At GenCon last fall, yet another colorfully produced game by Asmodee caught my eye. Takenoko, with its pastel bamboo and cute little panda figurine certainly lives up to the Asmodee reputation. After waiting many months to get a chance to try the game out for myself, I lucked into a slightly dinged up review copy of the game. What I found was a fairly light game that had a bit more randomness than I prefer but due to its theme and accessibility makes for a very good family-friendly game.
In Takenoko, the players are members of the Japanese imperial court charged with taking care of the lovely “gift” of a panda by the Chinese ambassador. Players together create a lovely garden and grow bamboo, while managing to feed it at the same time. In game terms, players earn points by achieving three types of goals: by laying out hexagonal garden tiles (that come in 3 colors) in specific patterns, growing bamboo in specific areas and/or heights, and in feeding the panda specific types of bamboo. Player goals are secretly kept on cards, additional goals can be drawn during the game, and the game will end when someone accomplishes a set number of goals (7-9 cards, depending on the number of players.)
The game begins with a single pond tile in the middle of the board, and each players holding one of each of the three types of goals. On a player’s turn, they select two actions from among five possible choices.
Plots: A player may draw three plot tiles and place one on the board, discarding the other two. (This is how a plot objective card is met.) If a tile is placed next to the pond, it is considered irrigated and will instantly grow a single shoot.
Irrigation Channel: A second action choice is to select one of the limited irrigation channel tokens from the reserve. This can be played or kept until later in the game when it can be played outside of a player’s normal two actions. The irrigation tokens are a means to irrigate (and thus grow bamboo on) plots that are not directly touching the central pond plot. Irrigation tokens are placed along the sides of hexagons to form a sort of canal network back to the central pond.
Gardener: A third action choice is to the gardener any direction (and distance) in a straight line. The gardener causes bamboo to grow one section on the plot on which he stops (if irrigated) as well as any adjacent irrigated plot of the same color. (This is typically how gardener objective cards are met.) Note that bamboo can only grow to a maximum height of 4 sections. So the gardener has no effect on a maxed out plot.
Panda: The fourth action choice is to move the panda. The panda moves any distance in a straight line and eats a single shoot of bamboo from the plot on which it stops. Players take the eaten bamboo piece onto their playmat and may cash it in as a free action later in order to satisfy a panda objective card.
Objective: The final action choice is to gain a new objective card. A player may choose which type of objective to select (plot, gardener, or panda) and simply takes one off the top of the appropriate pile.
A handy player mat helps to keep track of spare irrigation channels, eaten bamboo, and serves as a good reference of the various actions available. Two tokens serve as markers to remind players which and how many actions they’ve already chosen.
Players continue taking turns until one player satisfies the requisite number of objective cards. That player earns a 2 point bonus, and then the game continues until everyone has had the same number of turns. (Thus, if the starting player manages to complete enough objectives, everyone else still gets one more turn.) Players add up their completed objective card points (typically 3-8 points each, depending on their “difficulty”) and a winner is declared. There is no penalty for uncompleted objective cards.
All this makes for a decent, if somewhat simple, game so two additional features are present to keep things interesting. First, plots can have special abilities, termed improvements. In addition to “regular” plots of the three colors, some plots can have an enclosure (it prevents the panda from stopping there), fertilizer (it grows two shoots at any growing opportunity – again to a maximum of 4 total), and watershed (which simply means it is self-irrigated and thus gains a shoot when it is placed.) These special abilities not only affect the game, but are also frequently part of gardener objectives (where, for example, a player may need to grow a stack of 4 shoots on a watershed tile.)
The second complication to the game comes at the start of each player’s turn… an event die is rolled. On all but the first round of the game, a player first rolls a die to gain a slight benefit before choosing their two actions. This die provides one of five benefits (the sixth face allows a player to choose their benefit for the turn.) A Sun symbol grants a player a third action (which still must be different than all other chosen actions). Rain will cause the irrigated plot of the player’s choice to gain a bamboo section. Wind allows a player to take two of the same actions this round (instead of two different ones). A storm will cause the panda to run in fear and lets the player place the panda anywhere on the board where it then eats a section of bamboo. Finally, the clouds face grants a player a free upgrade chip which can be used to immediately add an improvement to an unimproved plot on the board or saved and used to do so at a later time.
So, how does it play? Surprisingly well. With a die roll and then two choices per round, the game moves along at a healthy clip. Even with new gamers and a rules explanation we clocked in well under an hour of play. It should be quite accessible to a wide age range, I’d suggest 10+ for a better category but expect the printed 13+ designation is simply to avoid harsh US restrictions on games listed as under 13. The components and artistic flair of the game make it pleasing to look at and serves to help draw people into the game. However, I do have some qualms about the randomness present in the game. There are two main sources of random chance, the weather die and the objective cards.
Throughout the game, the weather die provides a bit of random chance into each turn. While I did have one game that was frustrating to watch as all the other players seemed to be rolling the extra-action face (what I consider to almost always be the best result), throughout the course of the game (figure at least 10-15 turns) things will eventually start to even out. It would be trivial to simply remove the die, and I could see that as an option for serious tournament play or something, it does remove some of the flavor of the game so I have no desire to crusade against the weather die in such a lightweight/family-friendly type of game.
The objective cards, however, can have a bit more swing effect later in the game. When drawing a new plot objective (and to a lesser extent a gardener objective) late in the game, it is possible to draw an objective that is already met. This can be a two edged sword. If a specific configuration isn’t already present, there may not be enough unused tiles left to complete a specific objective. The game rules contain an “advance rule” which stipulates any objective card drawn that is already completed is removed from the game, and the current player simply draws again. While this will help somewhat with the swings of luck at the end of the game, It is not clear to me that the advanced rule is entirely needed. As players gain more experience with the game, it may prove beneficial to be acquiring more objective cards earlier in the game (although there is a hand limit of 5). The objective cards are already somewhat balanced. While plot objective cards are among the easiest to achieve, and most frequently already completed at the end of the game, they are also typically worth the fewest points. Panda objectives are arguably more difficult and are thus worth more points.
Despite the die rolling and objective card issues, I enjoy the game for what it is. It isn’t a deep thinker, but an accessible game still full of significant decisions. As a lightweight game, its biggest danger is perhaps outstaying its welcome, but as long as no player gets stuck in an analysis paralysis rut it should move along at a fair enough clip. Goodness knows, the cute little panda token and the colorful game area should be a decent draw to bring new or less experienced gamers to the table.
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers
Jonathan Franklin: I enjoyed Takenoko with all adults. We did not think too hard about what we were doing and some cards types definitely seemed easier to achieve than others, even though they were not worth substantially fewer points. I have only played twice and enjoyed both plays enough to happily play it if asked. Seems right up the SdJ alley, so once it is released in Germany, it will go on my prediction list. Bravo, Bauza!
Lorna: This is one of those games I have to have for the bits. I love the stackable bamboo pieces and the panda . Light game play, pleasant but nothing special. Honestly if it were of lesser production it’d be in the trade pile.
Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it. Matt Carlson, Jonathan Franklin, Lorna
Not for me…