Kitchen Scramble is a new Facebook game from Playdom behind games like Disney’s Ghosts of Mistwood, Marvel: Avengers Alliance and Threads of Mystery. In one short sentence: It’s Diner Dash on a food truck with free-to-play elements. That’s it. Given, Diner Dash is closing in on its 9th anniversary, and you’d be right to think that Kitchen Scramble does a few things to freshen up the formula.
You play as Pepper Mills, health food enthusiast. She wanted to open a restaurant with her friend, but Candace is a fan of high-tech food processing (and also wears a tacky mad scientist getup while using her machinery)! Without Candace’s financial resources, it will be impossible for Pepper to start her restaurant. But wait — Chef Crisp comes to the rescue from absolutely nowhere! She provides Pepper with an exciting new opportunity: a food truck. Everything’s going to be okay now that Pepper’s bringing fresh, healthy food to people around the world, right?
It’s undoubtedly a tacky premise, but that’s nothing new in the world of video games. Once you get past the cutesy graphics, you’ll find the gameplay is quite fun. Kitchen Scramble takes all the frantic clicking from Diner Dash, but simplifies the tasks down to taking orders, making food, serving food, and collecting payment. Despite having fewer individual tasks, the same core mechanic of multitasking as efficiently as possible is completely intact.
So, the game starts out really easy, with your truck offering only two dishes: fried egg and baked potato. As you progress through the game, recipes will gradually be added to the list and the recipes become increasingly complicated. New dishes will demand new ingredients and new appliances. The fancier dishes will require the combination of ingredients and multiple cooking steps. Eventually, you’ll be juggling over 15 ingredients and 10 appliances.
Each level requires you to serve a certain number of customers (later, you get unlimited customers but only a certain amount of time). Up to four will walk up to your window at any one time, so the juggling really comes in when you need to make four dishes at the same time. Each of your appliances can only prepare one food at a time, so if you need to fry eggs, bacon, and onion rings for three different customers, you’ll need to prioritize which ones to serve first. After a customer places their order, five heart bubbles appear next to their order to represent their patience. These bubbles pop over time. When you deliver their order, they’ll pay you for the food and then tip you based on how much patience they had remaining. Every level has three stars to earn based entirely on how many coins you make from serving your customers. To get more stars, you’ll need to maximize your tips, and therefore, maximize your efficiency.
If you haven’t played Diner Dash before, this is where the craziness comes in. You have a million things to do but only two hands to do them with. Clicking on any ingredient, customer, or appliance adds it to your queue of actions. There are some tricks to help with your efficiency, like the ability to instantly swap a baked dish in the oven with food that still needs to be baked in your hands — even when your hands are full. Trying to prep some food before your customers place an order can help too, but there are only so many places you can store food, and food that is kept on the stove or in the oven for too long will burn. You will inevitably be throwing out some food. The fact that you have to be so efficient is really what seals the deal. Your kitchen can only cook and store so much food at once — clicking frantically everywhere just won’t work unless there’s a method to your madness.
I’m actually really digging the food truck theme. First, it feels much more modern than a diner. Second, the effect it has had on the mechanics are for the better. Dropping the need to seat customers in exchange for the need to actually prepare the food serves to simultaneously streamline the gameplay and introduce a lot of gameplay variety. Diner Dash’s seating mechanic involved creating chains of same-colored customers sitting in the same seats over the course of one shift in order to rack up bonus points. Sure, it added a more strategic twist to the game, but seating customers ended up feeling like a completely separate task from the rest of the game. Going for the big chains in order to get good bonus points required you to slow down to think out your seating strategy. If you wanted to keep up with the fast pace of the rest of the game, your seating strategy would inevitably suffer, leading to lots of lost bonus points. It was a fun system overall, but Diner Dash pitted two opposing mechanics at odds with each other and the player was left to choose which one to focus on. Kitchen Scramble, on the other hand, focuses in on just the one mechanic — hectic multitasking. Preparing lots of food in a small kitchen turned out to be an excellent distillation of what made Diner Dash so fun.
The game is free-to-play, so there is absolutely a catch. While the core gameplay itself is fun, there’s a small management aspect in-between levels that comes in to limit your fun. The game has many collectible resources: cash, coins, supplies, premium ingredients, power-ups, and star tokens. You can earn all of these things as level rewards, but they are definitely limited so you’ll be left wanting more and therefore needing to spend real money or replay levels many times over. Bundles of cash or coins can be bought with real money. Everything else can be bought with the in-game cash.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the other “resources”:
• The number of coins you earn determine how many stars you get on a level. Outside of the kitchen, coins let you buy new appliances or upgrade the ones you already have. Upgraded appliances prepare food faster and burn food slower.
• You must pay 10 supplies to play a level. You will earn 10 more supplies every 30 minutes of real time or you can instantly max your supplies (to 50) by spending in-game cash or asking your Facebook friends for help.
• Premium ingredients and power-ups are both consumables that make it easier to get more coins in a level (and therefore more stars).
• One star token is earned for each star you earn in a level. You can also earn bundles of star tokens by completing in-game achievements, of which there are 12. There are four tollbooths in the game that you cannot pass without paying a certain number of star tokens.
The game limits you from playing it in many ways. Of course, the intention is to get you to pay to play more, but I just think any game that actively discourages you from playing it has got some bad game design going on. It’s a real shame because the game itself is really fun. Anyway, having to wait 2.5 hours before I can have another 5-level play session is annoying but not game-breaking. I don’t like hitting a wall that tells me I need to stop playing, but I can handle it if I’m playing the game casually.
There are other problems too though. The levels get much harder very fast. This means fewer coins, fewer stars, and fewer star tokens. That, in turn, means you can’t afford tollbooths. You will need to get more stars in levels or complete grindy achievements to get more star tokens. Either way, you’ll need to be replaying a lot of levels. On top of that, getting more stars in levels you didn’t three-star on the first try is really hard without getting better appliances. You’ll need to replay levels to get coins first, so you can buy the appliances and then replay levels to get stars. Playing the game itself is fun, so replaying levels really isn’t a problem. The problem is that you can only play 5 levels every 2.5 hours all that replaying to get through 4 tollbooths (with more on the way) adds up to a lot of wait time (or money from your pocket).
So the game currently has 89 levels spread across 4 cities. Each city has a tollbooth in the middle, but there’s also a repair station in between each city. To get through these, you need the assistance of three friends. That is, you can send game invites to three Facebook friends or you can spend in-game cash to skip the inviting. You will not make enough cash in-game to pay through all 3 repair stations. You will need to spend real money or invite your Facebook friends to the game to advance. There is no way around this — and I hate that.
The game does have some minor social elements, like the ability to send premium ingredients to your friends. I guess that’s to its credit, but I really don’t play Facebook games with my Facebook friends. When my friends constantly invite me to games, they’re on the fast track to having me tell Facebook to automatically hide all of their stories on my wall.
Alright, enough bashing on free-to-play for now. You all know what free-to-play looks like. Kitchen Scramble’s implementation of free-to-play is pretty average. It’s really not great, but it’s not horribly abusive either. I feel like this game is a particular shame to have so majorly ruined by free-to-play, because the game itself was actually fun. Anyway, the graphics are darling and the bad guy’s crime against humanity is the manufacture of processed food. This isn’t exactly a hardcore game we’re dealing with here. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, fast-paced game that actually uses your brain, Kitchen Scramble will be a good fit if you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket or you intend to play casually enough that playing just a few levels every now and then is okay with you. If you’re the type who gets into a game and therefore wants to keep playing it (such an absurdity, I know…), you should probably stay away.