Rolling Sixes all the way!
What's Black and White, and Red all over? Stop the press, I'll give you a clue, it's not a newspaper…
It's Takenoko of course - because that is one very hot Panda! He's hot for Bamboo, hot from chasing those elusive rods of nutritional nothingness, and hot for probably other more furry/adult reasons. I'm not going to lie, this title is a winner for me, so it's going to be hard to rake the leaves over my inherent bias. You'll just have to trust me that this is one little bonsai that deserves a space in your cardboard greenhouse.
It's a slightly older game, a 2011 offering from Antoine Bauza, of 7 Wonders and Ghost Stories fame. It's also distinctly cuter than both of those game's respective dusty monuments and ghost-punching monks. It'll see you pitting your trowels against one another in a hectic-ish-at-times bid to please the Japanese Emperor's arboricultural whims, and also the fickle tummy lusts of the podgy Panda protagonist.
Each player will essentially cultivate, water, and expand a sprawling vista of garden hexes across the table into a pastel honeycomb of sweetshop coloured opportunity/disappointment. Upon this canvas they'll be encouraging similarly coloured pegs of stackable bamboo skyward, and ultimately Panda tummy-ward. Game end success will be measured by the highly original concept of 'victory points', earnt by completing a number secret objective cards dealt at the beginning of the game - and also accumulated throughout. These are going to break down essentially into - making bamboo grow in a certain way, making the garden layout a certain configuration, or stuffing the Panda with certain bamboo pieces. Just like in real life, you'll not know exactly whether you are a loser or not till it's too late to do anything about it, and you've found yourself at the compost heap end of the backyard drinking from the water butt with a dirty hoe.
You'll be armed with a player board displaying the 5 possible actions you might take on your turn, featuring a list of the 6 types of potential weather condition that could help/hinder your endeavours. Typically you'll take 2 actions per turn, but you might be granted extra or double turns for example depending on conditions.
On each turn you'll start by rolling the weather die, a beautiful chunky wooden clunker of a D6, and finding how friendly Mr Blue Sky is today. Factoid - This almost perfectly reflects modern British weather forecasting techniques, differing only in that the Takenoko dice will sometimes bring sunshine or nice things. It might in fact be Sunny, Cloudy, Rainy, Windy, Lightningy, or Question Marky (whatever you want it to be). The UK weather die is made from concrete and hatred, and displays only a dismal parade of sad clouds full of misery droplets.
Now it's action time, and the set-menu-for-1 tableau in front of you will offer five-spice different delights such as –
Take another objective card (for VPs at game end),
Select and place a new garden hex, of which there are three colours,
Get/Place a watery stick (irrigation channel) which you'll need to enable hexes to support bamboo growth,
Move the lovingly painted far-too-enthusiastic looking Gardener figure somewhere, and possibly encourage bamboo growth. He only goes in straight lines – just like real life professional gardeners, which is why posh lawns are always stripey.
Or Send the similarly nicely painted Panda for a wander yonder and gobble some nosh rods (bamboo stems). Pandas also only travel in straight lines, just like their favourite food. You are what you eat after all. You might want to move these figures to help meet your own card requirements, or just to potentially throw a pancake roll into someone else's sushi works.
Once you've carried out your horticultural duties for the day, fulfilled any objectives you can, and possibly stacked some stems, it's over to the next Panda wrangler for their go. As the board grows it'll become increasingly evident that things are hotting up as fulfilled objective cards start hitting the table more and more frequently. it'll all be over when the fat Panda vomits and the appointed number of objectives gets reached by someone, or possibly even exceeded. Count up your VPs and bathe in the glory of the slightly gaudy hex-festival of saccharine beauty you have contributed to.
There are a few other nuances to game play I've not covered here, but that's not really my primary agenda here. There is a lot to like. There is an immediately satisfying tactility to the bamboo shoots, along with a shared colour scheme which runs throughout the components. The bamboo pieces remind me of the colour of Refresher sweets, for those unaware of this traditional UK confectionary staple, they are a type of small powdery sherbet-esque choking disk popular with small children and pretend adults.
Are you going to play it every day, or even every week? The answer is probably not. A game as light and whimsical as this is not going to fill a whole board game night on its own, and it's definitely on the gateway end of the yard brush. However, for those times when you don’t have a spare 9 hours for Twilight Imperium, it's a pretty safe bet.
Care Instructions - Does not require any special care and attention, plays in 30-40mins, gets taught in about 10, and fits fairly snugly back in its box after pruning. Requires 2-4 Gardeners with a keen sense of hexagons, and also appears very accessible to those new to the 'Way of the Green Thumb'.
Dan Parker / Danevilparker