Wok Star: A Tasty Game with a Nice Crunch to It

My first impression of Wok Star was seeing if on the shelf at my local game store. As an active BoardGameGeek user, I was surprised that I hadn’t at least heard of it. I figured it must have just flown under my radar. I was amused by the titular play on words, so I took it off the shelf and looked at it. After rolling my eyes at the totally-not-stereotypical box art, I asked the store manager what he knew about it. He said it was a real-time, cooperative game, sort of a mix between Wasabi and Escape: The Curse of the Temple. I decided to pass, but a few months later, I saw a copy for $10 in an auction, and I pulled the trigger.

Wok Star is a game for 1-4 players, and it plays in 30-45 minutes. The premise is that the players have just opened a Chinese restaurant, and in order to stay open, they have to complete a barrage of orders and manage ingredients, all under the ever-present stress of a ticking timer.
The components are (mostly) high quality. The cards are easily readable with stylized artwork. The ingredient tokens are nice and chunky, with nice graphics on them. The board is simple, but functional (basically all its used for is keeping track of how much of each ingredient you have).

The biggest qualm with the components is the electronic ticking timer. This was almost a great component. Almost. The timer can be set to count down 15, 20, or 30 seconds, depending upon how hard you want the game to be. It looks great, but its fatal flaw is that it is not nearly loud enough. You have to understand that this game gets very chaotic, with lots of yelling and activity. This means that a quiet, ticking timer simply doesn’t work. Moreover, the tempo of its ticks doesn’t increase as it gets closer to the end, so it’s hard to keep track of relatively how much time you have left. And no, you can’t simply count the ticks; there is waaay too much else going on. It’s awesome that Game Salute decided to put this component in the game, and it probably wasn’t cheap to produce. But if they were already going invest in making this timer, they should have put forth a little extra effort to make it really work. However, the saving grace here is that there is a great iOS Wok Star Timer app. Yes, it’s obnoxious that the physical timer doesn’t work well, and you shouldn’t have to download an app just to play the game, but this is a satisfactory solution to a silly problem. (As a side note, there should have been a 25-second option. Just saying.)

Anyway, on to the gameplay. The game is pretty simple. Your restaurant start with 3 basic recipes. Each recipe card shows the ingredient requirements to make it. For example, Fried Rice uses 1 Egg ingredient and 1 Onion ingredient. To make a recipe, you just move the necessary ingredient tokens down one space on the board. You can replenish the supply of ingredients using your dice, which are rolled at the beginning of the round. Basically, each player oversees a few ingredients. For example, I might be in charge of Pork and Bok Choy/Bamboo. Thus, if we run out of Pork, any player can place dice on my card to replenish the supply.

The way this works is neat. Each ingredient card will list 3 dice results that can replenish it. The first one is always wild, meaning any die result gets you the lowest number of that ingredient (initially 1). The second requires a specific die value, but yields more of that ingredient (initially 2). The third result varies, but is usually something like “2 dice that add up to 7” or “2 evens.” These yield the most of that ingredient (initially 3).

You are incentivized to place your own dice on your own ingredient cards, because it will make you extra money at the end of the round, but often, you will need to place them on other players’ cards, to generate enough ingredients to make a tricky recipe.

At the end of each round, you can upgrade existing ingredient cards to make them yield more, and/or buy new recipes. These are both very necessary to victory, but sometimes you have to make interesting decisions about which ingredient to upgrade, or which recipe to buy.

(There are several aspects of the game I’m glossing over, such as the event cards, individual player powers, penalties for failing to complete an order etc., but this review is just to give you a feel for the game.)

Wok Star is a grossly underrated game. The fact that it’s not even in the top 1,000 games on BGG boggles my mind. I guess I understand a little bit; the first print run was small, and the second was from a company that many gamers don’t like, one with a reputation for poor customer service. On top of that, the questionable artwork, the real-time nature of the game, the problems with the timer, and the failed Kickstarter for the 3rd edition probably turned a lot of people off to it.

I have to say, though, despite all of that (and yes, I realize that I’m “despite-ing” a lot here), Wok Star is just a damn fun time. In my experience, real-time games are very hit or miss, but the mechanic really works here. In fact, it’s utterly central to the enjoyment of the game. Much like Space Alert or Escape, the fun lies in the sheer chaos of the game. Wok Star is very easy to teach. New players should understand it in a matter of minutes. When I’m teaching the game, I do a practice round without the timer, just to introduce the mechanics and get the players accustomed to the flow of play. But after that round, it’s go time.

Understanding that Wok Star is not perfect, it deserves a second look. It is a great family game, honestly one of the best in recent memory. The game scales very well. I find it is fun with any number of players. As much as I like Escape, I believe I like Wok Star even more.

Get some friends together, order Chinese takeout, and give it a try!

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