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Tom Vasel
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The title of Garden Competition (Toccata Games, 2004 - Ken Stevens) didn’t send me into spasms of glee. I’ve never cared too much about gardens - my mom forcing me to help her in hers when I was a child didn’t help matters much. And one of my game groups vehemently vetoed playing the game as soon as the title spilled forth from my lips. “We ain’t playing no game where we plant flowers” was one comment. Fortunately, not everyone felt this way, and I was able to get the game played - something I’m glad for.

Even though the theme wasn’t one that a group of macho guys wanted to play, it worked - and it worked well. Garden competition is an excellent game, having a bunch of fresh mechanics and various options - all in a simple format. There’s a small bit of deduction, a bit of tile laying, and very little downtime. I’m not sure what the best strategies for the game are yet, and that’s a good thing - it means the game has staying power. The game actually does feel like a garden competition, and that may appeal to many people (perhaps more women would like this game than men?)

Each player is given a player board, with a grid of thirty-four squares on it divided up into three areas: six squares that get no sun, ten squares that get partial sun, and the rest that get full sun. “Next-door” neighbor boards are placed so that one is between every two players. Each of these boards has a smaller grid (sixteen squares) just like player boards, as well as spaces for three flower tiles. A “Neighbors Down the Street” board is placed in the middle of the board, with three more neighbors’ yards (although these simply have spaces for three flower tiles.) All neighbors have a box showing two shaking hands (“introduction” box), and a sign showing an amount of money ($3-$5). Stacks of flower tokens, each one of five different colors (red, white, blue, purple, or yellow), are placed near the board - some with their “seed” side face up, and those without a “seed” side flower side up. The flower tokens are either one square large, two squares large, or four squares large. Each player receives a pile of wooden cubes in their color, placing one in the “introduction” box of the next-door neighbor to their left. Flowers are also randomly placed in each neighbors’ garden, and money tokens equal to the number shown on the sign are placed on the sign. The rest of the money, as well as a pile of weed tokens, are placed in the bank. A turn board with a track of twelve spaces is placed in the middle of the board, and a marker is placed on its first space. A pile of judge cards is sorted into two stacks: flowers and colors. Two color cards and 7-11 flower cards (depending on number of players) are shuffled to form the deck used for the game (the others are removed). Each player is dealt one judge card, which they can look at, one card is placed between every two players, which only they can look at, and the remaining three are placed next to the Turn Board. The second youngest player then starts the first of twelve rounds.

In a round, any special icons in the turn order space have their action completed, as well as any spreading of weeds (only rounds 7-12). Then, starting with the first player, each player can choose two actions (may pick the same one twice) from the following:
- Introduce: A player may “introduce” themselves to any neighbor on the table by placing one of their cubes on the introduction box of that neighbor.
- Work: A player may “work” for a neighbor that they’ve been introduced to. They may either take the money placed on the sign for themselves, or work for “free” - removing the money and placing it in the bank, while placing a cube under the sign the money was on (a “Favor” cube).
- Shop: A player may buy a seed, flower, or mulch from the nursery. Seeded flowers cost only $1, but are placed in a player’s garden flower side up. Flowers cost $3 - $5, depending on their size. A player must place the flower in their garden in the appropriate area (shade, partial shade, sun) in their garden, but only if they have room. Mulch costs the same as flowers, and is only bought to block weeds (later in the game).
- Weed: A player may remove one weed from their own garden, or remove one from a neighbor they’ve introduced themselves to, gaining a Favor cube in the process.
- Schmooze: A player may pay $2 to the bank to secretly look at one of the judge cards on the table.

Different icons on the turn table cause an event that takes place before the turn.
- On turns 6, 8, and 10, the “judge speaks” - which means that one of the three judge cards in the middle is flipped over.
- On turns 5, 8, and 11, each neighbor gives one of their flowers to the player with the most favor cubes on that neighbor’s house. Ties are broken in a set way - basically by using the favor cubes on other houses. The winning player at each neighbors’ house, if any, takes a flower of their choice and plants it in their garden. All favor cubes are then removed, returned to the players.
- On turn seven, all the seed flowers in the “bank” are turned over to their flower side, increasing their price.
- On turns seven and nine, players place a weed in one of their next-door neighbor’s gardens. There are three different types of weed - one for each type of sunlight. Weeds, whose size are one square, are placed on their “seed” side up. On future turns, all weeds spread, placing an identical weed in both adjacent gardens, then being flipped to their dormant side. The only way to stop weeds from spreading is if a garden doesn’t have any room for that particular weed.

At the end of each turn, all money is replaced on the signs of the neighbors, and the next person clockwise is the first player. After the twelfth round, all the judge cards are revealed, and each player scores their garden. Each flower depicted on one of the judge cards is worth two points for the player if that player has one in their garden (multiple flowers garner no more points). Also, players receive one point for each DIFFERENT flower they have of the two colors on the remaining two judge cards. Finally, players subtract one point for each weed in their own garden. The player with the highest score is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: Again, I’m impressed with the quality of the bits in Garden Competition, as Toccata Games are basically home made. Small poker chips are used for money, and the wooden player cubes are of high quality and bright colors. The cards and flower and weed tokens, while having obviously having computer-printed graphics on them, are of good quality; and the flower artwork does help the theme. Everything fits well in a sturdy box, and the entire product looks good - down to the laminated player boards.

2.) Rules: Ken did a good job when writing the eight-page rulebook - complete with an illustration on how to set up the game. I only had one quibble (the exact use of Mulch), which he mentioned that he’d fix in the next edition of the rules. The game is extremely simple to teach, because the theme fits the game so well. The game can almost be taught while playing, and new players can mimic experienced players when they’re not sure just what to do.

3.) Theme: There aren’t many games with flowers as theme, probably because traditionally most gamers have been men, and many men don’t care for the theme. However, with the growth of the female board game market, this is probably one that many will enjoy; and the mechanics certainly go well with it. I liked how players had to introduce themselves to neighbors before they could start getting favors, how the different flowers gardens looked, and how the weeds spread. But I can see how the theme might be a turn off to some. I actually got into it when playing and thought the mechanics of the game were superb.

4.) Weeds: The weeds are a very interesting part of the game. Players really should go out of their way to weed them, because otherwise the weeds spread like wild fire and rip through gardens at a tremendous speed. In one game I played, the weeds were ignored, and they covered all the gardens, keeping final scores rather low. In the other game, players weeded the initial weeds out quickly, keeping them under control. But an action a player spends weeding, might be better used somewhere else. Players can also pick weeds for areas of their garden that they already have filled, thus insuring that the weed won’t harm them; and they can ignore it. It’s a clever mechanic, and interesting to watch develop.

5.) Deduction: The game isn’t a deduction game per se, but players are trying to make sure that they get the correct flowers in their garden. Should a player buy the large size flower - taking up more room in their garden, or buy a smaller one, one they KNOW is needed? Initially, players know six of the total judge cards, but must deduce the rest from what their opponents do. Is a player planting that Cosmos because they know it’s one of the needed flowers, or simply because it’s a white flower? A little bluffing is allowed (although not too much - players simply don’t have enough time to really waste on flowers they don’t need.) Although to protect myself from weeds, I have bought flowers I didn’t need just to fill the garden up.

6.) Strategy: Because players have only two actions per turn, down time in the game is minimal. Yet players have a significant amount of choices to make. Which neighbors should they introduce themselves to? Should they work for free, getting the favor, or get the much-needed money? What flowers should they buy? As simple as the game may seem, I really think that it’s an elegant design, allowing players to try out a lot of different options. Some strategy tips are listed in the rulebook, and all the games I’ve played have turned out differently with players trying out different tactical moves. The game feels like it could have been one of the Alea Big Box series (just slightly lighter).

7.) Fun Factor: Because the theme is strong, choices are simple but varied, and players are immersed in the game - it’s a lot of fun. Yes, some grumbled about the joys of planting flowers, but most people who played the game enjoyed it. Watching the weeds spread (as long as it’s not your own yard) can be fun, and seeing how many correct flowers you have in your garden at game end can be quite satisfying.

I highly recommend Garden Competition; it’s a solid game design, and one that I feel will sadly be overlooked because it’s an independent design. If you’ve been looking for a game with a flower garden theme, this is a tremendous one, and doesn’t feel like it’s merely a theme pasted on some abstract mechanics. And if you don’t like flowers or gardens, I still highly recommend the game. It’s a lot of fun and easy to understand and play, yet with a wide range of options. It’d be nice to see a large company pick this game up, but for now, one only needs to go to www.toccatagames.com to snag a copy. It’s certainly worth it!

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”
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