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Game Preview: Renature, or From Badgers to Bushes, From Turtles to Trees

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Renature
The designers Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have released many classic games over the years, both individually and as a team. In 2020, their credits can be found on a new version of Maharaja (first released in 2004), the large strategy game Paris, the domino-based game Jubako, and a second domino-based game — the subject of my preview today — Renature from new German publisher Deep Print Games.

While new, Renature feels like a classic game from the early 2000s, with simple rules and abstract gameplay wrapped in a setting that makes no sense from a narrative point of view.

On a turn, you place one of your three dominoes on the game board, either on one of the four starting spaces or next to one or more dominoes already on the board so long as all the pieces match. (One critter at a time is a joker and can be placed next to whatever you want. The butterfly starts as the joker, and you can see multiple uses of butterflies this way in the image below.) The game includes ten types of critters, and each pairing of critters appears once on the 55 dominoes.

Board Game: Renature

After placing your domino, you can place a plant in an empty dirt space next to that domino, scoring 1 point for that plant and 1 point for each plant of the same size or smaller in that dirt area.

If your domino placement surrounded an area, as in the upper-left area shown above, then you score that area. (The domino currently being placed doesn't close an area since a 1x2 space remains open to the right of the snail.) Plants come in four sizes, and you sum your "plant strength" in an area to determine who scores it. Whoever has the most plant strength scores the larger value on the area tile, and whoever has the second most strength scores the smaller value.

As in the Rüdiger Dorn game Las Vegas, ties are unfriendly, with the tied colors in an area being treated as not present. Another similarity to Las Vegas — well, to an official variant of that game — is that each player has plants in their color as well as neutral plants, and you can try to use these neutral plants to engineer ties to keep other players from scoring. Even better, if the plant strengths in an area end up as, say, 4 for blue, 4 for neutral, and 1 for orange, then the orange player is treated as the only player in that area — and if you're alone in an area, then you score both the larger and smaller point values on an area tile. Whatever you do, you want to place all of your plants on the board because you're penalized at the end of the game for each plant unplayed.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
End of a three-player game

Each player starts the game with six cloud tokens, and on a turn, aside from your regular action, you can spend:

• two clouds to change the joker animal,
• three clouds to take another turn, or
• 1-4 clouds to reclaim a neutral plant or one of your plants (in the appropriate size) from the board as long as you have space for it on your personal player board.

A few spaces on the game board contain cloud tokens, and when you place a plant on a cloud, you place it in your reserve if you have room.

Renature reminded me of Michael Schacht designs from the early 2000s, designs like Hansa and Web of Power that have a strong tactical element, designs in which your turn often risks giving the following player a large advantage. (In Hansa, you might refill empty ports with goods, which gives others things to buy, and in Web of Power, when you're the first in a region, you can place only one piece while after that everyone can place two pieces if they have the right cards.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Kramer's own games Wildlife Adventure and Expedition contain a similar piggybacking element as in those games players share three expeditions around the world, with each new segment of an expedition being placed after the most recent one. You want an expedition to reach secret locations in your hand so that you can score them, but ideally you can let someone else spend their turns getting an expedition close to such a location, then you can profit from it with little effort.

In Renature, which I've played twice on a mock-up copy from Deep Print Games, once each with two and three players, with each domino you place, you have to consider where your opponents might go next. If you place the first plant in an area, can they follow you with a larger plant, superceding your growth? You want to claim all the areas, of course, but you don't have the plants to do so, which means you need to grow with care — although sometimes a throwaway plant will prove profitable if everyone lays dominoes in other directions and doesn't return to that area. After all, each area not surrounded still scores at the end of the game based on the division of plant strength; the area tiles are discarded instead of being awarded, but even a small area can be worth the effort if you collect both rewards yourself.

The only drawback to the game's design — aside from the setting, as I'm not sure how placing critters on brooks leads to plant growth in bare patches of dirt — is that the neutral pieces are easily confused for the white pieces. In the image above, you can see that the white pieces are oriented in one direction while the neutral pieces are at a 90º angle to the white pieces. In both games, which were played with different people under different lighting sources, it was next to impossible to distinguish the two colors. Maybe these will differ in the published version of the game, but if not, you'll likely want to mark one set of pieces to make them stand out.

As for the game's availability, Renature will be released by Capstone Games in the U.S., and the game will be available in eight languages overall, with a debut during SPIEL.digital in mid-October 2020 and a retail release date of October 28, 2020.

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