When Takenoko first came out, it was greeted with some fanfare. What I heard was mostly lavish praise for the production quality and also the graphics. The game features a cute panda mini and a gardener that moves around a tiled, modular garden tending to what they do best: eating bamboo and growing bamboo. The theme is certainly attractive and and I am sure there were lots of casual gamer that purchased the game for the aesthetics. Question is, what do the grizzled veterans think of the game play? Did Antoine Bauza’s design match the quality of the components? The game is ranked quite high on BGG: #254 as of the date of publication for this blog. Since Antoine Bauza of 7 Wonders fame is a celebrated designer, people probably had some expectations going in.
Takenoko plays out in a very Euro and linear manner. Players draw objective cards and try to score victory points over a specific number of rounds. In this case, someone who completes 7 objective cards trigger the final round. Victory points are accrued solely from the completed objective cards. So , quite straightforward. There are three main categories of scoring on objective cards: one can move the panda to eat certain types of bamboo, move the gardener to grow bamboo or lay down garden tiles to match a specific pattern on the objective card. Some cards score more points for higher and more complex requirements. For example, the Gardener may need to grow 4 bamboo segments on a green plot that has an irrigation tile to score the points. In general, the more complex the requirements, the more points you will score. The player that triggers the final round also gets to keep the emperor card worth 2 points.
Each round, players throw a die to determine a random effect and then proceed to satisfy the requirements for the objective cards. This is done by performing two unique actions each round. These actions include placing differently-colored garden tiles to match a pattern, move the Gardener mini around to grow bamboo on specific plots or to move the panda around to eat bamboo. One can also irrigate garden tiles or pick up new objective cards. The actions aren’t complicated and also intuitive most of the time as you generally have a good idea of what needs to be done to fulfill the objectives. There are additional variables in the game to make it slightly more complex. This includes the need to irrigate garden plots before bamboo can grow or that some tiles prevents the panda from eating the bamboo. The random die rolls usually provide benefits for the player. For example, the die roll may cause bamboo to grow twice as fast on one tile, or it allows one to perform the same action twice (normally, one cannot repeat an action in the same round).
I was curious and took a peek at what my geek buddies had to say about the game and I agree with them for the most part. The game works just fine as a family game or for casual gamers but far too easy to lure a regular gamer beyond just the initial plays. It is also a tad too hard for young ones below a certain age to grasp the game. So it sits in this uncomfortable range of being too easy or hard depending on the crowd. From a gamer’s perspective, the larger issue here is not just the simplicity of the design, but the issues with scoring. I have played this several times now and each time with different folks and the most common observation is the uneven scoring. Out of the three categories in the objective cards, the panda scoring card which requires eating bamboo is the easiest to complete and hence, also the fastest to fulfill. Since this is a race game of sorts, finishing early allow one to score points for each of the 7 cards and prevent your opponents from doing so. Even if the value for each card is lower, you make up by scoring more cards. Each player starts with 3 objective cards, one of each type and you must get more to fulfill all 7 objectives. There are no restrictions on the type of cards you can draw, so long as you do not exceed your hand limit. You can choose to draw all panda objective cards and eat bamboo all day long. While the positioning of the panda can dictate what you eat since the panda can only go in a straight line, it is not hard in later stages of the game when the map is larger, to move the panda to the appropriate tile. In contrast, fulfilling the Gardener objective is much harder as the pesky panda is constantly counteracting bamboo growth by eating them. Matching the tiles for specific patterns is also a crapshoot: you need to draw the correct tile AND the tile needs to be irrigated. Luck of the draw will always be present in hidden secret objectives but in Takenoko, this is quite overt during drawing objective cards: If you draw the right card for Gardener or for garden plot tiles, you can immediately fulfill the objective without even doing anything. If a specific bamboo configuration or garden tile layout already matches the objective card, you can immediately lay down the card and considered it fulfilled. I know there is an advanced variant that makes you honor-bound to not play the card, but what an inelegant way to deal with this issue! Perhaps the designer intended to balance the scoring (because eating bamboo is much easier) between categories with this asymmetry and if so, it feels somewhat haphazard.
I am fine with games that feature luck, even a heavy dose of luck. Dice don’t bother me and if sometimes, a game is won by a flip of the card such as in War of the Ring, I still come out satisfied (I think this maybe a topic of interest in future musings). Yet, every time I play Takenoko, I feel dissatisfied regardless of outcome. Perhaps for a short and really beautiful game as Takenoko, the imbalance in scoring really boils to the surface especially when it feels like a quick fix is possible. I can argue that this might be suitable for family gaming but there are so many quality games out there to play at this level that I don’t feel compelled to pull out Takenoko. I am sure some house rules or advanced variant can fix the game, but why not rectify it in the first place? The base game of Takenoko is not bad, just that it won’t be able to sustain multiple plays in succession.
Clearly, the aesthetics of Takenoko makes a very strong impression for gamers. Tokenoko like Tokaido, another very light set collection game, has successfully Kickstarted a deluxe version of the game. These deluxe versions are quite something to behold. Huge, hand-painted sculpts, extra large tiles with vibrant colors and overall gorgeous production values. I would be lying to say I wasn’t slightly tempted. However, at the end of the day, at least for me, the game itself just isn’t enough to justify such a lavish and expensive reprint.
Initial impressions: Not for me