Preview: Craft Culinary Delights for Furry Critics in Critter Kitchen | Casual Game Revolution

Preview: Craft Culinary Delights for Furry Critics in Critter Kitchen

Critter Kitchen

In Alex Cutler and Peter C. Hayward’s team up, players put themselves in the role of three chefs gathering ingredients to meet the challenges of a hungry Bistro Bay and the picky critic waiting to crash the party in this 1-5 player game. The publisher, Carboard Alchemy, is currently seeking funding for this game on Kickstarter.


Set up revolves around a central board with various locations as well as individual player boards. The Waterfront board is put together and placed in the middle of the table, along with the Priority Track, which helps break ties and determines player order. Six Challenge cards are drawn from the shuffled deck and placed face-down above the Waterfront board in the demarcated areas. A Critic card is also chosen from that deck and placed above the Waterfront Board, along with three Rumor cards. The Critic, as well as the Rumor cards, function as potential end-of-game scoring opportunities.

Below the Waterfront board, the locations are placed, starting with the Soup Truck. The other locations are numbered and those are placed determined by the number of players in the game (for example, a 4-player game will have four additional locations numbered 1 through 4). Finally, place the Chef Academy at the end of the locations, along with the Zous Chef cards and tokens. During each round (minus the last), one of these cards will be drawn and the corresponding token will be placed on the tile. Zous Chefs provide one-time bonuses that must be used in the subsequent round.

Players will take a kitchen board, a player screen, player location cards (removing those that do not correspond to any locations out of play), and matching wooden pieces of one color. They will also claim a Critic Plate and three Challenge Plates.

Each round begins with ingredient, spice, and rumor tiles being drawn from the draw bag and then placed in locations appropriately. Each location will have slots for ingredients, though some won’t receive ingredients straightaway, such as the Chef Academy or Soup Truck. The leftmost Challenge card is revealed, which will show 3 ingredient combinations that will give the players direction in what they should gather with their three chef meeples. The number at the top of the Ingredient tiles is important because, to fulfill any Challenge card, it’s not only about having the right ingredients but also high values to earn Stars, which represent the points in Critter Kitchen. Ingredient tiles with a spice at the top act as doublers. All-Spice tiles act as a wild card spice for any ingredient. Soup and bisques do as well, being able to replace any of the two ingredients (or one during the third and sixth rounds) per Challenge card. A bisque token will be added to the Soup Truck at the start of each round if there isn’t one leftover from the previous round.

During the Planning Phase, players will choose three location cards from their decks behind their player screens. These will be placed in the corresponding slots under the Mouse, Lizard, and Boar icons. This determines which meeple will be going to that location, with the Mouse going to the first slot and getting to take just one ingredient from that location, the Lizard going to the second slot of their chosen location and being able to claim two ingredients, and the Boar going to the third slot but being able to take up to three ingredients. If players have claimed a Zous Chef from the previous round, they may have the option to place a fourth location card and carry its action, and its corresponding token will also go out with the Mouse, Lizard, and Boar. Players could choose not to use their Zous Chef but it will not be available to use in the next rounds, and therefore would be lost.

The Shopping Phase will then occur, with each player revealing their chosen locations and which animal chef will be going to that location on their behalf. If players both choose the same location and animal, the Priority track will come into play. Whoever is first on the priority track will choose first, but then must move their token to the back of the order and the player in second will move to first on the Priority track. However, this only happens during the first claim at at any location.  This can continue to shift as players start from the Soup Truck location and continue to cascade as they claim ingredients from each location moving to the right. Sometimes, Rumor tiles will be in a location. These correspond to one of the Rumor cards on display (with a fourth token being an asterisk that is a wild card). When players claim these, they can peak at the corresponding Rumor card and learn potential end-of-game scoring opportunities that are different than those of the Challenge or Critic cards.

Specific locations also work uniquely. The Black Market won’t have ingredients drawn until someone occupies that location, at which point its slots are filled and players choose the drawn ingredients. Any unclaimed ingredients will end up in the Chef Academy for selection near the end of the round. These can be claimed in lieu of taking the Zous Chef (if they haven’t been claimed). If there are leftover tokens, these will go to the Soup Truck for potential claiming in subsequent rounds. Unclaimed rumor tiles will be removed from the game and do not shift to other locations.

Once the round ends, players will reveal the next Challenge card, fill in the appropriate locations with tokens, and play will continue. However, at the end of the third and sixth rounds, the Challenge cards come into play. As players gather up ingredients, they are hoping to fulfill the Challenge cards. The first set of three will be resolved at the end of the third round, and the second set of three Challenge cards will be resolved at the end of the sixth round. After the seventh round, players will be preparing to meet the requirements of the Critic card, as well as any Rumor cards they have inside knowledge about. A marker is used to cover up the rightmost ingredient on the third and sixth Challenge cards, meaning only two ingredients are required to fulfill those challenges.

This is where the Challenge plates come into use, as players will be strategically stacking these plates with the gathered Ingredient tokens, as well as soup or bisque, paying attention to the totals at the top of the tokens, with a Spice token doubling any one Ingredient token. Players can only use one plate per challenge, with plates over 6 points earning 1 star, plates over 12 awarding 2 stars, and plates over 21 will earn 4 stars. These tokens are then returned to the draw bag, and players will turn their attention to any unused Ingredient tokens. At the end of the third round, players may only keep (refrigerate) five ingredients. Players may keep up to 10 ingredients after the sixth round.

In the seventh round, players will then prepare to appease the Critic card by serving up a 7-course meal (one of each ingredient type). Only one of each Ingredient token can be used, though Critic cards may provide modifiers such as using two tokens for a particular ingredient course. And Spice tokens can also be applied. Bonus stars are also awarded to players who can serve all seven courses, the highest total for each course, and the player with the highest total value of soup and bisque tokens will also gain 1 star. Rumor cards are revealed, with players meeting those parameters for stars, and any Rumor card that modifies a particular course’s scoring is also applied. The total sum of the Critic plate is added up and any player that reaches 70 will receive 10 stars. Any point earned above the total of 70 will also earn 1 additional star (for example, if a player ends up with a total of 76, they will receive 10 stars plus an additional 6 stars).

Players will add up the sum of all the stars they have gained via the Challenges and Critic rounds, with the highest total being the winner. In case of a tie, the player who scored the highest during the Critic scoring phase will be the winner, with the Priority track breaking any further ties.

Critter Kitchen components

Critter Kitchen image provided by the publisher.


At first, Critter Kitchen can seem overwhelming. There are lots of choices across its seven rounds, but the actions themselves are relatively repetitive and easy to grasp. First-time players will be more concerned with grasping the scoring opportunities and bonuses, while easily understanding the idea of gathering ingredients through a simple, yet crafty action selection mechanism.

Critter Kitchen is indeed a clever game that plays much tighter and more competitively than Sandara Tang’s cute art would have you believe. When placing your animal chefs, not only is it a matter of racing to a location to get the number of ingredients you want to collect, but hoping you’ve managed the turn order to get them with both immediate and future goals in mind.

Turn order is very important to mind and manipulate, and though there are consolation prizes in Critter Kitchen (soup is awarded when an animal chef cannot claim anything from a location) they are not the top prizes as far as ingredients are concerned. In the end, Critter Kitchen is a game built on mathematical ideologies and principles that feels more akin to Reiner Knizia, which isn’t surprising considering the designs of the team of Cutler (Team3 series) and Hayward (That Time You Killed Me, Fiction). The decision space is apparently simple, but the why of a decision can have ripples that affect future rounds, challenges, and opportunities.

But don’t mistake this as too much of a brain burner. It’s the right amount of fun and forethought for beginners and experienced gamers alike.

Critter Kitchen doesn’t come out and show just how competitive it is until you’ve completed those first three rounds and have started to construct dishes to fulfill the first few challenges. Earning stars is the name of the game, and when someone gains the necessary ingredients at high point values while you’re stuck with soups and bisques combined with low values, just eking out a star or two, it can be demoralizing. But it’s a game that rewards sticking with it, especially with how Critics can score at the end of the game. There are also optional Restauranteurs that players can draft at the beginning of the game that provide additional help, and this can easily be a way beginners get additional help while experienced gamers forego these powers and play without them. Of course, everyone can play with them, as well, and add an additional element of intrigue as play occurs.

Critter Kitchen inhabits a magical world where games have a way of evening out over the course of seven rounds. The Challenge, Critic, and Rumor cards both compete with and harmonize with each other in such a way that multiple strategies can work for players. Discovering the end-of-game conditions and coupling those with the scoring condition of the Critic can turn a game on its ear. It’s difficult to navigate all the demands and star-earning opportunities the base game of Critter Kitchen offers, and that’s the point. It’s not a game of specialization, but it’s also not catering to doing everything each game has to offer. This is the real strategy involved: seeing the ingredients that are on offer in the early rounds and comparing them with the Rumors you’ve been able to uncover. The fact that players cannot see what you’re gathering behind your player shield adds a layer of poker-style idealism to the game. You’re playing the other players, and the challenges and ingredients are like a Texas or Omaha Hold ‘em shared pool. Critter Kitchen asks you to understand your habits, learn how to pivot, and see if you can casually outmaneuver your opponents without real malice. Each game is ultimately different; the multiple permutations of ingredients and challenges are large, but finite. How you play those each time, and how different players around the table also interact with them, is where Critter Kitchen changes.

For some, this will be a barrier to entry. They are going to back this game because of the designers’ pedigrees, Tang’s unbelievably vibrant art style, and the win streak Cardboard Alchemy has been on since arriving on the scene. The cute design, clever cooking and celebrity chef puns, and the variety of choices will be eye candy. The rulebook layout is fairly helpful in learning the game's quirks as well. But they may feel for a family-weight game, Critter Kitchen is a bit more competitive and strategic than they initially thought. But if you have played Flamecraft from Cardboard Alchemy and were sucked in due to Tang’s art to discover a game that has a lot of take, but plenty of give, Critter Kitchen reveals itself to have much of the same for those who are patient and willing. Check it out on Kickstarter.

Pros: shifting gameplay due to the variety of ingredients, challenges, and abilities; eye-catching art and cool components; engrossing and unique theme

Cons: requires the ability to pivot and rethink strategies at varying points during gameplay; scoring is varied but not always the easiest to determine in initial plays.

Disclosure: This is a paid preview of an unpublished prototype of this game, which is subject to change prior to publication.