For centuries people have cultivated and consumed chocolate with great appeal. Yet long before this sweet brown morsel is enjoyed by the masses, from kids to connoisseurs, it lives very different existence. Most of its life is spent under the protective shades of other tropical plants as part of the humble cocoa tree, growing as seeds within the sizable cacao fruit. It is this, the cacao, that is harvested and prepared so that we get may delicious cocoa.

We enjoy it now as a mere delicacy, but there was once a time when it was so beloved by some Mesoamerican cultures that the cacao was even used as currency, its worth considered as valuable as gold.

Hmmmm, edible currency. . .


The Premise

Deep in the tropical jungle, life revolves around the all-important Cacao plant, and a tribe’s success or failure rests in their ability to make the best use of their precious commodity. As local tribe chieftains, each player must harvest and sell their cacao for the best payouts to prove their clan is the most prosperous of the region.


The Rules

Starting Cacao tiles

Starting Cacao tiles

The race for valuable cocoa is on in Cacao, a light and straightforward tile-laying game for 2-4 players. Setup is quick, as the game consists mostly of Gold, Cacao tokens, and a stack of Jungle tiles. The initial board is constructed of just two starting Jungle tiles with one Plantation (which generates cacao fruit), and one 2-value Market (which lets the player sell the cacao) laid out diagonally to one another. Two additional tiles are then revealed next to the Jungle tile stack.

A Worker tile

A Worker tile

To begin, each player receives a village board, which contains a player’s water track in addition to housing their cacao. Players also receive 9-11 Worker tiles of their color, depending on the number of players, with each Worker tile depicting a varying number of worker icons on two or more sides. At the onset, each player’s water track begins on the first (-10) space and then draws three Worker tiles at random from their Worker tile stack. The oldest player starts the game.

Turns in Cacao are simple. First, the player selects one of the three Worker tiles and places it adjacent to any Jungle tile(s) on the board. For each worker icon touching a Jungle tile, the player will activate the Jungle space that many times. (For example, attaching a 2-worker side to a Market will allow the player to sell two cacao at the Market tile’s value.) Jungle tiles vary in abilities, including harvesting or selling cacao, collecting gold, or advancing the water carrier. Temple tiles do not activate, however. Instead, they award gold at the end of the game depending on who has the most workers touching them.

Next, for each empty Jungle space that borders two or more Worker tiles, the player adds one of the available face up Jungle tiles to the board. Workers of any player bordering this newly-placed tile will activate as well.

White places their Worker tile, activating the plantation tile once. Then since each adjacent space contain 2 Worker tiles, they add a Jungle tile to each.

White places their Worker tile, activating the plantation for one cacao. Then since each adjacent space contained two Worker tiles, they added a Jungle tile to each. Red has 0 workers for the market, however, and temples do not activate.

Finally, players resolve any tile activations they gained this turn, with multiple activations resolving in any order the player desires. New Jungle tiles are then revealed, the player draws a new Worker tile, and it becomes the next player’s turn.

At game's end, Purple collects 6 gold for having the most workers at this time. Red, at second, gets 3. White gets none.

Purple collects 6 gold for the most workers at this temple. Red, at second, gets 3.

Turns continue in this manner until everyone has played all of their Worker tiles. At that point, the game ends. Players tabulate their final score mostly by including gold on hand as well as any gold gained (or lost) due to Temples and progress on their village’s water track. The person with the most gold is the winner, having demonstrated to be the most adept at leading their tribe to prosperity. They may now relish the sweet taste of victory.

Everyone else should get back to work for fear of angering Ek Chuah, the god of chocolate. After all, those cacao aren’t going to just pick themselves.


50% Cocoa, 100% Cacao

Finding the right mixture of theme and functionality when designing a game can be daunting, even if done right. With tile-laying games, this is doubly true, especially if the theme isn’t directly about building something. Cacao is no exception. From a flavor standpoint, Cacao succeeds in one area while stumbling in another, giving it an overall mixed delivery.

Chocolate you say?

Chocolate you say?

On the one hand, Cacao conveys its cocoa-laden premise with little effort. Even if Cacao’s objective isn’t wholly original (in that it’s ostensibly a game about harvesting and capitalizing on a single crop), it does so with refreshingly unique theme. Unlike many other traditional farming resources, it’s all about maximizing cocoa here. The same can be said of the flavor of the game’s setting, which takes place in an (albeit loosely defined) pre-Columbian Central America.

This flavor is reinforced via its components. All of the game’s components have durable quality, which is ideal for a tile game, but Cacao also has the distinction of having an immaculately designed game tray within the box, with every component fitting perfectly in its place – including a highly flavorful cacao-shaped section for the cacao-shaped tokens. This admittedly doesn’t directly impact the game itself, but it definitely adds to Cacao’s overall caliber and helps reinforce the game’s theme.

At the other end of this visual presentation, however, is the tile art itself. For as much of an admirable job Cacao does with its box art and components, the actual tiles in the game are less than inspired. Cacao’s tiles are cleanly designed and functionally portray what each of them do, but the artwork on those tiles are generic, with flat – or even dull – graphics. This is the game’s one major detraction. However, it does come with a saving grace. That is, while the individual tiles are rather bland, as the game progresses along they collectively come together to create a pleasing checkerboard mosaic of colors and images.

Cacao art: more than the sum of its parts

Cacao art: more than the sum of its parts

As a result, though, Cacao may not hold the interest of Immersionists for long. Tile games are often a difficult sell for this group to begin with, and although Cacao uses its tiles to paint a nice thematic canvas, this game’s theme is only about as thick as the tiles themselves. For most, the game offers enough material to be interesting regardless, but this group will be be left wanting something a little richer.


A Savory Experience

cacao board 2Growing, harvesting, and processing cacao fruit may be a long and arduous process in the real world, but in Cacao the opposite is true. Since each turn consists solely of placing 1-3 tiles and resolving any applicable effects, the game moves along at a pretty brisk pace. This is bolstered by the fact that the game only has six different Jungle tiles to contend with, ensuring that turns are quick while still providing moderate decision-making options.

Cacao is undeniably a light tile game, but it still allows players to make important placement choices. When you add in the tactile appeal of laying tiles to build a lost jungle landscape, Cacao’s simplicity and brevity isn’t just fitting – it’s one of the game’s biggest strengths. The tradeoff to this expediency of gameplay, however, is that Cacao isn’t incredibly deep. The game capably avoids feeling like your turns are inconsequential or wasteful, but a complex game it is not.

Nor is the game high on player interaction. The game may use a central tile tableau that everyone contributes to, but it’s ultimately every tribe focusing on what’s best for themselves rather than competing tribes.

Turns out, Cacao may have been the fruit of the gods, but the traders in this game prefer metal currency.

Grow cacao, get rich. Got it.

Grow cacao, get rich. Got it.

For Architects, the combination of tile worldbuilding and amassing as much cocao and gold as possible free from worry about enemy interference will make it quite a sweet experience, even if it is on the shorter end of what they find ideal in a game. For Socializers, the game is surprisingly rewarding for almost the exact opposite reasons: even if there isn’t a ton of player interaction, Cacao’s quick turns, easy rules, and short play time ensures that the game is still very much in this group’s wheelhouse.


That said, Cacao’s style also means that there’s no way to overtly disrupt your opponents, much to the chagrin of Strikers. The random distribution of Jungle tiles and alternating pattern of placement makes it hard to monopolize tile usage, for example. However, Cacao surprisingly should still be interesting to this group, as the game rewards you for being direct and using tactical tile placement. This can range from blocking players from taking optimal spots, dropping one of your Worker tiles such that an opponent can’t get two Jungle tiles at once, or orientating your new Worker tile such that the tile’s activation won’t aid your opponent.


Shallow Waters

Underneath the canopy of light strategy, however, Cacao is more linear than it first appears. Because of this, Cacao isn’t likely to enthrall most Tacticians beyond a couple playthroughs, and Daredevils should satiate their sweet tooth elsewhere entirely. Though there are a handful of different paths to generate points, at its core Cacao is a mild economics game about buying and selling cocoa to amass the largest profit.

Choices, choices...

Choices, choices…

This linear behavior is most evident in the tiles themselves. Half of the Jungle tiles either generate cacao or are the markets where you can sell them, for instance, and mine tiles are effectively free gold. Similarly, Cacao has a few tiles that generate Sun tokens which can either be used near the end of the game to overlay one of your Worker tiles over an existing one or held on to for 1 gold. Yet Sun tokens are always much more valuable when used for their effect rather than holding on to.

Crops and your score both enjoy lots of water

Crops and your score both enjoy lots of water

The only real wrinkle the game throws at players is the water track. Unlike temples, which overtly advertise copious points for you to compete over, the water track’s impact on your chances of winning is more deceptive and can easily be overlooked.

Although only nine spaces, your water carrier’s endgame value carries a massive 26 point differential, ranging from -10 to +16 gold. This can make the game somewhat swingy and / or difficult to win if players don’t at least partially invest in water, but much like the rest of Cacao, even mild attention paid to it keeps you competitive.

Plus, the idea of being rewarded for watering your cacao trees and punishing you for neglecting them is an appealing-yet-subtle thematic bonus.

That all said, don’t mistake Cacao’s simplicity with watered down. With highly transparent rules and forthright decision-making, Cacao demonstrates itself to be an accessible and easy to learn tile game with a purpose – even if it’s a bit sparse on strategic diversity.


The Takeaway

It doesn’t take long in Cacao’s tile-laden wilderness to recognize that it is not a highly complicated affair. Yet the game doesn’t try to hide this. Nor should it – Cacao’s greatest attribute is its unembellished nature. Instead, what you get is a highly appetizing Gateway Game. Cacao is simple to learn but provides enough leeway to make valuable decisions on your turn, and the whole experience is over in about 45 minutes.

By keeping it short and sweet, Cacao makes for a highly accessible tile game. The game’s straightforward manner and low tile variety even adds to its replayability – so long as you don’t overindulge. Cacao holds to its central premise of collecting gold for your tribe decently enough, and though the artwork could be better, it ultimately doesn’t detract much from game either. For a lightweight tile game, Cacao is certainly one tasty treat worth cultivating.


Cacao is a product of Z-Man Games.

Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Artwork: 3
Rules Clarity: 4.5
Replay Value: 4
Physical Quality: 5
Overall Score: 4

Photo Credits: Willy Wonka by Warner Bros.