Board Game Review: Arboretum – The Forest for the Trees | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Arboretum – The Forest for the Trees

Arb - Game

Dogwoods and Oaks, Willows and Jacaranda. In Arboretum, the players are planting trees in the hope of having the loveliest walking paths. But for a game about leisurely strolls amidst flora, it has an undeniably vicious edge.

The Basics. Every player starts with a hand of seven cards and their own discard pile. There is a communal draw pile. On their turn, the player will draw two cards – either from the face down draw pile or from any player’s discard. They will then play one to their tableau and discard one card from their hand to their personal discard pile.

The game has ten tree types – essentially suits. Each type has eight cards numbered 1 through 8. When placing a tree, it must be placed orthogonally adjacent to any existing tree in your tablaeu. Play continues until the draw pile runs out.

Ten total suits -er, I mean trees.

Ten total suits -er, I mean trees.

At game end, the tree paths are scored. A path must start and end on the same species of tree, and the numbers must be ascending throughout the path. Each tree type is scored, but only one player gets to score it. Specifically, the player with the most value (i.e. highest numbers) of that tree type still in their hand earns the right to score it. That’s true even if they don’t have any of that type in their arboretum. They just score zero and prevent anyone else from scoring it.

Importantly, an 8 would seem to be the best card to hold onto since that might give you an edge in being able to score it. But if someone else has the 1, then your 8 becomes a 0 for the purpose of determining who can score that path. The player with the most points wins.

Sometimes, many small paths is the way to go

A few big paths can net big points

The Feel. Arboretum is a light game mostly about card counting and aggressive hand management. If you can keep track of cards, knowing when an eight has gone by and whether you’ve seen the 1 on a path you’re trying to score, then you will enjoy Arboretum.

Arboretum has a neat special element when designing your personal space. Efficiency dictates that certain cards can be used in multiple paths. If I have a 4 Maple, maybe I want to place it so that it can be used in my run of Maple trees, but also within my route connecting two Dogwoods. Once placed, they can’t be moved. So building your tableau requires foresight and skill.

But you can’t just play all of your best cards. It’s important to remember that you need to keep a few in your hand. Otherwise, you might lose the ability to score it and all of that hard work will net you a big goose egg. So, of those seven cards in your hand, some will be taken up with cards of paths you’re hoping to score. And that’s where the card counting comes in.

But so can more, shorter paths

But so can more, shorter paths

If I want to score Willows, I can try to remember how many have gone by. If I haven’t seen the six, I may not want to play the seven. That way, if someone has the six, I’ll have the seven and can outbid them for the right to score.

And that’s the other important aspect of Arboretum: keeping cards that other players want. If you can collect more than them, then you can keep them from scoring their path entirely. Other times, it’s important to keep a card just to prevent them from getting it. In one game, I kept the eight card in my hand. This forced my opponent to hold onto the 1. He needed it to neutralize my 8 so that he could score. Had I played the 8, he could have picked it up and played it for bonus points. Or played the 1 for bonus points. By holding onto the card, I minimized his score to the extent possible.

Despite the largish hand size of seven cards, things quickly become crowded. You need to hold on to cards for your paths. You want to hold on to cards for opponent’s paths. And you still need to play and discard every turn. Hand management is essential and there are often tough choices about what to discard.

Arb - Score Sheet

Nice, I suppose, but unnecessary

Components: 3 of 5. The components are all cards. There are no special tokens or tiles. The cards are on fine stock and I’m not worried about bending or breaking. But the box is made in such away that the lid doesn’t close all the way. It sticks up a bit like old-fashioned, mass market card games. I hate that. A lot.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. As a card game, there is an undeniable luck element. After all, if you happen to draw every Lilac, then you’ll be in a good spot to build and score that route. But that’s exceptionally rare. Instead, the game is mostly about strategy. What do you hold? What do you discard? And when do you show your hand by pick up other players’ discards?

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Arboretum is solidly put together and forces difficult choices at every turn. The limited hand size ensures that you can’t keep everything you want. Since you discard every turn, you’re constantly confronted with tough choices about what to leave behind – and make available to others.

Replayability: 3 of 5. Arboretum doesn’t have any random setups or alternate player powers. It plays out pretty much the same each time. So this title is unlikely to have a hundred plays in it for most gamers. Yet, there’s enough here to make you want to return and it stays fun. It’s the kind of game that is a good candidate when you need something short or when playing with non-gamers who prefer something that feels a bit more traditional.

Spite: 2.5 of 5. There are no “take that” cards or ways to disrupt other players’ tableaus. But the final reveal can be absolutely brutal. If you spent your whole game building a majestic Dogwood path, but I have the most Dogwood cards in hand, I can prevent you from scoring your path. That’s where the spite flavoring comes in and players should be aware.

The most glorious Oak path

The most glorious Oak path

Overall: 3 of 5. Arboretum isn’t an everyday game – the kind you hope to play repeatedly as it exposes new layers. But it also doesn’t really pretend to be. It’s a relatively simple card game that provides solid player choices and focuses on hand management. To that end it succeeds. And I’d happily play it over lunch or when time constraints are a factor.

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