doesn’t excite me. I’m usually interested in heavier games, so this one is useful end of evening game where the decisions are more straightforward and less taxing. I’m happy to play it but not seeking to play it.

 

Mary Prasad: I only played the game one time but I enjoyed it. It is a bit heavier than Carcassonne but scratches the same itch. I would be happy to play it again.

 

Karen Miller: I have only played one time but really loved it. It’s a short game with many interesting decisions. I really enjoy the fact that the workers are printed on the tiles forcing you to choose how to play them for the greatest benefit. It’s a good entry level game for the non-gamers in your life.

 

Larry: This is a relatively simple and quick playing title, but there’s some meat here. Like some of the others, I think it would make an ideal title if you’re looking for a “next game” for a newbie whose gateway into gaming was Carcassonne. It’s not a game I’ll suggest, but I’d be happy to play it again.

 

Joe Huber (3 plays): Unlike some others, I actually found Cacao lighter than Carcassonne – there are more _rules_, but I found the gameplay itself much more obvious, as Lorna suggests. Of course, it’s still fun, and a nice lighter game – I enjoyed my plays, even if I wasn’t quite convinced that I needed to add it to my collection.

 

Dan Blum (4 plays): I tend to agree with Joe; Cacao is somewhat simpler and less interesting than Carcassonne, which has a lot more long-range planning involved. However, the comparison with Carcassonne is not that big an issue for me as the games feel very different despite both being light tile-placement games.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Chris W, Karen M
  • I like it. Eric M, Patrick B, Mary P, Larry, Joe H, Dan B
  • Neutral. Lorna
  • Not for me…
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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Cacao

  1. Fraser says:

    I should get a chance to play this sometime over BorderCon this weekend.

  2. It was Phil’s brother David who designed Elevenses.

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