Burger Up brings grilling to game night

Sometimes you look forward to something for a really long time, and then it’s not what you expected.

When my wife’s sister and her husband got married, they had two food trucks cater their wedding reception. One of the food trucks was extremely slow and I never got to try it. The other one was a taco truck.

That taco truck was my hero. They were fast. They were friendly. Their tacos were delicious and just slightly too spicy. When I went back for seconds, I asked how many tacos they could fit on a plate.

My wife and I loved those tacos so much that we vowed to try the restaurant associated with the taco truck someday. I found myself thinking about going there every time we talked about eating out.

Almost a year later, we finally tried it.

It was a strange feeling walking down a busy street during peak lunch hours and then stepping into a deserted restaurant. Initially, I wasn’t sure that they were even open. The very front was just an unused room full of old deep fat fryers. In the dining room, one of the walls was exposed plywood. There was lots of weird stuff sitting around. A rusty ladder. A baby stroller. A dusty office chair with a pile of clothes in it. A bunch of candy just dumped in a display case under the counter.

Every table had crumbs on it. When we sat down, my chair was missing an arm. I spotted a chair arm on the floor nearby, and at first I thought it was the one from my chair, but then I realized it was from a different chair at the next table over. The napkin dispenser was dirty and empty. There was a crusty bottle of hot sauce with no lid. Flies joined us at our table. I found myself thinking, “Is it rude if I shoo these flies away while the owner is looking in this direction? I don’t want this to get too awkward.”

In their defense, the plate of food they brought out looked great. It was colorful. It was exactly the right amount of food. It was those same delicious tacos all over again.

But even the best tacos imaginable could not possibly redeem the atmosphere. We walked out feeling like we’d just been on the “before” segment of a Kitchen Nightmares episode, wondering if it was actually even a licensed and health-inspected restaurant.

So, sometimes you look forward to something for a long time and it lets you down.

Something else I had looked forward to for a long time was the game Burger Up. I had backed it on Kickstarter and followed all of the project’s weekly updates, looking forward with excitement to eventually getting to play it. A few days ago, my copy finally arrived…

Burger Up

Burger Up components

Burger Up is a card game from Rule & Make where each player is assembling burgers by creating stacks of ingredient cards. On your turn, you stack ingredient cards from your hand onto your bottom bun cards (each card specifies the type of ingredient that can be stacked on top of it). If one of your ingredient stacks meets the requirements of one of the top bun cards in the center of the table, you can complete the burger. For example, the “Vegetarian Cowboy” top bun requires a veggie patty, barbecue sauce, and no meat. When you complete a burger, you receive money based on how tall the burger is, plus a bounty for finishing the top bun. At the end of the game, the player who completed the most burgers receives a bonus and the winner is the player with the most money.

Unlike the taco truck restaurant, the Burger Up Kickstarter did not let me down. This game is fun.

I love completing a burger and raking in a big stack of coins. I love strategizing which top bun to go for and claiming it just before someone else. I love how the game gives you so many options that you never feel stuck. Each ingredient card has two ingredients on it, so it can be placed in two different ways. If you don’t like the ingredients you’ve gotten from the draw pile, you can purchase ingredients from the center of the table. If all else fails, you can use your spatula card to rearrange your burgers and bail yourself out.

Details make a game great and Burger Up gets all of the details right. The cards are thick, linen-finished, and easy to read. The rulebook is a paragon of clarity: I didn’t encounter a single confusing issue or rules question. The game’s artwork is outstanding, right down to the unique garnishes on almost every top bun card. Burger Up even includes details that you didn’t know to expect, but will be looking for on all future games: one of the reference cards has a first player marker so that you can shuffle them up and deal them out to determine the first player.

Game length

These top buns definitely cut the mustard.
These top buns definitely cut the mustard.

I have two problems with Burger Up. First, the artwork looks so good that it makes you hungry for a burger every time you play. Second, the game feels a smidge too long. The game has one element of long term strategy: if you cash in a “colossal” burger with ten ingredients, you can either get money for it or give yourself the ability to build burgers faster by increasing the number of ingredient cards you can stack each turn. That’s a real dilemma, but it just doesn’t feel like enough depth to justify the game’s length (which the box correctly states is around 45 minutes). Instead of going through the whole top bun deck each game, it feels more fun to just play with half of the deck.

Recipe book

If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won't leave you in a pickle.
If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won’t leave you in a pickle.

Burger Up plays from two to four players, but the Kickstarter version of the game includes a “recipe book” with variants for one, five, and six players. The recipe book also includes an actual hamburger recipeplus instructions for Burger Up variants inspired by the games Between Two Cities, Galaxy Trucker, Hanabi, and Sushi Go. It’s kind of like getting five different games in one box.

Burgers of the World expansion

Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.
Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.

Burger Up also has an expansion called Burgers of the World. The expansion includes new ingredient and top bun cards with regionally specific foods from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico. The expansion does exactly what I want an expansion to do: expand the game with exciting additional content. If you shuffle in all of the countries, it does seem to slow the game down a bit because certain top buns that require specific ingredients become more difficult to fulfill. Still, that feels like a fair tradeoff for the increased variety of ingredients.

The expansion also includes Globetrotter cards, which are ingredient cards that say “Globetrotter Ingredient” instead of having an actual ingredient on them.

I'm never going to use these.
I’m never going to use these.

According to the creators, the Globetrotter cards were included because they wanted to meet a demand from backers for customizable cards, but they didn’t want to include blank cards that could only be written on once. I get that. Write-on cards make me uneasy, too. But these are the worst of both worlds—these permanently have nothing on them. Yes, this is Existential Reviews, but that doesn’t mean that I want existential cards where whatever you imagine to be on them is what’s actually there. I wish that they had made write-on cards or just picked another country. Any country. Jamaica. Zanzibar. Mordor. I would rather have cards with my least favorite foods on them than these cards.

Anyways, the reason I’m bagging on the expansion cards is that they’re the only thing about this game’s production that can reasonably be criticized. Rule & Make invested a lot of time into making sure this game was literally perfect.

Final thoughts

I think that board games about food are underappreciated. Board games have a great capacity to create joy and build relationships, but a lot of people are never going to be comfortable stepping into the board gaming hobby and immediately sitting down around a table to play a game about dwarves, orcs, zombies, superheroes, spaceships, or giant monsters destroying Tokyo. However, almost everyone is comfortable sitting down around a table for food. Food games are uniquely positioned to put people in their comfort zone and open up the board gaming hobby to a wider audience.

In Burger Up, the red and white checked wrappers on the bottom bun cards remind me of every great burger I’ve ever eaten at a diner or cafe. There’s just something satisfying about getting together at a burger place with friends or family. The server brings out your orders and everyone’s gotten something different. Some people start by picking up their bun and squirting ketchup on it. Other people put pickles on. Other people pick their onions off. You’re all eating and everyone says to everyone else, “How’s your burger? What did you get?” Burger Up is that satisfying feeling, packaged in a board game box.