Review: Takenoko

Players:  2-4
Ages:  13+
Time to play:  45 minutes

Today I'm going to be reviewing the excellent Takenoko by Asmodee games.  It was released way back in 2011 and was designed by Antoine Bauza, who also designed the hugely popular 7 wonders game series.

In Takenoko, players cultivate and irrigate plots of land in the Imperial gardens of the Japanese Emperor.  Each player grows three species of bamboo (Pink, Yellow and Green), on the appropriate coloured land tiles.  Along the way they'll be getting help from the imperial gardener whilst at the same time managing the appetites of a greedy panda.  The player who manages their plots the best wins!

Now I can't get started on describing the how to play without at least mentioning the how beautiful this game looks.  It is a riot of colour throughout, from the incredible artwork on every piece of cardboard to the exceptional components contained within.

Included in the game are 28 beautifully illustrated plot tiles representing the pieces of land where the bamboo grows.  These plot tiles will be placed by the players at part of their turns and provide the areas where the 90 bamboo sections can be stacked according to their various types (green, yellow and pink).

These set the backdrop for the beautifully crafted (and fully painted) miniatures of the Gardener and Panda, which are intricately detailed and full with character.

There are also 20 wooden irrigation channels, 9 cardboard improvement tiles, 46 objective cards, 4 individual player boards, 8 wooden action chips and one lovely wooden weather die to round off the component list and make this game a real haul in terms of high quality components.

The goal of this game is to complete a number of objective cards which you are dealt, but can also pick up during the course of the game.  These cards require you to either match plot layouts, grow bamboo configurations on the plots or harvest sets of bamboo.  Each player can meet these objectives by laying down plot tiles, irrigating them, and laying down improvement tiles.  They can also use the gardener to grow bamboo and the panda to eat (collect) it for you.

At the beginning of the game each player is dealt a few objective cards to get them started.  They then take their tokens and their player boards.  The boards and tokens are used during the game to remind the player which actions have been taken, but also they are also the place where their accumulated bamboo, irrigation channels and improvement tiles can be stored.

The plot tiles, irrigation tiles, improvement tiles and objective cards are then placed to the side and the starting "pond" tile is placed in the centre of the playing space with the gardener and the panda on it.

Once this is done, the game is ready to play.  Play goes clockwise, and on each players turn they must do two things.  First, they determine the weather conditions by rolling a die, then they select and perform two different actions (which also may or may not complete objectives).

Ill get back to the weather die in a sec, but for now it makes more sense to explain the actions that each player can do.  In fact, in the first round of the game, the weather die isn't used so this kind of follows the initial game flow nicely.

So, as I mentioned before, each player must take 2 different actions from a selection of 5 available actions depicted on their player card.

The most straightforward action is to lay a plot tile.  In this instance the player draws three of the face down plot tiles and chooses to place on on the playing surface.  Plot tiles must either touch the special pond tile in the centre or be touching two plots already in play.  Some tiles contain improvement icons which have effects on the panda, gardener and bamboo growth.

They could also take an irrigation channel as an action.  In this case, the player takes an irrigation channel from the reserve and can either use it immediately or save it for later, placing it on their player board.  Irrigation channels must connect to the pond tile or other irrigation channels.  Once a plot tile has an irrigation channel along one of it's edges it is considered irrigated and bamboo can now grow there.  In fact, as soon as the tile is irrigated for the first time, a piece of bamboo is automatically grown there.

The third action is to move the gardener.  The gardener can move as many spaces as he likes in a straight line in any single direction over the plots.  If he comes to rest on a plot which is irrigated, a section of bamboo is grown on that plot and any adjacent irrigated plots of the same colour.  The bamboo colour grown is determined by the plot colour (either pink, green or yellow).  However, it's worth noting that each plot is limited to a maximum bamboo growth of 4.

The fourth action is to move the panda.  Like the gardener the panda moves in a straight line over plot squares.  When he rests on a plot which contains bamboo, a section of bamboo is eaten and the player places it on his player board.

The final action is to take an objective card.  In this case, the player takes an objective card from one of the stacks by the side of the board and adds it to their hand (up to a maximum of 5).  Objective cards are grouped into "plot objectives" where you try to match patterns using plot tiles, "gardener objectives" where you try to match bamboo growth and improvements with those on the bamboo gardens in play, and "panda objectives" where players match bamboo sets which bamboo that they have collected on their player boards.

That explains the actions that can be carried out, but there is also one other feature of the game which is important to mention and these are the 3 types of improvements tiles.  These are important as they can help manipulate bamboo growth to assist in meeting objective cards.

The first improvement is the "fertiliser" improvement and any plot tile which has this placed on it grows two bamboo sections instead of one.  The second improvement is the "watershed" which provides water to the plot so bamboo can grow there (effectively irrigating it).  The third improvement is the "enclosure", which stops the panda from eating the bamboo in that plot.

Some plot tiles already have improvements on them so can't have further improvements placed on them later.  You can only place an improvement tile on a plot tile without an improvement depicted on it.

Now that explains the actions and the improvement tiles, so hopefully now the weather die explanation will make a little more sense.

So, the weather die has 6 different faces, and each face has an effect on that players turn.  The player has the option to use the effect or continue as normal.  So for example, the face which depicts the sun, allows the player to take an extra (different) action that turn.  So that player now has 3 actions instead of the normal two.  The face which depicts wind allows the player to take two identical actions if they wish (rather than two different ones).

The face that depicts the cloud allows a player to take one of the improvement tiles (enclosure, fertiliser or watershed) which they can use at any point during the game.

The rain face allows a player to add an extra bamboo section to an irrigated plot tile, and the storm face scares the panda to any space you like to gobble up a bamboo section for your collection.

The only face left is the question mark, which allows the player to choose any of the other weather conditions they like.

So we can now see that during the course of the game as players lay plot tiles, grow bamboo and eat bamboo sections, the objectives on the player cards will be met.  As soon as the objectives are met, the card can (if that player wishes) on their turn be placed face up in front of the player indicating that the objective has been completed.  This frees up space in that players hand to pick up more objective cards.  However if a player decides to hold on to a few completed objective cards to lay them all down at the end of the game, the objective must be valid for the moment when they are revealed and not for a moment in the past which no longer exists.

As soon as the player meets a certain number of objectives (depending on player count) the endgame is triggered and that player gets the bonus emperor card for finishing the game first.  Each other player then has one more turn to complete objectives and the game is then over.

Completed objective cards all have a points value on them and these are totalled up for each player.  The player with the highest score wins!

When you boil it down to the bare bones, Takenoko is a game that is about matching patterns and as the playing area is a shared resource it can sometimes be quite a challenge to do exactly what you want to do.  And this is largely where the player interaction comes from as other players disrupt your Plot formations or keep eating your bamboo as you're trying to grow it.

Of course the opposite is also true and players can sometimes inadvertently set you up for an easy objective and with just the right weather conditions you can chain a few objectives and turn the game back in your favour.

The key to this game is managing your hand of objective cards to try and get the best balance of risk vs reward.  Gardener objectives, which contain the various bamboo formations often have the highest points value but as you're often trying to manipulate many plot tiles, they can be difficult to achieve especially as the player count increases.  The Plot objectives where you arrange plot tiles into certain patterns and the Panda objectives where you collect bamboo are much easier to achieve but do have a lower points value.

As completed objectives are laid out for all to see, everyone has an idea of who is in the lead.  But as players don't have to reveal all of their cards as they complete objectives, a good strategy is to keep back some completed objective cards in their hands to reveal at the end.

This is where the Panda and Plot objectives can come in very useful.  Because Gardener objectives can change state between turns (as bamboo grows or gets eaten) players really need to declare these objectives as soon as they are met and bank the points.  Plot and Panda objectives once completed will always be the same through out the game (unless you spend your collected bamboo completing a different objective), so players can keep those cards until the end for a surprise points flourish.

Overall I found the experience of playing Takenoko charming and engaging.  The colourful theme and beautiful components really draw you into the game and the unique design really sets it apart from other board games of this type.

I particularly enjoyed the process of growing bamboo with the gardener, because as the game progresses the playing area gets filled with bamboo of various colours and heights and evolves organically into really vibrant and colourful space to play in.

The objectives are simple and the actions intuitive which means that it will appeal to a wide age range of gamers, and with only two actions per turn the game moves swiftly regardless of player count and subsequently has minimal downtime per player.

Multiple objective cards, the modular board and the dice mean there is plenty of replay value, but randomness does play a major part.  That said, there is enough there to make it feel that the decisions you make are meaningful and some strategy can be applied.

Overall Takenoko is a great, lightweight euro which certainly deserves it's place on the gaming table for the innovative design and components alone, which are perfect for drawing new gamers in to the hobby.  The game is satisfying and quick with plenty of replay value although more hardcore gamers will probably want something with a little bit more meat on the bones.

I really enjoyed Takenoko and would certainly recommend it.

You can pick up a copy of Takenoko here.


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