Recently, I’ve been watching the Food Network game show Cutthroat Kitchen, a sinister variation of Chopped where contestants bid on sabotages to give the other players during cooking. However, I get frustrated when I see contestants, much better cooks than I am with the ability to change their plans on the fly, make horrible strategic decisions that lead to their self-destruction. I would like to analyze the strategy of Cutthroat Kitchen from a game design perspective and give you the tips and tricks on how to walk out of there with slightly more dignity than the other three.
Part 1: Threat Evaluation
In terms of game classification, Cutthroat Kitchen is a combined take-that/auction game. What’s interesting about it is that contestants bid for sabotages with the money they otherwise would take home. This makes the strategy different from a hobby game, where you don’t care by what margin you win, and even from poker, where you win by completely eliminating every other player. If you scrape through by the skin of your teeth in Cutthroat, you will see measurable losses.
So then, we actually have two goals here. The first and more important goal is that you win. The second, less important but still requiring thought, is that you win while retaining as much money as possible. This is where proper threat evaluation comes in.
In most games, you evaluate threats based on your opponent’s abilities; in Cutthroat, self-reflection on what would be the most difficult for you is more important, especially because cooking talent and experience are intangibles and not as easy for you to see in an opponent as, say, Risk armies. Thus, you need to know what would hurt you the most personally.
Speaking broadly, I would say that weird equipment is the easiest to work with, followed by physical restraints, time-wasters and then by crummy ingredients. It’s rare to see rounds where someone gets assigned weird equipment and isn’t able to work out some ingenious method to cook everything. (The tiny kitchen is an exception and must be avoided at all costs.) Restraints have the most variety in how nasty they are, but generally have workarounds. Time-wasters depend on the assignment and how well you’ve managed your time up until that point; correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe they generally appear mid-round and so you’ll have a good sense as to whether it would be okay or not. Bad ingredients will generally torpedo your entire game plan and are usually the scariest in an episode.
Part 2: Resource Management
How much money with which to bid depends on how late in the game it is, how many sabotages you’ve already been assigned, and how aggressive your opponents are with driving up bids. If you’re cheeky, it might be worth it to trick an opponent into wildly overbidding on something you’d be fine receiving so they can’t match you when it really gets tough. This is most important in the final round, when you know exactly how much your opponent is able to bid and can 100% claim a sabotage through careful play. (This is true for two-player Castles of Mad King Ludwig as well.)
Besides the quality of the sabotage itself, the round number is also worth thinking about. One mistake I see frequently is a contestant blowing all their money on a sabotage during the first round, with four contestants. Beyond the obvious issue of not having money for subsequent rounds, the first round has more contestants, which means more people to get assigned the sabotage and more people who could potentially cook something worse than you.
Part 3: Table (er, Kitchen) Politics
Once you’ve figured out what hill you’re not willing to die on, you now have to pick a victim.
The best choice is someone who’s already sabotaged you this round. This seems like a terrible idea – it makes you seem like a huge jerk – but it’s the best strategy. Only one person gets eliminated each round, so dogpiling on one person will more often lead to someone other than you getting eliminated than spreading it out. Sabotaging someone who hasn’t been sabotaged yet to “level the playing field” is pure gambler’s fallacy.
The next best choice is someone who’s sabotaged you. Cutthroat Kitchen suffers from the problem of a lot of take-that games where firing the first shot is a bad move, as the other players will then deem you an acceptable target. The reverse of this is that if someone’s already given you a sabotage, sabotaging them back won’t draw aggro from the other contestants. It’s also great TV.
Barring either of those, sabotage whoever has the most money. If you get to the finals with someone with more money than you, you’re at a disadvantage; it’s better to sculpt the competition so you have the greatest odds possible of winning at the end, where you’re the only target remaining.
Conclusion: I Am Not A Pastry Chef
As I mentioned in my previous article about The Amazing Race, it’s important to look everywhere you can for lessons about game design. I find reality competition shows incredibly interesting because they’re simple enough for a tired person who’s not really paying attention to follow along and create gameplay along axes that are impossible for home gaming to replicate. I will probably never make an exact recreation of Cutthroat in a box, but thinking about its strategy has lead to interesting takeaways that can be used in other – less culinary – applications.
PS. I haven’t watched as much as other people, so if you think I got something wrong here please let me know.