I had the great pleasure of meeting English gamer Andy Merritt, his lovely wife Juliette and their delightful daughter Tenuvial both at Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends and again at Gulf Games 7 in Orlando, Florida back in February of 2001. Andy and Juliette are both the engaging and knowledgeable gamers, with Andy being a regular contributor to Games, Games, Games magazine. I knew he had brought along a prototype of his to Gulf Games, but I never had the opportunity to give it a try.
I was pleased when he sent me a finished copy of his design, Too Many Cooks, to play and review. I've been trying to get it to the table for the past month, but never could find the right opportunity. Finally, after what seemed like an interminable delay, I managed to play the game with both my Westbank Gamers group and several times with family and friends. I found the game quite engaging, but not without some problems.
Players represent cooks attempting to gather the necessary ingredients to cook a variety of meals. There are a variety of ethnic dishes represented (English, Chinese, Italian, French or Indian), a few of which are also vegetarian. Players get bonuses for specializing in a certain ethnic cuisine and must be mindful to prepare at least one vegetarian dish lest they be penalized by the growing veggie-lover contingent.
A number of recipes are played face-up to the table onto a well designed board which has clearly marked spaces for the various types of cards. Each recipe card lists the ingredients it requires in order to be "cooked". Players begin the game with only one ingredient and must acquire new ingredients either through auction (the most common method) or random draw (costly and a crap-shoot).
On a player's turn, he may perform one action from several options, the most common being the auctioning of ingredient cards. A player selects four ingredient cards from the draw pile, selects two and discards the remaining two. The two selected are now placed up for auction as a set on a "once around the table" basis. Players bid beans, which is the monetary unit in the game. The auctioneer has the final opportunity to purchase the ingredient cards.
Instead of auctioning ingredient cards, the player has the opportunity to simply purchase ingredients. This costs 10 beans and allows the player to select the top two cards from the ingredient stack. This is very risky, however, as more often than not, you do not obtain the ingredients you were seeking.
When a player acquires new ingredients, whether it is on his turn or not, he immediately has the opportunity to prepare one of the dishes depicted on the face-up recipe cards. If he can supply all of the necessary ingredients, he takes the corresponding recipe card and places it in front of him. He also acquires money (again, beans!) to increase his coffers. The amount received for successfully preparing a meal is listed on the recipe card. Players may also cook recipes that were previously cooked by other players, but they only receive a portion of the monetary amount the original cook received and the recipe card remains in front of the first player to prepare the meal. This is important as bonuses are awarded at the end of the game for having successfully prepared the most meals in each of the ethnic categories.
Another action a player may opt to take on his turn is auctioning two ingredient cards from his hand. This is not common, but as the game approaches its latter stages, it is quite common to find yourself with unwanted ingredients in your possession. Also, I've seen several players have a severe cash (bean) shortage, so auctioning cards from your hand is one way to acquire needed funds and wash your hand of unwanted ingredients.
The final option a player has on his turn is to fill an empty recipe space on the board. The player draws three recipe cards from the recipe deck, chooses one and places it onto the board. The remaining two recipe cards are discarded. Of course, the idea is to choose a recipe that requires ingredients which you already possess. This will allow you to successfully prepare that meal.
Ultimately, most money (beans) wins the game. As mentioned, at the conclusion of the game, bonuses are awarded to the players who have successfully prepared the most meals in each of the five ethnic categories. This bonus is seven beans. Further, any player who failed to prepare a vegetarian meal suffers a 10 bean penalty. After these adjustments, the player with the most beans is victorious and labeled the "Master Chef".
The game is played over three rounds and, with five players, moves much quicker than I originally anticipated, playing to completion in a little over an hour. In all of my games, we did make far fewer recipes than I thought would have been completed, however, which made the scoring far less dramatic. Even when playing with less than five players, the number of recipes successfully prepared during the course of the game was very low. This is disappointing as the game would be much more exciting and competitive if a greater quantity of recipes were prepared.
The main cause of this lack of prepared recipes is the fact that there are an exact number of ingredients included to make all of the recipes. Once a recipe is cooked, the ingredients used in preparing that recipe are discarded from the game and, consequently, will not reappear. Since players can prepare recipes that have previously been cooked by opponents and not all ingredients and recipes will surface during the course of the game, this "exact" feature is the primary cause of the lack of recipes being cooked.
It would seem to be a logical solution to simply include one or two more ingredients of each type, which should help facilitate the cooking of more recipes during the course of the game. However, this would also add length to the game, not necessarily a desirable outcome.
I do tip my hat to Andy for the outstanding detail and great thematic elements he has created. All of the information necessary to play the game is included not only on the cards, but also on the handy reference charts supplied for the players. In fact, there may be a bit too much information on the cards, but I do appreciate his desire to supply the players with all of the details.
The components and packaging are also clever. The cards and board mats are homemade, but laminated nicely and are quite sturdy. The currency is actual beans in three different types and sizes. Although cute, this is a bit fiddly. Certainly, actual money tokens or play cash would be easier, but I do enjoy the thematic tie-in. The artwork on the cards is standard computer fare, but well selected to match each meal and ingredient. My one major component complaint concerns the box. In a clever marketing gimmick, the game is packaged in a food tin, sort of like an American TV-dinner tray. It is certainly visually appealing, but in practicality it is very flimsy and easy to crush. Trust me ... my container has been inadvertently smashed and bent several times. "A+" for the idea, but a "D" for practicality.
At its heart, the game is an auction game and, as such, works rather well. It is quite entertaining and moves along fast enough so one doesn't grow too weary of the constant cycle of bidding. Deciding upon which recipes to pursue, which ingredients to compete for in auctions and how much you are willing to commit are all key decisions in the game. Sadly, the lack of recipes that are ultimately made during the course of the game detracts from the excitement and competitiveness. Perhaps with some fiddling and adjustments, this could be corrected, which would make for a more exciting buffet. Still, I commend Andy on his first design effort, which is quite pleasing.
- Greg Schloesser