[Note… Sorry to be away from the blog for so long, but a few changes in my real-life job have significantly reduced the time I have for writing (and even for playing games). Things should be getting back to normal in the next few weeks, so hopefully I’ll be able to catch up on the backlog of Essen releases that I want to review! DY]
Walnut Grove was initially touted prior to Essen 2011 as a mashup between Carcassone and Agricola… As these are two of my favorite games, I was definitely interested in getting a copy and trying it out. I’ve now played over 20 games, and I must say that it is one of my favorite releases from Spiel 2011 for sure!
Welcome to Walnut Grove
Designers: Paul Laane and Touko Tahkokallio
Publisher: Lookout Games
# of players: 1-4
Time: 45 minutes
Times Played: 20+ total with review copy, at least 12 of these solo plays.
I previously had written a preview of the game where I outlined the flow of the game. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I’m going to just copy and paste that section into this review…
I’ll start by describing the game components. There is a board which depicts the town of Walnut Grove. There is a circular track on which the pawns move, with spaces in front of the multiple town buildings (such as the city hall, hardware store, church, saloon, etc). Some of the buildings are places where you buy stuff – such as more meeples or tiles to be placed on your player board to improve it. In the center of the board is a space where a disc is placed that shows special actions available in each of the 8 turns of the game. Additionally, each player in the game has his own player board which gives him room to house his workers, store his goods, and attach land tiles to.
The game itself is played over eight rounds – each representing a year in time – with each round consisting of four phases (seasons). Again, there is a disc in the center of the board which gives different rules for each phase of the game.
- Spring – draw and place a land tile
- Summer – place workers on land tiles and collect resources
- Autumn – move in the city and take an action based on where your pawn stops
- Winter – Return the workers to your player board, feed and keep them warm
In the Spring, all players draw a number of tiles (2,3, or 4) from the bag and then place some (1 or 2) tiles down into their player board area. The numbers drawn and played are both specified by the disc in the center of the town board. The main features on these tiles are different types of terrains, places to harvest resources and fences that split up the different terrains. When you place tiles, they do not necessarily have to have matching features on the sides that connect, but they must be placed so that they touch another tile.
In the Summer, your workers go into the land areas and harvest little colored wooden cubes. Each worker goes to a distinct land area – land areas might span over more than one tile depending on how you aligned your tiles in the Spring phase. At this point, you should also look at the disc in the center of town which will specify which type of terrain (i.e. color) will make an extra cube this turn. When you place a worker in a land area,the land area will immediately make cubes – one for every tile that is used to make up that area. The cubes which are made can be stored in the squares on those land tiles and excess cubes can be possibly stored on your player board.
In Autumn, the attention moves to the town board. Again, the outer edges of the board show the different buildings in the city. Just inside the buildings is a path where the pawns traverse. Each stop on this path is in front of one of the buildings. Each of the buildings has a special ability that can be used by a pawn that stops in front of it, assuming of course that the player can pay the costs associated with that building’s action.
Play starts from the meeple who is furthest ahead clockwise from the town hall. Meeples must move clockwise to any unoccupied space on the track. Your meeple could even make an entire circuit and end up in the same space where it started. Wherever you stop, you’ll be in front of a building which will offer you an action – if you can pay the cost for it.
The buildings – clockwise from the Town Hall
- Town Hall – you must pay a coin here in tax
- Post Office – receive two goods for free
- Lodge – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Carpenter – you can buy Building tiles here to be placed on your player board for special abilities
- Svenson’s – buy Improvement tiles here
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
- Hotel – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Church Bazaar – you must pay a coin in tax here as well
- Church – receive two goods for free
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
- Soebuck’s Hardware – buy Improvement tiles here
- Johansen’s Mill – you can buy Building tiles here to be placed on your player board for special abilities
- Saloon – allows you to add extra meeples to your player board (usable next turn)
- Small Trading Post – trade in up to 3 goods cubes each for a coin (drawn at random)
As you can see, there are plenty of possible actions to take, and each action is represented at least twice on the board – actually each is present at least once on each side between the town hall and the church. Oh yeah, that disc in the middle of town allows you to get an extra coin (for a total of two) when trading in a certain color of cube at the small trading posts. You probably don’t want to move around town too much, because each time you finish half the circuit, you have to pay taxes. Not being able to pay taxes is bad – you would have to take a Neighborly Help tile when you can’t pay. This tile can be thrown out if you discard any three cubes, and if you manage to keep it until the end of the game, it is worth negative 2 Victory Points – so you really don’t want to hang on to it!
Finally, in the Winter, you return all your meeples to your player board. Each meeple has to go back to its own room. Then, each worker needs to be fed – and each one eats a cube that matches its color. Of course, the disc in the middle of town mandates that one color of meeple eats 2 cubes this turn instead of just one. For each worker which cannot be fed, you must take a Neighborly Help tile (which again is a possible -2 VPs).
After everyone has been fed, then they have to be kept warm. Meeples that live in stone houses do not need to be kept warm, but all other meeples must have a fire built for them so they don’t freeze! For each meeple not in a stone room, you must spend one brown cube (wood) to keep that worker warm. Additionally there is a fixed cost each Winter in brown cubes which is specified on the disc in the center of town. (These stone rooms would have been bought in town at the Carpenter’s or Mill stores). Again, for each worker that would freeze, you take a penalty Neighborly Help tile.
After this, a new disc is revealed for the next year and the game continues on for a total of eight rounds following this same pattern. At the end of the eighth round, the game is scored.
- 2 points for each worker meeple
- 1 point for each fully fenced in area on your land tiles
- 1 point for each Stone Room and Storage Building on your player board
- 1 or 2 Points for collected coins (Silver or Gold)
- Points from Improvement tiles (such as +1 pt per worker or +1 pt for each good in storage)
- -2 VP for each Neighborly Help tile
So – did the game meet my expectations?
Yes, it most certainly did. I find that Walnut Grove is an engaging game that gamers of all levels have enjoyed. There is a slight learning curve to it, but I’ve found that if you set the game up and walk through a practice first round (heck, it could really even count), most gamers get the gist of the game by the end of that first round. [In my experience, the first round of the game usually plays out in the same way except for the Fall season as it all depends on what tiles/pawns are available in the buildings…]
The interesting thing is that I was drawn to the game based on the comparison to Carc and Agricola. However, the Carcassone comparison is not a strong one. While you do get to place square tiles next to each other, you don’t have to match any colors nor fences. This Spring phase is still challenging because you still have competing goals – trying to maximize your fenced in areas while making sure that you’re able to produce enough cubes of the colors you need – with the added restriction that you’ll be playing only one tile to the board in all but one round of the game. The Agricola comparison also falls a bit short for me. While the bonus tiles maybe give each player slightly different goals, there aren’t really big differences like those created by the Occupation cards in Agricola. However, like Agricola, you do get your own sandbox to play in – as there is nothing that other players can do to influence the tiles, cubes or setup of your player area.
Some of the people that I have played with have complained that there is not enough to do during the game – and I think this is mostly a reflection on the Autumn phase. Really, your moves in town are what separates your game from your opponent’s, and in this game, you only get one chance in each of the eight turns to make a move. And, furthermore, depending on circumstance (and sometimes placement of the other player’s pawns), you might have to take a turn selling cubes for coins or taking two free cubes – further reducing the number of “big” actions you get to take. I, however, find this limitation of actions to be a good thing. Similar to Princes of Florence, I like knowing from the start that I have X number of actions, and it’s up to me to make the most of them. But, I can definitely see where some people will be turned off by this aspect of the game. Most of the games that I have played in have been relatively close in final score, with winning scores generally in the mid to high 20s; this makes maximization of your actions in town of great importance as you need to fight for every point you can get.
I definitely have found that I prefer games that give me my own area to build and nurture my own strategy in. The interaction in this game is really limited to competition for spaces and tiles in town during the Autumn season. Otherwise, you can focus solely on your own area. In fact, with the exception of the Autumn phase, the other three phases can occur simultaneously for all players because there isn’t any interaction during those phases. Even in the Autumn phase, since you only have 8 actions per game, you’re still usually interested in taking the action that is best for you rather than trying to block an opponent. Again, for me, this is a positive aspect of the game – but I know for others it makes the game a bit of “simultaneous solitaire”…
The game plays quickly – most 4p games, even with newbies, play in under an hour, though my group can usually now get through it in 30 mins as we’re familiar with the rules. You definitely have to be willing to accept that luck will play a decent role in the proceedings as well. Skill is clearly rewarded in the game – but sometimes you just have to hope that you draw a tile that you want… For the length of the game, the variance due to luck is OK for me, and it’s definitely not anywhere close to a “French” level of luck.
While I will not say that this is an ideal “gateway” game as it is a bit more complex than I’d choose for an introductory game, it is definitely a good one for beginners. I have introduced it to people fairly new to the hobby, and it was quickly learned by those folks. It has also gone over quite well with my two boys (ages 9 and 7) – after 4 or 5 games, they play without any handicaps and are pretty competitive with the adults now!
Finally, I love the game because it has a solo version. Usually, I’m not a fan of playing games by myself. If I’m going to do that, I’d usually rather just sit down with my iPad or XBOX and play a game. But, the solo game here is an interesting challenge. You essentially set the game up as usual and play – with the goal of scoring 25 points. It’s much harder than it sounds, and it took me a number of games to streamline my strategy to get to that goal number.
Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers
Rick Thornquist (2 Plays): Dale’s review sums up the game quite nicely. The game plays well, but I can’t say there’s anything really new here. You’re gathering up resources and money, buying stuff, and trying to get the most victory points. Still, the game is pretty well done, so I’ll give it a “Like It”.
Jeff Allers (3 Plays)
I’ve met Touko and another Finnish gamer in the last couple of years and am pleased to see both gaming and game design thriving in that country up north. I was impressed with Touko back then, and when I heard of his newest releases, I snatched up both Eclipse and Walnut Grove in Essen this year (although I only purchased a total of 5 games there). Walnut Grove attracted me because of the “punch” it promised in a short playing time, and because the theme intrigued me. I knew it was, at its heart, a cube-pushing optimization game, but having grown up close to where Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived, this one appealed to me more than the typical medieval cathedral-building extravaganza.
I really wanted to like this—so much so, that I played it more than any 2011 release. And what’s not to like? As promised, it is short, and I like the puzzle aspect of putting together the land tiles and sending out workers. But each time I found myself wishing that there was a bit more interaction. Indeed, the other players and I barely looked at each other until the final scores were tallied. In the end, it felt like a souped-up version of Peter Burley’s Take It Easy, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but its complexity positions the game in a kind of no-man’s land: gamers will recognize all the standard Eurogame elements, but there are too many things going on and too little interaction to make it a good gateway game.
It was a pleasant enough experience and I wouldn’t refuse to play again if someone asked me, but it wasn’t a stand-out game, and that’s what it takes these days to remain in my collection. Still, I will keep my eye on Touko, Paul Laane and their compatriots, and I’d advice you to do the same.
Nathan Beeler (3 or 4 plays):
Someone described Welcome to Walnut Grove to me recently as “multiplayer solitaire”. I scoffed, because it didn’t feel like that to me in the times I’d played it. First and foremost, there’s the interaction in town. Then there’s the struggle to…well…no, the town is really all the interaction there is. The more I thought about it, the more I was forced to agree with them. It is multiplayer solitaire. And that’s ok. I probably didn’t notice because the game itself takes quite a bit of focus and effort to do well at; the landscape is unforgiving in the old west, and your chances of thriving are pretty slim. To make matters worse, some unfortunate souls can start the game having to pay double food for their people along with extra wood, without the benefit of having built up stored fat from previous rounds. For players in that situation, the game is even more harsh. Finally, a tornado of bad luck can blow through your territory, killing your plans like so many ruined crops. It is amazing how many times you can draw three or four tiles and never see the land type you desperately need on any of them. So to survive, to thrive, and to succeed under these circumstances really feels like you’ve done something special, even if you have done it more or less alone. The game does get dinged a bit in my book because the luck levels are higher than I would like for a something that requires as much thinking as it does.
Greg Schloesser: Please note that I’ve only played the game once so far — a situation I hope to rectify soon — but my initial impression is a good one. I enjoyed the puzzle-like aspect of properly arranging the tiles to maximize potential resource production and give flexibility. Choosing the appropriate action during the town phase was sometimes an obvious choice, while at other times it was tough. I enjoyed the careful management that is required to perform well. Like a few others have noted, the game does have a strong solitaire feel, but since the duration of the game isn’t terribly long, that doesn’t bother me. No, there really isn’t anything terribly new here, but the designers have wrapped everything together into a nice, tight package that works well. I like it!
Ted Cheatham: I have only played once as well. The turn order in the village can really hose you over if you are chasing someone with equal desires. And, in only eight turns, there were times when certain events came up that I just had to shore up for a turn with out making any progress. Overall, it is a nice little puzzle game that I would be happy to play again.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
Love it! Dale Yu, James Miller
Like It. Lucas Hedgren, Jennifer Geske, Tom Rosen, Nathan Beeler, Rick Thornquist, Greg Schloesser, Ted Cheatham
Neutral. Lorna, Jeff Allers
Not for me…