4 Chits, 1 Giggle
Sometimes the little decisions are the hardest ones. What type of cereal should I get? What should I watch on TV tonight? Which hilarious board game related T shirt should I wear to game night? These sort of things don't matter that much in the grand scheme of things, but they're important to you. You know that if you make the wrong call, it has the potential to ruin your day.
It seems then that just like how life is full of these irritating yet meaningful decisions, so is Arboretum, a new game by designer Dan Cassar and published by Zman Games. It is a simple affair, in which you plant trees in a grid like pattern in front of you to score points at the end of the game, but as always there is a catch; you only reap some of what you sow, so it's all about 'planting' ahead.
You start out with a hand of seven numbered cards from a deck of multiple suits (which in this case are species of trees) which all bear some beautiful, botanical art. Each player will take turns drawing two cards, placing one into their garden and discarding one into their own discard pile. Your rejected cards have strategic importance though, as your opponent can draw them when it's their turn, therefore simply throwing away something you don't want isn't necessarily the best plan.
With your garden ever growing, the goal is to plant it in such a way that you create paths between same coloured trees, but only progressing from lower numbers to higher numbers. Your path length is what scores the majority of your points, with bonuses for beginning the path with a one or ending it with an eight, as well as extra points for paths that only use a single colour throughout, so if you want to win you really need to consider the landscape carefully. And that's not all. You only ever score a colour if you have the highest value of that suit in your hand at the end of the game, and having an eight card be negated by the same coloured number one in any of your opponent's hands. This results in a situation where you are constantly struggling to balance the cards you play, the cards you discard and the cards you keep. It's probably the niftiest use of the 'every card counts' mechanic that I've seen.
The game scales well between two to four players, you'll simply use more suits of cards when playing in groups. Speaking of cards again, it is worth repeating that the artwork really is stunning and uses a traditional art style that isn't very common these days. And yet... this game doesn't tick all the boxes for me. Yes, it's a dry game and sure, it's true that the box doesn't really scream out 'Pick me!' from the shelf either. Neither of these are reasons I find it hard to fully envelop myself with Arboretum. I can't really pinpoint exactly why this is, but the fact that you never end up scoring that many points, that you usually have to pick your target suits at the beginning and choosing the same as somebody else will normally devastate both of you, and there are no real edge of your seat moments means that there are a few issues present that even the simplistic theme can't account for. Not even the greatest tiebreaker rule I've ever seen was able to change my mind (each player must plant a tree, and five years later, whoever's tree is the tallest is declare the winner).
Ultimately, I would recommend this game to anybody who isn't bothered by a low scoring game with little player interaction, but even if you do end up buying this game and find like me that it isn't the game for you, at least you'll end up with a deck of really nice cards and a head start to becoming a dendrologist.
Review by Russell Chapman