Rococo: The strategy-rich board game about dressmaking
Hey there everyone! I have an outstanding proposition for you! What if I told you that you could play a board game… about making dresses? For a fancy ball? Any takers?
While I’m sure some of you unironically raised your hands, I’m ashamed to admit that my first digestion of the premise of Rococo was not a receptive one. Seriously? We have all these absolutely mesmerizing board games utilizing high fantasy or wonky sci-fi and we’re going in deep on… making dresses? To get ready for a grand ball? Why are these people that I’m playing this game with so excited about it?
I was so wrong, friends. So wrong.
After my first play of the game at Dice Tower West 2019 (a board game convention in Las Vegas, NV), it quickly became one of my absolute favorite tabletop gaming experiences and I’d like to talk about why.
The game lasts for seven rounds, with the end of round seven being the start of the grand ball that the players, acting as dressmakers, are preparing for. Over those seven rounds, players take turns to play one employee card and perform one of six different available actions. Those actions include:
- Get materials for dresses in the form of fabric, lace, or thread.
- Hire a new employee, which means you get a new card to add to your assortment.
- Receiving the queen’s favor, which is this game’s method for allowing someone to be the first player for the next round.
- Creating a dress using materials you already possess, which can then be sold for a lot of cash, or rented out and put in the mansion for end-of-game scoring
- If dress-making isn’t all you’re interested in, you can spend cash to fund decorations for the ball that happens at the end of the game in the form of a fountain, statues, or musicians within the halls of the mansion.
- Deputing an employee, which here means to fire them/send them to serve the king in exchange for some cash. I fully admit I had never heard the word before playing this game.
A little bit of why I adore this game comes from the relative “nonsensicalness” of the whole thing. The strategic effort I’ve dedicated in this game is obscene. Mentally laboring over whether I should make a dress now or buy some lace for a later dress is a crossroad I never fathomed myself to be at.
But even outside the fact that the backdrop is so… I think “cutesy” is the word I’ll use, the in-game mechanics are ridiculously engaging. At the start of each round, there are a pretty finite number of materials to be bought, dresses to be made, and employees to hire. Especially in a full 5-player game, you seriously have no idea what’s going to still be there when your turn comes back around. You have to make nearly every single turn count. Admittedly, there are some turns where your decision tree isn’t quite so large, so you just do a thing and pass the turn pretty easily. However, that is an atypical situation.
Fortunately, Rococo doesn’t punish mistakes quite as hard as other strategic board games since your opponents still have to pick up on the opportunities you may have passed. It’s difficult to play perfectly, which it should be because otherwise what’s the point, but getting punished gently still happens. I don’t see this as a negative though. These types of board games push players to improve their own efficiency and thoughtfulness about the scenario. If you don’t get slapped in the face once in a while for choosing incorrectly, you’ll find yourself regularly making the same error. And while I completely understand that this level of self-improvement isn’t something every wants in their board games, I’ve found it to be a delightful way to keep your gears turning.
One of the caveats to your action decisions is the employee “tiers.” Every employee card is ranked as an apprentice, journeyman, or master, and there are action restrictions based on the tier of the employee.
A master can perform any of the actions on the board because they’re just so gosh-darn good at what they do.
Journeymen can do everything EXCEPT hiring a new employee. They’ve got a good beat on things, but haven’t gotten to the point where they can make such a large decision on behalf of the shop.
An apprentice, understandably, has the most limited capability. They can only be sent off to collect materials, pass money along to fund a decoration, or just deputed because they’re actually not a good employee and you’re pretty confident they steal from the till so now they’re the king’s problem.
You begin the game with five employee cards, and use three of them each round, bringing back the discarded ones when you have no new ones left. Because you can hire and depute employees, the ones you have access to will naturally change as the rounds go on. This is key because almost every employee card also has some symbols at the bottom that allow them to do an extra ability after you perform an action. As a result, decision-making becomes a little more arduous when you know your card will actually do two things.
Because of all this, every turn you’re weighing the employees in your hand against what you need and what you think your opponents are trying to accomplish. You might have saved your apprentice card to grab a material you needed, but oh shoot, the material got taken and now your apprentice is literally not able to do anything on the board (rare but certainly possible if you have no money). But if you played him last turn, you would have lost out on the advantages of playing the master to hire a different employee you dreadfully wanted. But at least then your master would have guaranteed you a better action at the end if things didn’t go your way.
The way these mechanics and engines are all layered together was so mind-bendingly awesome when I first experienced it. What enhances every decision you make is that counting up who’s in the lead on the fly is very difficult. The game doesn’t offer a traditional victory point track running around the board to constantly monitor everyone’s place in the race. Rather, you score nearly all your points at the end of the game based on your own dresses in the ball, decorations, victory points earned from cards, and more. With so many strange, slanted, counting-intensive ways to get victory points, it’s not as clear who’s in the lead until the very end. Thanks to this, you’re constantly engaged in doing the best you can do every single turn because as best as anyone knows, you have a real fighting chance. Ideally you would be engaged anyway, but I can say from experience with other games that sometimes seeing a player with a large lead on you can be disheartening and may deflate your interest altogether. I appreciate that this game makes it significantly harder to reach that mental point.
While I’m no art critic (well, games are art in my heart, but you know what I mean), the game board and components are an absolute dream to look at. The colors and tones are very appropriate for the concept of the game, and don’t try to be any more, nor any less, grand than what they feel they’re supposed to be. I’ve noticed a lot of modern board game art misses the mark by trying to do too much or to little relative to the theme, so I can really appreciate that Rococo was able to achieve this balance remarkably well.
One unfortunate drawback I experience every time I play this game is that I forget how long it’s actually supposed to take. I get so caught up in everything that suddenly two hours have passed and we’re not done and I’m so surprised. It’s a game that you need to make sure you set aside the necessary time. The box says 1 – 2 hours, and I’m calling that out as being nonsense. Most of my games run closer to 2 – 3 hours, but there is regularly at least one new player at the table when it comes out which does add a little bit to that time hump. Or perhaps everyone I’ve ever played with has played slowly. That is equally likely.
The most frustrating aspect of this delightful game, however, is the difficulty in obtaining it. It has been out of print for several years and as a result is not only difficult to find, but even if you find a copy, the game fetches a bit of a premium price. I was actually gifted the copy I now own because I could never find one in my budget. Thankfully, after years of waiting, a reprint is coming at the end of 2020. At least, that’s the current goal. With everything going on, it could, very fairly, be pushed back a bit.
All that said, if you find yourself with a growing interest in modern games more on the “thinky” side, especially if you’ve had a longstanding dream of being a fashion designer, I cannot recommend Rococo enough.