I’m no stranger to real-time cooking, both in the real world and the video game world, thanks to Gusto boxes and Overcooked, respectively. However, Kitchen Rush marks the first time I’ve played a real-time cooking themed board game, which aims to simulate not only the act of warming up food and putting it on a plate, but the managing of a restaurant including paying staff and fixing and upgrading appliances.
How to Play
At the core of Kitchen Rush, you’re trying to complete food orders, serving picky customers who demand thier food has qualities like ‘actually cooked properly’ and ‘contains all the ingredients you said it would.’.
In theory, that’s a simple process. You take the order from a matre d, you gather the ingredients and spices, and you cook the food. In reality, Kitchen Rush is a mad dash to try to make food as quickly as possible without making any mistakes. The main section of the game is played in real time. This is effectively a worker placement game, except all your workers are hourglasses, and you’re able to move them to different spaces on the board. With four minutes per round to perform as many actions as possible, and four rounds in total, this action phase is suitably manic.
The process of cooking is relatively simple - you take an order and a plate, go to the storage to gather ingredients, add spices and finally put the food in the oven. The difficulty comes from trying to manage all the extra tasks while the rest of your team try to manage theirs. It’s very easy to run out of ingredients, so you’ll need to go shopping, but to go shopping you’ll need a pool of available money, and to get money outside of end game rounds you’ll need to be taking in new customers and sending out food early.
Most of the spaces you can put your dilligent hourglass workers in the game allow you to perform a single action. With the exception of the shopping action, there are limited spots on every action, and you can’t move an hourglass from an action spot until it’s timer fully runs out, even if you’ve already completed the action. As well as two hourglasses for every player, you’re also able to recruit a ‘helper’ if you want to complete more tasks.
Following the action phase there’s a period of upkeep. It’s here you’ll check your orders are correct (anything that’s cooked too much or has the wrong ingredients goes in the bin) and pay your staff a painful 3 gold per hourglass. Luckily you’ll also receive money and prestige for all your correct meals. Overall objectives in the game are varied and many, with loads of different cards to pick from, but most require some mix of a certain amount of money, prestige (victory points) or total meals cooked.
The meat of the game
All of this real time decision making put the ‘rush’ in Kitchen Rush and on the surface, it does that admirably. I’ve not worked in a real kitchen, but I have watched enough of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares to know that working in a hectic kitchen is no easy experience and a few seconds into the action phase of Kitchen Rush you’re going to be shouting questions at your friends, getting mad that someone stole the last carrot, trying to move your hourglasses around while not getting in the way of everyone else and generally just trying to keep your head above water long enough to finally get that one desperate order out of the kitchen.
The balance in the moment feels good. Like the best real time games, you’ve always got just one more thing that you need to do, one space at the cookers that another player is currently taking up, one cheese short of the perfect sandwich. There’s also plenty of quick decisions that the game will force you to make. Even on the easier objectives you’re constantly forced to work at a fast pace, and have to quickly decide if you want to make more elaborate food for victory points or simpler food that will get money and orders out faster. Those frantic moments are Kitchen Rush at its best, it’s fun, simple and quick to play.
My main issue here is that Kitchen Rush is not a game with a lot of long term replayability. There has been a real attempt here to introduce variety, there’s a good amount of objectives that actually change the end goals in a meaningful way and there’s a nice amount of optional event cards that can throw in additional problems. Unfortunately, none of them really change how those four minute segments really play out.
It’s fair that part of this is the nature of a real time game. Ultimately to play something in real time, co-operatively, with four people, you have to sacrifice a level of depth and nuance to maintain that frenetic action. In that sense the problem here is less the lack of meat in that section, but outside of it. The other phases of the game really amount to upkeep with no real decisions to make. Through multiple plays, the end result of this decision is that the game feels too similar each time, even with multiple different ways to win and things to go wrong. For all the speed and chaos when you first play Kitchen Rush, it quickly becomes an exercise in optimisation.
Overcooked, an indie video game that also tackles the theme of working in a fast paced kitchen solves the problem by adding mechanics and environments in each new level. The core mechanics stay the same, but just like a legacy board game, more is added over time to keep things fresh and not to only keep the game challenging, but interesting as well.
If you’re after a light game and none of this matters to you, you’ll enjoy Kitchen Rush providing you don’t overplay it, or if you regularly expect to play it with different people. My main problem with recommending Kitchen Rush as a light experience is that due to the sheer amount of components and the size of the game, it doesn’t come with a price tag that feels right for the simplicity of the experience. There are plenty of smaller, cheaper and easier to set up, light real time experiences, such as Escape: The Cure of the Temple that same scratch that itch for fast paced fun.
In terms of theme and design, Kitchen Rush feels like it did just enough and no more to bring everything together. There’s some design nitpicks that felt like they could have been so easily solved. One consistent problem is the use of a faux script style font on both the board and the cards. It’s trying to mimic the font used so often in resteraunts around the world, but this isn’t a resteraunt, it’s a board game, and while reading isn’t vital in Kitchen Rush it’s simply not nice to look at.
Likewise all of the many food cards in the game are identical. For a game about cooking food there’s actually not a single picture of food in the entire game. In fact, you’ll see more of the games original art work browsing the manual than you’ll see playing. In a real-time game perhaps artwork isn’t too important, and while the design doesn’t exactly bring the theme to life, the actual feel of working in a kitchen is absolutely present. Still, it feels like just a little more polish could have gone a long way here.
By no means is Kitchen Rush a bad game, if I was asked to play I absolutely would, and I would absolutely have a good time, it's just falls into this awkward space between a heavier experience and a quicker, lighter game.