A long time ago, in an Imperial Court far, far away (unless you’re reading this in Japan, of course)…
Diplomatic relations between Japan and China are finally on the mend after a long period of civil unrest. To demonstrate China’s peaceful intentions, the Emperor has gifted his Japanese counterpart a Giant Panda Bear – a sacred animal viewed as a symbol of peace. It is a wondrous gift, but one that presents an administrative conundrum – how do you maintain an animal that has such a voracious appetite without detriment to your beloved court? Delegation seems the most viable option, which is where you come in.
In Takenoko, your job is to grow and maintain the Royal Bamboo garden while simultaneously keeping the Giant Panda fed and content – two almost mutually exclusive tasks. Players take turns directing the royal gardener in his tasks while trying to complete private objectives and earn points. Gameplay in Takenoko is extremely simple, but allows for strategic variety, making for an easy to learn but engrossing and enjoyable experience.
As with many European board games, Takenoko works on a point system. Each player is given objectives (in the form of cards) and completing these earns points. Once a predetermined number of objectives has been completed, the game ends and the player with the most points is declared the winner. If you’re familiar with games like Ticket to Ride, then the objective system in Takenoko will feel very familiar. At the beginning of the game players are dealt three objective cards, each of which outlines the conditions for success and the point value for completion. Players share a common play area, so in the process of completing one of their objectives, it’s quite possible for a player to inadvertently disrupt the plans of someone else.
Objectives are divided into three categories: Plot, Farmer, and Giant Panda. Plot objectives require that you expand the garden in a particular formation, farmer cards require you to grow bamboo to a particular specification, and Giant Panda cards require that you feed the Giant Panda its favourite food – your beloved bamboo. There’s not a great deal of variance between the cards in each category; however, that stability actually makes for a better experience. When selecting new objectives, you are able to choose a category that best suits your strategy – safe in the knowledge that even though it may not be what you want, the format is known.
Takenoko’s gameplay is incredibly straight forward. Turns are broken into two steps as follows:
1. Determine weather conditions
2. Perform actions and complete objectives
Weather conditions are determined by rolling a d6, with the result directly affecting either your actions this turn or conditions on the board. Adding the randomness of a dice roll is fantastic, as it adds variety to the game and forces you to adapt your strategy accordingly. That said, the effects of weather only have a minor impact on gameplay. They’re never detrimental (to you) and are well balanced, meaning each roll is met with happy anticipation rather than nervous trepidation.
Once the weather effects have been resolved, the player may perform two or more actions (dependant on the weather). At the start of the game, each player is issued with a tracker board, which is used as a quick reference guide for weather die results and a means for you to track which actions you decide to perform each turn. Actions must be announced at the start of the turn in order to prevent the results of one action affecting another. There are 5 potential actions you may perform:
1. Expand the royal garden.
2. Collect an irrigation channel
3. Move the gardener
4. Move the Giant Panda
5. Draw an additional objective card
Takenoko doesn’t have a traditional “board”, but uses hexagonal tiles to gradually grow a shared play area. The game starts with a single hexagonal piece (the pond), and as players opt to expand the royal garden, additional hexagonal tiles are added. Hexagonal tiles come in three colours – each indicating the type of bamboo that can be grown. Some also have improvements, like self irrigation, fertilization, or even an enclosure to prevent the Giant Panda from eating bamboo. When choosing to expand the royal garden, players draw the top three tiles, place one on the playing field, and return the others to the bottom of the stack. This approach gives the player more control over the outcome than just “drawing the top tile and placing it somewhere on the field”. This, like everything else in Takenoko, is implemented perfectly. It blends random chance with decision making to leave the player feeling engaged whilst not taking away the sense of apprehension.
Bamboo will only grow on irrigated tiles and there are only three means to irrigate a tile – place the tile beside the starting pond, use a “self irrigation” improvement, or connect it to the central pond via an irrigation channel. Irrigation channels are small pieces of wood the exact length of the edge of the tile – much like roads in the Catan board game. The first time a tile is irrigated, it immediately grows a piece of bamboo. Bamboo plants are represented by small towers built using coloured wooden pieces. Lightweight, like meeples, they join together well, adding a nice “tactile sensation” to the game.
Aside from initial irrigation, the only way to grow bamboo is by using the royal gardener. As such, you’re able to relocate him as one of the actions on your turn – if he lands on an irrigated tile, then you may add a piece of bamboo to the current stack. This isn’t as straightforward as it may sound however, as he has strict guidelines on how and where he can move. You may have the perfect move lined up, only to have your plans ruined as another player moves the gardener out of range. The versatility of the gardener is further compounded by the way he grows bamboo – once landed, the gardener doesn’t just grow a segment of bamboo where he lands – he also grows a section on all adjacent plots of the same colour (if irrigated of course).
“But Dave,” I hear you ask, “with all this bamboo growth, won’t you end up with a board full of precariously tall towers?” Well no, dear reader, you don’t. Takenoko keeps overgrowth in check by restricting the height of bamboo towers (four segments per plot) and allowing you to move the panda to trim them down. The Giant Panda piece moves in the exact same fashion as the farmer, except when you land on a plot, the panda may “eat” a piece of bamboo from that tile. Once eaten, you place it on your “tracker board” where it remains until an objective is met. For example, you may have a Giant Panda objective that requires you to feed the panda two green bamboo sections. Once you have two green sections on your tracker board, you show your objective card to the other players, place the card face up on the table, and return the bamboo sections to the box.
The final action you can perform on your turn is to draw a new objective card. Cards are sorted by category, so the player has the choice of the type of challenge they wish to undertake. Players may have up to five incomplete objectives at any one time, and there is no penalty for cards in your hand at the end of the game. This encourages you to stock up on cards, as the greater the variety in objectives, the more likely it is you’ll be able to achieve them.
Takenoko is very easy to learn and extremely fun to play. The game pieces are all well designed, with the look and feel of hand-painted wooden carvings. Base tiles are made with a thick, durable card and the playing cards have a nice, non-stick feel. The box is well designed with a moulded plastic insert to hold and protect the pieces. This might not seem an important feature, but it means game setup takes about a minute and risk of damage to pieces is greatly reduced.
I’ve played Takenoko with kids and adults alike, and all have found it an enjoyable experience. The game is presented well, plays well, and has the perfect mix of strategy and luck to ensure games are varied and always interesting. In my mind, this game is perfect. If you’re after a light but enjoyable game that you can play with almost anyone, you should seriously consider Takenoko.