Renature (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designers: Michael Kiesling & Wolfgang Kramer
  • Artists: Dennis Lohausen
  • Publisher: Deep Print Games & Capstone Games 
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 45-60 Minutes
  • Times Played: 5

“Land really is the best Art” 

                                  -Andy Warhol

Who would have thought, an area majorities game about reclaiming nature? Apparently Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer and the fine folks at the newly established Deep Print Games, that’s who. 

The premise of the game is simple, we are helping the woodland creatures reclaim a valley that has been ravaged, nature is gone and we aim to bring it back through the placement of wooden dominos with woodland creatures on them and plants to place in the areas where our woodland friends venture. While we definitely want to help the environment, we being human beings, do still have that natural urge to do it better than our fellow competitors. 

Each player is going to receive a player board. On that player board you will store your plants and also some cloud tokens. Cloud tokens create some variability in your turn, but we’ll talk about those a bit later. Just know that the number of plants that you have on your board is dictated by the number of players. With two players, it’s a bit different, each player receives two boards. The board where all the action takes place consists of green and brown areas, along with a Kramerlieste (score track) and the area to keep track of which animals are wild at the time. The plants each player receives are in their color and also in a neutral wood color, the player board denotes how many of each you should have. After everyone is all set up with their player boards, they receive a denoted number of the wooden domino tiles with the animals on them. With four players you get 13, with three players you get 18 and in a two player game each player gets 26. Any spares are returned to the box. These dominos are placed in front of you face down, and each player will draw three of them for their “hand” of dominos to start the game. First player starts at four on the score track, the second player at three, and so on. 

Each player’s turn consists of four steps to follow — Placing a domino, Planting a plant (optional), Score Points and Refill your Hand. 

To start the game there are four spots where you can place any domino that you want. Rules are pretty self explanatory, stay within the boundaries and only place on the green areas. After that first domino has been placed, there are a couple different options. As long as one of the starting spaces is uncovered, you can place in that area with any domino or you can continue off of an existing domino by matching animals as long as you stay within the boundaries, and only place on the green areas. The aforementioned wild animal means that if you place a domino with that animal on it, or you place next to an existing domino with that animal on it, you may play any animal next to it. Those clouds mentioned earlier, you could at any point in your turn, spend two of the six you start with to change the wild animal to one of your choosing. If for some reason you are unable to play a domino, you return one from your hand to the box, forfeiting your turn. 

If you placed a domino, you may now place a plant in a free area space that is adjacent to the domino placed. The plants are only placed in the brown areas of the board. Each brown area is a specific size and has a token in the area that dictates points if the area has been closed off. If you placed your domino in a way where there are no free brown spaces adjacent, you cannot place a plant, or if you are out of plants. Clouds to the rescue again! You may spend clouds equal to the value of the plant to pull one of your plants, or a neutral plant from the board. There are four different sized plants — Turf which is valued at one, Bushes are valued at two, Pines are valued at three and Oaks are valued at four. There are four spaces in brown areas on the board that hold extra cloud tokens, if you place a plant on one of those areas, take the clouds to your supply. 

After placing a plant, if you could or wanted to, you are going to score points for the plant you placed. The plant placed scores one point for itself, and it will also score one point for every other plant in the area that is of equal or lesser value. After scoring those points, check and see if the area is completely enclosed. A brown area is completely enclosed if each green area beside the area is covered by an animal or is isolated so that a domino could never cover it. Diagonals do not count, they do not need to be covered. If an area is completely surrounded, it’s time to assess who has control. To do this, simply sum the value of each color’s plants in the area, including the neutral ones. According to the token in the area, players involved will now score points. The player with the higher value of plants scoring the higher value on the scoring token and taking the token for bonus points at the end of the game, and the second place player gaining the lower value points on the token. If only one player is in the area, they score both high and lower points. Here’s the trick though, ties nullify both colors involved. So if Orange and a Neutral have four points worth of plants and black only has one, black is going to win the area as Orange and Neutral have tied and nullified their values. 

After scoring, the active player refills their hand of dominos to three and play passes to the next person in line. 

One final thing that you can do with the Cloud tokens, is that you can spend three of them to take another turn immediately. Knowing this, if you ever run out of dominos and others still have them to play, your turn is skipped. 

Renature ends when everyone has run out of dominos and then a final scoring is carried out. Each Cloud token that is still present on your player board will score you one point and each plant that you have remaining on your player board will score you a negative points equal to the value of the plant. Any area tokens that you have collected are flipped over and you gain the bonus points on the backside of them as well. The bigger end game scoring though is for all of the areas on the board that did not get completely surrounded. You score them the same way as you did during the game, but no bonus points are awarded. The player with the most points is the winner, with the tie breaker being the player with the most area tokens collected. 

Simple rules, complex, thought provoking game play. That’s kind of the signature for Renature and honestly a lot of the designs of Kiesling and Kramer. So it fits pretty well with the Capstone Games lineup of Simply Complex games. I like this team-up of Capstone with Deep Print Games and I look forward to seeing more of it come to fruition in the future, even with some of the lighter fare that is coming from Deep Print and being brought to the states by Capstone. 

Renature feels at once familiar but also unique in play. The mechanisms are the same things that we’ve been doing for years, and somewhat the outcome is the same, but with the theming and the components put together the way they are here, it’s a wholly new experience, at least for me it felt that way. The addition of the neutral colors that everyone has control of and the tie system create a new feeling. One that can be a bit confrontational, which for some groups is a downer, but for a lot of other groups — like mine, direct confrontation is a bonus. The neutral pieces are just as important, if not moreso, than your own pieces a lot of the time. I love when games make ties matter rather than just sharing everything. Yes, that has its place in other games as well and isn’t a negative all the time, but here you have to watch it and you have to plan for it. It’s always fun to watch the two players ahead of you tie leaving a lot of points for you sitting back in third place in the area. It can also be frustrating but in a game like this, I think necessary. 

One disconnect with Renature can be that competition, that confrontation. The theme here doesn’t really call out for a competitive game, the theme calls out for working together to rebuild, but for me it all works. Although it can feel a bit superficial to brag about being the person who helped regrow the forest more than the others. I am curious about Deep Print Games and their thematic choices, as the next title that was announced after Renature was Kyoto, another competitive game, involving a lot of negotiation and bribery, with a climate/Earth theme. Renature can be a bit slow to start, most of our games have seen two or three separate paths starting the game, eventually everyone comes together to compete, but with the lower point areas at the starting areas of the board, you tend to not really care if an opponent scores two points, especially when you are scoring two points directly opposite of them on the board. But as I said, it all does come together in a nice crescendo at the end with those bigger areas being hugely important in end game scoring. You have to be fighting in Renature, you can’t just let everyone do their own thing. 

Components are top notch, and the production was well thought out from the word go. The only plastic involved in the game was the shrink wrap that the box came in, which I kind of wish didn’t exist. The wooden pieces all came in wonderful cloth bags, no plastic baggies here. Some may not really like that as Renature didn’t come with enough cloth bags to individually bag each player’s components, it works out just fine thanks to the sharing of the neutral pieces and the fact that two player games use a lot of extra wooden pieces of two of the colors. So yes, in a two player game you are stuck playing black and white. The wooden dominos add an extra step beyond simple cardboard or card tiles, it gives the game more of a thematic, earthy feeling. Plus, who doesn’t love dominos?!

Capstone Games here in the states does not seem to get enough credit, at least from my perspective. Clay and the gang have kind of taken the reigns left behind with Stronghold Games no longer being independent. We need publishers reaching out to the publishing houses in Europe and other continents, looking for games to bring to the states that normally wouldn’t be. So kudos to Clay and the folks at Deep Print Games for getting together and creating this partnership. Kudos to the folks at Deep Print Games for creating an engaging and wonderfully produced kickoff for their company. We shouldn’t be surprised though, given the names involved in running said company and the names of the designers of that first game. 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers:

Dale – Renature is the second Kramer and Kiesling domino game that I’ve encountered this month – the other was Jubako by Ravensburger.  While they are similar in the whole domino thing, they feel completely different.  In this game, not only do you get to play Dominoes, you also engage in a challenging area majority game!

In Renature, you use your dominoes to play on a central board, trying to build (or maybe block) paths along the river which encircles the scoring areas. Then, you get to place some of your plants (grass, bush, tree, big tree) into the adjacent scoring area spaces.  You also have some neutral colored trees which can be used to block both immediate and endgame scoring. As an area is nearly enclosed, it can be a devastating play to place the final plant in an area, using a neutral tile to cause a tie with an opponent, thus taking them out of the scoring for that area!

Obviously, you’d rather play your own color plants as they directly score you points, but there is clearly the right time and place to use the neutral plants as well.   In any event, even if you are not going to use them to negate an opponent’s majority, you still want to play the neutrals to avoid the 1 point penalty at the end of the game.

For me, the pacing of the game is a bit slow at first.  While there are 4 possible starting squares, they are all clustered at the top and it takes a while for the paths to develop to give you options on different parts of the board.  Once the board opens up, then there is a nice tension each turn as you have to pick the one place that you choose to play in (although oftentimes your hand of dominoes makes that decision for you).  You’ll likely be fighting for control of several different areas, and you’ll have to decide where you want to play on each turn.  Sometimes, you might end up playing a domino and not putting a plant in play; but you’ll still effectively block off those possible placement spaces in the scoring area; and sometimes, that’s just as good.

The scoring system also helps move the game along. At first, I wasn’t sure why the player who closed off an area got the scoring tile, but after a few games, it makes sense.  It’s nice to give a bonus to that player – because that player might not have any reason to want to close off the area; they may not be getting any majority points out of it – but it is still worth a play in that area if you’re going to get 2-4 points for the scoring tile itself.  This adds one more option in play.  

The cloud token system is a nice way to give you some special actions, though you only get 6 tokens, so you’ll have to use them wisely.  I try to save them for the second half of the game when I might need to grab one of my pieces back to use again or for an emergency change of wild animal.  When it gets to crunch time, I do like to keep at least a pair of clouds around for that vital end-game move (when invariably the draw of dominoes just doesn’t cooperate).

The art is clean, though my eyes have had some issue with the animals. For whatever reason, I have had difficulty with the animals on the dominos.  Not sure what the issue is because none of my other gamers have had problems; but when I look at the board, it takes me awhile to see my options (as opposed to the colorful blocky icons in Jubako).  Everything else is nice though, and the player board also nicely serves as a player reference – leaving very few questions that need to be asked in the course of the game.

Renature is a game that so far I think I like, but definitely do not love.  It uses mechanisms that are familiar (dominoes, area control, Raj-like-cancellation scoring), though nothing about the game seems overly innovative.  The pieces mesh together well, and it’s a solid game – but I’m still unsure if it has enough to displace any of the games currently in the volume-controlled game collection.  It deserves a few more plays, and hopefully after that, I’ll know whether it’s a keeper or not.

Doug G.: (Three 2-player games played) Gorgeous bits and an interesting theme mask a VERY confrontational game in Renature. Having only played this as a 2-player, I can’t speak to the 3- or 4-player versions, but as Brandon states, in the 2-player version each player gets a number of neutral pieces that can work to tip the scales on majorities or set up those painful ties that give an opponent the upper hand. I like the game, and look forward to more from these publishers, but I’m not sure this one needs to stay on our shelf. Check out our longer discussion on Episode 765 of the Garrett’s Games podcast, due out on the last day of February.

Mitchell T: I’ve now played the two player version of ReNature about a dozen times. This is the kind of game I typically love—semi-abstract, thoughtful randomization that demands improvisation, lovely materials, and a great blend of strategy and tactics. Renature contains all of those qualities and is easily (along with Babylonia, Mandala, and Miyabi) among my favorite games of the last year. Renature is surprisingly strategic as you have to consider how and when you will deploy your plants, when to use your clouds, whether to emphasize quick scores in small territories or shared scores in big territories, and how to set up larger immediate scores from the plant placement process. I’ve explored all of those possibilities and as you would expect in a game like this, the best choice is typically situational. The neutral pieces add a dynamic, tactical tension. There’s a lot of brinkmanship and direct competition in Renature. The domino placement is brilliantly conceived as they weave sinuous, multiple paths across the board and you have to pay attention to all of them. Meanwhile as the game proceeds you have a better sense of which animal symbols are still remaining and how that influences what you can do. 

Dale suggests that he likes to save his clouds for regenerating used plants, but there is also much to be gained by saving your clouds for changing the wild suit on the dominos, and knowing when to time that change. Dale is correct, too, in observing that the game gets off to a slow pace, but the tension ramps up as you have more choices on the board. Still, in the early game you can choose to set up those quick scores, entice your opponent by placing seemingly less valuable neutral pieces, or set out across the board for bigger territories. Yes, there is alot going on, but the easy and familiar play of dominos lessens the burden and creates an engaging and lovely aesthetic. And…Renature is absolutely accessible. The materials are fantastic. I’m sure, too, that the 3 and 4 player versions create new approaches to good play. I’m very enthusiastic about ReNature and after twelve plays nothing has diminished that enthusiasm or enjoyment. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it. Brandon K, Mitchell T

I like it. 

Neutral. Dale Yu, Doug G., Lorna

Not for me… James Nathan

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