Review By: Mindy Basi
There is no lack of social games in the marketplace lately. Especially secret identity party games. Designer Ta-Te Wu from Sunrise Tornado Game Studio is throwing his hat in the ring with their game coming up on Kickstarter January 3, Kung Pao Chicken. It’s a crowded space right now, with many excellent games. Is there room for one more?
In Kung Pao Chicken, a filler game which plays up to five and takes about 15 minutes, players are either a chicken or a fox, and share a barnyard with hounds. The core mechanism is that a player does not know their own identity, but knows everyone else's, and must deduce which team they are on by observing which cards are played in front of them by other players. Points are scored by guessing if you are a fox or a chicken at the end of the round. More points are scored if players can save chickens from the foxes, who eat them. Foxes score if they catch the chickens. Hounds chase the foxes away, thus saving chickens from being a fox’s dinner.
The artwork is charming, if minimalist, and the components are of good quality. It comes in a small cloth bag so it’s easy to tote around. The name, although memorable, has little to do with the gameplay (Kung Pao Chicken is a Chinese dish, and there’s no cooking in this game – I assume the fox eats the chickens raw). For a family game, this one has violent undertones with all the eating going on in the barnyard, but only the most sensitive souls would probably object.
The “foxiest” person at the table is the first player, which my group found amusing. A round consists of players taking turns placing a small number of cards from hand (the number of cards you get depends on the player count), after a short draft exchange, into the barnyard of your own or another player’s barnyard, face down. Cards can also be discarded on a grassland card so they don’t go to any player but will still count in the final scoring.
After placing a card, you may (not must) turn over one face down card in a barnyard or the grassland to reveal what card it is, chicken, fox, or hound. Thus, at least in theory, you could determine what your identity might be from knowing whether other players are trying to help or hurt you. However, the option not to turn cards over makes this fairly difficult and it’s very hard to tell what is going on at your barnyard or any other location. You have no idea what team you are on, so placing cards on another player’s barnyard or the grassland for us was quite random as we tried to determine what team we thought should win.
Our group of three was left scratching our heads trying to figure out how a strategy might work in this game. It seemed to require a lot of thinking and card counting calculation, which was not what anyone expected in a light social deduction game.
The drafting aspect seemed yet another layer of “serious game play” that seemed to add nothing to the game but complexity, especially since it is a snake draft (change directions in alternate rounds).
Once everyone’s hand is empty, next players must guess what team they were on, chicken or fox, to score two points if you guess correctly. Then the stacks are resolved. If there is a fox and no hounds with chickens, the chickens are eaten, and the fox team scores. If there is a hound with foxes, each hound cancels out one fox, and the chickens live and score for the chicken team. Cards score on the grassland, as well.
In my preview copy, the game was missing the scoring card, so we had to improvise.
The game ends after three rounds, an appropriate length for a light filler.
Surprisingly, for a game that requires players to remember card play, hidden identities, and to think strategically, the game play has some silly aspects. At the beginning of the round, players are instructed to hold their identity cards on their foreheads to show other players (you cannot ever know your own identity, a core feature of the game). This feature was the inspiration for the rest of the game, according to notes from the designer. Even more silly fun is required at the stage when you guess what team you are on. The rules instruct that “ALL players close their eyes and strike a pose showing which animal they are. While holding the pose, have a player count to five. The ALL players open their eyes.”
My question here is, why. To add a little lightheartedness to a game that seems to favor a take-that kind of strategy? Why count to five while people are holding a pose that no one can see? Why build suspense at this stage of the game? You are guessing what your role is, not anyone else’s, as you know the teams of the other players. The designer note says, “you might want to figure out how to pose like a fox or a chicken before you start the game…or maybe not.” Striking a silly pose after every round may have appeal to players and add more fun to the game (it did not appeal our group, I am sorry to say, but we aren’t clowning around types so we might not be the audience for this filler game).
One of the biggest issues I had with the game is it played up to five. Five is not a party. For a social deduction game, with chicken poses and cards on the forehead, that’s just too few players. Other social deduction games play at least 6, if not more, making them good for a crowd or a family game night. It can’t be played with less than three, but not more than five, putting it in an awkward spot.
Unfortunately, the rulebook in the game is not well done. It has typographical errors (using “identify” not “identity”, for example). The rules, although in a large font and seemingly clear, were complicated. For a simple filler, there were a lot of instructions on randomization and steps to follow. It did appear from the rulebook that four was the sweet spot for the game, which gave everyone cards and left some in the grassland, which would randomize which cards were in play.
The juxtaposition of silliness and demand for aggressive strategic play in Kung Pao Chicken didn’t strike a positive note for our group. However, the game does have a unique element of players not knowing their own identities and having to guess given what cards are put in their barnyards. Some groups might enjoy striking poses and seeing what others come up with. The surprise of the reveal might have some charm. The take-that aspect of the team play might appeal to the competitive casual game crowd. It does have a family friendly theme, but the fact that the chickens are eaten by the foxes does make it a bit realistic for lighthearted fun for kids. Still, many social deduction games have violent adult or supernatural themes, so this game does fill a niche for a G-rated game. The field of hidden identity social deduction games is crowded, so the unique elements this one brings to the table may have to carry its appeal for the Kickstarter to succeed.
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