|Name||Mint Delivery (2018)|
|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||2920 [6.30]|
|Player Count (recommended)||1-5 (2-5)|
|Artist(s)||Felix Janson and Thomas Tamblyn|
Given that I have already reviewed Mint Works and concluded ‘not for me’, it might seem like an act of masochism to take a look at Mint Delivery. They came as part of a single Kickstarter reward though and I’d always intended to eventually get to it. I intend to eventually get to every game I own although that goal seems further away every week. Having made an international move over the past month, along with a trip back to Scotland for Christmas, I’ve been in the market for small games I can play and review quickly. Mint Delivery, thankfully, excelled in that capacity.
And, alas, in few others.
There is a common theme here in how I feel about Mint Works and Mint Delivery, and it’s ‘they’re unfinished games’. By that I don’t mean that they end in the middle or that they have gaping holes in the design. It’s just that they feel like proof of concept experiments that never really got the fleshing out they needed to become actually fun. They’re interesting contrarian case studies in what it means to actually make a game.
There’s definitely a game here in this tin. A game that is complete. You can play it from start to end and all points in-between. You take possession of a truck that can be loaded up with mints. You take those mints to the towns indicated on your contracts. You dump the correct payload in exchange for points, collect new contracts, and then head off to warehouses to collect new mints or convert simple white mints into other more exotic flavours. The map of the game represents a kind of stripped down version of Century: Spice Road, with the destinations of your cargo spread across a 3×3 grid of locations, with fixed roads between them. It’s your job to make all of this work efficiently enough to outscore your opponents.
This is a strong start, but it’s also pretty much the photo finish. The base game has nothing else in it to distract you. The core idea never becomes more than core, and it’s here that Mint Delivery feels more like a sketch of a game. Or perhaps the kind of stripped down mini-game you’d find in a sprawling computer role playing game. Even in that it suffers in the comparison. After all, the Witcher series introduced Gwent to the world.
These are strong words, so ;et’s explain with an example. Everyone starts off in Mintopia City with a truck load of mints and a number of contracts. Say, for example, to drop four mints off at Spearmint Springs.
You get two actions per turn, and they can be any of ‘move your truck’; ‘convert mints at your current location’;‘collect a contract’; or ‘pick up mints at your current location’. Completing a contract is a free action. So, what do you, Truck Driver #24 – even that makes it sound like you’re a placeholder – do with your two actions?
Nah, don’t bother thinking about it. You don’t have any choices really. You’ve got a full truck of mints and a contract, so you drive to North Warehouse (colourful name) and then to Spearmint Springs to deliver your shipment. If you’re feeling rebellious, maybe you’ll go via West Warehouse (pretty evocative) instead.
What’s the difference between those two routes? Literally nothing. North and west warehouse both offer exactly the same journey time, leave you in the exactly same place, and offer exactly the same opportunities for collecting and converting mints. There is never any heft to a decision you make in Mint Works because the design so aggressively railroads you that it’s patently ridiculous you’re not driving a train.
Let’s come back to this idea of a game being ‘finished’. What do we mean by that? Mainly, for me, I mean that a finished game is feature complete, at least in a minimally viable product kind of way. No missing rules, all components available, and ideally content complete. At least to the extent the game permits you to play it several times without exhausting all it has to offer. Mint Delivery gives you that because it comes with a few variations you can employ to eke a little more novelty out of the tin. I’ll talk about those in a little bit.
But ‘finished’ isn’t a great benchmark for which to aim. It’s too technical. Too austere. When a game is finished, that’s when the real work begins… that of refinement.
I’ve long believed that the thing that drives the quality of a game is the intensity of the decisions you make within the magic circle of its playtime. Primarily the quality of those decisions. Consider a game that offers deep decision making. The more agonising each decisions is and the more consequential its outcomes… the higher the chance I’ll like it. An alternate option is the breadth of those decisions. The more options you have, and the harder they are to minimax, and the greater scope you have for agency… the higher the chance I’ll like it. Refinement here is the process of continually folding a game design in on itself until it until it offers you a density of decision-making conundrums that could tear you apart in its gravitational pull. Refinement is the process that takes your pig-iron and lets you gradually turn it into a katana.
Look at Scrabble, one of our few five-star rated games. There are few decisions you need to make but each one is brutally impactful. Every move is like being gut-punched by a violent drunk in a dingy alleyway. Where you put the A and where you put the X can determine the entire course of the game. Two equally matched Scrabble opponents, if they’re both interacting with the game properly, aren’t playing. They’re duelling. You can see a similar dynamic in Hanamikoji where you only take a handful of decisions and they’re going to be more psychologically harmful than any other in your life.
On the other hand, Chinatown gives you free rein to make as many decisions as you like, but does that in an environment so socially febrile that it can generate fission. So many deals happening at the same time, with so many ways available to throw an economic hand-grenade into the growing confusion of the ever-shifting board. None of those decisions need to be especially intense on their own, but you’ll make a hundred micro-judgements during every round and your ability to navigate that roiling sea of consequence is what demonstrates your ability to play.
But you know… all of these games could have been so much worse despite being technically the same games had they not gone through a sufficient process of refinement. If the development had finished when the game was complete . Scrabble works because of the immaculate balance between letters and board bonus distribution. Change those bonuses and you end up with a worse game. You end up with Words With Friends which is… fine. Change the way balance of power works in Hanamikoji and a lot of those decisions would become much easier to calculate and live with. If Chinatown didn’t let you trade anything or ascribed a permanence of some kind to ownership, the sheer vitality of play would be virtually nothing.
That didn’t happen though, because someone sat down and refined the bejeesus out of the games and turned ‘functionally complete’ into ‘gaming magic’. There’s an alchemy in the process because it doesn’t necessarily need more to be added. It just needs the blend of ingredients to be right. Changing the position of a bonus tile in Scrabble could be what moves it from a nine out of ten game to the full ten. Adding in extra made-up letters or variable player powers… probably not.
When I teach aspects of game design at work, I often talk about how we judge qualitative experiences in a different way. I always ask students to evaluate their design in some manner, and often (because for a long time I’ve been working with software engineers) I’ll get a set of quantitive testing documentation sent my way. Black box and white box testing. Functional correctness. But what I’m looking for is evidence of a deeper kind of evaluation. The kind where you spend ten hours testing a game and all you do at the end is change a five into a six in an unseen algorithm lurking somewhere in the bowels of the code.
Wow, it’s been a while since I mentioned Mint Delivery, eh? So let’s get back on topic.
Mint Delivery feels to me like a game that got evaluated in a spreadsheet and never really on the table. It feels like a guitar that is in tune with itself, but not with the actual dynamics of human emotion. It feels like a game that delivers black box testing when it should have sat down with someone over a few cups of tea.
Those are airy statements, so let’s drill down into two main areas where I really felt that.
The first is in the map. Not just the ‘designed by the dullest committee imaginable’ names, but the way its spatiality is… boring. It’s a perfectly symmetrical map which is, in its defence, immaculately balanced. Nobody is at an advantage over anyone else because all the points of interest are distributed evenly. If I’m at Spearmint Springs and you’re at Freshness Falls we’re both equally able to get to a warehouse, and to Mintopia City, without anything as harrowing as a consequence heading our way. One of the ways in which the designers have attempted to add some freshness is through the use of a game variation where you can add in road blocks, obstacles, and other elements. It just isn’t enough though because in a 3×3 map you just don’t get anything fun emerging. Sure, I can’t get to South Warehouse because it’s blocked. Oh no. I guess I’ll go to West Warehouse which is so eerily similar it’s like God copy and pasted it into the landscape. How has that interfered with my journey to Peppermint Pines? Not at all.
Conversely in real life, have you ever taken a wrong turn in an unfamiliar city when your satnav isn’t working? You can say many things about that experience but it’s rarely boring.
Refinement here would have taken a map that works, technically, and invested some life into it. One way routes. Detours. Diversions. Critical asymmetry that would have meant that you had to make a decision and live with it at some point. Or perhaps it would have changed the mechanics of movement entirely. Once you’ve loaded up at a warehouse, it’s closed until someone loads up at another. You know, the kind of stuff that Century: Eastern Wonders did even though it didn’t need to add any additional asymmetry into the already fascinating emergent patterns of opportunity. Mint Delivery desperately needs that which other games give in such abundance.
The second area where you really feel this is in the blandness of the warehouses. They let you collect two mints,. Or trade two white mints for a green mint. Why do they all do that? Why not have each with a different formula it lets you enact so that you can think about whether you should go to South Warehouse then load up twice, or take the trickier route (since an easier route has been closed off) to Warehouse East where it takes longer but you get to do what you specifically need more efficiently. Why not? Why not inject at least some reason to think about what’s going on?
Some effort has been made to add variation into the game through the special powers that become available in the second variation, but once again the symmetry in the design is so slavishly obeyed that it’s almost fetishistic. You may get random abilities dealt into the game each time (cool), but every single one can be achieved by every single player (not cool).
So much effort has been spent here on making sure the game is fair that it never got the necessary refinement that made sure it was worth playing.
I like the basic bones of Mint Delivery. Mint Works felt like ‘Baby’s First Worker Placement Game’. Kind of like the tutorial level of a video game. Mint Delivery feels more substantial than that but it still feels like a game that is missing all the things that makes a game worth your time to check out. A mint tin game it may be, but that doesn’t mean you can get away without packing enough fun in the box.