Karl-Heinz Schmiel


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Games combining the players' physical skills with the background theme of cooking seem to be in fashion these days, but whereas the latest ZOCH-game Safranito deals with the somewhat unusual acquiring of spices at an Indian spice market the slightly older game A la Carte by games veteran Karl-Heinz Schmiel actually deals with the cooking process itself.

Thus, each of the players in A la Carte receives his on three-dimensional stove with his own metal pan, and these components will be used to prepare some rather unusal dishes. So, the game features a total collection of 20 different dishes which are sorted by colour into five groups, and each of the players choses one dish which he places into his pan at the start of the game.

Each of the dishes has its own receipt, and the preparation of a dish requires both the right temperature of the stove and a certain amount of spices. During his turn, a player has a total of three actions, and each of these actions may be used either to roll the stove-dice, or to pick one of the four differnt spice cans and "spice up" their dish with this particular spice.


Whenever a new dish has been placed in a player's pan, the temperature knob at the player's stove is returned to "0", and since most of the dishes available in the game require the stove to operate in a certain temperature range, a player usually will have to use the stove dice to heat the stove up. Thus, an action can be used to roll the stove dice, and the result either means that the player increases the heat of his stove by a fixed amount, or he can chose within a certain range on how many steps he wants to increase the heat. The stove offers a total of seven heat levels (1 to 7), and all dishes in the game feature a maximum heat value which may not be surpassed. If the stove's heat is increased over that value, the dish is spoiled and the player has to discard his current dish with all its spices, starting with a new dish chosen from the remaining dishes.

Apart from the heat values each dish also specifies a specific combination of spices which must be added in order to complete the receipt. For this purpose the game features four spice cans containing four different kinds of spices, and a player may use one of his actions to use one of the spice cans to "spice up" his dish.

In the game the spices are represented by little coloured chunks of plastic, and at the beginning each of the spice cans is prepared by adding 15 identical spice chunks plus 5 transparent salt chunks. Due to their clunky shape and the small outlet of each spice can it is a bit unpredictable how many chunks will fall out of the can when it is used, and the game specificly counts on this uncertainty.

So, when a player wants to use an action to spice up his dish, he takes the matching spice can and moves it in one bow-like motion over his pan. The can may be held with its outlet down towards the pan for a short moment, but it is forbidden to shake the can over the pan so that a player has to live with the spice chunk(s) which have fallen out freely. Of course, the same spice can may be used more than once, be each use of the can requires the spending of a player's action.

Similar to an overheated dish, a dish which has been "overspiced" also is spoilt and must be discarded. Thus, the dishes can be prepared even if the specific amount of spice chunks prescribed in the receipt is not exacly met, but as a general rule a dish is overspiced when three or more chunks of the same colour have found their way into a player's pan. As indicated, and overspiced dish must be discarded, and this applies to the four general kinds of spices as well as to the salt cubes which may - acidentally - fall out of any of the four spice cans.

A player who succeeds in adding all required spices while not overheating his stove actually succeeds in preparing a dish, and he the may take the dish from his pan and place it onto his carrying tray for finished dishes. Depending on the complexity of the receipt, the dish will count victory points at the end of the game, and a player who actually succeeds in preparing a dish with the exact number of spice chunks prescribed in the receipt without adding any salt may receive a starcook-token which may be used to trigger a special victory condition.

Well, so far we know about firing the stove and how to spice up the dishes, and since these two basic actions are the only actions regularly available to the players you might ask whether there actually is some player interaction or other means by which the game is "spiced up". Here the coffee cup tokens come into play, and apart from one coffee cup which was dealt to the players at the beginning of the game the players may randomly take an additional cup when the "cup" result comes up on the stove-dice.

Each player who possesses one or more cup tokens is entitled to ONE free coffee break during his turn, and to take a coffee break a player choses one of his cup tokens and reveals its downside to the other players. Each of the cups entitles a player to take a special action, and apart from additional victory points or three additional regular actions (heating / spicing) there also exists a token which may be used to decrease the heat level of the stove to keep a dish from being spoilt be too much heat. However, there also are some kinds of interactive actions which may be used to hamper the other players, and so some cup tokens allow their user to take a spicing action at another player' pan (out of pure goodheartedness with an intention to help.... Ooops, isn't that overspiced?). And even more nasty is the stove-change cup which can be used to swap the stove (inluding the pan with all contents) with another player!

As might be expected, especially these latter actions will cause some degree of turmoil around the gaming table, and the cup tokens certainly serve the purpose of keeping the game's entertainment value at a good level. However, due to the random, luck-based fashion in which the cup tokens are awarded a strong leaning of A la Carte towards merry old Don't worry! cannot be denied.

A player who has finished (or lost) his current dish takes a new receipt from the general stockpile and once again starts with a cold stove and a pan devoid of any spices, but when taking a new dish the rule must be observed that a player may only take dishes of a colour which he has not yet mastered. If you remember, all dishes have been divided into five different colours at the beginning of the game, and this splitting into different categories ensures that a player cooks a certain amount of different dishes, thus keeping the chances for all players equal. In addition, there also exist some instructions on how the spice cans must be refilled in case a can is empty or only contains some left-over salt chunks.

As an alternative to chosing a new dish, each player also may opt once to prepare a crepe for which he has received a receipt at the beginning of the game. A crepe in preparation cannot be stolen by use of the stove-change cup, but it follows a specific procedure for preparation. Thus, each try to finish the crep requires the player to make a roll with the stove dice and increase temperature, and afterwards the player has two tries to make an mid-air salto with his crepe to change it to its other side. If the flip is succeesful, the crepe is finished and joins the other dishes finished by the player, but if the lip is ot succeesful (or the crepe falls out of the pan), the player must use another action to heat the stove even more and try again on the flip. If the stove gets to hot, the crepe is spoiled just like any other dish and can only be saved through the timely use of a heat reduction cup.

The game ends when either the first player has finished his fifth dish or when all available dishes have been used up, and then each of the players adds up the victory points for all of his dishes. However, as indicated earlier there is a special victory condition connected to the starcook-tokens, and so a player who was able to accumulate three starcook-tokens will be declared instant winner, regardless of the value of his finished dishes.

All the details in A la Carte have been designed with care and a view not only to functionality but to give a somewhat authentic cooking atmosphere. And indeed it must be conceded that stoves, pans and spices all simulate the best kitchen-atmosphere which I have yet found in a game.

However, one point must be clear for all players who want to start a cook's career in A la Carte, and this is that the ups and downs you will face in your career depend to a high degree on the moods of Cookinea (the godess of cooking). Thus it is not easy to foresee which number of spice chunks actually may tumble out of a spice can, and furthermore the use of coffee cups by the other players can lead to some nasty, uncontrollable setbacks.

Having said this, it should become obvious that A la Carte does not include any profound potential for strategic play, but instead it has its strength in its high entertainment value. So, A la Carte offers all the elements known from classic "hamper your fellow players" games, but due to its quite innovative theme and the gameplay focusing on real player actions (adding spice, flip-turning the crepe) the whole playing experience is rather refreshing.

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Copyright © 2011 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany