If I had a bucket list, seeing a panda would be on it, and it would be crossed off. Fortunately, I got the chance to see them in Japan, and it surprised me that they were exactly as accident prone as the gifs around the internet would have you believe. Coincidentally, Takenoko is a board game about a panda being gifted to Japan, could it be an ancestor of the ones I saw? I want to believe.
Takenoko is a 2-4 player game designed by Antoine Bauza, and published by Matagot Games, and if you’ve ever wanted to yell at an endangered animal, then this is the game for you. As you and your friends attempt to establish a wonderful bamboo garden at the behest of a Japanese emperor, a pesky panda has other plans. In a game with all the makings of a hit TV sitcom, you must keep the panda fed, and out of the way, while doing your best to grow the garden’s bamboo, only then will you be crowned the ultimate gardener.
How to Play
To setup Takenoko put the pond tile in the middle of the table, and then place the gardener and the panda on the tile so as not to drown them. Next shuffle everything and give each player: a player board, and one card of each objective type. Setup is done.
There are three types of objectives to complete in Takenoko: plot, gardener, and panda. Plot objectives require garden tiles to be in certain configurations, gardener objectives need bamboo grown around the map to specific requirements, and lastly, panda objectives are all about getting the panda to eat different combinations of coloured bamboo. It gets weird when you complete this last objective type as the bamboo needs to be returned to storage. Meaning either reaching into the panda’s stomach to retrieve them, or the equally gross approach of sifting through its’ poop.
There are a lot of actions you can do in Takenoko but you are limited to two per turn. These actions include:
- Plots: Pick up three garden tiles, choose one and add it to the garden.
- Gardener: Move the gardener in a straight line, bamboo grows on the tile where he lands, and all connected and irrigated plots of the same colour. Really, he’s less a gardener and more the second coming of the wolf Amaterasu.
- Panda: Move the panda in a straight line, the panda eats a bamboo shoot at the location it lands.
- Irrigation Channel: Pick up an irrigation channel from the box. Noting, that after grabbing an irrigation channel, you can place it and any others you’ve collected without spending an action.
- Objective: Grab the top objective card from any one of the three decks. Like irrigation, completing objectives does not require an action.
Once two actions are performed it’s onto the next player. After the first round, a weather die is added, which is rolled at the start of your turn and gives you a small benefit exclusively for that turn. Play continues until the first player has completed the right number of objectives, then there’s one last round before points are tallied, and the losers bring great shame to their families.
The first thing that will stand out about Takenoko is the theme: it involves a panda. If that isn’t enticing, then your money is better spent taking a trip to Libya to defrost your ice-cold heart. I say that earnestly, because this theme just exudes fun. The poor gardener trying to do his best, while the bamboo pest doesn’t have a care in the world outside of being fed. It’s light, cheeky and a bit funny, setting the tone for the game.
However, a theme doesn’t make a game thematic, it’s the commitment to, and implementation of the theme. And here they’ve done superbly. The vibrant and fanciful garden tiles, the gardener, and panda miniatures, and the stacking of bamboo are all in keeping with the fun and playful tone.
I’ve mentioned this previously, in my Forbidden Desert review, but on the topic of bamboo placement, it’s great how they’re manipulating the 3d space. It’s a huge advantage that board games have – until VR becomes commonplace – and yet it is rarely done. Takenoko does it with the bamboo, the land tiles, and the irrigation, making the game stand out on the table, while providing variability and mechanics to the gameplay.
Talking about the gameplay, there’s a surprising amount of decision space. With enough meat on the bone for even veteran gamers to enjoy, Takenoko allows players to engage with the game at the level they want. It’s first play is a joyous romp creating a bamboo forest, but the more you play, the more you understand there’s more to this game than fooling around with a Japanese Garfield. The objectives for example, all have perks and pitfalls: the panda objectives are quickest and easiest to complete but are worth the least amount of points. Plot objectives are second easiest to finish, but are very transparent, making it easy for opponents to ruin your plans. While finally the gardener objectives are worth the most, but with a rapidly changing board, very hard to complete. Choosing which objectives to go for and understanding which objective types counteract your opponents is a key part of your overall strategy.
But it isn’t everything. The other half of the puzzle is reading and leveraging other players. It’s one thing to build a wall or irrigation channel, it’s another to have someone else pay for it. This level of play isn’t immediately evident but will expose itself once you start learning patterns of play.
The last thing I want to mention is the welcoming nature of the game. It’s got an appealing theme, the rules are simple but allow for engaging gameplay, and setup takes seconds. It’s a shame I need to move onto the next section.
We need to talk about colour blindness. It affects 8% of males, and 0.5% of females, what a sexist disease. One of the more dominant strains of this blindness is red-green, which makes it shame that they’ve chosen both pink and green as the bamboo stalks. In web development, we make pages accessible by having two ways to distinguish something, for instance a red button and text on the button. Another approach is to have vastly contrasting colours, whereby even if the colours are converted to grey they’re still easily identifiable. Sad to say neither of these two techniques are used here, so if you, or a friend are colour blind – maybe pass on this game.
For us able-bodied people there isn’t much to complain about. For instance, how irrigation works takes a little while to wrap your head around, but that’s not a big deal. The biggest issue that you need to concern yourself with is the matter of your taste. I can see people taking issue with both the lightness of the game, which it can be if you don’t take that extra step, or the amount of randomness. Between rolling the weather die, and picking up objectives and land tiles, it’s possible that you could be so unlucky that it wouldn’t matter if you were Sun Tzu, your strategy would still be screwed.
The other effect this randomness has, is that if you and your competitors perform the same strategies, then the winner will be the one person luckier than the others. This happened when I was playing against my wife, where we both went for garden objectives to get the most points. In retrospect if I swapped my strategy to panda objectives, to the point of giving it indigestion, I would have been able to finish the game before she was able to cap out on gardener objectives.
There was a question asked the other day about what’s most important for a board game: balance, fun, or thematic mechanics? To me the answer is obvious: fun. Fun has many different forms, but if a game isn’t fun then it doesn’t matter if it’s balanced or thematic, because for me board games are entertainment. Takenoko nails the fun with it’s playful, and colourful implementation of its theme, and the decision space that allows for deeper play. There’s something in this game for everyone, and it’s difficult for me to find any more faults in this board game. Which if you’ve read my other critiques is an impressive feat in and of itself. Therefore, Takenoko is not only a Critical Hit, but also a game that every non-colourblind board gamer should play, if not own. Now, that I’ve answered the question about whether I recommend Takenoko, it’s on to the bigger question, are pandas black on white, or white on black?
What’s that overhead, a storm cloud? Is it going to rain? That’s right, my month of positivity is over, time to get back to regular scheduling. In the meantime let me know, did you enjoy Critical Hit January? What was your favourite game on the list?
Thanks for reading, I’m currently ranking all my board games in a best to worst list. You can see this games’ initial ranking below.