Mmmmm Chocolate. Or more accurately, Cacao, which is the seed that gets ground up to make it. With a theme that ties into one of my very favourite things how could I resist trying this game out?
The game in question is Cacao, a tile laying game I got for Christmas this year. Designed by Australian Phil Walker-Harding who is also known for games such as Sushi Go and Barenpark, it’s for 2-4 players and published by Z-Man Games.
The first thing you might notice is that it looks a lot like Carcassone. The box is the same size and it’s also got the same size tiles and those little wooden people called Meeples in It . It’s not that surprising though when you consider they are from the same publisher. While there are some similarities in appearance the way it plays is quite different and in a lot of ways I like it better.
In the box you get;
- A rule book (actually a few pages of rules and tile descriptions)
- Four round scoreboards
- Four wooden meeples
- Three different coin denominations
- A pile of sun worshiper tokens
- A pile of wooden Cacao beans
- 12 worker tiles for each colour meeple
- 28 Jungle Tiles
The box, tiles and all parts are good quality and well finished and I found no issues with my copy. The meeples and Cacao beans are wooden which I always think is more appealing than plastic, and the box, tiles and scoreboards have a linen finish to them which makes them easier to handle and helps to deter marks. I did tear a little of the backing from one of the tiles while punching it out of the cardboard sheet it came from but a tiny bit of glue and it’s fine.
The rule book is split into a few parts, you get one for the gameplay and one describing what each tiles does. They come in two in two languages so you get four booklets in total. They were clear and we took about 5 minutes to learn the game and start playing.
The one thing I didn’t like was the size of them. When you open the box the first time the rules are on top of the cardboard sheets that contain all of the tiles and coins. Like most games, you punch these out before use. It probably saves money to make games this was and it does mean the parts aren’t loose in the box to get damaged in transit.
Once you have done this and put all the parts away in their proper spots you’d think the rules would sit properly back on top but they don’t. They’re just too big and while they fit, they sag in the middle. It’s a minor annoyance that doesn’t impact the game at all but it does seem like an oversight when everything else about the box seems well thought out. I think it could have been made smaller so that it would fit properly.
Below is a close up of the smaller parts. There’s the meeple (known as the water carrier here), the three types of coins, the sun worshiper token and the wooden cacao bean which is what you are trying to harvest and sell.
Then you get the worker tiles. Each player gets twelve of these in the same colour as their scoreboard and water carrier meeple and at the start of the game shuffles them, places them face down and picks up three into their hand. The other players can’t see what these are. As the game progresses the player picks one to play then draws a replacement from the pile. There’s multiple copies of the three different layouts shown below. When you place one of these tiles next to a jungle tile, you get to perform the action on that tile once for each worker shown on the side touching that tile.
The most common is the one worker per side, with the three on one side the least common. Working out when best to use or save each type is a big part of what makes the game interesting.
The other tiles are the jungle tiles shown below. There’s six different types, and a couple of variations of a few of them. From left to right you have the Cacao plantations, the marketplaces, mines, then on the top row is the temple and the bottom is the water, and far right is the sun worshiper tile. Each of these lets you either perform a specific action or score points.
The Cacao tile lets you collect one cacao bean for each worker icon you place that touches it. You can hold up to five at a time. These score you nothing at the end of the game so to get points for them you need to them place a worker next to a marketplace to sell them for gold coins. The double cacao plantation means you get two for each worker you place next to it. You need to be careful though, because there’s no point putting a 3 worker tile next to it and getting six cacao when you can only hold five.
The marketplace tiles let you sell cacao for the amount of gold shown on them. There’s more 2 gold markerplaces than anything else, and only one of the 4 gold ones, so careful planning is needed to make sure you get the best return for the cacao you have harvested.
The mines just give you the amount of gold listed on them. I don’t find it an overly interesting tile actually. I would have liked it to do a bit more, like score that amount for each mine you were touching to make going after them a worthwhile strategy.
The temple tile adds a bit of area control to the game. They score nothing at the time they are placed but at the end of the game the player with the most workers touching a temple gets six gold and the second highest gets three gold. Anyone else gets nothing and have wasted their workers. In the case of a draw you split the rewards. These are interesting to play with, you can use up a lot of workers trying to claim that six points that could be better used elsewhere, but you can also get a lot of points if you manage to take control of all of the ones on the board.
The water tile is another key tile. There’s only a few of them in the game and for every worker you place next to them you get to move your water carrier meeple once along the path on your scoreboard (shown below). At the end of the game if you haven’t gathered any water you’ll have to remove 10 points from your score, but if you manage to collect enough to move to the final spot you get an extra 16 points. This 26 point spread can make a huge difference in who wins and loses, but you have to be careful how you use the water. You can see that the first water you collect is worth 6 points, the next 3, then 1, 2, 2 etc. You will need to weight up if gathering water will score you more than another move would on each turn, and also keep in mind that if you can collect enough to get to the end those last few moves are worth 4 and 5 respectively.
The last tile is the sun worshiper tile. For every worker you place next to one of these you get to take one of the sun worshiper tokens. They are worth one point each at the end of the game if you still have them and you can hold up to three of them in total. They can’t be used until every jungle tile has been played. If you have any at that time you can choose to spend one and place one of the worker tiles you have left over the top of a worker tile you have already played, performing all of the actions for the surrounding tiles again. This can be a good way to collect more water or sell off any otherwise worthless Cacao you still have stored.
The game starts with the same two jungle tiles in the centre of the table every time
There’s also a stack of jungle tiles off to the side of the table with two available to pick from when needed. You can see the game set up below for two players, though you wouldn’t normally see the other players worker tiles as they’d be in your hand.
The first player get to pick one of the three worked tiles from their hand and where to place it. I love that the oldest player gets to go first because it’s rare in games that I do. In this example, the yellow player chose a worker tile with one worker per side. These are the most common and often less valuable tiles so it’s a logical first move when there’s only low value jungle tiles to place it next to. I kind of wish the start tiles were randomised as well as the game almost always starts with this exact same move, but I understand that it offsets the first player advantage too so it’s not that big of a deal.
Since the yellow player now has one worker next to the cacao plantation they get to take one cacao, and there’s also one next to the marketplace so they get to sell that cacao if they want to for 2 gold.
The next player gets to place their worker next to any jungle tile they want. The purple player actually gets more choices here, because they could have played into the space diagonally opposite to the yellow player and also collected and sold two Cacao, but instead they placed their tile in a way that they get one Cacao. This doesn’t sound that clever a move, except the rules state that if you ever create a space between two worker tiles like shown below you get to pick from the two jungle tiles that are face up and place it in the gap, performing these actions.
So the purple player also gets to do this. This lets them move their water carrier twice. It also lets the yellow player move their water carrier once and shows that you have to be careful placing jungle tiles because they can also benefit the other players. They then turn over another jungle tile to make sure there are two face up for the next players turn. It is possible to make a move that lets you place both of the available jungle tiles.
It’s now the yellow players turn again. They really want water, so play one of their valuable 3 worker on a side tiles there and move their water carrier up three spots. It benefits them in one way, but they created an empty spot for a jungle tile so have to choose one from the available jungle tiles to place into it. Since there’s no yellow worker on that side of their tile though it doesn’t benefit them at all, but it does benefit the purple player so they can either play something that doesn’t help purple that much, or they can pick something that really helps them on a future turn.
Play continues like this, forming a checkerboard of jungle and worker tiles, until all the tiles are used. You then count your coins, score the temples and water and whoever has the most points is the winner.
We’ve played this with both two and four players and found it was fantastic at both player counts. At two players it’s really tight and strategic, and how you use each opportunity really makes a difference. A four it’s actually not quite as strategic as you can’t really play jungle tiles to your future advantage as well as the three other players have the opportunity to surround them before your next turn, but the area control aspect of the temples and the sun worshiper tokens become more important.
It’s a great game and we were able to teach it to friends who aren’t big gamers in about 5 minutes, and one of them won both games showing it isn’t hard to pick up. I’m really fond of Carcassone but this has quickly overtaken it as my favourite tile laying game and I think it’s actually a better gateway game because the scoring is much less complicated. The strategic element is much higher but still easy to learn. I’m looking forward to playing more of this as soon as I can.