- Designer: Dan Kazmaier & Connie Kazmaier
- Artists: Mary Haasdyk & Sahana VJ
- Publisher: Steeped Games
- Players: 1-5
- Time: 20-60 Minutes
- Times Played: 3
“Everything goes better with a bit of tea, or does it?”
About a year and a half ago, a small game popped on the radar of folks in the board gaming scene when it hit Kickstarter. Chai, a game about making tea and selling it to the right customers in order to be the best tea house. Good leveraging of the board game media, simple game mechanisms and a charming table presence propelled it to $135k in backing. So what is Chai?
Chai is a set collection game, where you are trying to collect the right ingredients to fill tea orders. There are two different types of ingredients — Tea flavors and Pantry additives. When you have the correct ingredients, you can fulfill orders and claim a tip.
A player’s turn is pretty simple, as they can only do one of three things. A player can buy Tea flavors from the market, they can get Pantry additives from the pantry or they can reserve an order card and use a special power.
The market is filled at random with eighteen flavor tiles at the beginning of the game. There are six different flavors for your tea in the game. Lemon, Ginger, Berries, Lavender, Mint and Jasmine. When the player buys flavors from the market, first they will take three coins, of those three coins, they will have to at least spend one. When choosing flavor ingredients to buy, you are going to purchase all of the ingredients of the same kind that are orthogonally adjacent to each other. In the photo below, the player could buy two Berries or two Ginger, or three mint. The price the active player pays is where the highest value tile comes from, so the Berry would be one coin, and the three mint would be three coins. The player can buy as many flavor ingredients as they want to. After buying tiles everything shifts to the left. After the active player is done, they then refill the Marketplace with tiles drawn randomly from the tile bag. At most, a player may hold twelve flavor tiles.
Another action a player may take on their turn is to take three items from the Pantry. There are five different Pantry items — Milk, Sugar, Honey, Vanilla and Chai. Before taking items from the Pantry, the player may pay one coin to reset the Pantry, clearing all five tiles and placing five new ones from the bag in the Pantry. At that point the active player may choose three from the Pantry or draw from the bag. Any combination of picking from the pantry or drawing from bag to get three is fine. At most, a player may have up to six Pantry items at the end of their turn.
The third and final thing a player may do on their turn is that they may reserve a customer card from the display row and then use one of the three abilities that are on display. There will be a set number of customer cards on display based on the number of players. A player may choose to reserve one of the face up cards or take from the draw pile. After that, they may use one of the three abilities. Abilities range from gaining three coins when fulfilling an order to take a pantry item for free, or a marketplace item of a certain cost. There are several in the box, so there is a decent amount of variation. At the start of every round a new ability card will replace one of the older ones.
After doing one of those three things, a player may then complete a customer’s tea order. You may either complete one that you have reserved — three is the max — or you may fulfill one that is face up in the display. To complete an order, simply discard the needed ingredients and claim the card as yours, and the victory points that go with it. One thing of note, when you fulfill an order card, you must have the base tea leaf. Each player has six of their chosen tea leafs at the start of the game. If someone fulfills an order that requires a tea leaf of yours, you must give them a leaf, but they must also give you a coin. You cannot refuse. If anyone runs out of their given tea leaf, those types of tea orders may no longer be fulfilled. After you have fulfilled an order, reveal one of the Tip Tokens that was chosen at the beginning of the round and gain the benefit on the token, should it have one.
Chai is played over five rounds, with each round ending after a number of tea orders have been fulfilled equal to the number of players in the game. At the end of the game, the player with the most points from cards, coins left over and in the three to five player game, a diversi-tea bonus, wins the game and is the best tea merchant.
Let’s get this out of the way, the version of Chai that I am playing is the deluxe version I believe. Really wonderful production, from the wonderful tea cups to the really well done playmat. Does it need to be produced like this to work? Absolutely not, but they did, and it more than definitely helped propel the funding upward. They knew their potential audience and geared everything towards that. Behind all of that shine though, the working nuts and bolts so to speak, there really isn’t a whole lot there.
Chai is dead simple to teach and play. Each turn you get one action to hopefully complete one order, and make no mistake, you should be completing orders just about every turn, someone will be. You are simply taking ingredients to fill orders. It begins to feel like that is all you are doing relatively quickly, there is not a whole lot of tension here, and that will appeal to some, but to me, that lack of tension really makes the game feel like an exercise in just repeating the same thing over and over again until you are done.
The way everything is set up, there really isn’t much competition for the orders, as everyone is well aware of what is available and what others have that they are working towards, there is little mystery here. Even if you feel like someone else is looking at fulfilling a card before you, hopefully you have things set up well enough that you can just take the reserve action and take the card before them, and still fulfill something else. Even when doing that little bit of denial though, chances are, something is going to come out that will be just as good for everyone else involved.
Chai, to me, feels like someone happened upon a theme that they really enjoyed, and then they just slapped that theme onto some really basic mechanisms, and pretty components. Outside of the Marketplace — which while interesting the first couple uses, it doesn’t really hold up as a central mechanism — this feels really straightforward and bland, mechanisms wise. It’s part of this new design thought that we need to minimize competitiveness in favor of getting more people to the table. Don’t get me wrong, I am really glad I got to play Chai, but I really should know better. I shouldn’t pick up and get excited about games that others describe using such descriptors as “zen” or feel like they have to lean into the art or production to beat home the point that the game is good. Rarely have we found that to be true, in fact, I think I’d rather see praising mechanisms and game play, and then being surprised that it looks fantastic, rather than the other way around. Chai is up against some really good competition in its field, maybe it’s not fair to compare, but I’d rather play Splendor, Century Spice Road or even Jaipur, they have depth of play. Whereas Chai, what you see, is what you get, a simple game that tries to be flavorful with a wonderful table presence, but kind of just falls a bit flat.
Well-written review! I recently also got a copy of Chai (Deluxe KS edition) and it also does feel a bit like a mashup of basic mechanisms with a pasted-on theme elevated by nice components. I do wish they had gone all-in and made the cardboard tokens (pantry ingredients & tip jars) out of wood or plastic too. Geek-up bits anyone?
That said, I felt the game works better with more players – the board state changes quicker, ingredients are always on the move, and money is being paid to other players to obtain their colored customers. A recent 5 player game with 3 newbies was great fun as we joked about stealing customers and getting zero tips. It is in this friendly relaxed introductory setting that Chai feels like a great gateway.