Artist: Felix Mertikat
Every time a Ravensburger game hits the market, I usually take a glance at the title. Woodlands is billed as a kid’s game with cute nice drawings of fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, but I think the game is designed with adults in mind as well. I think it is trying hard to straddle the line between appealing to kids with the cutesy drawings but still have some heft not only to the main mechanism, but also to some of the stories. For instance, Little Red Riding is clearly for kids, but Robin Hood, Dracula and King Arthur, not as much. So, is this game for kids or is it targeted at adults? The truth is probably somewhere in between.
I think Woodlands must be somewhat inspired by Loony Quest or Doodle Quest. The underlying spirit of the game is there, but the execution is totally different. In Woodlands, each player has a 3×3 grid and 12 large tiles. So, 9 of the 12 tiles will be used per chapter when you fill up the grid. Each tile, on the basic side, has forests and paths in different orientations and designs. In the grand tradition of Carcassonne, players assemble the tiles as they so choose on the 3×3 grid so that a specific configuration of forests and dirt paths is formed. Of course, there is a goal to all this. All players are simultaneously trying to form specific configurations of dirt roads and forests to match a transparent overlay that is placed in the middle of the table. This is where the comparison with Loony Quest comes in. The overlay has different symbols, icons or objects that one needs to interact with when the overlay is placed on the individual player grid so that the objects will either end up in the forest or on paths. Depending on the story and chapter, each overlay will have a different set of scoring rules and objectives.
For example, in the Red Riding Hood story, which is the introductory story, contains 4 chapters, each with a unique overlay with escalating difficulty. In each of the overlay, Little Red is trying to reach Grandma’s house. Players earn points by creating a path with tiles that connect the start and end points on the overlay. Along the way, additional items can be picked up to score points (strawberries, mushrooms) if there is an uninterrupted path. Back tracking is fine, so long as the item is reachable. There are also items that shouldn’t be on paths and will score negative points (poisonous mushrooms, firepits, etc). To spice the game up, gems are also scattered throughout the chapters, and each gem scores a point, with a complete set of four different colored gems scoring an extra 1 point. There are also key icons and treasure chests to unlock for special one-time benefits. Finally, there is an odd scoring piece called the Chalice where the player with the most points need to pick up, lest they suffer negative points. This is purely for catch up mechanisms and really penalizes the front runner. If this sounds vaguely familiar to Loony Quest, it is. As I mentioned, the game can have the same feel but operates differently in terms of mechanisms and frankly, I like this a lot better.
So, is this game for kids? Well yes and no. For insights into how this plays with a 6 year old, see Kid’s Corner below. I think the game maybe intended for kids, but the designer has clearly made this game with adults in mind. Now, given unlimited amounts of time, most players will probably come up with an optimal arrangement of landscape tiles for scoring points. However, a timer is incorporated in the game. As soon as the first player finishes the grid, a timer is flipped and all players have a limited amount of time to finish. A white, wild color gem is awarded to the player that flipped the timer. So, this is a race and under pressure, the tiles presumably won’t be placed in a maximal configuration for scoring points, at least for the harder levels. Moreover, the white gem is a strong incentive to finish first. The timer element turns an activity into a race game.
In addition, Mr. Fehr also included variants to increase the difficulty. There are additional overlays which can be placed on top of any regular overlays. These advanced overlays introduces more side-quests which will make tile-laying harder to complete. Furthermore, each of the 12 tiles come in the basic or advanced side. The advance side comes with water and brambles as an obstacle. It is clearly meant to up the difficulty. The treasure cards also provide additional variables and some of these are physical obstacles to overcome during play (use only your weak hand to assemble the tiles, etc.). Finally, I imagine the final story of Dracula will be challenging. It is not solvable in the sense that even if you take your time, you cannot score all the possible points. The other three stories are “solvable” so to speak. One can score a maximum amount of points give the proper configuration.
Like any other game of this genre, which aren’t a whole lot, Woodlands probably has limited scope and replayability for your lifestyle gamer. Even though there is a fair amount of variants inside the box to help extend shelf life, without new stories and new overlays, I would imagine the game will grow stale if played continuously. However, the average gamer probably won’t play a single game continuously for a sustained period. In which case, an occasional foray into Woodlands would still be quite pleasurable. Moreover, this is really a race game. So, players still have to interact and this will always provide a huge amount of variability. While one can complain of not having enough plays from the base game, I would guess that there is more than enough for most.
I think the bigger issue with these games has always been different skill levels. Like Ubongo, Patchwork or any game with a heavy spatial element, there will be players that are just a cut above the rest when it comes to solving spatial puzzles. Woodlands likely suffers from that as well. This is not something easily rectifiable unless you have built in handicaps (the basic/advanced tiles and Chalice scoring is meant to balance out the skill levels). The game hinges largely on how quickly you can assemble a 9 tile grid that captures most if not all the elements you are looking for. So, if you can parse through the information and map out the paths faster than others, then the game will be lopsided. I can easily see the game being a frustrating experience for some.
I like Woodlands and I am also partially biased for Ravensburger/Kosmos designs. The game ends up being quite novel. You certainly can’t find many others of this type out there. So the designer gets some credit for that. Overall, the game was purchased for kids and I meant to play it with kids and perhaps occasionally with adults. With that in mind, Woodlands is a quality product and has enough materials in there to keep younger kids satisfied for a while…. that is until the next shiny thing comes along the corner.
Initial impressions: Average (Good with kids)
6 years old: Woodlands is a good fit for my 6 year old, but only without the time limits in place. At least for the red riding hood chapter, it has been quite an easy jaunt for her. With enough time, she can spot all the elements and create a path that would score all the points. However, it still requires some effort and patience, which has some educational value at this age. However, the game without a timer is not really fun for adults. I can finish the specific overlay a lot faster than she can. Now, with a timer, the game will take a different turn and while I think she is probably ready for the timer, she may not have that great of an experience, especially if she fails to complete the grid on time. I know it would frustrate her. Certainly, I expect the parents would beat her to the punch each and every time. Still, it is something to work toward. I do think the timer is more suitable for older kids or kids who have more experience with games.
In retrospect, games with a strong race and dexterity element still eludes most kids. It certainly does for mine. Perhaps that is something worth improving on, but many of these skills normally come over time and at this age, their locomotor skills are still slightly lagging behind their memory skills. I think we will continue to play Woodlands and go deeper into the chapters. If anything, it will prove to be an interesting puzzle for all of us to solve sans the racing element. Something that she already enjoys doing with Ubongo. I highly recommend checking out Woodlands, but probably more suitable for late childhood or early teens if you care about being competitive.