- Designer: Balazs Nagy
- Publisher: Clevergreen
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 10+
- Time 30 minutes
- Times played: 5, with review copy provided by Clevergreen
Christmas Tree apparently made its debut in 2017 as Essen, but I somehow missed it amongst the 1,400 or so releases that year. It seemed to get some good reviews over the past year, and I discovered (much earlier on the calendar) that they had made a second edition this year. I was able to make an appointment to see the game at SPIEL 2018, and this game has made it to the table a few times this holiday season.
In the game, players each decorate their own Christmas tree with diamond shaped ornament cards – trying to create the most beautiful tree… As you can see, it’s the perfect sort of game for this time of year! (Well, assuming you come from the sort of cultural background where you put up Christmas trees… ) As Christmas tends to be a family time, this game comes packaged with rules for kids/casual gamers, regular gamers, and advanced gamers. I will start by explaining the regular rules – that is the middle set for regular gamers.
To set up, each player gets their own 21 space board which represents their tree (it actually looks like a tree!). A deck of cards is constructed with glass ornament cards, wrapped candy cards, and some gingerbread cards (3 per player) added in. Each player also gets 3 linzer cookies and 4 objective cards.
The game is played over three rounds, and in each round, players will place 7 ornaments – thus, by the end of the third round – the entire tree will be decorated! At the start of each round, each player is dealt a hand of 8 cards. Each player looks at their hand, and then all secretly and simultaneously choose one of their four objective cards; when all have chosen, the objective cards are revealed and everyone can see what the judging standards will be for this round.
Now, it’s time to decorate the tree! Each player again looks at their hand of ornament cards, and selects one to play this turn – it is placed face down on the table until players have chosen. Then, the card is played onto any free space of their tree. The card can be rotated (thus played upside down). There are a number of different reasons why you might choose a particular card – read on to the endgame scoring to see why.
If you want, you can choose to play a linzer card at this time – this allows you to switch two previously played ornament cards OR allows you to rotate a previously placed ornament card. Remember that you only were given three linzer cards at the start of the game, and there is no way to get any more – so use them wisely!
The hand of unplayed cards is then passed to the left, and each player again chooses a card from their new hand and then plays it. This continues until each player has a hand of two cards. They will select one of these to play, but the final card is simply discarded.
At that point, players will have played seven ornament cards in the round, and now it is time to evaluate the objective cards. Judge your tree based on ALL of the played objective cards and take snowflake markers in the appropriate amounts. Once all players have scored their trees, discard the played objective cards.
Rounds two and three follow the same pattern as above. Once the third round ends – you move into the endgame scoring (remembering that you have had three interim scorings with the objective cards thus far).
Glass ornaments and wrapped candies – each ornament itself is worth 0, 1, or 2 points and each candy is worth 3 to 6 points (based on the number of white snowflakes printed on the particular card). Sum up all your cards and take the right number of snowflake tokens.
Gingerbread – each gingerbread man has four limbs, and each points towards one side of the gingerbread card, and each limb has a scoring criteria printed on it which tells you want it wants placed in that adjacent space. It might ask for a candy, a specific ornament color or a specific ornament shape. You will score an increasing number of points for more matches: 2/4/8/12/18 points for 0/1/2/3/4 matches. Note that the cards must match on the specific side of the gingerbread man as the printed criteria.
Bulbs – many of the cards have half bulbs printed on their sides. For each complete bulb of one color, you score two points.
Linzer cards – finally, you take 1 point for each unused Linzer cookie card that you have at the end of the game.
Count up all your snowflakes, and the player with the most points wins! There is no tiebreaker. Because it’s Christmas.
As I mentioned at the top – the game also has an easy and expert set of rules. I’ll quickly try to outline the differences.
Easy – You only use the simplest level of objective cards, and you do not deal (tally) them. Instead, you flip up three from the deck at random each round. You also do not get nor use linzer cards.
Advanced – Each player starts with 5 objective cards and 4 linzer cards. Players use all three levels of objective cards – the regular game only uses the first two. When objective cards are chosen, they are NOT revealed at the start of the round. Instead, they are placed into the player hand and passed along through the draft. Therefore, you do not know the full set of objectives until the fourth card in each round. To further complicate things, all cards after the first must be placed so that they are adjacent on one edge to at least one previously played card. Finally, the drafting rotates direction each round (it is always clockwise in the base game).
My thoughts on the game
Christmas Tree is a clever drafting game which finds itself perfectly placed thematically during the holidays. While I’m not normally one to have themed game nights, we have played this a fair amount in December… And, though it remains to be seen, I am not sure the game will get much play from here on out until the next December – again, because of the theme.
Theme notwithstanding though, this is a solid game, especially the advanced version. There are a lot of tough decisions that need to be made as you construct your tree. Not knowing the true nature of the objective cards until halfway through a round makes things more challenging to figure out. Sometimes you can get a clue by working backwards from what your opponents are playing – but you’ll never be sure until you see the objective cards.
While I prefer the advanced version, the other two rulesets work well, and it’s nice that the game can scale for the level of the players. At the simplest level, this game works with kids and non-gamers. The gingerbread men are perhaps the least intuitive rule to have to learn, but it’s still not that hard. I have found that non-gamers have a difficult time remembering how the points are scored – but in the end, I have also found that those people end up enjoying the game for the act of decorating the tree and less so for the collection of victory points, so it still works out well.
Regardless of level, the one thing that I am trying to wrap my head around is: is there ever a time to not take a Gingerbread card. The point return on them can be quite high; so much so that it seems that it is always the best play to take them – even if it is only to prevent your opponents from playing them and reaping the rewards. Getting 18 points for a fully matched Gingerbread man is a huge score in this game; seeing that the next highest score is 6 for the best candy. However, taking a Gingerbread in the third round may not give you a lot of time to match up the ornaments to the correct limbs… Also, the Gingerbread cards have no bulbs on their sides, so that does limit the points you can rack up for that as well.
After a few games though, I realized that there are good points to be had from the objective cards as well – and this is sometimes enough to offset the gingerbread power. I have seen someone score 30 points on a single objective card before!
The rules are simple, but parts are a bit dicey. I’m guessing that they were not written or proofed by a native English speaker. Some of the word choices are weird, and it took a first play through the game to figure out some of the word choices. For instance, they use the word “tally” when they mean “deal”. When I was reading the rules prior to playing, I had a hard time figuring this out: “Make a deck of the objective cards with 1 bell, but do not tally them!” However, as the game itself is quite simple – it did not turn out to be much of an issue, just a weird quirk that I noticed when trying to learn the game.
Given the fairly unique theme of the game, this is one that will stay in the game collection to be pulled out annually each winter – as we deck the halls in the game room. There is a lot to think about in this drafting game, and there appear to be many different ways to accumulate the snowflake victory points as you trim your tree with glee.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum: I thought this was good, and better than I was expecting. My main issues were with the rules as Dale mentions and with component elements such as the score track which I believe have been improved in the second edition. However, I wouldn’t try playing even the easy version with the non-gamers I know as it still has too many rules; it might be OK with casual gamers.
Karen M: This is a perfectly approachable game. I think the theme will be attractive to non-gamers and the simple rules make it easy to learn. It did tend to slow down as the tree filled up and we were trying to figure out which card to play to optimize our points. I ended up with a bunch of gingerbread men late in the game when they weren’t awesome, but oh well… The shape of the cards is a bit annoying–it makes them hard to shuffle and “square” up but that is a minor quibble.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y (advanced is best), Dan Blum, Karen M., James Nathan, Steph
- Not for me…