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Subject: Just Played And Loved Stone Garden rss

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Zachary Sorenson
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I'm living in Tokyo and sought out the most "Japanese" game I could find. This is close to it, I'd think.

As someone else mentioned, there's a similar mechanic to Carcasonne in terms of tile matching. One distinct difference is that you are building your own garden on you own board. Where the comparison matters most is that there are limited numbers of certain tiles that complete certain patterns, which you might compete to find.

The game is very simple. You take turns drawing tiles from a center pile. There's a center board for this purpose, and it's lovely (like a temple or something). The board is only for point tracking, and holding the pieces. There are also rock pieces which can be placed in your garden.

Each player has their own garden board with blank spots for 15 tiles (3x15 grid), and an extra blank spot for "storage".

When you take a tile, you must place it next to already placed tiles (or in a left-hand corner to start). There's no requirement to match anything, but matching gives you points. More on that later. When you place your first tile, you also place a monk piece of your color on it.

Each turn has two phases: first is drawing and placing tiles. The second involves using your monk piece. You can move him one tile at a time to placed tiles, or place a rock from the temple anywhere in your monk's column.

A big mechanic for placing rocks involves spending "virtue points". You can earn up to 6, and stones cost between 1-6. Virtue points can be earned one per turn as a discrete phase 2 action in lieu of moving your monk. But the best way to earn points is to give drawn tiles to other players.

Whenever you draw a tile, you have some options. If you don't want to use it at all, you can remove it from the game at a cost of 1 virtue point. Or, put it into your extra storage space. If the space is full you can swap and then you have to place the stored tile. Finally, you can offer the tile to another player, and if they accept it (they must immediately place it), you get 2 virtue points.

There's definitely a felt incentive to cooperate a bit.

Finally, you can steal a tile from the active player right as they're placing it at a cost of one virtue point.

Let me explain how the tiles match up. Most are just strait or wavy lines that end up as vanilla strait horizontal lines on the edges. A few are parts of circles, or have moss areas. For the most part, most tiles will match horizontally without much thought. However, when moss or circles get involved, it's tough to find that "one" piece to match it just right.

And, moss and circles give you points in the end, and are commonly drawn.

So, you draw and place tiles, then use your monk to place stones. Once all gardens are full, the game ends.

This is now the complicated part.

The scoring system is the meat of the game and it's complex. The game itself is all about strategizing towards these scoring outcomes, which means remembering some of the obscure rules. It's the one sort of flawed part of the game. But, really it's not a flaw, in the sense that playing a couple of times will make remembering the rules easy, and that learning and mastering these patterns is part of the game.

I'm making it sound worse than it is. Rather than review each rule, I'll give some highlights. Basic points come from having large areas with no moss. On the other hand, there are also points per moss tiles. The goal then is to keep the moss to one side.

Circles and semicircles give you points.

You lose points for each tile border that doesn't "match". But if they're all matching, there's a large bonus

Having multiple varieties of rocks (there are 5 types) gives you points. There are a couple of special patterns you can make, plus two configurations (three stones in a diagonal for example), to score points.

Finally, each player starts the game with a card that has a specific pattern. If you have at least these rocks placed, you score the points on the card.

Another feature is that each player starts the game with a gardener card which grants a one-time use special ability (such as draw two tiles in a row).

I haven't played enough to get a feel for it, but some have suggested that these cards aren't balanced, and I can see that being the case.

As for the rest of the gameplay I think it's very well done. I don't find the premise boring, nor the patterns arbitrary.

Some of the scoring methods are mutually exclusive, and some can be difficult to pull off (maybe you can't earn enough virtue points, or maybe you just aren't getting a certain tile you need). So this creates some friction. And it resolves to every player being in a spot where they really need that "one" tile. Or maybe some more virtue points.

More so that other games I've played, this one really encourages you to look at other players' gardens and think about what they need. And that sort of highlights the theme. The best way to play this game is with some zen music playing, and some hot green tea available for all. Remove other distractions, and commit to taking your time. Now, it's not a long game, but this is the one game where you almost want to all agree to have more "analysis paralysis" than you normally do. You want to take your time, and feel relaxed while you do.

With that sort of atmosphere, the game will be very rewarding, and you'll feel like you really thought about what you were doing. There's a sense of choice and freedom, but also a sense of being constrained into very specific paths. The specificity of some of the scoring methods drives this. It's very zen.

The physical components are magnificent. The stones are all ceramic and textured like real stones. There are maybe 2 dozen of these pieces and they come in a plastic tray that has a top so they stay in place. My favorite part of the game beyond the stones is the fact that the garden boards have an indent so the tiles all stay in place.

It cost me about $75 in Akihabara. From Roll&Role.

The game doesn't feel as textured as other games, there's a certain lightness to it. But that's very Japan. These people built their houses with rice paper. The game is deep, but essentially just as deep as it needs to be.

All in all a beautiful experience I hope to repeat again very soon.

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Tom C.
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Missouri
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If I had to pick only one game from my wishlist to get, this would be it, which is not good because I may never find it. Love your review, which doesn't lessen my desire to get it, unfortunately. Lucky you, to have a copy.
 
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