Dawn Wednesday saw Josh out in his ice cream truck, trying to figure out his plan for the day. The heat was already at 80 degrees, and the forecast was for a scorcher, one he could take advantage of. But how to do that? Should he fill his truck with blue raspberry bars and head for the beach, grab orange popsicles and travel to the community pool, focus on the raspberry soft serve popular at the park, or stockpile a mix of everything for the diverse crowd at the baseball field? Should he keep stocking up, or try to quickly attract customers? And what about the competing trucks in this cutthroat corner of the ice cream world? Would he be able to beat them to the rocket pop supply and the key locations? Despite the truck’s air conditioning, sweat was already building on his face…
Published: 2016 (Currently on Kickstarter, through Wednesday, July 20: $19 for base game, $25 for base game and separate Dice Cream game)
Designer: Joshua J. Mills
Artist: Adam P. McIver
Thanks to Green Couch Games for providing a review copy! Art and components pictured are not final.
Rocky Road à la Mode feels like a fully-loaded banana split, loaded with all kinds of ice cream scoops and toppings that shouldn’t necessarily go well together, but yet somehow do. To borrow from Stefon, this game has everything: time tracks! Multiple actions in a row! Multi-use cards! Permanent bonuses! Races for certain conditions! Based on everything going on here, you’d expect this to be a big, complex and long game, but it’s not at all; it’s easy to teach, easy to learn, plays in 30 minutes or less and fits perfectly with Green Couch Games’ excellent line of small-box games, delivering depth, strategy and replayability at a low price point with a small number of components.
The preview copy I received features four road cards that make up the time track (which have already been upgraded to a folding board thanks to the Kickstarter reaching its stretch goals), four cubes to represent players’ trucks (which have been upgraded to stackable truck pieces), four cards for players’ trucks, three chips to represent rocket pops (which have been upgraded to tokens, with additional tokens also included), eight location cards, and a whole deck of the aforementioned multi-use treat cards. The art is gorgeous, which is no surprise considering that it’s from Adam McIver (who’s worked on a ton of great and beautiful games as artist, graphic designer or both, from Bottom of the 9th to Far Space Foundry to Hocus to World’s Fair 1893), and the graphic design stands out as well; it’s easy to identify the various aspects of a card.
Each player starts with a truck card and is dealt three treat cards, and their trucks are stacked in random order on the start space on the road. The three rocket pop tokens are placed in their appropriate spaces on the road, and the eight location cards are placed above the board in stacks of two (with the higher-value card for each location on top). The rest of the deck of treat cards is placed in the middle of the table, with the top three cards from it flipped face up. Players then start taking turns, beginning with whoever’s truck is on top of the stack.
You have three possible actions to choose from on your turn: restock (grab more treat cards), attract customers (place a treat card under your truck so you can fulfill its orders on future turns), and serve customers (discard treat cards to meet the demands of a group of customers you’ve attracted). All of these actions take time, which requires you to move your truck down the road a number of spaces. Whoever’s furthest back on the road (or at the top of the stack of trucks if tied for last) is the active player who gets to take an action, and the time track element of the road means you can take multiple actions in a row if you’re still the furthest back after resolving an action.
To explain how those actions work, let’s first look at the treat cards; check out the example one on the right. The first important thing to note is the treat in the top left. There are three types of treats: orange-and-white striped popsicles, blue ice cream bars, and pink ice cream cones. The cone in the top left of this card indicates this can be used as one cone if discarded to serve another group of customers.
The rest of the card relates to what happens if the card is used as an order. the 2 in the speaker in the top right shows you’ll have to move two spaces down the road if you choose to attract the two groups of customers on this card, while the first group of customers wants two pink cones and the second group wants three blue bars. The line at the bottom shows the reward you get after satisfying both groups; in this case, two loyalty (victory) points and a permanent bonus blue bar.
It’s really helpful that each card’s background is colour-coded based on the kind of treat it supplies as a permanent reward. There are orange-, pink-, and blue-coloured cards for those treats, and yellow ones for cards that don’t provide a treat bonus (just three loyalty points). This makes it easy to quickly identify certain bonuses in your hand and make sure you’re not discarding the ones you’re trying to save.
The restock action is about drawing more of these cards into your hand, and it provides you with plenty of options to think about. The first question is how many cards you want to draw, which can be any integer from 1 to 5 (note: see designer Josh Mills’ clarification here that this is correct and that there’s no hand size limit), but has to be declared before you start drawing cards. Each card you draw is going to make your truck move forward one space on the road, so drawing three cards will see you move three spaces. (Restocking can be very helpful for being the first to land on spaces with rocket pops, which you then claim and can use as wilds to fulfill orders.) You choose on each draw whether to pick from the three face-up cards or draw from the deck. If you choose a face-up card, it’s immediately replenished, giving you a full set of choices again. If you deplete the deck, the discards are reshuffled to form a new deck.
The other two actions see you using these cards. The attract customers action is simple, and sees you place a card under your truck so you can fulfill its customers’ orders and move forward the number of spaces indicated by the speaker. You can only have one card under your truck at a time, but you can play one to replace it (and pay the time cost as usual) and pull it back into your hand. This is inefficient, though, so it’s a last resort.
The third action, serve customers, is also pretty simple. You discard cards from your hand (for the treat value in their top left) and add any bonuses (permanent bonuses you’ve already obtained or single-use rocket pops, which can be any treat, but then return to the road in the next available space ahead of the truck in the lead) to match the treats demanded by the topmost group of customers you’ve attracted. Each card has two groups of customers; when you satisfy the first group’s demands, you slide the card up so they’re covered, and then work on satisfying the second group. Each “serve customers” action lets you serve one group, and causes you to move one space along the road. After you serve the second group, the card is tucked horizontally under the left side of your truck, giving you loyalty points and/or permanent bonuses.
The game is a race to nine loyalty points; when someone crosses that barrier, play continues until the game-end triggerer is furthest back on the road, and then the player with the most points winds. There are a variety of ways to get those points, though, and the locations make this particularly interesting. Three of the four locations, the swimming pool, beach, and park, reward specialization, requiring you to have three permanent bonuses of a particular type (orange, blue, and pink, respectively). The first player to achieve that distinction immediately claims the top card for that location, worth four points; the second to do that claims the bottom card, worth two points. The fourth location, the baseball diamond, rewards a mix of bonuses; the first player to have a permanent bonus in each type claims its top card, worth three points, while the second player to do so claims the bottom card, worth two. The other way to get loyalty points is simply by serving customers, as customer cards can be worth anywhere from zero loyalty points (just a treat bonus) to three loyalty points (with no treat bonus).
The actions in this game aren’t particularly complicated, and the rules currently fit on a double-sided 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper, but the strategies and the decisions are deep, and that’s thanks to what appears to be superb balance. The cards are well-tuned, and offer a variety of tradeoffs and different strategies. Consider these two:
These cards both have the same reward (a permanent pink cone and two loyalty points), but the left one is likely easier to fulfill (four total treats versus six), but takes three time during the attract customers step to the right card’s one. Thus, both of these cards require the same amount of resources (as one time allows you to draw one card) and produce the same benefit, but can be quite differently-valuable to you depending on the situation. If you already have a lot of cards in hand or several permanent bonuses that align, it may make more sense to attract the customers on the right and only spend one time. If you don’t have the needed combination of treats for the customers on the right card and don’t see what you’re missing in the draw pile, it may make more sense to spend three time and attract the customers on the left for easier fulfillment.
This also depends on your spot on the road (can you get multiple turns in a row? Can you land on a rocket pop?), and that’s just the start of the decisions. You also have to consider which location to target, which ones your opponents are targeting, which kind of treats and/or customers your opponents are trying to draw, and whether to go for easy customers that give bonuses and no loyalty points or hard ones that give more loyalty points. There are a lot of different potential strategies here, and most of them seem quite viable. Every game I’ve played of Rocky Road à la mode, at counts ranging from two to four players, has been very close. (It’s notable that this works at all player counts, too; two is a fast-paced head-to-head battle, while three and four don’t have a ton of downtime thanks to the quick turns, and have the benefit of producing more competition over location cards.)
A variety of different approaches have worked in the games I’ve played, from specializing to mixing and matching and from cranking out bonus-only cards early to getting bonus-and-point cards early. There’s room here to build a variety of engines, and it’s nice that no one logical approach seems to blow the others away; that makes it so new players can effectively compete, as long as they’re able to figure out a workable strategy. This game also rewards a nice balance of long-term planning and quick on-your-feet thinking.
My favourite part of Rocky Road à la mode is how Mills takes solid elements from other games and integrates them in a thoughtful and streamlined way, producing something new and worthwhile in the process. This game has the permanent bonus/engine-building approach of the likes of Splendor and 7 Wonders, the multi-use cards seen in a wide variety of games (Board and Game favourite Fleet particularly comes to mind for how these are implemented; they’re cards and currency, but variable currency), the time track/ability to take multiple turns in a row seen in games like Glen More and Patchwork, and the race for certain achievements seen in games like Race For The Galaxy and Fleet: Wharfside. It feels very distinct from all of those games, though; the closest comparison is probably Splendor, but the time track and multi-use cards make this much different. What’s also great here is that none of this feels tacked on; every part of this game seems necessary, and those different parts come together to create a simple-to-explain, easy-to-learn, and quick-to-play game, but one that also delivers a lot of strategy and meaningful decisions.
Overall, Rocky Road à la Mode succeeds on a wide variety of levels. It feels highly thematic, from the time spent stocking up on treats to each customer’s differing needs to the battle to dominate summertime locations. It’s also great to see a game with an unconventional theme like this, and who doesn’t like ice cream? It’s quick to play and easy to explain, so it should be a hit with families and newer gamers (my wife, who’s usually not that into games, said she quite enjoyed it), but there’s enough strategy and differing approaches to satisfy veteran gamers, especially as a filler, opener or closer. The prototype components are already great, and the Kickstarter upgrades seem likely to make it even better and even more attractive; I’ll definitely be backing it for those and for the Dice Cream game. This one’s absolutely worth checking out. Go get your frozen treats before they melt!
Rocky Road à la Mode is on Kickstarter through Wednesday, July 20. A full-colour print and play version is available for $8, with the full game available for $19 (shipping included in the U.S., shipping extra for everywhere else) and Rocky Road: Dice Cream available as well for $25 (plus shipping if outside the U.S.). Thanks again to Green Couch Games for the review copy!