Prêt-à-Porter : Sartorial Struggle

When it comes to board games, there is a rich variety of themes to choose from. However, the world of fashion isn’t one of them. If we exclude games aimed mainly at kids, what remains for adult consumption comes down to Rococo and Prêt-à-Porter (as far as this reviewer is aware). 

And while Rococo is a very fine mid-weight board game, today I want to focus on the heavy hitter between the two.

Prêt-à-Porter is a bit of a strange beast. It’s a fairly heavy worker placement, card drafting, set collecting, engine building economic Eurogame with a large helping of Ameritrash mixed in; which is to say that Prêt-à-Porter can be – and often is – a mean game with plenty of direct player interaction. 

Unlike most Eurogames that lean more towards multiplayer solitaire, Prêt-à-Porter is in-your-face and frequently brutal from start to finish. And that’s exactly what makes it highly engaging and interesting. But it also means the game will not be to everyone’s taste. 

Prêt-à-Porter isn’t a new game. It was first released in 2010 by Ignacy Trzewiczek who went on to design the very well-regarded and equally brutal Robinson Crusoe two years later in 2012. Clearly, Ignacy takes delight in inflicting pain on gamers everywhere!

But this version of Prêt-à-Porter we’re referring to is the 3rd Edition from the recent 2019 Kickstarter reprint (which also lists Piotr Haraszczak as co-designer). This edition features game tweaks and a total overhaul of the game artwork by Kwanchai Moriya. Overall, it’s a handsome-looking package.

In Prêt-à-Porter, you are the head of a fashion house, competing in the cut-throat world of high stakes fashion and design. Your goal is to finish the game as the most successful and most profitable company, standing atop the ruins of your decimated competitors. The game plays out over 12 rounds, from January to December and the end of each quarter (4 times throughout the game), there will be a fashion show where you will have to face off against your competitors for glory, prestige, and sell your award-winning clothes for cold hard cash.

Rule #1:
In Prêt-à-Porter, cash is King. 

You build your fashion empire by hiring the right employees, expanding your offices, and by securing lucrative contracts. Contracts bring you good benefits but will degrade over time until they expire – I really like this concept of contracts that grow weaker and expire over a certain duration.

There are nine worker placement spots to fight over: credit, contracts, employees, buildings, new designs, and fabrics in varying degrees of cost. Higher quality fabrics cost considerably more but earn you more Quality tokens during each show.

Each of your employees and buildings will bring you distinct benefits but require upkeep at the end of every month (that’s 12 times in each game). Upkeep requires money, and money is Victory Points (VP) in the game of Prêt-à-Porter, at a conversion rate of 1-to-1.

That’s right, at the end of the game the victor is the one with the most VP and cash. Which is why every dollar you spend in this game is actually VP spent. Which puts a whole new spin on how you want to spend your hard-earned moolah – that salary you’re paying your employees at the end of each month better be for bloody good reason, then.

Rule #2:
Remember Rule #1… in Prêt-à-Porter, cash is King.

I earlier described Prêt-à-Porter as being “in-your-face and brutal”. Let me be crystal clear: it’s an undeniably mean game. You will step on other players’ toes, and they in turn will step on yours. If you’re looking forward to a game where everyone can get along cordially and just be left alone to do your own thing, be prepared for disappointment. 

There is good reason for this, though.

Many a time, especially if you’re not the first player, you will find the most desirable worker placement spots being quickly snapped up by your competitor, the best contracts / employees / buildings whisked away from under your very nose, leaving you with just the scraps. And when you happen to be first player, you can rest assured you’ll be doing the same thing back to them.

That’s because running a business while trying to come up with an award-winning set of attire to be showcased at the next fashion show is a tough job.

And how does one assemble an award-winning set of attire? First, yours must be of a matching set of either Sporty, Business, Casual, Evening, or Rock styles. The more designs (cards) in your set, the higher your score multiplier. Next, awards will be presented based on one of 3 key characteristics for which tokens must be collected: Trendiness, Public Relations, and Quality – these will help net you Prestige tokens which are another score multiplier.

Rule #3:
Cash may be King, but Style is Queen.

You can jump through a lot of hoops to prepare and present a set of clothing with absolutely no promises of any meaningful gains whatsoever. And that can be absolutely devastating for your company.

To paraphrase what Ignacy himself bluntly pointed out in an interview at Essen in 2019, this is not a game where the player in first place scores 10 points while the second player scores 7 points, and so on. In Prêt-à-Porter, the winner scores 10 points and the guy or gal in 2nd place will be lucky to (maybe) pick up a point. The ones coming in 3rd and 4th go home empty-handed.

He’s not kidding.

It’s not uncommon to see score lines where the winner finishes with, say, 400 points (remember, that’s cash and VP combined) while the next player finishes 70-80 points behind. Or even 100. Possibly even 200 or more.

In this game, when you maximize on an early advantage, it quickly can become a case of the rich getting richer while the rest are fighting just to try and make ends meet. In my two most recent games, I won the first by 403 to 145. And in the next, I lost to the same opponent by 255 to 533. 

If you can’t handle those kind of score lines in your games, then perhaps it’ll be best if you avoid this game altogether.

Do note that the game itself is very, very mathy – each round you’ll be constantly doing lots of mental calculations: do I have enough money to buy the fabric I need? Can I get away with buying cheaper fabric and taking a hit on quality? Should I go to the bank and draw a line of credit? Is the accrued bank interest worth the trouble? Do I need to increase my overheads by adding more employees and buildings to my organization? Can I make enough money at the next show to pay everyone and keep my business afloat?

This, in essence, is Prêt-à-Porter in a nutshell. 

Prêt-à-Porter is one of the most authentic simulations of actually running a business that I’ve experienced, hands down. Which is to say that it can often feel quite hectic. Perhaps it may come across as being “too real” for some gamers who are just looking to escape from the real world and immerse themselves into something less stress-inducing.

And yet… I’m hooked.

Considering the success of the 2019 Kickstarter which features an almost 10-year old game in its third reprint, it appears many gamers also feel the same way about Prêt-à-Porter.

I would say that if you love games like Terraforming Mars (for creating card synergy), Underwater Cities (for the broad decision space each turn), Barrage (for worker placement tightness) or Food Chain Magnate (for that deliciously unforgiving nature of play), chances are that you’ll find something to enjoy in Prêt-à-Porter.

Before I wrap up, let me pick some nits whilst also recognizing some other nice touches.

The artwork overhaul by Kwanchai Moriya is wonderful eye-candy and yet highly practical, compared to the positively dowdy look of the earlier versions. The new box cover art sports a striking and bold look, and the iconography on the cards is generally clear and easy to understand. The built-in insert is much appreciated and very useful for quickly setting up and tearing down the game. And for a game that deals in so much cash frequently being passed around, the money tokens fittingly resemble miniature credit cards and feels good to the touch and looks good to the eye.

On the other hand, the same insert can also be rather useless if you plan on storing your game upright in the shelf as you can expect your components to spill out everywhere inside the box. It’s designed almost exclusively for flat storage, period. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Another minor nitpick is the scoring token which is just a small, plain cardboard sliver which is jarring given how good the production quality is for everything else. Last but not least, the rulebook is well-laid out and well-illustrated but the editors have neglected to update and change many references from the previous edition over to the new one. It’s still comprehensible enough to help you learn the game but annoying nonetheless.

Minor foibles aside, serious Eurogamers should consider taking Prêt-à-Porter for a stroll down the catwalk.

Rating: 8 / 10
Remarks: Prêt-à-Porter is a solid and engaging economic simulation set in the world of fashion.

Categories: Reviews

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