If you don’t get the reference in the game’s title, How to Serve Man is a nod to the classic 1962 Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (later parodied, and made even more famous, on TV’s The Simpsons in their first Treehouse of Horror show). Like the episode after which it is named, the premise of the game centers around aliens cooking and eating human beings (and also, in the case of the game, vegetables). The game How to Serve Man, however, adds to this objective by placing it in the context of an over-the-top competitive cooking show environment of another TV classic, Iron Chef. What results is a game where 2 to 6 players each command a team of alien chefs, scrambling around Space Kitchen Stadium to serve up dishes featuring humans (and vegetables) to a panel of equally alien judges, each with their own individual tastes. Is How to Serve Man a recipe for success? How many more awful cooking-based puns will Andy be able to fit into one review? Keep reading to find out the answers…
How to Serve Man (HTSM) is a fairly straightforward worker placement game where you acquire the resources necessary to fill orders and score points. Recipes come in three classes – appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Each requires a different combination of ingredients, and is worth a certain number of points when completed, with recipes needing more ingredients worth more points. To prepare these recipes, each turn, you move your team of three workers around Space Kitchen Stadium to various cooking stations. Some stations let you gather the game’s basic ingredients, raw meat and vegetables, or pantry items (fats, carbs, and spices) which you’ll need for your various dishes. Other stations combine those raw ingredients into more complex items – at the stove, you can add spice to a raw ingredient to boil it, while the oven lets you add carbs to bake your meats and vegetables, the fryer combines fat to produce fried versions of the game’s raw meat and veggies, and the blender combines any two items into a delicious sauce. If you’re impatient, you can also take a shortcut by using the microwave to mimic any other cooking station or copy one of your ingredients in the replicator, although these two options will cost you points.
When you’ve finished a dish, you present it to the panel of alien judges and score points. Each time you plate a culinary creation, you get to choose one of three available aliens to add to your own personal judging team. Some judges award points at the end of the game, while others grant bonus points for every dish you prepare from that point forward if it caters to their individual tastes. You can really rack up the points if two or more of your judges like the same ingredients in their food, or if you can prepare dishes that satisfy the different cravings of multiple judges on your panel. The game also introduces a random Event into the mix every time a dish gets plated. While some Events are bonuses and others penalties, each changes the playing field for both players until the next dish is scored and a new Event comes into play. The game ends on the turn when one player crosses the 50 point line on the scoring track, at which point end-game scoring occurs, and you figure out who’s the top chef.
After my first time playing the game, my initial reaction was:
My gut feeling was that the game seemed like it was over too fast, and I was disappointed I didn’t get a chance to cook all of the dishes I wanted to cook. Most of my favorite worker placement games are a lot like stories – they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which feel different. In the beginning, there’s that sense of uncertainty as you try and figure out what you plan is going to be for that game; in the middle, you’ve settled on what you want to do, and you can see your little points engine coming to life and really starting to hum; and at the end, there’s that sense that every last move matters as you’re squeezing all the points you can out of your strategy. HTSM, on the other hand, feels like a mad scramble from the beginning. Turns are lightning-quick, and since an entrée typically scores around 20 points, your opponent can often jump ahead to that 50 point mark and trigger the end of the game with just one dish.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the way HTSM plays out makes a ton of thematic sense. In Iron Chef, each side typically presents a full meal, 3 to 5 dishes, with one or maybe two main courses, tops. In my first game of HTSM, I plated five dishes – one entrée, one dessert, and three appetizers. The action in HTSM is also a lot like the action in TV’s Kitchen Stadium – time is of the essence, every action that doesn’t contribute to your final dishes is wasted, and you’re always acutely aware of the time crunch you’re under. I admit that these elements don’t combine to create a board game environment that I’m most comfortable in, but after some thought, I can’t deny that the gameplay of HTSM is extremely thematic, challenging, and different from most games.
It also left me hungry for more. While I wasn’t completely satisfied with my initial playthrough, I could see that what initially seemed to be a fairly basic worker placement offering had more strategic choices than I gave it credit for. Should I stick with a well-balanced meal of four to five dishes, or maybe go for low-point appetizers to collect judges and (hopefully) rack up most of my points through bonuses? Should I make more use of the microwave and replicator, two stations that I consciously stayed away from because they cost me points, and because I thought I’d have enough time to create everything I wanted from scratch? I’ll admit, there’s a lot more meat in this game than I initially thought.
So, what are the big things the game has going for it? As I already mentioned, the thematically appropriate gameplay is one high point. Short playing time is another – even learning as we went, our first two-player game took less than 30 minutes. And the production value, one of the main reasons I backed the game on Kickstarter, is simply outstanding. The art on both the box, board, and other components is fun and distinctive (even though my normal favorite game color, purple, was available, I chose gray for my first playthrough based on that player board’s little grey alien in his apron and chef’s hat), the board itself feels very sturdy, and every resource in the game has its own colorful and differently-shaped type of wooden meeple (or would that be meat-ple?) to represent it.
Yet while all those features add up to make HTSM a good game, it isn’t quite great. Although the various game mechanics are put together in a reasonably fresh way, you can’t shake the sense you’ve seen most of them before in other games, maybe even done a bit better. Your master chef worker, for example, functions a lot like the grande worker in Viticulture, and the ‘order completion’ mechanism at the heart of the game inevitably sets HTSM up for comparison to some very heavy hitters, like Viticulture, Voyages of Marco Polo, Lords of Waterdeep, La Granja, against which it may not quite measure up. Even taken on its own merits, the gameplay of HTSM is, as I noted, a little quicker and more unforgiving than I normally prefer. It also can feature a bit too much randomness to overcome in its short playtime – since your initial selection of recipes is random, and your choice of starting judge is limited, a player who gets lucky enough to have a starting hand where these elements work together has a serious advantage that’s tough to overcome even if their opponent plays efficiently on every turn.
Ultimately, I think How to Serve Man ends up being a fine appetizer for a solid day of gaming – something fun to warm up with before you get to the main course of your evening, but not quite enough to sate your gaming hunger on its own.
Up With Meeple Ranking:
Bronze medal games are games that are enjoyable and fun, and that you’d like to play again. They might have a minor flaw or two, or there might be a similar game you like to play better, but they’re still games you make a point to play periodically, especially if they haven’t hit the table in awhile.
How to Serve Man
by Jason Mayer, Joe Ploch, Jamie Toon