One of my favorite headlines from The Onion is “Relationship At Point Where Woman Has To Learn Boyfriend’s Family’s Weird Card Games.” I’ve been there. I reached that exact point when getting to know my wife’s family.
See, in my own family, there’s always been a lot of variety in the games we play. We might bring out Apples to Apples, Yahtzee, Upwords, Taboo, Outburst or any other party game. In my wife’s family, there are only two games: Five Crowns and Dutch Blitz.
Five Crowns is a fairly straightforward card game where you take turns drawing and discarding, attempting to assemble a hand of straights and threes-of-a-kind.
Dutch Blitz, on the other hand, is unmitigated chaos. It’s roughly comparable to playing solitaire (the Klondike, Microsoft Solitaire kind). Except you’re playing against other people. And the cards have, like, buckets and ploughshares and dapper little Pennsylvania Dutch children on them. And you’re playing as fast as possible.
When my wife, her sister, and their mother get around the table, it gets a little dangerous. Everyone sits on a pillow to get a better view of the cards. Hands get slapped. People start shouting “Darn your hide!” It’s scary.
One time, they offered to include me in a game of Dutch Blitz. My spidey sense should have tingled since I’d never seen my wife’s father play with them—but, with hearts in my eyes, it seemed like a great idea to partake in my then-girlfriend’s family pastime. So how did it go?
Look, I’m an over-thinker. I know that. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I wasn’t. And the reason that solitaire-like games are engaging is that there’s quite a lot to think about. To level the playing field for me, a greenhorn noob, they restricted themselves to playing one-handed and I still lost by about negative 150 points. (Literally. You can get negative points in the game.)
I decided to employ the entrepreneurship “fail fast” mantra and stop playing Dutch Blitz forever before things got any worse.
Ever since then, I’ve been extremely skeptical of any speed-oriented game. However, earlier this year, I spotted a speed game about making smoothies on Kickstarter. I have a soft spot for games about food so I decided to give it a shot.
Blend Off is a game for 2-4 players from Thunderworks Games. You get one fruit die and two blender cards, and your goal is to fill smoothie order cards by rolling the die and adding the fruit on the die to one of your blenders. The order cards specify the exact fruit that a smoothie must contain (for example, two oranges and two bananas) and a number of stars based on the order’s complexity (larger orders are worth more stars). The difficulty in filling orders is that once you put a piece of fruit into one of your blenders, you can’t take it out—you have to either use it to fill an order or dump the entire blender. When you have the exact fruit to claim an order, you shout “Blend,” grab the order, and replace it with a new order. After all of the orders in the deck have been claimed, the winner is the person who collected the most stars.
Rolling and adding fruit to your blender is a great concept, but it’s made even better by a few ingenious little complications. The fruit pieces are limited in number. If all the pieces of one type are currently in use and you roll that type (for example, if there are no bananas left, and you roll a banana), you can grab the one durian fruit piece in the game and put it in another player’s blender, forcing them to dump everything (durian is apparently the world’s grossest fruit). Also, some of the order cards are “special orders” that modify other cards. These modifications are simple (for example, add an extra strawberry, or hold the second ingredient), but in the heat of the moment, they are just enough to mess you up. Plus, if you do mess up an order and get caught by another player, you have to sit and wait until someone else shouts “Blend.”
I was worried about the speed aspect being too frustrating, but the game is fun. Sometimes you only need one more orange to fill an order and someone else claims it. Sometimes you’ve just rolled the strawberry you wanted and someone else tosses the durian in your blender. Sometimes you roll three fruit you need in a row and grab an order just in time.
Blend Off has component quality where it counts. The cards are basic, but the dice are engraved and the fruit pieces are delightful wooden tokens. They remind me of the fruit-shaped Trix of yore or those gross Runts candy that taste like wet chalk.
I also appreciate the considerable number of plastic bags that came in the game’s box. The dice and each type of fruit piece came in a separate bag, all of which were in another bag. Plus there was one of those silica-gel-do-not-eat packets. Any time a game comes with enough wooden bits to warrant a silica gel packet, I am a happy customer.
Becca and Kevin
When I explained the rules above, I didn’t say anything about Becca and Kevin. Who are Becca and Kevin, you ask? Becca and Kevin are characters mentioned extensively in the rulebook.
Conceptually, the story behind the game is that you’re a Smoothie Artist working at a smoothie place and it’s slammed with business because the high school girl’s volleyball tournament just ended. Becca is the manager of the smoothie place who gives you the orders (i.e., Becca is the deck) and Kevin is the runner who brings you the fruit to put in your blender (i.e., Kevin is the dice).
I don’t know how I feel about Becca and Kevin. I do genuinely enjoy the backstory they bring to the game. A hard-nosed boss and a slightly erratic assistant make perfect sense, and explain why it is so difficult to blend the right smoothies. But the Becca and Kevin abstractions also feel a bit forced. It kind of feels like, somewhere along the line, someone demanded that the game include characters just for the sake of including characters. At any rate, mentioning them to explain almost every rule in the rulebook didn’t make it any easier to read. I found myself getting stumbled up by their names when trying to learn how to play.
If there’s one thing that I don’t like in games, it’s when you leave certain cards out of the deck when playing with certain numbers of players. If I’m playing a two player game, I still want to get the full variety of the game! Also, one of my biggest fears is that my wife and I are going to play the game about 50 times, and then we’ll have someone over and need to add in the additional cards for three players, and the extra cards will be pristine and snappy, and the two player cards will be greasy and tattered and floppy.
In short, I like my games like I like my hard drives: with consistent wear-leveling!
Blend Off has me conflicted in this respect. All of the order cards have the same back. However, on the front, different background colors specify which cards to include (i.e., if there’s a “blue” player in the game, you include the blue cards; if there’s a green player, you include the green cards; etc.). This is a really clever, intuitive way of showing how many cards to include for each number of players without saying something like “count out 10 cards for each player.” I love that. It’s a really slick solution. But, in the back of my mind, I’m always going to be worried about different amounts of wear on the cards.
Blend Off includes a host of extra modes and modules. There’s an “Endurian Challenge” order card you can add where you actually want to get the durian. There’s a race mode where you’re not competing as directly against other players. There are spill cards you can use to enable spilling other players’ blenders. There’s also a Kickstarter-exclusive “Mystery Twister” expansion that adds cards with a “wild” ingredient on them.
I love what the wild ingredients bring to the game. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a big difference: if the ingredient is a question mark, use whatever type of fruit you want. But when you’re scrambling to make smoothies as fast as possible, that wild symbol trips up your brain in just the right way to make the game more difficult without introducing frustration.
Blend Off Jr.
When I was thinking about Kickstarting Blend Off, I told myself, “Hey, if the speed aspect is too much, it says there’s a non-speed variant for younger players.” This game mode is called “Blend Off Jr.” and it’s almost exactly the same as the main game. However, instead of each player rolling one die at the same time, everyone takes turns rolling four dice and trying to get pairs of fruit symbols.
Technically, this works. However, it’s just not as much fun as going full speed. It feels plodding and simplistic in comparison. I think it would be a good alternative for introducing the game to very young players, but it’s probably not a reason to buy the game if you can’t stomach the speed aspect.
Also, one thing in Blend Off Jr. was really jarring. On your turn, you roll the four dice, set aside any you want to keep, and then optionally make one re-roll. For me, at this point, the Yahtzee-style of allowing two re-rolls is so ingrained from games like King of Tokyo and Bang: The Dice Game that only getting one re-roll feels really weird. Plus, one re-roll feels very limiting with only four dice. I know there are probably legitimate reasons for only allowing one re-roll, but if you try this variant, it’s worth considering jazzing it up and just giving each player two re-rolls.
Basically, I hate speed games but I love Blend Off. I love that it takes a familiar situation that’s typically a bummer (a busy restaurant is something everyone can identify with) and turns it into a fun game. I love the colorful look. I love the upbeat, preppy graphic design.
Also, for me, it’s nice to play a speed game where I feel like I’m not fighting an impossible uphill battle against my wife’s years of Dutch Blitz experience.
The actions you’re taking in Blend Off are simple enough that anyone can fully learn and comprehend the rules in about a minute. The challenge comes not from the complexity of the task that you’re trying to complete, but because it’s always going to be tricky to manage two blenders and keep an eye on three or more orders. It’s just the right amount of difficulty for a speed game: your brain is maxed out but not overwhelmed, which makes this game a winner for me.