A couple of weeks ago, I did a review of Biblios, a game about trying to curate a monastery’s library in Medieval times. If you thought that theme was more soporific than a turkey breast injected with half a gallon of Nyquil, then get allow Stew liven things up. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew.
Hmm, yanno, there may be a reason as to why board games haven’t gone quite mainstream yet.
Okay, maybe this bit of info will make it more exciting. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew and ONLY ONE OF YOU CAN EAT IT. If this were a commercial, this would be the part where the explosions would happen, metal music would start blaring and you’d hear a Wilhelm scream somewhere in the chaos.
STILL not exciting enough? Damn, you must have ice water in them veins. Okay, if the theme doesn’t sell you, at least allow me to explain the game to you and tell you why this game, which is made up of just a mere 18 cards, is one of the most fun and addictive games I’ve played over the past couple months.
Before getting into the game, let me give you a little bit of info about this game because there’s a very good chance you haven’t heard of it, even if you are plugged into the hobby. Stew is a game published by an independent publisher called Button Shy Games. If you don’t know who they are, allow me to change that. They’re a game company that specializes in something called ‘wallet games’ which are exactly what they sound like. They’re games not just small enough to fit in a wallet, they’re literally IN a wallet. Button Shy handcrafts all their games in custom made wallets, meaning their games can quite literally fit in your pocket.
I have played a couple of other Button Shy Games and they have ranged from good (the meta heavy In Vino Morte, a party game where you’re poisoning your friends in a style that evokes that one scene from The Princess Bride) to very good (the two player tug of war Avignon: A Clash of Popes, a game where you and your opponent are pushing and pulling cards to get three of them on your side) to excellent (the cooperative city builder Sprawlopolis, a game that manages to pack a crunchy tile laying puzzle in just, again, 18 cards). After playing all these, I’m happy to report that Stew is my favorite of the bunch.
If Stew were an actual stew, the recipe would read like this: add one cup of push your luck, one ounce of deduction and a pinch of bluffing into a bowl and stir for 15 minutes. Serves 2-4 people.
If I had to compare it to a more well known game, the obvious choice would be Welcome to the Dungeon. In Welcome to the Dungeon, players are passing around a deck of cards that’s comprised of creatures. On their turn, they are either adding creatures to the dungeon or tossing them to the side and removing equipment that can help kill said creatures. This keeps going until one player is finally forced to enter the dungeon and take on the creatures everybody else put in there and hoping they don’t die but let’s face it, they probably are going to die and horribly.
The first time I played Welcome to the Dungeon, I reeeaally wanted to like it just fell short. One big issue was player elimination. Sure, it’s a fairly short game, but it’s just long enough that being eliminated early can be a huge problem (which happened to me). It also can be a little fiddly when you actually enter the dungeon and then have to cross examine every creature that pops up with the equipment you’re still holding while keeping track of your health in your head. This all led to an ultimately disappointing experience. Luckily, Stew takes the formula that I oh so wanted to love in Welcome to the Dungeon and makes an actual good game out of it!
Play is very simple. Every one is passing around a deck of ingredient cards and looking at the top card. These ingredient cards all have certain point values and represent the hallmarks of any great stew such as hearty potatoes, flavorful garlic and…a rock?
After looking at this top card, they then have a choice: put that ingredient face down in the stew or put it face down on a vermin card (more on the vermin later). Eventually, the stew will get bigger and bigger until some brave soul yells “STEW!”, which is the universal phrase anyone shouts when about to eat some stew. They take the cards in the stew and reveal them. If the sum of the points on the ingredient cards equals 12 or more, congratulations! You’ve eaten a damn fine stew and earn yourself two points. However, if the stew is 11 points or less then you have eaten a stew that can only be described as ‘not good’. With this, you receive no points, the rest of the players get one point and you are forced to write a negative review on Yelp. First to five points wins.
Calculating points is not as easy as just revealing what’s in the stew, however. Remember those vermin I vaguely mentioned earlier? Yeah, they’re a bunch of a-holes and they are gonna steal stuff from your stew if you didn’t feed them. If a vermin is unfed when the stew is taken off the stove, they steal specific ingredients as they pop up. For example, the rabbit steals the first carrot revealed from the stew, the fox steals the first chicken and the gopher steals the first leek (because everyone knows that gophers just effing LOVE leeks). This is bad because those are precious points leaving your stew and in this game, every point is precious. There is even a vagabond who just kinda chills outside and then pops in to see what’s in the stew. If there is a chicken in the stew, he mooches some of it off you and you lose 3 points. If there isn’t, you get a bonus 3 points as he passes it on by because he is apparently the pickiest drifter ever.
These vermin help provide much of the suspense in Stew, as you’re not quite sure what your opponents put in the stew and what they fed to the vermin. You CAN use the stone, which subtracts 3 points from your stew, against these vermin but most of the time you’ll get ingredients which makes every decision tense. Side note: using the stone on the vagabond paints of dark picture of these pioneers just straight up murdering this guy with a rock, making it feel like Stew takes place in a Coen Brothers film.
Feeding these blasted vermin is important, but if you’re feeding them high scoring ingredients, then the stew won’t have enough points to put you over the 12 point threshold. Don’t feed enough of them though, and it won’t even matter what’s in the stew because it’s all just gonna be taken by these surprisingly stealthy and precise animals who know exactly what to take from your steaming bowl of stew. All this doesn’t even take into account that every player is side eyeing each other, twitching their fingers like gunslingers in a Wild West duel, wondering who will pull the trigger and yell ‘STEW!’ first.
And so begins the madness and double thought that you’ll be ensnared by for Stew‘s 15-20 minute run time.
This game will have you thinking and double thinking and triple thinking every decision that you and your friends make. The stream of consciousness that occupies your thoughts throughout this game would look like the ramblings of a psychopath if put on paper. ‘Ohh, Sally just put a card on the fox, which means she might know there’s a chicken in the stew and wants to keep it in there but wait maybe she fed the fox the chicken and she’s trying to lead us into believing there is going to be chicken but then again maybe she wants us to think that so that we don’t try to eat the stew and oh look Trevor just put something in the stew maybe it’s a potato those really rack up the points but the raccoon isn’t fed yet so that’s just gonna steal it anyway but maybe that’s what he wants and oh god it’s my turn I just turned over a garlic what do I doooooooo’. The transcripts of your brains thoughts at game’s end will read like a James Joyce novel, but much more enjoyable and less pretentious.
That sort of panicked battle of wits is one of the reasons why I love these types of games. It reminds me of Skull, one of my all time favorites, with every move being scrutinized and lots of bravado and confidence being deflated with each flip and reveal of the card. Cheers will erupt and groans will echo throughout the game, such as when you angrily shake the Stone card in everyone’s faces, demanding who put it in the stew. It’s an incredibly social game for that reason and helps showcase what makes board games so damn fun.
And you know what? Like with Biblios, I poked fun at the theme earlier in this article, but I honestly love the concept behind the game. It’s so unique and fun, with rustic looking art that really helps add to the pioneer era feel they’re going for. Throw on some bluegrass music in the background, and you’ll be wearing a straw hat and slugging down moonshine in no time.
I honestly don’t have much bad to say about Stew. As I already mentioned, the game will only take around 15-20 minutes, meaning it not only doesn’t outstay its welcome but is perfect for playing back to back (to back). Sure, the strategic depth of the game lives and dies by the meta, but that’s par for the course for these type of games. And really, that’s the only negative thing I can say: if you don’t like these types of games, games with bluffing and misdirection and doublethink, then Stew won’t do anything to change your mind.
I’ll simply end by saying that if this kind of game does appeal to you, do not hesitate to pick this up. You can find it on Button Shy’s site, along with the rest of their wallet game catalog. Tell them Kyle from Boar & Arrow sent you. Actually, they’ll have no clue what any of that means, but I’ve always wanted to say that.