Restaurants: one of the most common small businesses opening up today, and one of the most common to fail. Also, one of the most common small businesses where children run around uncontrollably ruining other patron’s pleasant meals, while their parents can only look on in defeat. These types of establishments are incredibly complex to run, with many different facets to account for: advertising, atmosphere, raw resource acquisition, production of goods, and competition. Step into the game of Menu Masters, where everything but acquisition, production and competition have been filtered out to give players a taste of what it takes to open up their very own fine dining establishment for a variety of guests.
In Menu Masters, players assume the role of eatery owner, where they must gather the ingredients needed to assemble desired menus for their patrons. Once one player on the table has completed three different menus, the game ends. A menu is scored by the quality of the ingredients used to assemble it, represented by stars on the ingredient card. Each store owner starts with two secret menus in their hand that no other owner can see, and three public menus available in the center of the table. Once a menu from the center is completed, another one from the deck takes its place. Having only two secret menus forces an eatery entrepreneur to complete at least one menu in the middle. Players gather ingredients by going to one of three different stores corresponding to types of ingredients: Vegetables, Meats, and Desserts (if four or more players are in the game, the super market is added, which comprises one of each type of ingredient). Store owners can also choose to run one of these raw ingredient establishments for a turn, and relinquish the ability to shop there, the trade-off being that they gather all the income spent by other players. A typical game of Menu Masters lasts between 20-40 minutes, as after 4-6 rounds, one player has typically finished off three menus.
A part of the first batch of games out of The Titan Series, Menu Masters is designed as an introduction to the world of strategy tabletop games. As such, it is very easy to learn, with a light rule book that surprisingly covers everything. While the game is easy to learn, the strategies behind it vary considerably. Focus on making money early while people are gung-ho to spend what they have? Focus on one food group for now and monopolize it? Or race to finish your Menus the fastest (in my mind, the Zerg Rush approach) so your opponents can’t get their feet under them before the game ends. Each strategy has its downsides, but only if your opponents realize what you’re trying to do and adjust along the way. Although there are only a few different ingredients in each food group, the quality of each is absolutely crucial to crushing your opposing restaurants. I found in one game, that although I’d finished my third menu to end the game early, I had chosen menus with only two ingredients, then used poor ingredients to boot. I ended up losing that game by several points since my opponent had built out two three-ingredient menus with quality ingredients. The learning curve may be small at first, but it spikes tremendously as each player gains more knowledge about the workings of the game.
My favorite part of the game is the acquisition part. Menu Masters fully embraces the idea of supply and demand, but also a rigid order of resolution that allows you to neuter your competition’s bank early in a round. During the resource allocation stage of a round, each player takes turns placing one pawn at a time. Choices range from taking a coin from the bank, claiming ownership of a store for a round, or lining up to buy an ingredient. The price of an ingredient is equal to the amount of people in line, so if three people are lined up, the person at the front has the choice of paying 3 coins for their desired ingredient, or leaving without buying anything. The price for the next person then drops to 2 coins. The buying phase of the game follows a specific order: First the vegetables, then the meats, then the desserts. On more than one occasion during the allocation stage, I noticed my diner rivals only had a certain amount of coins, and needed both vegetables and sweets, so I bid up each, making them have to choose only one or the other. It may be subtle, but the game does give you the ability to screw your neighbors, and you’ll have ample opportunity to do so.
Menu Masters is a fantastic blend of worker management, bluffing, and resource acquisition. As an introductory game to the tabletop world, it does a fantastic job of exposing players to several different aspects that they will find scattered across many other more complex board games. The overall simplicity of the game, from its rules to its structure, make it a must-add to any board game collection. Each stage of the game provides loads of tension-filled excitement. Hoping your opponents don’t claim something you want or need like store ownership or first right’s to that one piece of pork in the store is heart pounding, especially while you’re tending to a more urgent matter on your first turn. Bluffing on wanting to buy something, just to bid up the cost of your opponents ingredients feels fantastic when executed to perfection, and although it would be nice to turn over inventory of a store when nobody wants anything in it, the flexibility to combine ingredients as substitutes on recipes adds to the guesswork required to figuring out other player’s strategies. I couldn’t help but enjoy every minute of the game, even when I made a mistake and knew it, I found myself looking forward to the next round. The Titan Series’ first addition ticks every goal they set out to accomplish. There’s just nothing better than having your cake and eating it too.