The most important lesson of Pasaraya: Supermarket Manager is that running a supermarket is like solving a fiendishly complicated programming puzzle. I’m not saying that you can actually boil down every business factor into processes and formulas, but that’s just the feeling I get after digging into this made-in-Malaysia cardgame, which has been in development for more than three years.
Seh Hui “Felix” Leong‘s deck-building cardgame may look simple, bright and breezy, thanks to the deceptively cute artwork by Macxell Lim and the graphic design by Krystine Chia (disclosure: Macxell is a friend of mine). But inside the carton-like packaging is a game with a tonne of potential complexity that should challenge the brains of even the most experienced game optimisers.
Do the Supermarket Shuffle!
Pasaraya is a game for 1-4 players (with a solitaire mode), ages 14 and up. The box says play time is 60 minutes but this is a serious underestimation, as first games may take up to 2 hours. The game comes in a solid little package with 346 game cards, 2 rulebooks and 4 reference mats. Pre-orders and early buyers also received bonus alternate-art cards (illustrated by Leong) and a 3D-printed token. You can see my unboxing video for details. Print quality is good – the pastel colours are bright and crisp, the cards are thick and robust.
If you’ve enjoyed deck-building games like Dominion, Trains or Marvel Legendary, you will understand the basic concept behind Pasaraya. There are cards representing money, employees (with special card-manipulating abilities) and inventory. Players shuffle a small deck of cards and draw a hand of cards each turn. You use money to buy more employees and inventory. You then use inventory and employees to score objective cards called Sales Forecasts, which give you more money (and other benefits). Every time your deck runs out, you reshuffle discarded cards into a new deck. The deck constantly changes over the course of the game. Potentially every turn, Sales Forecasts may be drawn and placed face-up on the table (a selection of 3-5 face-up forecast cards) for all players to try to fulfill.
Easy Come, Easy Go
What makes this deck-builder different from many others is how most cards leave the deck almost as fast as they enter it. In Dominion, for instance, your currency cards get used to buy new things when you draw them, then they get put in the discards and shuffled back into the deck later. Not in Pasaraya; money that is spent leaves your hands for good, and the same goes for inventory that you sell. The only things that stay in your deck the whole game are employees (with exceptions). And when you gain money, you put it in an area called your Bank, from which you can decide how much to transfer to your play deck. It gives you a huge amount of control over the size of your deck. This is something other deck-builders don’t provide.
Everyone is trying to be the first to play the right combination of inventory items to fulfill Sales Forecasts. There are two kinds of Sales Forecasts, with the more valuable ones showing up in the lower half of the Sales Forecast deck. This means the stakes and the rewards get bigger, until someone draws the Fiscal Reporting card, marking the final round of scoring. Whoever has the most money wins, with inventory and employee cards counted for breaking ties.
Emergent Complexity in Aisle Nine
And yet, Pasaraya doesn’t have that many types of cards. Even a classic deckbuilder like Dominion has 12 types of cards that all players can choose from to build their deck. Pasaraya, by comparison, has only 4 employee cards (each dual-use), 2 kinds of money that can go in your deck (and a large denomination card that can only go in the Bank) and 3 kinds of inventory.
Despite the seeming simplicity of the card selection, there’s actually a lot going on at the table. Players have a lot of control over how much money to use; there are 8 different actions they can take with the 4 dual-use employees; and the Sale Forecast deck yields tricky effects and events, including changing inventory prices, logistics problems and employee absences. All this makes the game surprisingly deep, so that finding the right balance of cards is a constant struggle while everyone is aiming to complete the different Sales Forecasts.
I found that playing the game with just a couple of players was reasonably paced, and things weren’t happening as fast at the beginning. A typical game will take up to 2 hours, at least until you learn the rules. But when I played at a 4-person table, more players were competing for the same selection of Sales Forecast cards. With more players, Sales Forecasts are replenished faster and the game progresses to the bigger rewards a bit sooner. This makes up for the longer wait between turns with 4 players.
EDM and AI
Looking for more challenges? You can also play the game using an alternate set of employee cards in Employee-Driven Mode. This variant restricts all buying, selling, hiring, and transferring of money and inventory cards – all of which could be done freely in the basic game. Now all game actions are associated with various employee cards. What this means in practice is that it becomes even easier for a player to get stuck for turn after turn, for want of drawing the right employee card. For me, this mode was less fun, and more of an advanced exercise in deck-building.
The other game variant is even more interesting. AI mode lets you add a deck of cards that acts as another player so that you can play a 1-player game, or add a challenging wild card factor to a multiplayer game. There are five difficulty levels (from “Competitor” to “Mafioso”), each with a correspondingly nastier AI card setup.
I only played at the second easiest level, and I lost badly, scoring 56 compared with the AI’s whopping 100. The AI deck accumulates inventory, steals and forces players to discard cards at a distressing pace. And yet, this variant added more excitement and depth than it did frustration.
Getting walloped by the AI gave me a feeling that I hadn’t had since the first time I played the original Pandemic board game in 2013 – and lost catastrophically. I had lost to a deck of dumb cards, and it felt like the cards weren’t even playing fair. But after many play-throughs, I got the hang of managing risk and optimising my moves to cure all the diseases in Pandemic. And I suspect I’ll get to the same place with Pasaraya’s AI deck…eventually.
Pasaraya was originally inspired by popular game reviewer Tom Vasel, who once wondered why nobody had ever made a supermarket-themed game. Leong cites Hisashi Hayashi (Trains), Martin Wallace (A Few Acres of Snow) and Carl Chudyk (Uchronia) as major influences on the design of Pasaraya.
Leong spent over two years developing and self-publishing Pasaraya through his company Boxfox Games. He had plenty of help from a team of local artists, writing and editing by Calvin Wong (local writer and actor, who played P.T. in the recent film Crazy Rich Asians), and playtesting and advice from the local tabletop gaming community. To promote the game, Leong demonstrated Pasaraya at Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Florida in July this year and even sent a demo copy to Gen-Con 2018 in Indianapolis in August, where it caught the attention of American reviewers.
So what do I think of Pasaraya: Supermarket Manager? I quite appreciate the twist Pasaraya gives to the traditional deck-builder, by making you manage how you add and remove money and inventory to your deck every turn. Despite a relatively small card set, the interactions you get from building a business engine are surpisingly intricate. The extra game modes add even more value. The AI deck’s brutal interruptions to the regular game create a high level of randomness and risk management to deal with, which will challenge even veteran gamers.
I recommend it to people who like economic games and deck-building games. I should point out, however, that the rulebooks and cards have a bit of ambiguity when it comes to situations like the Thief card and how the AI steals from other players – you’ll want to check Pasaraya’s Boardgamegeek page for the latest official errata and FAQ.
Distribution, at this moment, remains limited. You can directly buy a signed copy of Pasaraya from Boxfox Games Facebook site, for RM139 (Malaysian) or US$49 (International orders with free shipping). Gamers in Malaysia can get a better deal (about RM129) from local tabletop game stores that carry it. At the moment, Pasaraya can be found at Meeples, Boardgamecafe.net, Kohii.my and All Aboard Community Gaming Centre. So if you’re interested, please do check them out.
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