“In my own hands I hold a bowl of tea; I see all of nature represented in its green color. Closing my eyes, I find green mountains and pure water within my own heart. Silently sitting alone and drinking tea, I feel these become a part of me.” – Sen Soshitsu
Few people that I know of love tea as much as Dan and Connie Kazmaier do, the husband-and-wife team behind the publishing imprint Steeped Games. It is this passion that led to the creation of Chai, a game of card drafting and set collection where players took on the role of tea merchants trying to achieve the perfect blend. With its combination of gorgeous artwork and high production values Chai gained a lot of attention and since its original release people have been clamouring for another cuppa tea. Enter Chai: Tea for 2, the latest entry to the series where 1 – 2 players go head-to-head in a race to become the most prominent exporter of tea leaves.
Full disclosure: a preview copy of Chai: Tea for 2 was kindly provided by publisher Steeped Games.
Everything you see in this preview are pre-production components and are as such subject to change between now and the finalised version of the game including the rules. That being said, if this is the level of component quality that publisher Steeped Games labels as pre-production then goodness me are we in for a treat when the full-fledged game leaves the factory! Much like its predecessor, Chai: Tea for 2 is a visual delight when fully displayed on the game table. From the custom shaped wooden tokens for each of the different tea leaves to the metal tins for storing said tokens, the game looks and feels like a gem. It even includes two foldable dice trays with unique artwork, serving as another testament to the publisher’s attention to detail and aesthetics.
My one criticism regarding Chai: Tea for 2 in its current state of development concerns the rules, specifically the solo mode. Although contained on a single page of the rulebook, due to how the rules are presented I still found myself second guessing whether or not I was accurately interpretating the target priority for the neutral player, leaving me with a sense of indecision that I do not enjoy when solo playing board games. Again, all of this is subject to change and I know for a fact that publisher Steeped Games are tweaking the layout and contents of the rules so hopefully the finalised product will have less rules ambiguities.
PLAYING CHAI: TEA FOR 2 SOLO
In Chai: Tea for 2 you are competing to become the most prominent supplier of tea the world has ever seen. The game is played over a series of rounds each representing a year during which you will collect tea leaves, improve your plantation, and secure contracts with the tea clippers docked at the harbour all whilst trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. In essence Chai: Tea for 2 is a race to be the first to secure enough shipping contracts, a procedure of setup that is described in the rules as “…both merchants agree on the ship goal while serving each other tea” which I find absolutely delightful. In order to fulfil contracts you will need to supply the right kind of tea, a journey which starts with harvesting the leaves and ends with the cargo being loaded onto the awaiting clippers.
This seasonal progression of the plantation is represented by having tea tokens advance on your player board on a set path depending on which type of tea you are growing. This is also where the race aspect of Chai: Tea for 2 comes into play, as you want your tokens to advance as fast as possible to the very top of your plantation board thus fulfilling the contracts you have secured before your opponent. This is achieved primarily by adding what is known as plantation cards to your individual player board. These cards activate tea tokens that match the suit of the allocated plantation card which in turn advances the matching tea one step closer to the awaiting ships. Initially the effects of these activations are minor, however it does not take long before you progress to the point where you are able of pulling off some truly impressive combinations, chaining together one plantation card after another which propels your tea tokens several levels in one fell swoop. It is this instant sense of gratification that makes Chai: Tea for 2 such an overall enjoyable experience, it tickles the “Candy Crush” section of my brain in a most pleasing way.
When playing the game solo you will be competing against an automated merchant, the actions of which are dictated using a small deck of cards whereas the core rules remain unaltered fur the human player which is always something I appreciate in any given solo mode. Much like yourself the automated merchant will deploy their tea workers, represented by dice, to the various action locations on the main building boards. As is the case with solo board game designs in general, the neutral player in Chai: Tea for 2 does bend the rules slightly when it comes to where they can allocate their dice. Each solo card features a numerical priority system which stipulates where the neutral merchant wants to send their workers. What is interesting is the fact that these cards are designed in a numerical fashion where each card represents a pivotal year in the history of tea trading. The result is a solo opponent that to a certain extent displays humanlike characteristics, as the neutral merchant is for example more interested in acquiring shipping contracts in the earlier stages of the game rather than acting in a completely random manner.
But by the same token having knowledge beforehand of the order of actions the solo opponent is going to perform takes away something of the overall dynamic structure of the core game design. Yes, it is absolutely possible to block the merchant and the game is varied due to the random nature of rolling dice but I cannot help thinking that Chai: Tea for 2 would be an even more engaging experience when going head-to-head with another player at the table.
As someone who appreciates both dice-based board game designs and evocative artwork it is hardly surprising that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Chai: Tea for 2. And even though the solo mode does an admirable job providing an intellectual puzzle to ponder over I believe this game truly shines when you are jockeying against another human player for those lucrative shipping contracts or acquiring just the right plantation card to advance your tea tokens. Regardless, if you enjoyed Chai then there are plenty of reasons to take a closer look at Chai: Tea for 2 which at the time of writing is coming to Kickstarter on May 4th.