24th Sep2021

‘Takenoko’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Not that it matters really, but I have quite the love/hate relationship with panda bears. My kids love them, and of course I agree that they look cute and cuddly, with almost as many amusing YouTube videos featuring their antics as there are for cats and dogs. That said, their reluctance to mate or eat proper foods (based on their size and biology) annoy me, and I feel like the efforts made to support them would be better spent on creatures that struggle due to human negligence such as Wales, for example. That aside, China’s giant panda is central to the theme of today’s review – the board game of Takenoko – so I need to put aside any prejudice!

Takenoko is a game of tile placement (as you build out a garden), strategic movement (as you guide both a panda and a gardener around the garden), set collection (as you collect the three different colours of bamboo) and objective scoring (as you complete hidden objective cards from three different focus areas.) The game is presented as being relatively cute, with cartoonish (and fully painted) miniatures representing both the gardener and the panda, but don’t let that fool you, simple rules are just the gateway to a game of tough decisions and challenging scoring criteria.

The overall objective of Takenoko is simply to score the most points, with the end game trigger being linked to the number of objective cards that have been completed. At two players, as soon as one player completes nine of these, the final round begins. At four players, it begins when a player reaches seven cards completed. Either way, the player who triggers the end takes a special reward from the visiting emperor (who thematically is the one driving all players to improve their gardens for the visiting panda.) After this final round, everyone adds up all their points on all their completed cards, and the winner is the one with the highest total.

Each turn begins with the rolling of a weather dice. This determines any bonus conditions for that specific player turn. The sun face gives the current player an extra action (on top of the two allowed on a normal turn), whilst the storm face allows the player to move the panda to any tile, then have it eat some bamboo (which is added to their own supply.) Each of the other four faces does a unique thing along the same lines (with one of them even offering a wild card that allows the player to choose from any face.) With the dice rolled and the face it lands on resolved, the active player will then take their normal two actions (or three, if the sun came up.)

Of five actions available; Plots, Irrigation Channel, Gardener, Panda and Objective, the player must perform two (or three) different options (again, unless the wind face is rolled, which allows the same action to be taken twice.) Each one is quite simple to resolve, with Plots allowing the player to draw from the pile of hex tiles, then choose and place one. Irrigation Channel literally allowing a player to take an irrigation channel (for use either now or later), Gardener allows the player to move the gardener any number of spaces in a straight line, and then to grow a bamboo shoot on the space he finishes on plus each adjacent space of the same colour. The Panda action allows the player to move the panda in the same way as the gardener, and then to eat one piece of bamboo at the destination space. The final action simply allows the player to draw one objective card from a deck of their choice.

Bearing in mind the race to complete objective cards – which obligate players to do things such as; arranging garden tiles in a certain pattern, growing bamboo of specific colours to specific heights, or eating bamboo of set colours. These objectives all range in difficulty and value (in terms of points) and clearly, their viability is also weighted a little bit based on the board state. IE late in the game with many pieces already set out, you’ll struggle to achieve an objective that requires garden tiles to be placed a certain way. Equally, at the start of the game, there may be relatively few pieces of bamboo on the board for the panda (which doesn’t belong to any one player) to go after.

When you look at your actions in that context, Takenoko has that really good board game balance point between simple actions and complex decisions. There’s nothing that is specifically hard to do here, but making each action worthwhile is quite the art. This problem changes quite a bit based on player count as well, with two player games allowing the players to predict the way that the other play might expand the garden or move the panda/gardener much more effectively. At four players, the opposite is true, and one downside of Takenoko is that it can be hard to make plans beyond your own turn, since everyone else will probably wreck them before play comes your way again.

Perhaps the most complex aspect of Takenoko is that of irrigation – which is simply related to which garden tiles can (or indeed, can’t) grow bamboo. Every tile that is adjacent to the cenral pond can, but after that, you’ll need to have irrigation channels run down the side of any other tile that you wish to be fertile. Some tiles do have “improvements” printed on them, whilst one of the die faces allows a player to take an improvement chip and add it to the board, and in either case one such improvement is the Watershed, which irrigates its own tile. However you do it though, you’ll need to get water to any space that needs it in order to score (or if you want to grow bamboo) and this is probably the one part of Takenoko that makes it inaccessible to very young players – everything else is dead simple.

As always with a Matagot product, Takenoko looks fantastic, and in this case there are some real standout pieces. For example, the panda and gardener miniatures both come fully painted, which is an unusual and very enjoyable feature. The objective cards are clear and the artwork is consistent, whilst the board itself builds out nicely with the wooden irrigation pieces snaking across it. Perhaps the only negative to the components is the improvement tiles, which look more like a flimsy afterthought than a proper, functioning piece that adds visual appeal to the board.

Thanks to its simple, appealing gameplay and generally high quality components, Takenoko will almost always draw players in when it is presented to them. It is simple to teach, but you won’t truly master it until you have played several times – probably ten or more, really – thanks to the way that demands players learn the intricacies of how to maximise its randomness. I can’t name any oher game that is quite like it, either, and that’s always a good sign, so for now, Takenoko is on my keep shelf – and it’s a game that I certainly recommend you try at least a few times before you write it off as cute and childish – which it certainly is not.

**** 4/5

Takenoko is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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