Takenoko is our new favorite family game, easy enough for my 7-year-old to understand (and, after two plays, completely memorize) the rules, just complex enough to require some serious decision-making, with beautiful components and a kid-friendly theme. Aside from one small hiccup in the rules, it’s about as perfect as any adult/kid boardgame out there.
In Takenoko, the emperor of Japan has been given a panda as a gift, and the panda does what pandas do – he starts running around the emperor’s garden eating bamboo, frustrating the royal gardener. The board changes each game as players lay hex tiles in three different colors on the table, starting with the central pond tile, then irrigating each tile so they can add bamboo stacks to it – although the panda will move around the board and eat bamboo when the players need to collect some.
Snowy night, pretty panda game – and I won ???? pic.twitter.com/HbRmtE5uCG
— ChristaRowan (@ChristaRowan) January 3, 2014
On a turn, a player takes two actions and may not perform the same type of action twice. Action choices include adding a hex tile (draw three, choose one to place, return the other two to the bottom of the stack); add an irrigation canal; move the gardener to an irrigated tile, adding bamboo to that one and any adjacent, irrigated tiles of the same color; move the panda, eating one bamboo section from the tile where he lands; or take another objective card to try to score more points. After round one, each player rolls a “weather” die before his/her turn, allowing him/her to take a third action, perform the same action twice, or do specific tasks like moving the panda for free.
Players all work to build up the royal gardens, earning points by completing “objectives” on three types of cards. The first kind involves creating patterns of hex tiles on the board, with the player scoring points once the tiles are placed in the right pattern and are all irrigated. The second requires the player to collect bamboo sections, scoring once he’s obtained the whole set shown on the card. The third and most difficult kind, the gardener cards, require constructing specific bamboo stacks – four sections of a single color on a specific tile type, or sets of three or four stacks of exactly three sections, all of the same color. Task rewards range from 2 points up to 7, and the game ends when a player reaches a specific threshold based on the number of players in the game (equal to 11 minus the number of players, if you don’t mind a little arithmetic). The player to reach that threshold first gets the Emperor card, worth an additional 2 points.
The tile types I mentioned above involve improvement tokens, some of which are printed on the hex tiles already, with 9 more miniature tiles available for players to add to tiles as they see fit. One type prohibits the panda from eating bamboo sections on that tile (which means the stack can never shrink); another makes the tile particularly fertile, so it adds two bamboo sections instead of one each time the gardener drops by; and the third, the watershed token, adds irrigation to a tile regardless of its access to the central network of canals. These can make reaching certain objectives easier, but the gardener cards that call for building a bamboo stack of four sections specify what improvements are required to earn points – some cards call for a specific token, and the others can only be scored if the stack is on a hex tile with no improvement tokens at all.
The lone hiccup in the game comes from the existence of multiple objective cards with the same pattern or requirement within each deck. In the gardener and tile-pattern decks, that means a player could draw the same card twice and, in theory, score twice for fulfilling its requirements just once. The rulebook points out this possibility and suggests a house rule to cover it; we’ve played with the simplest solution, that no player can score the same objective card from these decks twice. The panda objective cards don’t present this problem, because to score such a card you have to return the bamboo sections you’ve collected to the central repository; if you draw the same panda objective card again, you have to start collecting from scratch anyway.
Takenoko has a high interactive element with a low screw-your-opponent factor; you can sometimes infer what your opponent is trying to do, but you probably won’t be certain, and making a move to stop him/her just sets you back from achieving your own objectives. You can, however, benefit from what someone else does, or find an opponent has inadvertently blocked you, so choosing what steps to take when is a big part of Takenoko strategy. The time required to run irrigation lines out to hex tiles placed two or three spaces away from the central pond is also a big factor in deciding when or whether to go for a hex-pattern objective, and because the panda and gardener can only move in straight lines, you may also find yourself trying to position them in your current turn so you’ll have a fighting chance to get them ready to strike in your next one.
Games run very quickly, maybe a half hour for the three of us to complete a game, in large part because the rules are straightforward enough for my daughter to make reasonably fast decisions and to decide before her turn arrives what she wants to do. (This also involved her making vague threats to my wife and myself about what might happen if we screwed up what she was trying to accomplish on her next turn.) The components are well-made and attractive, with a sensible box for storage and the right number of small bags to keep the bamboo stacks and other pieces separated.