Designers: Al Leduc and Yves Tourigny
Time: 45 – 60 minutes
Times played: 5, with a copy I purchased
When thinking about games to play or purchase I normally like to keep my non-boardgaming interests separate from my board games; anyone who has suffered through a terrible TV-themed game knows exactly what I am talking about. However, I must admit that when I read the title “Cupcake Empire” I was immediately interested, since if I had a secret plan to take over the world it would definitely involve baking cupcakes – one cupcake at a time until it’s too late to resist and well, I’ve said too much already. Let’s get back to the game.
In Cupcake Empire players are bakers trying to expand their small bakery into a chain to serve customers all around the region, developing the best network of cupcake shops to outsell your competitors.
There is a main board that is shared by all players; it is on this board that players build their retail outlets and bakeries and find customers for their cupcakes. The income track is on the edge of the board.
Each player has a personal board where they manage their dice and track various things like their production and sales levels as well as add improvements to help their sales. Players also have 6 retail outlets and 3 bakeries in their color, as well as discs and cubes that are used to track various levels.
There are also all the components you need to make cupcakes. There are simple bases in chocolate and vanilla as well as a mixed base and simple one-flavor frostings and mixed dual-flavor frosting.
Customers are randomly distributed on the main board and in reverse player order players build one simple cupcake ; they cannot build the exact same combo as a player before them. Each player also gets 1 randomly-distributed improvement that they can place in the designated spot of their choice on their board; improvements give you a bonus or let you take an additional action when you utilize a column.
Dice start on the board in the column matching their color; each player also has 3 gray dice that are rolled and placed in the column matching their number.
On your turn you choose one of the 5 columns on your personal board and perform an action in that column. You may perform any action for which you are at the activation level – meaning you have dice in the square next to the action. However, if you have a dice of the color matching that column you can take the next listed action – so everyone starts the game able to take at least the first action in each column.
The purple column lets you make cupcake bases; the options improve as you go farther down the column.
The yellow column lets you make frostings, and the options improve the farther you are able to go down the column.
Once you have a base and a frosting you can – at any time on your turn or on a future turn – assemble them. Once assembled they stay that way, but since you now know the recipe you can continue to make that flavor cupcake. If I put a chocolate base with a chocolate frosting I can serve as many customers as there are with that flavor for the rest of the game. If I put a mixed base with a mixed frosting I can serve any combination of those flavors for the rest of the game.
The orange column lets you build retail outlets, first in the less-profitable green section of the board and later in the more profitable peach section of the board.
The green column lets you sell cupcakes. Everyone starts with one bakery on the board, and you can sell to a customer up to 2 streets away from any of your retail outlets or bakeries on the board. If a customer has light brown pants and a red shirt she wants a vanilla cupcake with strawberry frosting, so if I have that combo I can sell to her. You take that customer and put them in the customer spot on your board and increase your sales and/or income based on the space the customer came from (bonuses are printed on the board).
The pink column lets you hire more staff and build more bakeries. You can add an additional die from the reserve (until they are gone), take additional improvements and eventually build bakeries. Pink dice are also considered wild and count as the color of the column they end up in.
In any column you may use any improvement you have built in that column as long as you are reaching the level it is at.
At the end of the turn you move your income marker the number of spaces equal to the lower number on your sales and production track (production goes up by assembling cupcakes and building bakeries; sales goes up by building retail outlets and bakeries and selling cupcakes).
After you move your income marker you roll all the dice in the column you activated and reassign them based on the number that you rolled. Any sixes are set into a special space on your board. The first six you roll gets you a bright idea token,; additional sixes move you along your bright ideas track and when you hit the green square you get another bright idea (limit of 3). All other players move on their bright idea track the number of sixes you rolled. Bright ideas can be used as a special action on your turn to take an improvement, move some or all of your sixes from your reserve to one column or move a die from one column to another.
There are also 4 bonus tiles that vary by game; they are available to all players and as soon as player meets the requirements (have 4 simple frostings, have 4 retail outlets, sell to certain customers etc) they put one of their discs on the tile and take the indicated income.
Play continues until a player hits 70 on the income track; you finish the round and then the game is over. The player with the highest income is the winner.
MY THOUGHTS ON THE GAME
The box art is cute, and I think it might lead some to think there’s a lighter game in the box than there actually is. Don’t let that fool you; this is more of a medium-weight game than a light game based on the number of actions, options and strategies available to you.
The rules are very clear and well-written, and it’s easy enough to learn the game from the rules. There are plenty of examples and graphics, and everything matches up so there is no confusion. Set-up is different for different numbers of players and there is a handy chart that helps with that.
The components are well-made. The player pieces are wooden and the rest are sturdy cardboard (except the dice, of course). The retail outlets are fairly small, but you aren’t moving them around so it isn’t a problem. The income markers are also small, so anyone with dexterity issues might need help moving their marker at the end of their turn.
The theme is fun for me, since I like to bake, but it is not essential to the game – you could be selling fish and chips or cars or anything else, but why would you want to when you could be selling cupcakes?
The game play itself is very interesting. At first glance you may think this is just a luck-based dice game, but there’s a lot more to it. You need to develop a plan to get your cupcakes on the market, and how you build each column with improvements, add dice and sell at just the right time to get the best customers before another player does is key. Your plan might be affected by your die roll, so you need to have some flexibility in your strategy, but you can also spend your bright ideas to manipulate your dice, and the bright ideas are free-flowing enough that you generally have at least one. There are potential different ways to get to the selling, and it doesn’t seem that there is one clear path to victory – I’ve seen victors build lots and lots of outlets and sell to the less discerning customers and victors only build a couple of bakeries in the fancy neighborhood and win selling only there.
When playing with people who know how to play already this game can finish in as little as 30 minutes, but most games seem to go for about 45 minutes.
I love this game; the length and balance hit a sweet spot for me (pun intended) and I look forward to many more plays.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about a house rule one of the designers told me about – loser makes cupcakes. I did pre-emptively bring cupcakes to my last game day. . . .
THOUGHTS OF OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS
Joe Huber (1 play): I also picked up a copy of Cupcake Empire; as Tery notes, the components are quite nice – and also quite evocative. My biggest concern is that “middleweight” economic games often end up being neither fish nor fowl for me – too light to be compelling economic games, and too heavy to be enjoyable with a light economic aspect. I didn’t hate the game – but I also didn’t find it fun, which helped move it quickly to my trade pile. The good news is that if this type of game appeals to you – the theme and presentation here are significant positives.
Dan Blum (2 plays): I liked it better than Joe did but it felt a bit rough to me – there a few too many fiddly aspects for the weight. And, while I agree with Tery that it’s not hugely random, a bad roll late in the game can definitely hurt. If I played it again it would be with three players; with four it definitely outstayed its welcome.
I Love It! Tery
I Like It.
Neutral: Dan Blum
Not for Me: Joe H.