Menu Masters is the first title in Calliope Games’ Titan Series, a collection of games by well known designers intended to introduce new gamers and families to modern board game mechanisms.
“Good evening, sir. And what can we tempt you to today?”
“Well, I was looking at today’s special…”
“Oh an excellent choice, sir”
“Yes, but – do the green beans come with anything?”
“Oh yes! The chocolate fudge cake”
“So it’s green beans… And chocolate fudge cake?”
“Well not just any green beans, sir”
“No. These are Marks and Spencer’s green beans.”
Players: 2 – 5
Time: 20-40 mins
Figuring out a meal plan is always one of the more arduous tasks that need doing each week. But just imagine having to do so in competition with your neighbours! Such is the life of chefs everywhere, most especially in Menu Masters. Should Monsieur Vicomte next door announce the lobster and cream puff bisque before you then you’ll have to come up with a new special, pronto. Only the finest ingredients will do, too, so you’ll have to get out early to beat the queue. Or drive up the price of the person who beat you to it. Or just take the shop so everyone has to pay you for those ingredients. It’s nice to have options.
Also, chef hats! Surely every chef should have one, but you’ll have 4 brightly coloured plastic ones with which to do your bidding. Each round you’ll send them out, presumably perched atop the head of one of your underlings, to town to raid the shops. Shopping is simple but not without stress. Hats will form a queue as they wait for the shop to open (represented by putting your hat underneath any others at the shop when you arrive). Get there first and you’ll get first pick of the fresh veg, the finest cuts of meats and the most elaborately iced cakes. But you’ll have to pay more. The sneaky shop keepers can see how many people are waiting, and so you’ll pay 1 coin for every hat in the queue. Then you’ll take your hat from the top and the next player will need to pay 1 coin less.
This is the game’s brilliant hook. 1 coin sounds like nothing and, really, it’s not very much at all. And yet adding your hat to a queue annoys everyone else in that queue, and the top of the queue most of all. You can picture the panicked sue chef who got up bright and early to find the best cut of meat begging all the other chefs coming across the square to just please, go somewhere else, anywhere else, as they realise just how expensive that pork joint is going to be. And everyone else will be laughing and cheering as you do so. 1 coin shouldn’t create such emotional investment, and yet it does!
Meanwhile, other players can use their hat to take control of that shop. In a sense it’s like restaurants opening a little shop too but I don’t think its healthy to try and understand the thematic implications here. Instead we should focus on how there’ll almost certainly be one player wanting to convince you to come to their shop, which only adds to the ridiculous table talk possibilities. This is the main way of getting money, as any cash spent at that shop goes to the owning player. Which twists your motivations even more. After all, you don’t want your opponents getting too much of your cash.
Shop ownership, which in the egalitarian world of menu masters costs nothing more than a hat, is a rather popular option so you need to get in quick. But that effectively means gambling on where the other hats will be rushing to today. This will have you checking what ingredients your opponents have already collected, what menus are available as this will determine what players try to buy. And once you’ve settled into your new shop, every visitor is a win you’ll celebrate. Every quiet shop is something to make fun of (in a way the light hearted nature of Menu Masters actively encourages). It’s a game where the little wins come frequently and feel immensely satisfying, while the little loses are a joy to poke fun at and don’t truly bother you in the slightest.
My word, so far through the review and I haven’t really explained what it is you are trying to do. Well maybe that’s because here, as in cooking, the activity is so much more important than the destination. Oh, who am I kidding? I love eating. But the basic aim of Menu Masters is simply to grab the 2 or 3 ingredients needed to complete the bizarrely constructed menu cards available. It’s missing a bit of stronger theming or silly naming here. There’s a bit of a race to get the public menus, but nothing need be wasted as a pair of identical ingredients can be substituted for any one of the same type. Such is your cooking prowess that a pair of salmon fillets can, with careful seasoning and the right technique, be mistaken for a prime cut of beef. And any punter is happy to overlook the promised raspberry tart in exchange for a double serving of fudge cake. I would be anyway.
Once any player has proven themselves in the eyes of the locals by completing 3 menus the game ends and you total up the value of the ingredients used. Suddenly that suspicious 2 star lobster you grabbed in desperation comes back to haunt you as your friends’ gourmet spread of free range tomatoes and hand reared eclairs seems to have the local critics agog. But then rushing to three menus is really the key as only 3 menus and a small spread of star values tends to mean three average meals is better than 2 perfect extravagances. I suspect extending your game to 4 menus might make the choice between throwing together lower quality ingredients and carefully crafting fewer, better meals a more viable choice.
But I don’t think you should be playing Menu Masters for the victory conditions anyway; you should be playing this for the simple pleasure of making your friends pay more for generic cooking ingredients, for running your shop like a market trader (just feel how firm and silky these tomatoes are) and just for having fun for 45 minutes. This is probably the most fun you’ll ever have queuing. Calliope have certainly succeeded in their aim here: Menu Masters is a totally accessible game that really shows off what modern board game design can do. Get together with a bunch of friends (the more the merrier) and you can have a great time with this.
Rating: Michelin Stared