You are but a simple gardener. Sure, you work for the Emperor of Japan, but you’re still a just a gardener. But then that guy from China had to show up. And he just HAD to bring a present. When you were told you had to take care of it, you assumed it was just a really rare ficus or a lovely statue or just something small and classy… Nope. He brought a panda. A fully grown, round, black and white monstrosity. A bear that literally eats 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo a day. It also has no sense of boundaries and your once quiet serene garden is his new home. Good luck!
Takenoko is a hex-laying garden game by Antione Bauza, who worked on such projects as 7 Wonders and Dr Shark. Time for the obligatory “Pope Starts the Review With Something Nice” with a discussion of the parts and pieces of this game. Usually, miniatures come in two flavors: Awful and non-existant, doubly so with more modern games that are trying to keep the price down. In our review of Mansions of Madness, Buckle shied away from discussing the miniatures because a lot of them were birthed from the box as deformed gray elongated beasts… And those were people, not the monsters!
So imagine our surprise when we opened the box and found the cutest little blobs of adorable ever. Wooden pieces make up the majority of the game (similar to Catan) and the plastic pieces were of high quality and color. Also a wooden die, which instantly won some points from me because I have a strange fascination with bones made out of wood. It’s nonsense, I’m aware.
Now that I am done gushing over wood and plastic (and setting myself up for dozens of inappropriate jokes) we can talk about this game proper. At the start of each round you have two things to do: Roll the die to see what the weather gods have cursed you with and then a choice of expanding the garden, making your garden grow, making sure the garden is well irrigated, or watching that fat sack of cute consume your hard work. It’s like Pac-Man, except instead of being the gluttonous being of “Waka Waka” you are instead in charge of making sure he has enough to consume.
The weather effects at the beginning of each turn create some interesting moves: If it’s sunny, you get to take three actions instead of two. If it’s raining, all tiles get more bamboo. If there’s a storm, your widdle black and white creature will being to comfort eat. If it’s a question mark, reality is broken and all the world is a lie and the player gets to be an Arthurian Fisher King and create the weather. This will also determine if they choose to expand, harvest, or irrigate. Why waste your turn irrigating that canal when it just rained? Let some other poor sap deal with that! Of course, therein lies the problem with this game: Other players.
If this were a single-player game or an iPad game where you just took care of a Panda (please don’t look for those I promise you they’re all wank) I’d say so far we described an ideal, relaxing game. However, Antoine Bauza made the strange decision to keep all objectives secret. This works in say Ticket to Ride where even if it’s secret, the choice of moves is so limited that other players can start to make educated guesses. In Takenoko, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of that going on: You have at least five options to make, so if I choose to have the panda eat and the gardener grow or whatever, then… So what? You don’t know what I’m doing, you can’t guess. Even in games like Poker you can at least read other players and know.
“But how many objectives can there be? You can easily strategize if you know that!” I hear you argue. Well, you have three objectives: Make sure the panda eats the right amount of a certain color, make sure the gardener grows a certain number of bamboo shoots, or make sure certain tiles line up. Do you see the problem now? That’s right: You can’t actively do any thing against each other. You can lay that tile where you want, but since you have no idea if other players are even going for a certain layout it becomes a fools errand. You’re more or less playing by yourself while sharing a board and only can really tell who is doing better at the end of the game.
This game is flawed in execution but bleeds charm and cute from it’s pores. It’s hard to recommend it unless you have younger players (ignore the 14+ on the box, you can play this game at 10) or a weakness for cute things. Skip-A-Turn gives Takenoko an “alright” and a bamboo shoot for it’s troubles.
Skip-A-Turn Variation: Bamboo Stir Fry: The trees growth is now randomized and all players can see each other’s objectives. Good luck!