Dale Yu: Review of Bonsai


  • Designers: Rosaria Battiato, Massimo Borzi, Martino Chiacchiera
  • Publisher: dv Games
  • Players:1-4
  • Age: 8+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by publisher

To paraphrase the publisher:  The Japanese term “bonsai” means “planted in a pot”. A bonsai is a living work of art, a perfect miniature plant, identical in all respects to its full-size simile, but several times smaller. A bonsai is a microcosm that contains within itself the mystery of the universe, unchanged in all but dimensions.  In the game Bonsai, players take on the role of expert bonsai masters intent on growing their own bonsai. Whoever grows the best plant will be appointed to show their Bonsai at the Imperial gardens.

To set up, each player gets a Pot in their color as well as a starting Seishi tile; additionally, players get some starting Bonsai tiles based on their position in player order.  The main board is placed on the table, and 4 cards from the Zen deck are placed on the spaces.  Finally, goal tiles from three of the five possible colors are set out.

On your turn, a player has two action choices: meditate or cultivate. If you meditate, choose one of the face up cards on the board and take it, along with any Bonsai tiles represented below the card you draw.  All cards on the board slide to the right and a new card is flipped over from the deck.  You place the card that you drew into your player area, to the right of your Seishi tile if it is a growth card and to the left if it is a tool card.  Either way, you overlap the cards so only the sidebar is visible.

The different types of cards:

  • Growth cards – allow you to place Bonsai tiles when you Cultivate
  • Tool cards – increase your capacity to hold Bonsai tiles
  • Helper cards – allow you to place depicted Bonsai tiles from your personal supply
  • Master cards – allow you to take additional depicted Bonsai tiles from the supply
  • Parchment cards – these give endgame scoring bonuses for depicted tile types

If you cultivate, you can place the tiles which are in your personal supply into your growing Bonsai. You can place as many tiles as the total symbols depicted on your Seishi tile and any or all of your Growth cards. Each symbol will let you place one tile of the corresponding type.   Brown wood tiles must be adjacent to other wood tiles; green leaf tiles must be adjacent to a wood, pink flower tiles must be adjacent to a leaf, and a yellow fruit must be placed between two adjacent leaves.

During the turn in which your bonsai matches or exceeds the requirements of a Goal tile that is still in the middle of the table (i.e., the Goal tile has not been claimed yet by any player), you must immediately choose whether you want to claim that tile or if you want to renounce it in order to try to achieve a harder Goal tile.  There are three difficulty levels of goal tiles, each worth successively more points.  Once you renounce your claim on a tile, you cannot go back later to claim it.

When the last card from the deck is revealed, the game end is triggered – all players get one more turn, ending with the player who triggered the game end. Each tile in your bonsai is worth a certain number of points:

  • Wood: 0 points
  • Leaf: 3 points
  • Flower: 1 point for each side not touching another tile (max 5pt)
  • Fruit: 7 points

Add to this total points from collected Goal tiles as well as Parchment cards.  The player with the most points wins, ties broken in favor of further distance from the start player.

The rules also include a solo game where you can try to beat the Emperor Challenge.  There are rules that force you to discard cards from the card display, and you try to score as many points as you can.  There are five scenarios included in the rules for successively harder challenges.

My thoughts on the game

Bonsai provides a nice light building game that is pleasing to play, fairly relaxing (except when you’re yelling at John for constantly taking the card that you want), and delivers beautiful bonsai trees on the table at the conclusion of the game.

Each player starts out with a single wooden stub and has to grow their tree using the four different types of tiles.  Due to varying growth rates (from acquired cards) as well as varied strategies from the goal tiles and the parchment cards, each tree will develop in a unique way.  You randomly pick out three of the five sets of goals to start each game, and that will surely cause each game to play differently; however, the timing of when people acquire certain parchment cards or even tool/growth cards will directly influence how their tree will develop as well.  This is more a game about being able to tactically shift based on the cards available and what your opponents are doing.

I also very much like the tension brought on with the bonus tiles.  There can be fierce competition for them, and like with most games, the racing tension is high.  However, the rule about passing over goal tiles makes decisions in uncontested races a bit spicy too.  In a recent game, we were rewarded for fruit.  I was the first to three fruit, and at that time no one else had more than 1.  But, two opponents already had 2 fruit in their supply, so it was possible that I could be caught quickly.  Though I was clearly in the lead, I actually had to decide if I was going to keep pushing forward with the fruit (I currently had none in my supply), though I would risk being overtaken; and if I did not get the goal tile for 3 fruit, I would have to now win the race to get 4 fruits…. Or, do I settle for the 3 fruit tile, and then invest my attention towards different goals?  I really liked the way in which I was forced to constantly evaluate my situation and what my future plans might be.

Rules are a bit janky but manageable.  The explanation for the cards is on the back cover, not in the middle of the rulebook where I’d want to read about them – you know, around the time that I learn that I draw cards and what to do with them.  In fact, as you read the rules in the traditional way, from front to back, you learn where to place Parchment cards, and that Parchment cards score you points at the end of the game, but you get no further information about them until the back cover?!  There are even 3 pages of flavor/theme text about the history of Bonsai, care tips and a glossary of different types of Bonsai trees before you get back to some fairly important game rules.  For me, this is not a good setup.  The back page looks like a summary of the rules, but they are in fact the ONLY location in the rulebook where some of the important information is given.  As a game designer and developer, this is an astonishing decision for vital rules – though, it is a step above putting those rules in illustration captions, something else that we’ve seen a fair amount in recent years.  

I was pretty lost in reading the rules the first time because I couldn’t put everything together in my head until reading the final page.  I had no idea how a turn would work before I read how the game ended and how it was scored. In the end, certainly all the information you need is in the rulebook, but the organization leaves something (Well, a lot) to be desired.  FWIW, the rules on the back page are almost enough to play the game, as while I was setting up, one of the gamers in my group read ONLY the back page and was almost ready to play as a result.  The one bright side of this arrangement is that the back cover serves as a easy reference once you are playing the game.  I would have preferred one less page of flavor text; inclusion of the important rules in the section of the rulebook where it made sense, and then a recapitulation on the back cover if that reference was desired.

The game moves along rapidly; and with our group, sometimes too fast!  You only have two choices on what to do on your turn, and once someone decides that they want to cultivate, it was not uncommon for the next person to go ahead and decide what to do.  And if that person also chose to cultivate, then the next person would go.  There were times when the whole turn cycle went around the table before that first cultivate action was done!  If anything, this is a fault of our game group, and not the game, as we’re an impatient bunch. But it definitely keeps the game moving along rapidly, and the overall game time under 30 minutes.

The artwork is superb, and there is definitely a coherent restrained Japanese theme in the cards and components.  The cards are easy to understand, and they are designed in a way that allows you to neatly stack them in your play area to save space yet be able to easily see everything. The building tiles are well done with little areas of shading on the leaf, flower and fruit tiles to reinforce the building rules in a visual sense.   And as I mentioned earlier, the overall visual of your bonsai tree is quite appealing, and it’s fascinating to watch how each player’s tree develops; usually in its own unique way.

Given the length and complexity, Bonsai is going to fit into the super filler category for my group, but it is a game that is both challenging enough, simple enough and beautiful enough to be kept in the game collection.  There is enough variability between games to keep it interesting, and it is a surprisingly strategic game for the 20-30 minutes it takes to play.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale
  • I like it. John P
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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