If you’re familiar with a popular worked placement game called Snowdonia, then it would probably suffice to say that the subject of today’s review, Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea, is more or less the same game but set in India. Sadly though, whilst I’ve read that elsewhere, I haven’t actually played Snowdonia and so I can’t make that comparison, and instead, I’ll need to write about Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea in some detail just so that we both know where we stand.
The basic premise of Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is simple. The players (one to five of them) will work their way through the Darjeeling region of India at the height of the Victorian era, clearing rubble and building railways and stations. As this unfolds, points will be scored in kind, and Chai can be gathered, allowing access to very powerful bonus actions.
The focus in Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea isn’t on the expansion of direct Colonial interests as such, and there is no action that allows players to wrestle resources from the Indian populace at gunpoint, but cheap local labour is indicated, and clearly, the theme is inherently exploitative.
I’ve certainly seen much worse in a number of modern games, but if you are sensitive to whitewashing in themes (a bit worse here perhaps than in Ceylon, which does at least depict native leaders in positions of power) then be aware. To put my own stake in the ground, Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is attempting to tell a story, and it takes a neutral stance – it doesn’t apologise for the exploitation that it depicts, but it certainly doesn’t glorify it either. For me, this is just about acceptable, but it’s not ideal.
Anyway, with that said, let’s talk about the game in a bit more detail. The board depicts a winding railroad through the Darjeeling region, beginning on the left hand side and ending on the far right. Along the route, there are a number of rail sections that must be completed, and several towns that can support stations.
At the bottom of the board, the players will lay out a number of tea nursery cards, each of which has a front and a back side to ensure a random outcome each game. On each nursery, an amount of rubble will be placed which must be cleared in order for the players to access it. On the right side of the board, a weather track will be set based on a number of contract cards, whilst just off the board, a selection of seven train cards will be laid out, chosen randomly from a selection of eight (which seems a tiny bit stingy to me. )
There are a few other things to set up. The amount of iron, stone, chai and event cubes to be put into a blind draw bag and so on. The main additional element is configuring the action spaces based on the number of players. The board has action spaces A-G printed on it, but at different player counts, some of these will be covered with cards that change the specific effects. Each player is then given two workers and a load of ownership markers in their colour.
As I mentioned briefly earlier on, points will be scored for a whole host of things, not least by clearing tea nurseries, building rails and stations, completing contracts and for a few other more niche elements. When the game end is triggered (when the railway is complete, for example) the player who has the most points will win, so whilst Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is a relatively clear and straightforward experience, it’s nice to see that a score pad is included to help you actually calculate all your points.
Getting into the gameplay, Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is the kind of game that has a wonderful kind of logic that is perfectly attuned to the theme – regardless of whether it’s questionable or not. Each time you play, you’ll find the flow of the game evokes a wonderful tale about how the players begin at the base of this mountainous region, and slowly build their way up it.
The action cards are used to do fairly obvious things, and there’s almost always a payback. Go here to collect materials, go there to convert them. If you have materials, you can go somewhere else to turn them into rails, or you can of course use rails or stone to build the railway track or put a station into one of the towns.
These actions have a mostly consistent level of power, but some cards do offer small bonuses on specific spaces — gaining the first player token, for example. One persistent benefit is the use of chai, which is a limited resource that all players track on the board. Using chai to support an action will allow the player to take a more powerful version of that action, and the more powerful variants are often “wildly” enhanced versions of the standard form, making chai feel exciting and special.
The players can also purchase new equipment (train) cards that give their own bonuses and make some actions more efficient, sometimes even providing passive, persistent benefits. Some of these new equipment cards even come with chai on them (often because they are weaker) and they give players crunchy options about balancing immediate or near-time rewards with future objectives.
To bring some balance and uncertainty is the concept of weather. Each contract card has a weather symbol on its back, which indicates how the weather will turn in upcoming rounds. Rain affects construction negatively, but it can be good for tea, whilst good weather is broadly neutral all round. Fog isn’t great either, since tea production slows due to the confusion caused during picking.
Each time I played Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea (admittedly only at one, two or three players due to lockdown restrictions) I had the sense of storytelling that I’ve tried to convey above. There’s a real feeling about being on a journey, and a race at that. As the railroad and the tea nurseries develop, the players will be placing their ownership markers on the track, and as you work your way up the mountain, there’s almost a racing feel about it from time to time.
Between the clever, rewarding action selection and the interlocking systems that immerse the player in the idea of building a tea empire, whilst simultaneously dealing with the local challenges of both terrain and weather, Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is rewarding to play. The huge amount of points you’ll score makes everyone feel clever, and games often come down to a single decision, perhaps to use chai at a pivotal moment, or just pipping everyone to a valuable station.
Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea isn’t an amazing looking game, but it’s very well made and has exceptional component quality. It’s also clearly laid out and straightforward to set up, which is no mean feat when you consider how deep and expansive the gameplay is. Whilst I don’t love the connotations of the theme, Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea is a game that will have a rock-solid place in my long term collection, and it’s welcome on my table anytime I’m asked to play it.
You can purchase Alubari: a Nice Cup of Tea on Amazon.