Despite spending much of the last eight months working my way through the Marvel and DC cinematic universes and watching superhero blockbusters since 1978's Superman, I realised that I own precisely one superhero themed game - Hail Hydra (Spin Master) - and haven't actually played it yet. So, not a theme which attracts me in board gaming, apparently; that means Born To Serve by Nick and Diane Sauer and published by Shoot Again Games is going to have to impress with mechanics and presentation...
...well, the latter is a gimme as the art is comically stylish and consistently engaging throughout; printed in glossy technicolour on thick, chunky boards, with the ten heroes like Madam Mystique, Whoosh, and The Human Pinball offering a range of player abilities and preferences. There is also a completely unnecessary menu board included - though I could have done with the scoreboard being in the box, instead! Born To Serve is an area control game that uses superheroes-down-on-their-luck as a premise to see them busing tables in a restaurant. The areas being contested scale with player count, although the customary rigamarole of sorting cards for player count is further complicated by the Orders deck comprising two types, each in two types, too; which slows you down the first time you set up. Fortunately, the rulebook is comprehensive and answers all your questions, frequent or otherwise. On their turns, players place one of their five control tokens on a seat at a table or a member of staff; the tables have tips from diners ranging from $4 to $12 (some are hidden) with three to five seats; staff are a mix of bonus tips and first-come only-served special powers. Each hero may also use only one of their two powers once per round; the round continues until all tokens are either placed or passed. Scoring full tables is simple enough: most tokens wins and, if a tie, the most recent wins. The winner loses their control tokens to 'The Phantom Zone' but gets the full amount of tips; losers return their tokens to their 'Fortress of Loneliness' but only get half the tips. Play continues until the Orders deck runs out.
There is a large element of 'who blinks first' in Born To Serve; whether it be the first to start a table, add the penultimate token, or jump in on Staff powers, like the Boss who swaps tokens around. Some of the Staff and player powers are such game-breakers that players need to be made aware of them from the off: plans will be messed with! Sensibly, the rulebook suggests which are best to use with new players. Player order is important, as being last to go lets you manipulate things unanswered or, with the Valet, score an incomplete table. There does exist a strategic element to the round-by-round organised chaos, tho'; having only 13 control tokens for a game that is likely to last six rounds means you're going to need to reuse 17 of them or be left forlornly drying dishes toward the game's end. Winning a big table gets tips, yes, but win a couple early and you'll spend later actions on the Attendant getting your tokens back rather than winning more tips.
Some Staff members are a bit of a cheese: the Bartender yields an extremely safe $4 income considering the token comes back; it feels like a no-brainer early on, though perhaps not enough on its own to win a game. To do that, you'll need to outread or outplay opponents on the big ticket meals and/or hope the hidden tips pay off. To that end, adding the Hostess's +$3 or a single +$1 to a table may not seem a lot, but over the course of the game these could well be the margin of victory. We enjoyed the variety of changing Staff each Round, rather than each game.
Born To Serve is more of a superfiller than a superhero game; the theme is there primarily for the artwork. With the exception of the varying returns at some tables, there is no luck element and if similar strength player powers are used, the game should reward the best play. Variability of heroes, staff, player count, and game length are all plus points, even if to some extent the extras are a second serving of the same, like an inbuilt expansion. All of which means it boils down to whether you're hungry for a good looking area control game that sits somewhere between beer & pretzels banter and soup-er-powered screwage.
(Review by David Fox)