Mr Sime has a game with a panda in, here are his words about said panda.
Would you like to play a board game about Japanese-Chinese political relationships? Well Takenoko is a game which story starts that way but is more about gardening, bamboo and a hungry panda so I hope that is ok.
Takenoko is a game for 2-4 players which in the genre most people would call a “gateway” game, one which even the board gaming virgin should be able to pick up fairly quickly and also keeps away from the traditionally deemed “nerdy” themes of dragons and goblins and is not even remotely about fighting for the pacifists amongst us.
With Takenoko each player gets a couple of actions a turn where, they might place a very pretty hexagonal bamboo garden tile, maybe do the quite monotonous sounding task of irrigating said bamboo gardens, move a cheeky little gardener figure who to an irrigated tile to grow bamboo with little wooden pieces or even move the cute little hungry panda miniature to eat some of the bamboo that gardener grew.
Lastly, the player can also opt to just take more of objective cards which I will get back to a little later.
I will get back to it after I describe one of Takenoko’s biggest strength as a board game, something which makes it feel worth the monetary investment and makes it attractive to almost anyone.
This feeling comes from it’s pieces.
A beautifully put together box, from the colourful cover art and instruction manual, the pretty and bright bamboo garden tiles with their equally pretty bamboo counters (which clip in to make taller pieces), all the way to quality pair of plastic miniatures and if you want anything else of a tactile nature, wooden counters for almost everything in the game.
As a box when you open it, you can see where the money has gone as the quality is high all around.
Personally I’m not a fan of the wooden weather die which comes in it as it isn’t the clearest thing to read icons from and I also feel that maybe they could’ve not bothered with such large scoring boards and even the action chips but all in all it’s very nice.
Winning a game of Takenoko is where it becomes a little strange, much like the fantastic Ticket to Ride (the perfect gateway game?) each player has little cards which tell them their objectives.
Unlike Ticket to Ride though, everyone has three different types of objectives they are trying to score and/or trying to screw their opponents over getting rather than just one (and some bonuses).
First off is making certain plots, getting the garden tiles down, irrigated and in a specific pattern, the second is growing bamboo in certain amounts and heights and the last is getting that Panda to eat a set amount of coloured bamboo pieces.
These objectives are simple, but really, unfortunately, is where the game falls down.
First off is simply the fact that amongst the objective cards there are not only repeats but also cards which are very similar. You for example may be aiming to grow some very tall pink bamboo, well guess what, so is an opponent and you’re doing all the work for them.
Now secret objectives are not a problem when a game allows you to attempt at reading your opponents to figure out what they are doing, maybe one opponent keeps placing green tiles, this must be for a certain plot. Or is it?
You don’t know that even if your read is right, will it stop all your opponents messing with what you assume is their plan, maybe you need it yourself or maybe they are going for bamboo to grow or eat and actually it’s quite possible, in fact most likely, that really you need those things for yourself.
Your head exploded yet?
Getting past the fact the Emperor has given multiple different people differing plans to what he wants in his garden or that the Panda has 2-4 stomachs, sharing pieces is an interesting concept but it just doesn’t work.
When there are so many pieces being shared with so many different choices as to how to use them it becomes messy.
This all might make Takenoko actually sound complicated and it really isn’t, but if for a second you start wanting to “game”, actually think rather than just “do stuff” it all just falls apart and will make many people not want to play a second time, frustrate any regular to semi-regular board game enthusiasts and probably be shelved forever.
A game of Takenoko closes out when someone scores 8 of their objective cards which the players reveal as and when then can score them.
This does a great job of speeding up the game but awkwardly makes Takenoko actually become a race, frustrating for the player trying to go for a certain angle of say scoring big plots while another just flips over the easy objectives they kept scoring off of other players work.
It might sound all devious playing the mellow one and sneaking out the points, but with all the randomness and the hidden natures of the game it happens a lot and is rarely ever planned.
I found in my experience Takenoko was won by a player who just keeps drawing objectives and not aiming to do the work, usually revealing their winnings the fastest and ending the game.
Extra points are also awarded to the player finishing first, and this becomes very “win more” as usually that player has 2-3 more objectives done than the others anyway and they simply cannot catch in the single turn they have to do so.
Takenoko at the end of the day is a very pretty and simple game, but like an easy pick up at a bar, good that one time but not the sort of thing you really want to show to your family or spend your life with.
Sure there are ways to house rule this game and if you are playing a nice session of say 3+ games with newer board gamers and want variation than maybe it is fine, but that’s as good a thing as I can say, it’s fine at best if you need more.
Just play Ticket to Ride.