Chocolatier

The good thing about PlayFirst’s Chocolatier is that it reminds me of Taipan!. The bad thing is I’ve gained five pounds this week from playing it, because it makes me crave chocolate.

Art Canfil’s Taipan!, for those of you old enough to remember it, was a sailing-and-trading game. You travelled from port to port in the Orient trying to make money, and to stay one step ahead of the moneylender and pirates. Several years later, the game was remade for MS-DOS as “Dope Wars”, where instead of travelling around Asia by boat you were jetting around New York City by subway, trading marijuana instead of weapons, cocaine instead of silk, and heroin instead of opium (some things never change). Either way, the game was the same: buy weapons, buy cargo, buy low, sell high.

There’s no shame in remaking a good game, and the success of Tradewinds and Tradewinds Legends shows that there’s ample mining to be done here. Chocolatier takes a few pages from the Taipan! book, and adds a few twists of its own.

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The goal of Chocolatier is to build up a chocolate-producing empire, selling bars, squares, infusions, and truffles by the boatload. Interestingly, the scarce resource in this game is not money. Strangers are constantly accosting you on the street, stuffing thousands of dollars into your pocket. Rather, the scarce resources are time and recipes. You earn new recipes by performing custom production runs for people you meet. You perform those runs by travelling the world looking for a market that sells the correct ingredients, buying them, and then setting up one of your factories to produce the finished product.

The factory production is “set” via a minigame that should remind anyone over a certain age of Lucy in the candy factory. It’s a slightly easier, radial version of Snood (or, more recently, Venice Deluxe) where one must shoot ingredients into the correct slot on a series of rotating panels. Fill a panel completely, and one item is created. The more you can fill, the faster your factory will produce in subsequent weeks, which means you have more stock to sell as you jet around the world.

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The challenge in the game is not apparent at first. By the time you have your third factory up and running you’ll be half-convinced you have it beat. But, like running a real business, the real complexity doesn’t become apparent until you reach a certain size. When you’re juggling 5 factories, 25 recipes, and countless ingredients, suddenly you find yourself wishing for a competent administrative assistant to help you keep track of it all. The key strategic question in the game is how much of your income do you sink into inventory. Too little, and you can’t meet demand for a hot new product. Too much, and you end up holding on to (say), a king’s ransom in fresh mint when really all the public wants is candy with almonds in it.

It’s a good game. It is part of what is dismissively called, by the hardcore, the “casual games” market. “Casual” is a term of art that, it seems, means “fun, and doesn’t suck”.

Chocolatier, in other words, is just more proof that the casual game makers spend more time thinking about game balance than their brothers making “real” PC games do. And at a time when so-called “real” game makers are spending time and energy claiming that making money in the PC market is impossible due to piracy, the casual game makers lay their heads each night on a pillow made of the most delicate cloth-of-gold, stuffed with only the finest, uncut turkish heroin, while their vast armies of servants feed them grapes and waft air at them, gently, with large palm fronds.

Maybe the “AAA” game manufacturers should take a break from making lovingly detailed simulations of walking from Damascus to Jerusalem and try to make some “BBB” games instead. It seems to me it could only improve their bottom line.

Chocolatier from PlayFirst, for Mac OS X and Windows. $19.95. A free demo is available from their web site.

Disclosure statement: PlayFirst graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of this game.