I expected not to like this game when it was first put in front of me. We got to play a few games on what I have come to think of as ‘The Stressful Saturday’ of the UK Games Expo. The Bezier Games table was a quiet refuge in a howling gale of human flesh. We sat down largely seeking sanctuary and safe harbour – we had no real expectation of enjoyment. The hope for fun was a distant memory. Our intention for the day had simply become survival. We played New York Slice because it was a choice of that or more forced marching into the oblivion of carnage, crowds and confusion that raged all around. As the rules were explained I thought to myself ‘This is going to make me wish I’d just walked grimly and stoically to my death in the conference centre’. More, I thought ‘And I’ll need to pretend I’m interested because otherwise I’ll seem really rude and unpleasant to these lovely people demonstrating it’.
I mean, I wasn’t going to lie if asked directly. I’ve got a reputation to uphold here – I’m a faceless Internet dick that is regularly castigated by other faceless Internet dicks for not liking the games they like. I’m not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion. As such, If I really hated a game that someone was demonstrating I’d gird my loins, look them dead in the eye and say with full, unswaying conviction ‘That was great, thank you so much for showing me this. Where can I buy it? Oh, I can buy it from you? Let me just, uh, let me just get my wallet.’.
It didn’t come to that though. It really didn’t! New York Slice isn’t the greatest game ever made but it’s surprisingly interesting given the triviality of the central mechanic of play.
Before we get to that I want to take a moment to say ‘oh my God, look at the presentation on this!’. I understand that in real terms nothing clever has been done here – I get pizza every week that arrives in a similar box. My only expectation is that I’ll throw it in the recycling come the end of the meal. Somehow, when that’s translated into thick chunky cardboard it’s far more exciting. Literally, if they had served this game up in a standard takeaway box I’d probably be equally endeared.
They’ve really doubled down on the theme of New York Slice. The instructions come in the form of a takeaway leaflet style pamphlet. The pizza slices look downright edible. In fact, even though they’re nothing more than stiff cardboard they taste better than any Dominos pizza I’ve ever been forced to consume. The score pad that comes with the game even looks like the bill you might see someone filling out at a mid-range pizza restaurant. It’s all very nice – it’s a pleasantly robust package that makes you think ‘Hey, this game really feels like it’s about pizza!’.
One negative thing I will say is that the box comes with an insert that subdivides the interior into two thin trenches and it is awful. My advice is get to rid of that insert as soon as you look at it – it does nothing but make a game that is already a chore to put away even more frustrating. Just rip it out and throw it in the bin. Don’t even think about it. I spent a aggravating ten minutes after our first game trying to fit everything into the insert before giving up in a huff. Save yourselves those ten minutes. The insert is a cruel practical joke that Bezier are playing on you. There are probably cameras in the lid of the box recording every anguished facial expression that accompanies the attempt to store the pieces. It’s probably live-streamed on Twitch.
Inside the box you find yourself with a set of sixty-nine cardboard pizza slices and over a dozen ‘today’s special’ markers. That’s your game, right there. You shuffle those slices and deal them out into six piles of eleven (discarding the last three back to the box). On top of each of these stacks you place a random special tile. The starting state of the game looks a horrible accident in the kitchen. You start play with the hastily salvaged slices of a mishap between oven and table. When you look at the layout of New York Slice you can all but hear the anguished thwarted wails of a half dozen hungry diners.
The first player takes one of these stacks, and then deals it out into a full pizza. They don’t get to shift the order of slices. They just deal the slices out until they look like the custom order from the world’s pickiest group of eaters. ‘Do you do a half and half pizza? Oh good. What about four quarters? Marvelous. What about a half, a third of a quarter, a fifth of a ninth, and three eighths? Oh, and we’ll want toppings that are scattered seemingly at random and occasionally peppered with the anchovies that absolutely none of us like. Do you – do you do that kind of pizza?’
The pizza you’re going to be picking over is a mess – veggie slices mixed in with meat coupled to vast sections of mushrooms flanked by slices of burnt mozzarella. It’s like what you might have scavenged out of the food scraps bin at the end of the evening at your local Pizza Hut. Blurgh. Nobody wants this monstrosity. This is a Frankenpizza. This is nobody’s regular order. You better make do though – as my mother used to say, there are starving kids in Africa that would be grateful for the meal.
As part of picking up the stack, the player will also have a ‘today’s special’ marker that gives a little bit of flavour to the pizza. Some of these are good, offering players extra options in play or additional points at the end. Some of them are bad, adding penalties or risks to the choices players make. This special is going to be placed somewhere on the pizza – someone is going to end up with it, for good or for ill. If it’s good, you’ll want it to be you. If it’s bad, you’ll want it to be absolutely anyone else.
The player that dealt out the pizza then slices it up into a number of segments determined by the number of players. They separate out each of the slices until they’re happy with the distribution, and then they put their special on one of the slices to persuade, or otherwise, another of the diners at the table. At the termination of this eccentric distribution everyone stares at the offering like a group of strangers calculating the exact proportion of the bill for which each is responsible.
Everyone at the table is trying to accomplish the same thing over the six pizza meal they’re consuming – gather the largest sets of the highest numbers, while minimising the number of disgusting anchovies that come their way. At the end of the game, you’re scored on whether you have the largest number of slices in a flavour – if you do, the number on the slice is the number of points you get for the stack. If you have the most 11 slices, you get 11 points. Every anchovy you selected costs you a point. Winner at the end is the one that had the most satisfying meal.
It seems trivial, right? I mean, the slicer just optimises one section of the pizza, grabs it, and then leaves everyone else to fight over the leavings. Ah, but here’s the thing – New York Slice gamifies the basic etiquette of cutting a cake. The person that creates the portions is the last one to select one for themselves. This simple enforcement of basic manners is what makes New York Slice work.
What the pizza slicer is really doing is setting up the slice that they’ll be left with once everyone has helped themselves to the best parts of the meal. Suddenly a task of intense simplicity becomes a gastronomic tight-rope act of surprising tension and difficulty. Every decision made here has to take into account the relative tastes and desires of the table as well as which categories your competition can deny you. Even slices that you don’t want can be valuable – when you collect a slice (and only then) you can ‘eat’ any number of the segments within it to earn their value in pepperoni. Denying someone the slice they need can be a treat in and of itself. Sometimes the act of enjoying a pizza with your friends is about passive-aggressively eating the slices you like least to deny them the ones they want most. It’s their own fault, really – if they didn’t want to engage in tribal battle over pizza distribution they should have found a better set of friends with which to dine.
As a result you’re never looking just at what the best slices would be – you’re looking to minimise benefit to everyone else while knowing that you’re going to be stuck with the worst slice at the table. The elevator pitch for this game made me roll my eyes. The game itself made me increasingly narrow them in growing consternation. The decision at the core of every round of New York Slice is delicious.
The great thing is that the game is ludicrously simple to explain and yet is challenging for everyone. Everyone understands, implicitly or otherwise, the game theory that goes into equitable distribution of nutrition. There’s no scaffolding required here before newbies understand what’s going on. We’ve all been offered a miserly portion of cake by a selfish server and understood the deep, cosmic unfairness of the situation. People pick up on the whole concept of New York Slice very quickly. They’re equally quick to understand just how badly the pizza slicing has gone for them.
That’s good, because the challenge of decision making here weighs heavily on everyone – not just the person doing the slicing. You might think having first choice of a slice would be easy. It’s not though because it’s the first slice of someone else’s optimisation. They’re not going to just serve up a winning platter for you to cheerfully pick up and chow down. They’re going to make sure, the best they can, that the slice you’ll take is a horrible compromise. You’ll get the two slices you want but be stuck with three anchovies. Or they’ll make a slice that is absolutely perfect for the person that picks after you knowing that you’re not going to let that pass by. They’ll serve you up something mouth-watering and then dump a horrible manager’s special on it, or serve up something stale and tasteless and slip an awesome bonus its way. Everything in New York Slice seems like it should be easy, and absolutely none of it is.
I mean, look at those specials. Look at ‘cut in line’ – ‘on any future round when you aren’t the slicer, play this to choose before any other player’. If there’s a slice that you really want you can just shoulder in, say ‘don’t mind me’, and grab it before anyone else. That‘s powerful enough that you might even want to take a slice of rancid garbage just to set yourself up for the future. Or ‘sneak a slice’ which lets you move one portion of the pizza from one slice to the other. Someone might separate out the two adjacent pizza sections you want and you just ‘boop’, nudge them together. You gain all the bonuses, and more than that you deprive someone else of a portion of their meal. Some of those specials are good enough that you’ll temporarily pick sub-optimally just for the power they give and the incredible pressure they put on the slicer in future rounds. Nobody wants to slice up a pizza in such a way that someone else can mess with the distribution to their intense favour.
It’s good though that you might have those bonuses available because nobody is going to make this easy for you. Occasionally a marvelous pizza will be served – something out of myth and legend. It’s piping hot, and has four 11 slices all in a neat row. That alone could net you enough points to win the game. You might be the first person to pick after the pizza is sliced. You might be licking your lips in anticipation of a huge mouthful of hot meat and the explosion of taste to follow.
That’s nothing like the pizza you’re going to get though. You’re going to be served up a hot mess like this:
God, now what? Those two 11 slices are tempting. Not only is that ‘cut in line’ special really good for you though you also want to make sure nodody else can get it. But if you let someone else take those 11s, you might lose out on scoring the 11s you’ve already collected in an earlier round. But even as that’s going on that four segment pizza slice gives you a lot of coverage, and if you’re already collecting 9s and 6s it might well be worth it. Do you give up on scoring the 11s in the hope you can claim the 9s and the 6s?
A game this simple shouldn’t be this good, and it takes a remarkable surety of design to make it so.
I’ve never played a game of New York Slice where I’ve been happy with what I ended up with regardless of where I was in the serving order. Everyone comes away from the meal unsatisfied, as if each pizza was soaked in the tears of the tired and overworked pizzeria kitchen staff. Nobody gets an easy time with their choice either – the slicer is trying to work out how to make the slices they want unattractive to everyone else. Everyone else is eyeing up what they want and what they can safely deny their opponents. With this, there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from doing well in the face of someone actively trying to ruin your dinner plans. You go in there with a plan to eat your weight in your favourite topping but it’s always a battle. A battle you can’t win. A battle against an intersection of forces that you have only limited ability to challenge. It’s a win when you walk away from the table with a full stomach.
Everyone in New York Slice has an agenda. Nobody is saying ‘I’m happy with whatever, I’ll eat anything mate’. Everyone feels aggrieved. Everyone feels cheated out of the taste treat they were expecting. Nobody is happy, everyone is compromised. It’s a dark world where the culinary criminals sometimes get away with the crimes they commit. Forget it Jake. It’s Chicago Town.
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