ADVENTURES IN GAMING: Scoville Labs Edition

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I love me some spicy food. Whether it’s an elaborate Thai meal from legendary Los Angeles institution Jitlada or an afternoon of jalapeño cocktails and bites, I’m into it — no matter how many napkins and tissues I may destroy in the process. Naturally, a game about spiciness — or, more specifically, chiles — would certainly pique my curiosity.

For the uninitiated, spiciness is measured in Scoville units, with the Carolina Reaper maintaining the record for hottest chili EVAR. Scoville units are also the inspiration behind the adorably cutthroat game Scoville and its expansion, Scoville Labs, both by Ed Marriott. In the base game, players plant peppers, harvest crossbreeds, and use their bounties to earn accolades at the local chili contest, among other things. It’s a delightful game, but at high player counts, the competition for limited resources can get downright vicious, causing frustration for some as their Scotch Bonnet dreams go down in flames.

Luckily, Scoville Labs aims to let some of the pressure out of the cooker. Tasty Minstrel Games was kind enough to send me a review copy. Does Labs improve the recipe like a smart dash of cayenne? Or does it annihilate the tastebuds like a habanero smoothie? Thoughts after the jump…

The base game of Scoville is a streamlined gaming experience with elements of Ticket to Ride and Power Grid in its DNA. Players begin each round auctioning off money for turn order, which allows them first dibs on some fresh peppers — always a treat.

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The colorful town pepper patch, ready for cutthroat agricultural activities.

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Everyone starts with three basic chiles, which I’ll declare as red jalapeño, yellow Santa Fe, and a Bolivian Rainbow Pepper (according to CAYENNE DIANE, they can grow to be a “brilliant purple” which is as close as I’m going to get with the blue pepper). Don’t worry, I washed my hands after handling these bad boys.

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Before the adventure begins, I recreate the Olympic opening ceremonies with our player pieces. However, instead of a torch, our men hoist a pepper. And instead of world-class athleticism, this scene celebrates… nothing really.

With turn order established, the first player “plants” a pepper on the game board, which has little, pepper-shaped holes to house the chiles. It’s a surprisingly gratifying tactile experience, and as peppers populate the field over the course of the game, this section of the board becomes quite the colorful display.

After everyone has had a chance to plant, it’s then time to harvest, which essentially boils down to players moving their farmers through the field to gather peppers. This is where things get interesting.

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The game begins with my friend Brendon sending his man into the field. Let the harvesting commence!

Players may move their farmers up to three paces, and every time a farmer “steps” in between two peppers, a “crossbreed” is generated. For instance, passing by a red and yellow pepper allows a player to take an orange pepper into their collection (because color laws). Similarly, blue and yellow peppers create a green, and a blue and red result in purple. But what happens if one breeds a blue with a blue? Or a blue with an orange? Or an orange with a green? Funkiness. Pure, peppery funkiness I tell you.

Suddenly, you’ll be receiving increasingly rare colors: black, white, and the mysterious GHOST PEPPER. Oh, and if you’re unlucky, you most certainly will wind up with a fetid brown pepper on your hands. Not only do they look like little turds, they usually breed like crap too (unless, of course, that’s sort of your thing, which it might be in this game). The point is that in order to gain the super rare ghost pepper, one must follow a lengthy sequence of planting and harvesting:

  1. Plant a primary color next to a primary color
  2. Harvest a secondary color (ie. orange)
  3. Plant the secondary color
  4. Harvest a different secondary color
  5. Plant that secondary color next to the original one (in order to receive a white pepper)
  6. Rinse and repeat, but tweak it a bit to get a black pepper instead
  7. Plant the white pepper
  8. Plant the black pepper next to the white pepper
  9. Harvest a ghost pepper from the black and white peppers

All this cross-breeding can be tricky, but luckily the game and its expansion come with several player aids:

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Scoville Labs comes with revamped player aids, which are perfectly lovely. I found I went back and forth between them and the original aids.

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An artful (sort of) shot of the original player aid. Over the course of the game, players will be breeding peppers, and this chart demonstrates what might happen should one mix a blue chili with a red one, for instance (you would get purple).

Now, planting and harvesting all these peppers just to earn a hallowed ghost pepper is a lot of work, but the beauty of Scoville is that a begrudging co-op subtext rules the game. Every pepper my opponent plants is theoretically one less that I need to plant in order to harvest the more rare breeds. And so as people plant more and more colors in the field, it becomes easier to piggyback off each other’s hard work and harvest the rare black, white, and ghost peppers.

Or so it would seem.

The game motivates players to plant around each other so that they can cross-breed more efficiently; however, the act of harvesting turns into a hostile traffic jam as people jockey for position in the most valuable areas. This is where things get cutthroat. I may have the good idea to plant a black pepper next to a white one, but what if my friend winds up placing his farmer right between the two peppers? Then he gets the awesome crossbreed, and I get… nothing.

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After a few rounds, we’ve planted several chiles. The pepper patch is a full-on traffic jam of farmers now.

However, the tables do turn. That’s because whoever is first to harvest (ie. move their little farmer around) is last to claim points. All this pepper nonsense leads up to this stage of every round: fulfilling orders and completing recipes. In both cases, players turn in a certain number of peppers to earn points, other peppers, money, or all three.

It’s all very straightforward. The recipes, for instance, show a certain combination of peppers (ie. a white pepper, an orange pepper, a green pepper, a purple pepper) that a player must turn in to the “bank” in order to claim a healthy chunk of points. The more elaborate recipes involve those infamous ghost peppers, and subsequently they’re worth upwards of twenty points. Competition for these points is intense, and it’s not uncommon for someone to swoop in and steal the recipe you’ve been working towards for the past five rounds. That’s why having first dibs on fulfilling a recipe (or some of the market orders, which give lesser but helpful bonuses) is so important.

However, fulfilling first means harvesting last, and harvesting last means not snagging the cross-breeds you need, which means that you probably won’t be able to fulfill a recipe anyway, even if you do have first dibs.

Tricky.

At its heart, Scoville is a simple game: acquire peppers, plant them, harvest them, turn them in for points and money. However, the decisions are complex: is it more important to get first dibs on planting or harvesting? Which recipe should I aim for? Will it still be there if I decide to go last in fulfillment order? And how much money am I willing to spend for any of these privileges (money is worth points at the end — and it can play a major factor).

There are also weighty decisions to be made out on the field. Do you go off and tend to your own private garden away from everyone else? It means more work but less interference. Or do you get in the mix with everyone, knowing that you relinquish control over your plans as people block your path and plant peppers where you wanted plant your own.

It’s pretty amazing, but it also gets totally vicious (which is hilarious given the sunny, lovely artwork — we need to see more games that look like this btw. Great colors and visuals). We all like some viciousness in our games, but at times, Scoville can be downright soul-crushing. Just imagine toiling away at a recipe, finding yourself blocked time and time again as you attempt to gather the necessary peppers. Frustration mounts, but you stay calm, determined to be a smart, tactical player. You come up with a workaround. Maybe even two or three. Finally, after much adaptation and concentration, you acquire the peppers at long last, and as you reach for the recipe you want and need, someone snatches it out right from under you. It’s maddening. Then imagine that happening three times over. For some, that’s not really fun.

Plus, I’ve never played a game of Scoville that hasn’t suffered from Analysis Paralysis. Whether players are pondering turn order, pepper placement, or harvesting routes, the game inevitably grinds to a halt, and at higher player counts, there can be significant downtime waiting for your turn. And so, on top of everything else, having to wait ages only to see your best laid plans crumble can be some of the most exasperating gaming experiences you’ll ever have.

Now don’t worry: most of the time, everything will move along rather well, but there will be games where everything will work against you, and you’ll want to throw all your peppers at a wall. Surely, there must be a salve for this scalding Scoville burn.

This brings us to Scoville Labs.

Not only does this expansion provide new player aids (as well as additional recipes, market orders, and pepper pieces), but it introduces a new module for the game. Now every player has their own pepper “lab,” which is essentially a personal 3 x 3 grid that only they have access to. During the planting phase of each round, players must plant a pepper in the main field as usual, but then, if they are so inclined, they may place a chili in their lab too. When a pepper is placed in the lab, it immediately generates a crossbreed with every pepper orthogonally adjacent to it. This changes everything.

Now players don’t have to watch their plans go down in flames every turn. Someone blocked the harvesting space you wanted to take? No problem: fix it in the lab! Someone messed up your planting pattern in the field? Just take care of it in the lab! Someone spilled water on the table and ruined the cardboard? Well, you’re out of luck there. Labs can only do so much.

What’s also brilliant about Scoville Labs is that it offers players just enough personal control over their game that defeats no longer feel soul crushing. Now, if you miss out on a recipe at the last second, it doesn’t feel like the fates were conspiring against you; you just didn’t maximize your lab, and somehow, that’s easier to deal with. Plus, Analysis Paralysis feels someone reduced as players can now focus on longterm chili-breeding strategies without disruption and subsequent changes in game plans.

Also, depending on how one develops their lab, there’s a sense of asymmetrical powers. When I played, I waited until I had gathered a few black and white peppers, and then I turned my lab into a ghost pepper factory, churning them out in numbers I had never achieved before. It was simply grand… except for the fact that there were only one or two recipes on the table that actually demanded ghost peppers. Either way, I felt empowered and awesome, and I knew that if I synergized my lab production with what was on the field, I could destroy the table. That didn’t happen: I was trounced. But I felt empowered up until the scores were revealed, and then when I learned of my trouncing, it didn’t feel like a sad inevitability. Instead, it was a hilarious twist of fate — perhaps even a morality tale about the perils of hubris. Huzzah!

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Thank goodness for the handy new lab that comes with Scoville Labs. Players may now plant chiles in their own personal area, which means they no longer risk being blocked out in the madness of the town square.

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The lab is particularly useful for breeding high-level chiles. At last, a chance to harvest valuable black, white, and ghost peppers without other jerks mooching off your hard work!

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Players keep peppers and various other items behind a small screen so that others can’t keep tabs on everyone’s progress. Over the course of this game, my pepper strategy was on point. I fulfilled so many recipes, earned plenty of plaques, and generally dominated.

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In the end, this bounty of accomplishments netted me 90 points. DOMINATION. Except… My friend David (a.k.a D-Crane) earned 91 points and Brendon surprised all of us with 108, thanks to his coffers of money. NOOOOOOooooOOooOoOOOOO!!!!

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Table madness by the night’s end.

What’s important to understand about Labs is that the game continues to be cutthroat — your plans will still be derailed, turn order will always be a major factor — but now there’s just a tad more flexibility, enough to really make the experience sing. On its own, Scoville is a fun, colorful game with an evil streak. Scoville Labs fixes the nastiness while keeping the player entanglement intact. It’s definitely a must-buy for anyone who owns the base game or intends to buy it.

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