MENU MASTERS: 2-6 Players from Age 8+
Zach & Jordan Wesiman (Designers) Tom van Rheenen (Art) Andy Hepworth (Art Director) Ray Wehrs & Chris Leder (Development)
Available from your local games store for about £28.00-£35.00 (average price seen online £30.00)
The basic premise of this game is to be the best "Chef" by completing Menus using the finest ingredients. The game ends on the turn that one (or more) Chefs completes three Menus and then the players count up the Stars on their ingredients and the highest total tally wins. Ingredients left over do not count as anything. Money breaks ties.
There are six Chef player boards that are colour coded with sets of 4 Chef Hats so that each player has a board and 4 Hats of the same colour. There are three different shops, Bakers, Butchers and GreenGrocers that are used in games of 2 and 3 players and a fourth shop, the Super Market, that is added to the parade when 4 or more players are involved. Each shop has a front window in which ingredients for sale are displayed. The ingredients are in three different stacks of cards, each card showing one or two ingredients and a number of stars, and these are shuffled separately and cards drawn from the decks to fill the shop windows; the SuperMarket receives one card from each stack. Once the Menu cards have been shuffled two cards are dealt to each player and three are taken from the top of the deck to form a face up display. All the Menu cards show three types of ingredients, and to complete the Menu the player has to buy the necessary ingredients from the different shops. The shops should be placed side by side in a row.
The first thing to note about MENU MASTER as a game is that to begin with money is very short in supply. Each player is given 6 coins at the beginning of the game and then one additional coin per player is laid out near the board to be claimed later during play. Having decided who goes first the players proceed to place their Chef Hats onto either the central window of a shop (note ALWAYS placed on the central window) or the Name Plate of the Shop. Although it is obvious as to the type of store, these name plates have been left blank, except for the SuperMarket, so you can name them yourself if you wish; here's an opportunity for some fun - make up some small cards with various descriptive words and nouns or names on then randomly select a couple and name the shops in this way, just laying the tiles in the empty space above each store front. Of course it will make no difference to the game itself but it will add a tad of silly fun before the game begins.
The game mechanic is very simple but it causes players to think before they act. In turn (the first player changes clockwise after each full round) the players place one of their Chef Hats. If they place it in the central window of a store then it is likely they want one of the ingredients on sale there. Multiple Chef Hats can be on the same window, though their placement is not separate from each other, instead they are stacked. The first Hat will always be the top of the stack and thus Hats added afterwards are placed underneath the stack. Only ONE Hat may be placed on the store's name-plate each round but one player may "own" more than one store.
Once all players have placed their 4 Hats, they have to place all 4 even if they have no intention on buying ingredients, then the next phase begins, buying the ingredients. Start at one end of the line of stores and then customers in the first shop have the opportunity to make a purchase. The players whose Chef's Hat is at the top of the stack can buy any one of the three ingredients in the windows and has to pay one coin for every Hat in the stack. Thus if there are 4 Hats in the stack, including the top one, the cost is 4 coins, which are placed on the shop's Name plate, then they take the card they have paid for. Players may have more than one Hat in the same stack but all Hats are counted even if the player who owns the first Hat has another later down in that stack. Once the player who owns the first Hat has bought (or not, there is no mandatory purchase) then the Hat underneath gets the next chance to buy, this time from the two remaining ingredients, and then so on. Any ingredients not bought remain on sale for the next round of play. You continue to do this from shop to shop until all four shops have been visited. The money paid for the ingredients in each store goes to the player who "bought" the store that round by placing one of their Chef Hats on the Name Plate; apart from using a Chef's Hat to take one of the additional coins (which you may do only once per round) this is the only way to get money.
Players quickly work out that in the first two rounds you need to own at least one shop while spending as little as you can. Clever players also quickly understand that by purchasing from stores they own they get their money for nothing and their ingredients for free. Money gained from shops isn't banked until the end of the round so you cannot use money you gain from a shop to purchase ingredients in the same round.
Players can only complete Menus from their hands and/or from the three on display on their turn but they can complete as many Menus then as they have the correct ingredients for. Community/display Menu cards are replaced immediately they are are completed but players will get no more Menu cards in their hands. Players may only hold six ingredients on their boards at one time but it isn't quite clear if this means ingredients per se or ingredients cards, remembering that each ingredient card with two ingredients on it can only be used for one of the ingredients on it when completing a Menu. For ease of keeping the game flowing we decided to play with a limit of six cards as each card can only be one ingredient. Obviously if you are completing more than one Menu in your turn you cannot use one card for two Menus even if each of the two ingredients on the card could be used, one for each Menu - that's how we understood it, again it's not perfectly clear, in fact the dual ingredients cards are not especially mentioned at all in the rules.
As chefs are masters of the kitchen they can create "Power Foods" and use two of the same ingredient to equal one of another ingredient (available from the same store) that they require for a Menu, but they only count the Star value on one of them - obviously the highest. Whenever we did this we found it easier if we kept one of the cards and discarded the other when we played our completed Menu card.
For a family game it is very well produced and looks great. It plays well and is easy to learn for all ages. The rules book is well appointed, clear and simple and where there are possibly omissions (such as the dual ingredients cards not being fully explained) it takes very little imagination to fill in the gaps. There are a few strategies, in fact I have given many of them away in this review, and there are chances to stuff other players up by placing your Chef Hats to raise the price of ingredients. As I mentioned. owning a shop or two will bring you in cash or allow you to buy for free, but you have to balance between buying shops and buying ingredients. You need ingredients to complete the Menus but you need money to buy the ingredients, it's quite an intriguing circle of events and it makes games interesting as each player generally has their own ways and thoughts on playing. Overall it's a tasty little game and $30.00 seems a reasonable price if you are in the USA. With the poor exchange rate a £30.00 price in the UK is possibly may make you think twice.
MENU MASTERS is one of the range of "Titan" games whereby top and renown games designers, Jordan Weisman, Richard Garfield, Paul Peterson and others break away from the type of game they usually design and create a straightforward family game. I think that in producing this Calliope Games have published a fun game with high production values but I also think they have missed the odd trick. It is a fun game and as such has some suitably amusing illustrations of the Chefs, and a wonderful archetype Italian miniature model that acts as the first-player token. I emphasise the word "fun" because it's here that my thoughts travel when I read the Player Boards and look at the Menus. With the player boards there was a superb chance to write amusing CVs (curriculum vitae) for each of them but the text they have is actually rather bland and barely brings out the beginnings of a smile.
The game itself tells you that "... you are a world-class chef, brimming with ideas for the greatest menus ever crafted ..." and yet the actual Menus you are choosing to create are also pretty bland affairs for such experienced speciality Chefs and there aren't any named dishes, just ingredient shopping lists like Tomatoes, Salmon, Raspberry Tart. It would have been better named as something like TOP SHOPPERS because in actuality all you are doing is going shopping, you are creating nothing.
MENU MASTERS isn't the only game of collecting ingredients for recipes. I fondly remember the Cheapass Game "Lord of the Fries" and not long ago there was one where you collected different spices and another where you gathered Pizza Toppings. Of these, "Lord of the Fries" sticks most in my memory because of the fun names given to the meals/Menus you are creating. I like Menu Masters a lot, and it's true that after a couple of plays the fun text on games is usually skipped over except when you are introducing it to new players thus beginning the laughter again, but I just think it lacks that little bit of creative fun in its writing.