|Mint Works (2017)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.72]
The thing that I like about mint-tin games is that they tend to pack a lot of ambition into those tiny containers. As gimmicky as the whole concept is, I’ve been impressed over the years by a number of the titles that have sought to miniaturize complex components into more digestible form factors. When the average board game box is so full of sterile air that it could serve in the UK parliament, games like these are as refreshing as the mints they rarely contain. Mint Works is a good example of the form in both name and inclination.
It starts off well – the tin is pleasingly full but not so full that you end up cursing the components. The affectation of big games in tiny tins is pleasingly whimsical but I often find they sacrifice basic usability of storage in search of ever more extremist ratios of content to container. We did a preview of Microbrew as part of our Scotlight programme last year but I haven’t opened it since because I dread the frustration that goes along with closing it afterwards. Mint Works gives you a larger tin, fewer components, and a correspondingly less infuriating experience of clean-up. It’s a lesson more games in this vein should take to heart. There are implications for the user experience that come with taking this all too far.
That’s it for the tin. Unfortunately, that also means we’re done with the best part about this whole package.
Within Mint Works we are… well, I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing. It seems in all the push towards compactness someone thought putting a framing device into the tin might be over indulgent. For whatever reason we’re spending mints to buy buildings, each of which comes with a yield of victory points and other special abilities. To accomplish the goal of having the best neighbourhood we spend our scant supply of little white coins on a set of opportunities laid out before us. Some of these opportunities can be used only once, others more often depending on player count. We spend the right number of mints, take our action, and then reap the associated reward.
At the start of each round, three ‘plans’ are dealt out from the central deck. You’ll need to purchase these with a visit to the supplier, and then build them with a trip to the builder. Once you’ve accomplished this one-two punch of landscape architecture you add the building to your neighbourhood and reap its point value. Some buildings will be locked until someone buys and builds its accompanying plan, at which point they get a bonus every time the building is used. First to seven points wins the game.
If that sounds like an abrupt overview, it’s because Mint Works is an abrupt game. I’d go so far as to say ‘Whiplash inducing’. There’s a certain minimum stopping distance for games, just like cars, and you’ll find it being aggressively violated here in the manner of a vehicle on a busy motorway in icy conditions. You place your foot down on the accelerator and before you’ve built up a head of steam the whole thing starts screeching from the emergency stop you had to make. Mint Works doesn’t so much end before you’re ready but rather end before you’ve really actually begun. Games that focus on building up an effective set of complementary and interlocking cards need to end well. They should reach their termination just a touch after you get your engine spun up and touch before it becomes too effective to be interesting. In Mint Works it feels like it ends considerably before you even put the thing together.
Here’s the problem. Every turn you get a mint token, and all the good stuff costs three, four or five mint tokens to buy. Every token you get has to otherwise come from buildings or plans. As an example of this there’s a producer action that gives you two mints back for the one you spend to activate it. If someone has built the wholesaler then you can do the same thing there at the cost of the owner getting a free token. Mints are slow to build up and they’re spent very quickly. It takes a few goes around the table before anyone can afford anything. Once people start building things the game rapidly picks up speed and momentum in the manner of an avalanche bearing down on your fun.
Consider the factory that you can see in the image above – four mint tokens to buy, and it’s another two to build. There’s a special plan that, if you own it, will skip the building phase but that’s still a lot of freshness to buy a stinky building. The thing is, it’s also worth three points and gets you a mint token every turn. The gardens cost three tokens and also get you three points. Seven points and you win the game, which means the entire cycle of actions is ‘earn enough tokens to buy a building’ and pretty much nothing else. That’s a problem because your activities in any game should feel inherently satisfying, and satisfaction in a game like this is something that only gets doled out in small increments. You don’t get sufficient time to savour anything. You don’t get enough room to enjoy your accomplishments.
I say ‘in a game like this’ because this is actually a pretty popular genre – we call them worker placement games and the idea is that you sacrifice your workers to achieve progress towards some larger and more complex goal. Or, more usually, goals. Usually there are setbacks and those setbacks are other players who are attempting to advance their own goals at right angles to yours. They’ll be blocking your ambitions, undercutting your progress, and occasionally outright stealing things from you. This they do through the medium of permitted actions – each opportunity in a worker placement game has to snake and twist around every other like a poisonous nest of treacherous vipers. They need to permit push and shove. They need to be the ploughshare and the sword.
Sometimes the actions available are fixed and unchanging – sometimes they’re open to evolution. In all cases though you’re treating workers like an investment in a patchwork plan. A plan that must shift and change with the opportunities you have left available after everyone else has made their moves. My favourite of these games is Lords of Waterdeep (with the Skullport expansion) and mostly what you do there is try to complete quests that give you the complementary powers you need to ever increase the optimisation of your cube conversion system. It rapidly becomes a chugging, heavy engine of bespoke discounts, specialist paybacks, and synergistic cross effects that are precisely aligned with your goals. Or at least, as precisely aligned as your opponents permit. You need lots of piety quests? Well, let’s construct a system that eases the difficulty of acquiring priests. You’re more interested in war? Fighters are easy to get so maybe double down-on how much you score from each of the ones you spend in conquest.
It’s not really like that here because you never get the opportunity to really do anything. You don’t have to build a plan. In Lords of Waterdeep you might buy a new building as a long-term investment, knowing that it will get used half a dozen times over the course of the game. Its mere presence on the board will change how the rest of the game flows. You can wildly alter the balance of resources and thus the whole structure of the game. In doing this you’ll also be wary of the possibility someone else will steal it away or burn it to the ground. You’ll need to consider the sense of every action – the wisdom of every choice. You can spend a lot of time simply scheming in Lords of Waterdeep and it’s immensely satisfying to play as a result.
Not so in Mint Works. Here when you buy a building plan it’s probably only going to get used a couple of times before the game is over, and its mere presence does nothing more interesting than speed up the rate at which your investment is obsoleted. In Lords of Waterdeep you’ll complete quests that give you additional special effects – every plot quest in that game is an asymmetrical powerup. In Mint Works by the time you’ve built a few buildings with upkeep effects the chances are high that someone has just bought the museum that ended the game. You can buy a strip-mine in Mint Works and it’ll give you three mints per round. The only thing you end up strip-mining is your own sense of satisfaction because now affording buildings becomes a trivial act of waiting. Mint Works isn’t a marathon. It’s not even a sprint. It’s basically a starter pistol where the winner is whoever left the blocks fastest. The race ends so abruptly everyone ends up flat on their face because they can’t bring their legs back into control quickly enough to prevent the stumble.
In a game where buying buildings is a monumental act, I could see the appeal. I think you could have a satisfying worker placement game where it ends after three constructions. In a game where simply accomplishing a single construction was fraught with difficulty this could be genuinely engaging. It could be something dark and serpentine where every single player is aggressively stopping everyone else from doing anything, even to their own explicit detriment. Every building you let someone else construct could be like conceding a touch in a fencing match – every single one hard fought and a massive change in the risks of play. It doesn’t feel like that here though because you don’t have any tools for knocking anyone off their trajectory. The best you can do is be in the way, and that’s an ineffective tool when player order is mutable. The four ‘core’ actions are to gain a plan, to build a plan, to take the starting token, or to take two mint coins. Nothing in here gives you a way to meaningfully stop someone from doing what they want – the best you can do is delay it. None of the advanced actions, of which you will only have a subset available during a game, do anything to change that basic interaction. And that basic interaction lacks the catharsis that achievement should bring with it.
None of that is to take away from the basic accomplishment of Mint Works, which is to give a worker placement game with minimal table spread and maximum portability. It’s just that its only real selling point is its basic accomplishment. Other than its admirable portability, I can’t think of a single reason you’d want to play it. It almost feels like the bland, tasteless tutorial you’d get before someone let you play the proper game. Mint Works is ‘this is how to look up and down’ newbie school of a first-person shooter from the days before controller literacy could be assumed by default. In fact, I’d go even farther than that – it feels like an educational proof of concept. During my computer systems classes I teach how the CPU is structured with reference to a very simplified model called the Little Man Computer. It gives the broad strokes of programming a system in assembly language without incorporating anything as unsettling as authenticity. Mint Works is like that – it’s just enough to give you a taste of what worker placement games are but then it terminates before ever actually giving you the full flavour.
As an entry in a hypothetical line of small box tutorials designed to introduce game mechanisms for the purposes of increasing game literacy, I could endorse Mint Works as an adequate taster. As a game you might want to play in its own rights… unfortunately, this is anything but a refreshing prospect.