My Wife Always Wins - Takenoko

Brian Shabbott
May 22, 2017
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This Weeks Game: Takenoko

    Every gamer has a list of games that everybody should play. The list includes games that are both classics and considered “gateway” games since they are usually the ones that get people involved with the hobby. Everybody’s list is different, but a few games are pretty common across all lists. Takenoko is one of those games.

    Like their lists, every gamer has their shame – the one game (or maybe several games) considered to be “must plays” that they have never touched. For me, Takenoko is also one of those games. I really don’t know why I never got into it, I think something about the theme and art struck me that it was more a game for kids. It’s designed by Antoine Bauza, who designed one of my favorite games, Tokaido. The art and theme are very similar, so I’m not sure why I was immediately turned off to Takenoko (not to mention, 7 Wonders Duel is one of our top games and Bauza designed that too – so obviously we like the guy’s work). Regardless of what people say about it, feeding a panda bamboo just didn’t seem like my type of game. But I’ve said this before about Patchwork, because needlework hardly seems a theme that would spark my interest – but I loved it.

    My wife – Lyndsey – however, has a different theory on why we never played Takenoko. She explained to me everything I said above. Takenoko is a gateway game that cemented most gamers’ appreciation of the tabletop hobby. I am years into the hobby, haven’t played yet, and Lyndsey is sure she will beat me. And rather than have the gateway effect, my loss at this must-play game will lead me to abandon board games forever. And while she wouldn’t have anybody to play with after that, something tells me she would take a lot of pride knowing she destroyed my favorite pastime for me.

    But I think her theory is weak, and so over the weekend we sat down to test it with Takenoko.

The Basics

    Takenoko is a tile placement game with various elements of set collecting and pattern building. Each player uses the same game pieces to build and cultivate a bamboo garden, while feeding the Emperor’s panda and ensuring it has a good life. Players start with three objective cards: one for panda objectives, one for gardener, and one for land. Point values for each objective vary. Panda objectives consist of eating certain combinations of bamboo. The gardener objectives consist of growing certain types and amounts of bamboo. The land objectives consist of building patterns with the land tiles. When nine objectives are completed by one player, the other player gets one last turn, then the game ends. The player with the highest point value wins.

    Each turn starts with a die roll, which determines the weather conditions for the round. An example of weather: storms scare the panda, it runs off and eats a bamboo piece at the tile to which it ran. This can present a tactical move to gather the bamboo one needs for an objective, or to strategically place the panda for movement during the action phase of his turn.

    For the action phase, a player chooses two actions from a set of five to try to achieve her objectives. The actions are placing a land tile, building irrigation channels, moving the gardener and growing bamboo, moving the panda and eating bamboo, and drawing a new objective card. If a player or the board meets the objective parameters at any time during her turn, she may turn over the objective card and put it aside for endgame scoring.

There are some finer details I haven’t touched on here, so check out the rules.

Time to Play

    I went first because I’m tallest (I finally won at something). I placed a green land, which grew a bamboo shoot, and moved the panda to eat it. Lyndsey placed a yellow land and picked up another objective card. Round two begins the rolling for weather conditions, and I rolled storms. Because of the storm, I moved the panda to Lyndsey’s yellow spot and ate the bamboo that grew there. Then I placed a pink land, and moved the panda there to eat it. I cashed in the first objective, for eating one of each bamboo color; it was worth six points.

    A few rounds later, Lyndsey countered by eating two green bamboo, and cashing in on three points. A few more turns and she got four points for two yellow bamboo. Meanwhile, I was building toward my land objective of two pinks and two greens in a diamond shape. That was the next objective to hit for four points.

    Lyndsey had a stroke of luck, in that her next two objective cards were both yellow. As such she was able to build her land formation and grow bamboo in tandem to cash in on both in consecutive turns, worth 10 points total. Her fifth objective was worth eight and put her well ahead of me.

    But I had a chance. Lyndsey’s quick placement of objectives had left her hand empty, which now meant she had to spend actions just to pick up objective cards. I was able to cash objectives while she built her hand, and surpassed her objective-wise: I had six and she had five. But points-wise she was well ahead, so I needed to end the game for sure and get the extra emperor points.

    I did end the game. My ninth objective hit, I got the emperor objective, while Lyndsey only had seven. Lyndsey’s last turn was a whopper, though.

    On her last turn, Lyndsey rolled the clouds, which allowed her to pick an improvement token and add it to a land. That completed her four bamboo stalk objective. I had finished building the diamond pink pattern last turn, and all she had to do was add one of her stored irrigation channels to complete the objective. For her first action she gardened to add a fourth pink bamboo stalk and grab that objective. Finally, her second action was to pick up a land objective, and the card she picked was already complete on the board so she cashed that one in too. Four objectives, one turn. Final score: 49-38 in favor of Lyndsey.

Final Thoughts

    At least I can find solace in the fact that Lyndsey’s theory was wrong. Even with a loss at her hands, I still enjoy gaming, and I love this game. Sure, it’s simple and cute, but that doesn’t delegate it to the realm of kid games as I’d always imagined it. The rules are simple, but the strategy behind choosing one’s moves is complex. The die roll for weather adds the slightest bit of luck, as certain weather conditions in certain scenarios are more fortuitous for the player. However, for those rolls that aren’t obvious, the weather changes the rules of the turn, and forces players to rethink their strategy for approaching the board.

    The theme, the art, the gameplay all get my top rankings. Lyndsey agrees. Right now, the game has a lot of replayability, though others have told me it may fall off in the future as it’s not the deepest game out there. However, I don’t need a terribly deep game to enjoy it and keep coming back, it just needs to have some depth. Linear games turn me off, as you may remember from last week with Lanterns, but add in a couple more mechanics and goals with good gameplay, and I’m more than happy.

    The game is incredibly balanced as well. We were neck and neck with objectives the entire way. Even though I reached nine first and got the extra emperor objective, Lyndsey still surpassed me on her extra turn and left me behind score-wise. A lot can be done with that last chance, especially if the board is built up with plenty of land and gardener objectives to pick up.

    I will come out and say it. Takenoko is my favorite game right now. I rarely am won over by a game in our initial play, but the theme and strategy of play has done so. I can see us coming back to this one early and often – so maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to squeak out a win eventually. I doubt it, and Lyndsey says it will never happen, but a guy’s gotta dream right?