Review: Takenoko – A Phenominal Light Game
Panda bears? Yes, panda bears. Takenoko is one of the newest games from Antoine Bauza, the designer behind 7 Wonders. Based on initial information, I gave this game a pass. It seemed too cutesy for my tastes. But then I tried it, and was so impressed I immediately went out and got my own copy. The game not only provides light/medium strategy, but is very fun, accessible, and definitely replayable.
The Basics. Takenoko starts with a story. China and Japan have reached peace. As a token of the new friendship, China has gifted Japan a rare Giant Panda. The Japanese emperor places the panda in the bamboo garden, much to the chagrin of the gardener who previously tended that garden. The players are a little less defined, but I think they represent various court nobles who want the garden to look a certain way.
On a turn, a player may choose two of five available actions, though the selections must be different. They can add tiles to the board, obtain irrigation channels, move the panda or the gardener, or draw scoring cards. At the beginning of their turn, they may also roll a die which gives them an additional ability.
The scoring cards give rise to the various strategies involved in the game. Some cards give points if tiles are placed in a specific arrangement. These tend to be worth the fewest points (but can often be hard to achieve). Others give points based on what the panda eats. Every time you move the panda, he eats some bamboo from the tile where he ends his movement. Eat the right kinds and combination and you get points. Finally, the gardener tries to grow bamboo at certain heights and under certain conditions. His cards are generally worth the most.
In a four player game (and it differs based on number of players), the game continues until one player has played 7 scoring cards. They then take the Emperor card worth two points. Every other player gets one final turn. Then the final scores are tallied.
The Feel. The game is largely about drawing cards and matching them to events on the board while making the best use of the extra actions the die roll gives you. And it’s just plain fun.
The pieces are extremely evocative, and both the gardener and the panda come pre-painted. The bamboo works very well, as does everything else that comes with the game. And, even though I’m not one to put much stock in theme, the theme really comes through in both gameplay and components.
I could see this game easily becoming a gateway game. In fact, it completely supplanted another game in my collection: Aquadukt. Takenoko is in the light/medium range where the rules are easily explained. There are no direct attacks, which makes the game family and casual friendly. The great pieces and backstory, I imagine, will also help it to the table. But there are more player decisions to be made, a little less randomness, and it’s a little meatier.
One early criticism I had after my first game was that it seemed that my opponent and I were mostly doing our own thing. We interacted, but only because we were both utilizing the same panda and gardener to complete the actions that we wanted. After additional plays, the game can be very interactive.
There is no direct competition, and even indirect competition is rather muted. Since you don’t know precisely what circumstances your opponent is trying to achieve, it can be difficult to mess up their plans. Not impossible, of course, but that kind of interference is based on educated guesses rather than certain knowledge.
Instead, the interactive nature of the game comes not from attacking your opponents, but from utilizing their actions to your own benefit. Are they focusing on growing bamboo? Then you focus on eating it. Make them take the actions to grow what you need. Are they focusing on tile placement? Start using their placed tiles to grow the bamboo you need. There is a hidden wealth of depth and interactivity that took a few plays to tease out, but now that I see it I’ve very much come to enjoy it.
Components: 4.5 of 5. Top notch. Every piece in this game is on thick cardboard. The gardener and panda are pre-painted. The tiles are a good size. The die is large and wooden. Even the insert holds everything in its perfect place, with finger cuts to get the pieces out easily. The half point loss is not for the components per se, but for a few bad rules translations that will hamper the game for players who don’t check out the FAQ.
(As an aside, my first edition copy came with the yellow bamboo covered in dirt or mold. Although it was disappointing, I’ve already spoken with customer service and been promised replacements as soon as they arrive)
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. Part of the fun from the game comes from making the best use of not only your own actions, but also utilizing what your opponents have done to your own advantage. The same with the die that is rolled each turn. Randomness, and by extension luck, is in this game. But it is done in a way that is playful and entertaining. It isn’t off putting in the least.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. The game coalesces into a well-oiled machine. Each turn, a player can only select two of five possible actions, but that belies the myriad of choices that are truly available. Especially as the board evolves, the gardener or panda can be moved in different ways with different results. Accumulated irrigation channels and improvements can be placed. Although “elegant” is a word that gets thrown around a bit too much in reviews, it would certainly fit Takenoko.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Takenoko has a habit of ending just before I want it to. Not in the way that it makes gameplay unsatisfying, but in the way where I want just a little more, like hoping for an encore after a great concert. This definitely increases my desire to play it again and again. Plus, the players’ decisions really impact the experience, and the randomized elements require you to adopt different tactics each game. This is one that will not get tired quickly.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. There is a low level of possible spite in the game. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to move the gardener or panda to a section of the board that will make that action less useful for your opponent. You can also purposely place tiles in ways that will confound players trying to get necessary patterns together. And, while there will be opportunities to do this to great effect, in general it isn’t worth giving up your own action to do it. Plus, the more players there are, the less advantageous this kind of spite action becomes.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Takenoko is simply one of the best light to light/medium games that I’ve played. This game goes over well with family, casuals, and experienced gamers alike. The strategy is quickly grasped but can be more challenging to implement. If you’re looking for something to introduce family or spouses to, or something light to open or close a night, Takenoko would serve you well.