"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy..."
"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
Originally posted to my blog here on BGG:
Believe it or not, Arbos Apfel (meaning, more or less, Apple Tree) is the sequel to another, simpler version of the same game. In other words, somewhere in Germany, there are enough people playing a game about building a wooden tree that the publisher felt a new and improved version was definitely in order. I love it!
The game itself is simple even if the rules leave much to be desired. To anyone who has played Animal Upon Animal (or the above-mentioned Suspend), you'll feel right at home. Everyone has an equal number of branch, leaf, and apple pieces. On your turn, you add one of your pieces to the central tree using just one hand. If you knock anything off, you must take everything that dropped back into your stock. The fist player to get rid of their pieces, wins.
To these rules, the game adds a deck of cards (with a poor English translation that smacks of Google Translate). The rules give vague guidance on how to use the cards, basically leaving it to the players to decide when and how many to draw. We decided that, on your turn, you must add a piece normally and, in addition, draw a card and do what it says (e.g., place an extra piece, trade your apples with the person to your left, and so on). Is this the "correct" way to use the cards? I don't know, but it seemed to work well enough.
To be honest, the cards were lackluster. While they help speed up the game by allowing you to place more than one piece on your turn, they are also wildly uneven. I'd like to see a revision that streamlines the cards to put the focus on placing pieces, for example, in a particular order, or in a particular location. In other words, they could help speed up play, but also add additional challenge. As is, I don't think I'd play without them, but they are also, at times, frustrating or else merely forgettable.
Cards aside, though, this is a great dexterity game! The wooden components are tactile, chunky, and well made (with the unfortunate exception of one or two branches that had an improperly drilled hole, making the placement of leaves impossible -- but that's easy enough to fix if you are handy and easy enough to work around given the abundance of holes). That you have to place components 360 degrees around the tree trunk is exciting. That the branches are constructed in such a way to be perpetually unstable makes for some nerve-racking moments. For example, I've often placed a leaf only to see the branch spin around on its axel, taking my newly placed leaf with it, but still (miraculously) never falling out! These are the types of moments that make dexterity games worthwhile and fun, where you watch with horror as the tower almost falls, but doesn't. Arbos Apfel manages to manufacture more of these moments than other games in the genre, and makes them feel that much more precarious.
Is this a great innovation of a game? Not really. It's an iteration on a familiar concept, but done well and with enough variety to make it worth your time. I haven't even mentioned that you can increase the difficulty by building the tree trunk with an unstable base so that the whole contraption wobbles (!!!) as you place your pieces each turn. I can't even imagine playing that way, but I'm happy to know it's an option.
If you're into dexterity balancing games, give this one a try.