As a reviewer, I make sure to play a game 3 or more times before a review. This depends on the game, as heavier games take a lot more plays before I’m comfortable enough to say I’ve seen all their nooks and crannies.
With Arboretum, I’ve played it once, and I’m never playing it again.
Designer: Dan Cassar
Publisher: Renegade Games
Tending the garden
Ever thought about giving it all up?
Retiring early, selling the house, and moving closer to the wilderness to become a lumberjack. It’s a nice, relaxing, stress free thought. Enjoy that image, because as soon as you deal out the cards for Arboretum the stress piles on you like the last five minutes of an exam.
In Arboretum, you’re trying to build this perfect botanical garden filled with Cherry Blossoms, Maples, and Jacarandas. You do this by creating lines of plants, from the smallest numbered tree to the largest. This line, or path, can be made up of different plants, but two of the same species must bookend it.
You’ll start the game with a hand of 7 cards, and each turn you’ll draw 2. Plant one in your garden, by placing it orthogonally adjacent to an existing tree, and then put one onto your discard pile.
When you draw a card, if doesn’t have to be from the plant deck. You can also draw cards from any discard pile around the table. Because of this you’ll often find yourself caught between wanting and not wanting to throw a card away, as you know your opponent needs it.
So far it all sounds great.
But there’s one more rule I need to go over.
You have to fight, for your right, to score points
The last rule, which required its own section; is the right to score.
At the end of the game, you’ll go through all of the plant species in play. You will call out the species one at a time, then only the player who reveals the highest numbered sum of cards of that species from their hand gets to score the points for the species.
Let me contextualise this for you.
You’ve spent all game getting a great path of Cassias, it’s 6 cards long. In your hand you’ve saved a 7 of Cassias to give you a chance at owning the highest numbered card. End game. Cassias are called. You lay down your 7. Your opponent – who has no Cassias in their Arboretum – lays down an 8 of Cassias. Your hard work going towards this Cassia path is now worth 0 points.
Now before I go into how unapologetically mean Arboretum is. Let’s take a moment to savour this awesome mechanic, and how it ties the game together.
Because now Arboretum gives you another compelling reason to hold cards in your hand, while at the same time making you discard every turn. While this is easy at the beginning of the game, you’ll soon hit that point where you’ll have a hand of cards you want to keep, and then how do you make the decision on which cards to throw away? It’s agonising, but it’s brilliant. It provides the same depth, and level of tension as Hanamikoji. Which is an incredible feat of board game design.
I owe you an apology
I did my research going into Arboretum, critics and fans raved about it: fantastic game, but it’s mean. I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve played mean games before and public opinion at the moment is unreliable. It’s too sensationalist. So when people said it was mean I thought they were being big babies.
I was wrong.
Arboretum is meaner than my high school bully.
When I played with my wife, and saw she had a 1-5 path of Tulip Poplar, with the 6 of Tulip Poplar in the discard pile, and I just drew the 8 of Tulip Poplar. There was a angel, and devil sitting on my shoulders, and all I could utter was a very worried: Oh, no, no, no.
Arboretum is a game about minimizing your opponents score as much as it’s about generating a score for yourself. You can get one point through the positive action of planting a tree, or if you save the right card you can remove 5 from your opponent. It splits your brain into Ying and Yang as you need to figure out the best move for yourself, and also how best to screw over your opponent.
It’s a tough game, where the decisions I made were incredibly interesting and had more layers than trees have bark. But all this brilliant game design was interspersed with the feeling of putting down my dog every couple of rounds. I mean this is the mother of my child, the love of my life, and I was being so incredibly mean to her.
Before I go
I need to give a shout out to Renegade Games for creating the most garish and ugly deluxe edition I’ve come across. The bamboo box is great, but the use of foil on the cards is awful. You can’t look at them without some sort of glare shining in your eyes. If you’re going to pick up Arboretum, spare yourself the cash and grab the standard edition.
It’s hard to call this a review, it’s more a cautionary tale and because I’ve only played it the one time be sure to take my word with a grain of salt.
Still, I rate Arboretum. It’s filled to the brim with tough choices, and I was engaged from start to finish with puzzling out what I needed to keep, what I could safely get rid of, and what position would provide maximum comfort on the couch tonight. As much as I enjoyed these crunchy decisions, it’s a game I’d rather play at a convention, or online, where I can dehumanize the opponent and allow myself to be mean. Otherwise, I have too much of a conscience to play with friends and family.
Unfortunately, this places Arboretum alongside Hanabi. It’s a fantastic game but not for me.
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.