Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Thursday 28 February 2019

Thoughts from the Yellow Meeple:- Cupcake Empire

Game: Cupcake Empire

Publisher: Ludonova

Designer:  Al Leduc, Yves Tourigny

Year: 2018

Cupcake Empire is undoubtedly a board game that stands out from the crowd. What initially attracted us to the game was the bakery theme, one that is really different and refreshing to see amongst the wealth of fantasy and zombies that we're often overwhelmed with. It's honestly heartwarming to see a game that has a theme with such a different appeal and a colourful pink cover, since games like this can still tap into new audiences with their theme and visual appeal. Once you open the box, the aesthetic appeal of the game doesn't stop, with adorable little cupcake shaped wooden shops, wonderful matt finish, coloured dice and fantastic tessellating cupcake tokens, that all made us audibly oooh and aaahhh.

Cupcake Empire is a dice driven, action selection game for 2-4 players in which you are each trying to become the next big thing in the baking word. By identifying the right locations for your bakeries or cupcake shops, within easy reach of the perfect customers who love the flavours of cakes that you have on offer, you can have the most successful 'cupcake empire'. Over the course of a number of rounds, in a race to achieve 70 points, you will add new cupcakes to your repertoire, build up a network of bakeries and shops and deliver the goods to your discerning customers.

Each player starts the game with an identical pool of dice. Your coloured dice are assigned to one of 5 columns on your personal player board, and you roll three grey dice which are assigned based on their numerical value. In each round you'll trigger the action of one column and the strength of the action is determined by both the number and colour of dice present in the column. The dice in that column will then be re-rolled and re-assigned based on number. The actions are in five categories; getting a sponge base, getting the icing for your cake, building a shop, delivery cakes or bonus actions such as getting a new dice or building bakeries. Through taking these actions you'll gain customer points and baking points and each round you will get points equal to your lowest track.

The basics of Cupcake Empire are really quite simple and I love how the theme and charm of the game disguises a really interesting economic game. It's really a game of efficiency and focus. The setup of the customer board and the four bonus tiles in each game will be different and it's definitely best to try and knit as many of these aspects as you can into a streamlined strategy. Even during game setup you'll be picking your first cake type and that decision is going to affect you for the whole game. Your strategy is certainly important, but you also need to have some flexibility in how you'll get to your end goals because this is a game of dice and so you have to adapt to the rolls you are given. There are often many different routes to the same goal, by shifting your dice, collecting the right bonus tokens in the right columns and making sure you squeeze the most out of every turn through a balanced approach to the game.


Whilst the basics are simply, I really love the slightly more fiddly and detailed mechanisms that turn Cupcake Empire into a really puzzly game for me. In each column there are 3 spots to add bonus tiles which will trigger whenever you activate the column, allowing you to make a short delivery, build a basic shop or get some more basic ingredients. They never get quite as good as a highly powered action, but they allow you to make a few opportunistic decisions along the way that start to add up in terms of points over the course of the game's rounds.

I also love the mechanisms surrounding rolling sixes. The first time you roll a six, you get an idea token, which can be exchanged for a number of bonuses. Every other six rolled at the table advances a wooden token that also gives you a free idea token. Idea tokens can be spent on column bonuses and also on moving a dice from one column to a neighbouring column on your board. Finally, an idea token can be spent to add all your captured sixes back into your dice pool. When sixes are rolled, they are locked and are no longer contributing to powering actions on your player board, but when you bring them back you can choose what value they will be, giving you an opportunity to add power to a column without relying on the luck of a dice roll. This gives you a lot more control in a game that is otherwise quite tactical depending on what you roll.

With two players there are plenty of customers to go round, and so we haven't really experienced much cut-throat behaviour. However, with more players I can certainly see that there is a chance for other players to take a certain customer just before your turn, completely pulling the rug from under you. I've had games where I've been very efficient with just a few basic cupcake recipes, which I really don't think would fly with more players competing over the small pool of customers I was able to satisfy.

As with most dice games, there is no doubting that luck is a factor and, even with the many inbuilt ways to mitigate luck in the game, if you never roll fours, then you'll be limited in your ability to deliver cakes. You can mitigate this with bonus tiles, but they only let you deliver to distance 2, and you could hope to rely on bringing sixes back onto the board as a dice with different face value, but the strength of your mitigation has a limit and if other people around the table are rolling more fortunately then they're getting to spend bonus actions on bigger and better things.

Cupcake Empire is unique in so many ways. Its theme is unique in our collection, I don't think we have any games that I could directly compare with in terms of mechanisms and it has such broad appeal that I think it could make a superb bridge into more complex games for a different audience of people in my life. And yet, in spite of all the positives, I'm not certain it is going to call to me from the board game shelves and get a ton of table time. We can play a game in just 20-25 minutes and I kind of want it to be a little more than just a light filler, both to justify its box size and because I like it so much that I want it to last longer and give me a bit more meat.

If I had more time for games and more shelf space to store them then I'd add Cupcake Empire to the collection in a heartbeat. It's a game I want to play again, but I also don't think I'll be sad if I never play it again. So, for the Yellow Meeple, it's a 7/10.

Cupcake Empire was a review copy provided by Asmodee UK. It is available at your friendly local game store for an RRP of £44.99 or can be picked up at http://www.365games.co.uk/.

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