Review: Space Food Truck10 Dec 2016 2
Review: Space Food Truck
Released 07 Nov 2016
Deck-building games are the tofu of the tabletop world, inherently tasteless but particularly suited to taking on various flavors. Replace the fantasy trappings of Ascension with space ships and planetary outposts and you’ve got Star Realms, to name two prominent examples. The basic mechanism introduced in 2008’s Dominion lends itself to a variety of themes because of its baked-in arc. Players start with a thin deck of inferior cards, but if they manage to draft wisely each shuffle will be a little more efficient than the last until at last they’re taking monster turns, often drawing and playing their entire deck. In essence, these games are a race to assemble your engine before your opponents.
Space Food Truck from One Man Left Studios (of Outwitters fame) is a deck builder in the mode of recent releases like XenoShyft and Pathfinder ACG, cooperative games where the players succeed or fail as a group.
Of course, rather than beating back an alien incursion or foiling sinister goblin plots, the players in Space Food Truck are tasked with operating a successful small business, lower stakes perhaps, but equally fraught with peril.
Regardless of the number of players, four jobs are essential to the food truck’s operation: the captain, chef, scientist and engineer. This means that if playing with fewer than four, some players will take on multiple characters. In a tabletop game that would involve playing 2-4 handed, which is a hassle I’ve subjected myself to only on rare occasion (in the dark ages before the Pathfinder ACG port), but which works just fine in this digital release. In fact, most of my games were played solo with 2p local being a close second. Online asynchronous play is also available, but it currently has some technical shortcomings in that the hosting system is not very intuitive and the turn notifications are unreliable in my (iOS) experience. I’d also argue that async is not the optimal way to enjoy this challenging and highly collaborative game, but props to One Man Left for including some great features that help reorient you to piloting a deck you may not have seen in a while, like a useful summary of your deck’s key stats.
Your deck will broadly consist of two different card types, job cards that pertain to your character’s specific role on the ship and cards that you add each turn from a shared market. You’ll start with a few key job cards and the engineer can unlock additional character-specific cards for each player by researching, so the number of job cards remains relatively static. This is in tension with the fact that players will be diluting their decks with mandatory trips to Zap-mart. Every card has a “worth” value, and cards in the market have a cost; the worth of all the cards you drew during your turn can be applied to the purchase cost of one or more cards from the market. If you don’t have enough value to purchase one of the (usually better than your starting deck) cards from the market or the market is empty you must take a worthless “leftovers” card to clog your deck. Worse than leftovers are “vexyls” which are randomly added to your deck by events and actually have negative worth.
The other currency in the game is energy; most job cards need to be played from your hand and then “powered” by playing additional cards for their energy value rather than their effects. The efficiency with which a character performs their role is dependent on how high they can boost job cards. The complication is that high-energy “sylk” cards are generally low in worth, so not only are you worried about balancing the ratio of job cards to market cards, but you also need to make sure to keep the average value of your deck high enough that you don’t get stuck in a leftovers death-spiral. The ingredient cards you’ll be foraging the galaxy for are all high-worth, but the only character that really needs them is the chef so even though the scientist might want some Blue Meat early on to help improve their deck, when they shift to full time research it might have to go. Luckily, Space Food Truck presents players with a variety of creative ways to relieve themselves of unwanted cards, either by handing them off to other players or playing market and job cards that destroy them.
There’s a welcome spatial element to the game in that characters can venture out of their duty stations with “hall passes” to donate cards to other characters or team up to resolve crises that will populate whack-a-mole style throughout the ship. Failure to resolve crises within the time limit will result in damage to the ship and if your mobile restaurant takes enough damage the game is over. Crises are just one of the many events you’ll be facing, however, some of which are helpful but most of which will damage vital systems unless the active player can discard some amount of energy from their hand.
I teach a lot of board games to friends and on behalf of publishers at conventions; right about now is when I would start to lose some players’ attention. I’ve described a number of interlocking mechanics and used a lot of game terminology, and honestly we’re not even close to being ready to jump into a game. There is a steep learning curve to Space Food Truck; even if you’re only playing one role you need to have a good understanding of all four jobs to play well. Fortunately, OML has posted a series of video tutorials to YouTube describing gameplay basics and going in depth for each job. Unfortunately that series is over 20 minutes long, which can be a bit of an ask, especially if you’re trying to get some friends to buy in. There’s no in-game tutorial, so there’s no way around sitting down for these videos. The good news is that the videos are easily understandable, as time-efficient as seems feasible and have functioning closed-captioning.
From your first moments with the app it’s clear this is not a game that takes itself too seriously. As is the case with Outwitters, Space Food Truck is full of weird-cute character design and whimsical naming conventions. I’m a fan of the dry absurdist humor of the game and enjoyed catching the puns and cultural references in the planet names as I jumped across the vast galaxy in search of ingredients and customers. There’s not much writing in the game, but what’s there is entertaining and I appreciated the attention to detail of styling the score screens as Yelp reviews.
To draw a final comparison to Outwitters, beneath the gloss and humor there’s a deep and uncompromising strategy game. Space Food Truck is hard. As in all the best cooperative games, you probably won’t win on your first try. Every job is crucial and if any one deck goes pear shaped from the inclusion of too many garbage cards your business will crash and burn. In most scenarios you’ll be able to learn from your last play and make better choices going forward, but there are also times when the game just conspires against you. Every turn starts with a random event, and a vicious string of these can absolutely cripple you. For instance, my engineer, the character tasked with fixing the ship as its various systems break down, left his workshop to solve a crisis (commanded by the pilot who can sometimes make characters act out of turn). Immediately, a random event disabled the door to the room the engineer was in. No problem, the engineer can fix it! But wait, job cards only work when you can access the correct room so now the engineer was completely negated as a character and any subsequent damage to the ship was permanent. That had a small likelihood of happening, but it wasn’t a fun way to lose.
Space Food Truck is also plagued with the age old deck builder problem, the devastating effect of poor card draws. Even statistically unlikely draws are bound to happen eventually and they can be especially destructive in this game. My least favorite example of this is not drawing the necessary pilot cards at the right time. Not only is the pilot maneuvering your food truck towards hungry customers, but the Zap-mart (which only holds seven cards at a time) only gets restocked when moving to a previously unexplored planet. This means the market will be bought out in less than two rounds, forcing players to take leftovers until the pilot draws the card that will get things moving again. Bottom-decking a clump of “engage” cards might result in two or three rounds of everyone taking leftovers after which you might as well restart.
I recognise these pitfalls as necessary components of cooperative games. Random events are needed to keep players from being able to math out a path to victory and the uncertain nature of card draws makes each hand a compelling puzzle. Minimizing risk is the name of the game, and good players have responses to both of the scenarios I presented above. My only real concern is that those responses are fairly scripted. Given that each play-through has a roughly identical goal (deliver three meals of escalating difficulty) with the same four characters that act in the same turn order (pilot-chef-scientist-engineer) in combination with a fairly small card pool I think it will become obvious what an ideal deck looks like for each character. After enough plays, the strategic considerations fade away, even if you’re still left with the fun puzzle of each individual turn.
Though the game could use some variety in the starting setup, goal conditions or a broader card pool to offer additional options for an “end-game” deck I very much enjoyed my time with Space Food Truck. Deck building games became a saturated market immediately after conception, but OML have designed an experience that is utterly distinct. It stands up to my favorite tabletop coop deck builders (the Legendary Encounters series from Upper Deck), but is all the better for being an app implementation. I recommend this game for fans of either deck building or coop (in the vein of Pandemic) games despite the upfront time investment. Watch the videos, let yourself fail a few times, but don’t stuff this app in a subfolder until you’ve had the real satisfaction of winning at least once.