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The meal deal? – Tiffin Review

As far as advertising pitches go Tiffin hardly comes with the snappiest of lines. According to the cover of the rule book it is “The Mumbai Lunch Delivery Game”, so if you have always hankered after such a game then you probably need read no further – instead just get to the nearest retailer. For the rest of us Rio Grande’s new release might well need a little more of an introduction, but in either case it is clear that this is an unusual theme, and one taken on with care and attention by Tiffin’s two designers, Rael Cornfest and Jonathan Hager. For two to four players and claiming to have a play time of around forty minutes, Tiffin seems to be aimed at gamers seeking something with relatively light and easy play, but with some meaningful desisions.

Suitable for the richer palette?  Colour me interested!

Tiffin Board Game

Rich and colourful from the outside…

The box is Carcassonnesized, and boasts an unusual palette, rich reds, yellows and greens marking it out as something different on the shelf, the title of the game picked out in autumnal yellow against the background. I am really taken with this, even though it is possibly just a little too dark and dusky, and the intriguing choice of colours continues inside the box. The player cubes avoid the near-ubiquitous yellow/green/red/blue and instead go for what I would term yellow/rich pink/dark blue/brown. There is also a fifth set of cubes for the “competitor” in bare wood, which stand out well, and the saturated colours continue across the various boards and cards that are used in the game. It is a bold choice, not without some problems, but summons up a hot and dusty atmosphere bathed in rich sunlight, at least for me. It is also different, and kudos to the designers for giving it a go.

The cubes themselves are small, too small if I am honest, and all too easy to knock with a careless elbow during a game, which is a shame. I would have preferred a slightly more substantial choice of cube here, but the cards in Tiffin are of a decent size and quality, and the boards are impressively thick. Compare these to the player boards in The Castles Of Burgundy, which practically define the word “flimsy”, and they are half a world away, or maybe a quarter (Burgundy to Mumbai). They are thick and solid and while you could bend or break them it is going to be difficult to do so by accident. You get ten double-sided route cards, a small competitor track and a score track in this thick card, and only the last of these is a disappointment. For some reason beyond my understanding, the scoring track begins in the top left of the board and moves gradually downwards, but in alternate directions, the first line running left to right, the second right to left and so on. I tell myself that this is laid out a little like a cycle route and is therefore just about thematic (I’m being charitable here!), but it is a real pain during play, and frustratingly counterintuitive too. It slots in right next to the score board in Seasons in terms of “score boards I love to hate” (yes, I have a list!). Come to think of it, the cubes in Seasons are too small as well…

Fifty shades of grey?  Not a black and white issue!

While on the subject of pointing out wonky design choices, Tiffin has some cards with black text on a grey background, and these are very difficult to read. The wild delivery cards, flat tyre and shortcut cards all commit this sin, but the strangest decision is that the player reference cards also have this odd colour combination which makes them very difficult to read at the wrong angle or in the wrong light. Given that these cards are going to be used intently, especially through early games, this seems like a real blunder. The tiffin tracking cards have white text on a grey background which, while not ideal, is still a far better choice, and it would have made much more sense to have continued this on the other grey cards.

Tiffin Board Game

This picture makes the grey on black look much better than it really is.

Setting up Tiffin for play is pretty easy – players take their cubes, one of which will be used for scoring, three route cards are laid out at random, the tiffin tracking cards and the competitor card are set up and six delivery cards are dealt face-up to form the draft pool. Each player gets four cards, a flat tyre card and a shortcut card, and that is pretty much it. Once you are ready to get up and running, sorry, cycling, the game consists of players taking turns to choose one of the following actions:

  • Place a tiffin
  • Draft two cards
  • Play a card

Placing a tiffin is simply done, but must be on an unstarted route, and this will be worth a delivery fee (what you and I would call “victory points”) when the route is complete.

How to play?  It’s getting drafty in here!

Drafting two cards is also very straightforward, and may be done from the face up cards in the draft pool or from the draft deck (or any combination of these). Two 1-value cards count as a single card for this purpose, and the maximum hand size after taking this action is seven. Also, if the draft pool ever contains four cards of the same colour (excluding wild cards) the entire pool is discarded and refilled. So far, so Ticket To Ride.

Tiffin Board Game

Play cards, use the abilities.

The “play a card” action is used to add cubes to an active route, and the card played must match the colour of the route, although grey (grey, why?) cards are wild. This section of the game has some wrinkles, as any two cards of the same value may be used as a single wild card of the same value, and the cards also have special extra effects. It takes a few turns to get up to speed with these details, but by the middle of your first game you should be ticking along nicely. 4-value cards may be used as wild 2s, for example, while a 3-value card allows you to place a tiffin on the route before then immediately adding cubes to it.

Get off my route!  There’s always competition…

Many of these cards also have the competitor icon, which, when they are played, moves the cube on the competitor card one space to the right. When the cube reaches the space indicating the number of players in the game the competitor gets to take a go, drawing two cards from the deck and placing cubes as appropriate. While he stops short of playing havoc with players’ plans, it adds enough unpredictability to the game to keep things interesting, and is a decent touch. It also offers the tantalising possibility of a decent solo variant for the game, even if the official player count does not include a one-player option.

Tiffin Board Game

The competitor is always a factor when the icon is below a played card’s number.

Each player also has one shortcut card and one flat tyre card, which may be used once in the game. The shortcut shortens a selected route by two spaces, offering the possibility of closing out a route early, while the flat tyre card does the opposite. Played at the right time these can tip the majority of a route in your favour and earn you some extra points.

Get the lunches delivered!  That’s the point!

Once a route card is full of cubes it is scored. Players receive points for having the majority of cubes on a route, and onwards into second and third places, routes with more tiffins being more valuable. Added to this are points for the tiffins themselves, as detailed on the current tiffin tracking card. Take a deep breath before working out where the various cubes now need to be moved on the scoring track, add a new route to the selection, rinse and repeat. The game ends as soon as a scored route card cannot be replaced, at which point the competitor fills any open spaces on the remaining two cards and they are also scored.

Tiffin Board Game

Up a bit, left a bit, down a bit, right a bit – scoring with this track is a real headache.

In many ways the game play of Tiffin reminds me of Ticket To Ride, in that players play cards to claim spots on routes, except that here the routes are abstracted and open to competition. There is a decent amount to think about and once players are conversant with the wild card rules and the card powers Tiffin ticks along at a fairly decent pace. It can take a few goes to get to grips with some of these, but they pose no great problem.

Timing and balance?  Time for a balanced lunch!

Playing Tiffin well is an exercise in timing and balance. Once a route has been started competitors cannot place any more tiffins, so ensuring that the delivery begins when you are in an advantageous position is very important. It also makes the 3-value cards, which enable you to place a tiffin and start a route in the same action, very valuable. The competitor is also a nice touch, adding a layer of unpredictability that means players have to deal with unexpected events (small though they be) rather than just fighting it out amongst themselves, and the two single-use cards (flat tyre and shortcut) can certainly make a difference when played at the right time.

Tiffin Board Game

With tiffin loaded the route is active and heading towards completion.

As far as player count goes, my impression is that Tiffin definitely plays best with three. With two players it is just not tight enough to present an enthralling challenge, even with the competitor, while with four it drags out just a smidgeon too long for the experience it provides. With three, though, it hits a sweet spot and purrs along pretty well. I must admit that I also played a solo game against the competitor, admittedly just to see how it might feel, and although I made up some rules as I went along, there is probably a decent solo variant in there somewhere waiting to be refined, just not by me.

Gourmet meal or fast food?  How does it taste?

This game is clearly a labour of love, a worthy attempt to deal with a unique theme, and I like it more than I suspected I would, but I would not go so far as to say that I love it. It plays well and quickly and, while a little rough in some areas, is usually over quickly enough not to feel as if it is dragging. The component quality is high, and the design, while not the deepest, ticks along pleasantly enough for players to while away forty minutes or so. The downside is that Tiffin does not offer much below the surface, and the abstracted nature of the cyclists’ journeys (small cubes on cards) is never really going to appeal to gamers as much as trains on a map.

Tiffin Board Game

Credit to the designers for doing something different with colour.

However, if the theme appeals or if you are just curious then Tiffin is worth a look and probably worth a few plays. I doubt very much that it will see off something as established and timeless like Ticket To Ride from a gamer’s collection, but for a bold attempt to do something new and interesting, and also for using some new colours, it deserves some credit. I have had trouble deciding whether to give Tiffin a 7 or a 6. On balance, though, while it provided some fun, it is not a game that has worked its way into my consciousness, demanding to be placed back onto the table, and despite the double-sided route cards it lacks that deep variability over multiple plays that guarantees something different every time – in other words, it is a lunchtime snack rather than a meal. As a result I give Tiffin a 6 out of 10.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.