I’ve never roasted coffee. I do enjoy a good cup of coffee, and we’re lucky to have some very well regarded roasters in Dublin, like 3fe, Roasted Brown and Coffee Angel. Given my lack of coffee roasting experience, what follows is a wholly groundless assertion: it’s an art. Sure, you can measure the roasting time, the temperature, but I bet it’s never 100% exactly right every time. Neither is a game of Coffee Roaster, a solo game from Japan. Sure, you can math out some bits, try to count and make sure you’re as close as possible, but things don’t always go as expected, and you end up with a horrible cup of coffee from an over-roasted bean.
Roasting coffee is a tricky business. You see, each coffee bean variety, of which there are 22 in this game, ranging from the relatively easy to roast Jamacia Blue Mountain No. 1 to the very difficult to roast Ethopia Yirgacheffe Washed, have a number of attributes, represented by tokens which you drop into a bag. The majority of the tokens represent the unroasted beans, printed with a 0. Other represent the aroma, acidity and bitterness of the bean, the flavour profile. Of course, not all beans are good enough to be roasted, so sometimes you might end up with a bad bean or a hard bean in your bag, adding to the challenge.
Draw out the flavour
Each turn you roast your beans, with a number between 1 and 4 representing how well roasted they are. A bean that is roasted beyond level 4 become burnt and is not something you want to deal with. At the end of the game you will draw beans from the bag, hoping that their roasted levels add up to that particular beans target number, usually somewhere between 12 and 18. Depending on the turn, you draw a number of tokens from your bag. You’ll be praying for certain combinations of tokens to come out, as what you draw determines what you can do on your turn. Flavour tokens let you combine, divide or preserve beans from round to round. Moisture tokens are discarded immediately, slowing down the roasting process. Nothing can be done about bad beans or previously burnt beans, unless you’re willing to sacrifice a flavour token in order to discard them. Most rounds, the regular beans that are drawn out increase in roast level by one. However, there are two rounds in the game when you increase the roast of any drawn bean by two, rather than the standard one, and this generates nasty smoke tokens. At the end of the turn, you add any new tokens (like smoke tokens) and the freshly roasted beans back into the bag.
This is where the artistry comes in, or at least it does for me. There’s no fixed end point to this game, where you see if you succeeded or failed. There’s a track that lets you record the total level of all roasted beans in the bag. But if this track shows a 16, you don’t know if that’s eight beans at roast level 2 each, or 4 beans at level 4 each with 4 at level 0. Of course it’s usually somewhere in the middle. You can look to see how many flavour tokens you’ve removed from the bag, or how many bonus abilities you’ve managed to unlock, but you’re never quite sure when to pull the trigger and score. I’ve had games where I’ve been confident of making a great cup of coffee, only to fail as there was a bean in the bag that was somehow wholly unroasted. I’ve also had games where I’ve taken a gamble, and lo and behold, I was almost exactly where I needed to be.
Making the cup of coffee involves one final draw: you have a tasting tray of ten slots where you draw out tokens from your bag, with an additional side tray of three slots for crap you don’t want to put in the cup. Each different bean has a target number you want to reach for the best cup of coffee, including certain flavour profiles. Each time you draw a token you have to make a tough decision, make a judgement call with imperfect information. Do you include this overly-roasted bean in the cup, and risk overshooting your target number, or do you put it in the side tray, taking up one of your valuable slots? How many smoke counters are left in the bag, and how about those bad beans? Are they still in there? What if I draw them next, can I dump them into my side tray if I put this over-roasted bean in there?
Ultimately, these are all decisions you have to intuit and judge from. I think some people can probably ‘solve’ this game if they have an excellent memory, remembering exactly what’s in the bag. Hell, the addition of a pen and paper would probably kill all the fun of the game as you record exactly what you do and what’s left. But I’m neither of these kinds of players, and to me the uncertainty of the game, of playing it based on heuristics and my gut feeling results in a pretty engaging puzzle.
I’d also like to say that this game’s component quality is incredible. The cardboard pieces are thick and durable, the box has a fantastic insert which makes set up and teardown a breeze, something I really want in a solo game. Emmet doesn’t like the art, in fact he finds it unpleasant, but it doesn’t bother me. As I mentioned previously, there are twenty two varieties of bean in the game, and considering a full game is three beans, there’s plenty of variety in the game.
The Nescafe moment
Before I finish, I need to say something about Coffee Roaster. First, it’s hard to get. It’s a Japanese game, which has also had a Chinese edition printed. The Japanese publisher is sold out and doesn’t ship internationally at the moment, and despite being available on the BoardGameGeek Store for a while, it’s now hard to get. This means it’s also expensive. I paid €42 to buy the game from the publisher, before having it shipped to Ireland. I’m not sure I would recommend this game at this price point considering Friday and Hostage Negotiator are also very good games at considerably lower price points.
The game is also about trying to beat a high score and achieve a certain rank. A score of 19 or under makes you an Apprentice Roaster, whereas 60+ makes you a Meister! It’s up to you to track your scores across games, and ultimately you’re just trying to beat your highest score from previous games. I’m not sure this is the most compelling of scoring systems. With Friday, you’re trying to help Robinson Crusoe escape the desert island, and you’re weaving a little narrative. With Hostage Negotiator, you’re saving people from a maniac, again, weaving a little narrative you can engage with through the card flavour text. Trying to beat a high score? I’m not convinced it’s as engaging as these mini-stories we can weave as we play. Is there a way to thematically make a more engaging end game? Seeing as you play a roaster, not necessarily a cafe, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps there’s a way to have different coffee shops want to buy different beans, with a short story for each shop and a narrative about their customers. Seeing as you’re roasting three beans per game, you could sell each bean to a different cafe. The end result might be the same (a score), but I think adding that little bit of narrative could make a difference.
This one feels easy, what better to match with a coffee game than a coffee stout? I’ll admit to these being some of my favourite types of beers, so I’m going to enjoy this. There are plenty of coffee porters on the market. Some Irish ones in particular I’d like to highlight include Farami, which is a collaboration between Whiplash, Otterbank and Irish coffee roaster 3fe. I’d also like to draw attention to the limited release Joe Porter from O’Brother Breweing, which is another stellar offering.
If you’re looking for something a bit more widely available, Marks & Spencer offer a Flat White Porter in their beer section. I hesitate to include this, as I’m not sure it counts as craft beer, but damn, it is tasty!
Thanks for reading. Have you played Coffee Roaster? Or does the difficulty in getting a copy put you off? Let us know in the comments below, or on any of our social media channels: Twitter, Facebook or Instagram!