(Photo from Bezier Games)
The PLAYlist 03: New York Slice
Welcome to another installment of The PLAYlist, Under the Radar's column which pairs tabletop game reviews with tailored playlists. In this entry, cinema editor Austin Trunick takes a bite out of the competitive pizza collection game, New York Slice, from Bezier Games.
Board games are tactile objects. This is, perhaps, one of the prime reasons a lot of gamers love them. Like a deluxe, 180-gram, gatefold vinyl album, a board game is something you can touch, hold, admire, or gently pet as you whisper to it how beautiful it is. These purely facile experiences are something you can never get from MP3s or video games. These days, most game publishers are keenly aware that board games can be more than just playthings, but objets d’art, and over the last decade – that Golden Age people keep talking about – we’ve seen a sharp rise in the attention to detail they’ve paid to how their games look.
The quality of art design, throughout most of the industry, has gone through the ceiling, and it seems to only be getting better and better. A drab, printed world map over which to roll dice is no longer enough to satisfy people; many games now boast gorgeous artwork by top-notch illustrators. And while we’re picking on Risk, it's worth point out how the quality of plastic miniatures included in many games has risen to levels of near-absurdity. Even games that take a more abstract attitude towards component design often boast pieces made of wood, metal, resin, and other weighty materials that, for lack of a better term, just feel good as you’re picking them up and shuffling them around a table.
When done right, this appeals to more than just the design enthusiasts who derive pleasure from rubbing fancy game tokens between their fingers. Simply put, people are more likely to want to play a good-looking game. That sounds shallow, but it’s the truth. If a game looks appealing on the table, people will stop and watch a while. Perhaps they’ll even pull up a chair and ask you to deal them in. Attractive games are very good at drawing in new players.
In the case of the new game we’re focusing on this week – New York Slice, by designer Jeffrey D. Allers – it literally looks delicious. As in, edible. As in, you might want to eat the game. (Word of warning.) You’ll definitely want to play it.
It's not necessary to even open the game to admire how much the folks at Bezier Games have embraced New York Slice’s theme. Arriving in a thin box that’ll appear positively squat on your game shelf, it’s clearly modeled after the familiar, white cardboard pizza delivery box. It even opens like one, hinged along one edge. Inside you’ll find a mess of thick, cardboard pizza slices in different varieties, with realistic artwork. The instruction leaflet itself is styled like an ubiquitous pizza takeout menu, and the score sheets look like one of those check pads a waiter scribbles out your order on. The sense of theme they’ve brought through these details is out of this world, particularly for a simple game with as few unnecessary frills as New York Slice. It’s absolutely delightful, and the look alone will be enough to get you game-averse friends to the table. Who doesn’t like pizza?
But, does it taste as good as it looks? Er, play as well as it tastes? Er, you know what I’m getting at.
Setup is pretty straight-forward. The cardboard pizza slices are shuffled then stacked, face-down, in piles eleven high. (There’s some fiddly additional setup for two- or five-player games, but it’s not a huge deal.) Each player takes turns being “The Slicer,” which would sound like an ‘80s horror movie boogeyman if we weren’t discussing a pizza-themed game. He or she picks up one of those stacks of eleven cards and lays them out so that it forms a full, circular pie. They also flip over a Daily Special card – these look like chalkboard menus, another nice touch – which describes a unique action a player can take, or a new way to score points. At that point, the slicer looks at the pie in front of them, and then divides it into parts equal to the number of players. Going clockwise, each player picks one of these sections. After the slicer takes the last portion, each person decides which slices they’d like to collect – adding them their own, personal pan pizza – or eat. (Flipping them over, to be scored later.)
That’s literally all there is to the gameplay itself. It’s fast and easy, and all of the nuance comes from the scoring system. New York Slice features eleven varieties of pizza, differentiated by their toppings and, more importantly, their number. At the end of a game, the player who’s collected the most of a given pizza type – meat lovers, sausage, veggie, etc. – scores its assigned point value. Next up you’ll score the bonus points from any daily specials that players have collected. These offer bonuses for things like collecting different types of slices, or combo slices. Finally, players tally scores for the ones they’ve eaten: you gain a point for every piece of pepperoni shown, and lose one for every anchovy. (Sorry, anchovy fans, you weirdos.) The player with the most points, of course, wins.
Each round asks all players to make interesting choices. The biggest one goes to the slicer, in how they choose to cut up their pie. You’ll want to divide the point values up pretty evenly so that you’re not handing any of your opponents a big advantage. Knowing that you’ll get the piece that no one else wants, you'll want to make sure you’re not stuck with something that's no use to you. Is there a particular piece you just need, though? Perhaps you’ll divide things so that some portions are obviously better than others – so that your opponents will take them, leaving you with a slice that could score you more points later. But, doing so may wind up backfiring if an opponent sees through your strategy.
The players drafting those portions typically have tough choices to make, too. Do you go for certain varieties of pizza in the hopes of scoring the whole set at the end? Or, do you just take the section with the most pepperoni, securing yourself smaller – but guaranteed – point totals? Or do you grab the section with the daily special card, and re-tool your strategy to go for bonus points? There’s a lot to think about in each round, but it’s not overwhelming by any means. This makes for a great family game, since its relatively low complexity and pizza-building theme makes it appealing to young people. (Like I said, who doesn’t like pizza?)
Like that old Dominos slogan, a full game of New York Slice will play out in 30 minutes or less. That’s because you always play the same number of rounds, regardless of how many people are sitting at the table. It feels breezy, and the downtime experienced is almost nonexistent. It’s something that’ll encourage multiple plays in a row.
New York Slice plays two to six players, but it does seem to work best towards the middle of that range. Try thinking of it in terms of how many people you’d want to share a real pizza with. Divided only two ways and you’ll both be overwhelmed with options; there’s no way you’ll be able to savor everything the pizza has to offer. (When it’s all said and done, scores will feel bloated and less rewarding.) Cut up six ways, though, and there’s hardly enough pizza to go around. Few players will be able to fully keep track of what their other five opponents are doing, and wins may feel a little more random and less earned. In between, though, especially at three and four players, the balance feels perfect. Don’t get me wrong – the game functions at any player count, it just plays better at some than others.
We wholeheartedly recommend New York Slice, especially for gamers with families. The theme is incredibly well-integrated throughout, it’s easy to teach and pick up, and the game moves fast enough that it never overstays its welcome. It’s great, too, that the game retails for under $30, making it a great value for its size and the quality of its components.
Now, on to the music.
Summers in New York City are hot. The streets and tunnels are crowded, the pavement cooks you, and the heat brings out funky smells that you won’t get out of your nostrils until mid-October. All of these factors come together in a way that can make the months of June, July, and August just plain brutal for the people who live in the five boroughs. (I say this with the utmost respect, as someone who's lived here and loved it going on fourteen years.)
I can hear some of you Southern readers right now. You’re saying, “It’s 105 degrees in December here in Phoenix, you wuss.” Yeah, I know, you’re used to warm weather, Mr. Hot Stuff, but you don’t understand NYC heat. This city is built from endless layers of pavement, steel, and glass. It’s like they specifically designed our buildings and streets to trap the heat. It’s no better when underground, either, where you think we’d be safe from the blazing sun. The subways are even hotter. Our infrastructure was mostly built back around 1900, when no one gave a crap about air flow because literally anything was cooler than the factories we were sending our eight-year-olds to work in for twelve hours a day. It doesn’t help that the train cars get so packed that you can’t get home from work without mixing at least seven strangers’ back sweat with your own.
New York City is a heck of a town – a concrete jungle where dreams are made of, if you will – but it’s also a place where every cement surface has multiple generations’ worth of urine scent permanently baked in. The summer brings out the city’s smells in the worst way. Everything stinks. Everyone is hot. Everyone is miserable, but if there’s anything that inspires a feeling of community among New Yorkers, it’s one another’s misery. The sense of camaraderie that comes out in the hottest dog days of summer almost makes up for the perma-smell of trash and body odor.
If anything captures the feel of a New York City heat wave, it’s Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing. Watch that movie and every bead of sweat that runs down a characters’ forehead will feel like your own.
When I moved into my current apartment, it came with an ancient window air conditioning unit which looked like one of those Cold War-era computers you’d see in the background of Dr. Strangelove. Despite being the size and weight of a 1970s refrigerator, it only managed to cool roughly a three foot area point blank in front of it. On hot nights, we’d drag the futon in front of it; it was the very definition of good-enough but-not-great. (Sleeping wasn’t helped by the thing running about as loud as a tractor engine.) It got us through our first summer. Not comfortably, but not melted, either.
The next few summers, however, just happened to be several of the hottest on record. (From mid-July ‘til early August of 2010, New York saw 18 straight days where temperatures hovered above and around the century mark – that was enough to transform any old apartment building into a convection oven.) We thought we’d make it through another summer with the old machine, but in the midst of a particularly hot stretch of days – and a night spent watching our cat sprawled on the floor, panting from the heat, feeling as gross as we did – we finally caved. At six AM and the temperature already near 90 degrees, we pulled out our laundry cart and trekked across Queens to the only electronics store open that early and not out of stock of AC units.
Great story, right? The thing I’m trying to get to is what got me through the hottest days. No matter how hot, sweaty and disgusting I felt, there were always some poor bastards out there I knew had it worse: namely, the guys working in hot kitchens, slaving away in front of pizza ovens at New York’s bazillion slice shops. It’s uncomfortable just to walk into a pizzeria during July and August, and so my heart always goes out to those old guys who are always posted behind the counters.
The column’s playlist features hot-weather tracks from some classic NY albums. There’s a lot of old school hip hop featured here – we’ll blame Do The Right Thing, which New York Slice repeatedly brought to mind – but also some tracks by quintessential New York bands like Sonic Youth, Television, and Blondie. Give it a spin, won’t you? The hour-long playlist is enough to play two games without needing to start it over again.
Thanks for checking out The PLAYlist, and please come back soon for another tasty boardgame and music pairing.
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