Time: ~30 minutes
Times Played: 10+
It’s no secret that I harbor a deep love of abstract strategy games. Azul, Blokus, Hive, Sagrada, etc. are never turned down when someone wishes to bring them to the table. Gartenbau might join that illustrious group.
For full disclosure, I was provided this copy of Gartenbau for preview. The provided copy has not impacted my views in this post. This is a prototype copy so the images and some rules below will reflect that stage of the game.
Like all abstract strategy games, there’s a theme but that’s not necessarily the selling point of the game. Each player is a gardener trying to create and cultivate a Garden quicker than the other players. Players start with seedlings that turn into Plants that later can bloom into full-fledged flowers. Every component that the player places in front of them works towards their prestige as a gardener and the player with the most prestige when the game ends is the Gartenmeister aka The Master Gardener.
I will say that as far as abstracts go, I feel like the theme works just as well as Hive where there is a pretty clear relationship between the actions and the theme. Seedlings turn to Plants which turn to flowers and the resource cubes are the fundamental building blocks of Plant life as they represent water and the sun. Compared to something like Azul or Blokus where it’s really just colors and shapes for the sake of a game, Gartenbau has an interesting and integrated theme. Granted, those games are still amazing but it is nice to have a rhyme and reason as to why some mechanics perform the way they do.
Also, Gardens are universal. They’re sort of like train-themed games where they basically have something for everyone.
Gartenbau is a game defined by the mechanics of four possible actions. Each turn, a player will choose one of the actions to perform.
Acquire Seedlings from the Market: Players can grab a Seedling tile and add it to their Garden. From left to right, the cost of the Seedling tiles are 0,1,2,3, and 4 resources. Those resources can be any that are in your possession (so Sun and/or Water) and are placed on each Seedling a player passes over to grab the one they want. Those resources are up for grabs when a future player grabs that Seedling for their own Garden.Once a tile is grabbed, the market is adjusted and that Seedling is immediately placed in a players Garden.
One of the more interesting aspects of Gartenbau is the completely modular creation of a players Garden. Whereas most games have a set space or board for players to abide by (think Patchwork), Gartenbau allows you to make the Garden you want to make as long as you abide by domino-style adjacency placement rule and orientation does not matter. Color doesn’t matter; just the end of one Seedling needs to be adjacent orthogonally to another Seedling. Coupled with the unique scoring opportunities of some of the flowers, players might have a nice and tight Kingdomino-style Garden or something more akin to a sprawling Carcassonne layout. I will note however that this game can take up some sizable table space if you’re trying to branch out your Garden and score maximum points for some of the Flowers.
Purchase and Place Level Two Tiles: Players can acquire a Plant tile from one of the Plant tile stacks. To acquire them, they must pay the resource requirement listed on the Plant as well as meet the Seedling requirement to place the Plant. Like Seedlings, Plants need to be placed in a players Garden as soon as the action is taken. Plants will cover two Seedling squares (matching the Plants requirements).
The earlier you are able to build these Plants, the cheaper they will be in regards to their resource cost. I think this is one of those “aha” moments of the game after a first play through as your first Plant might cost just one Water but when you go back to purchase another (and several others Plants have been acquired by other players) the cost is now two Water and two Sun. The Plant placement is important (and the rush to acquire them) as the scoring bonuses of each Flower are different.
Place Square Flower Tiles from Hand: Players can place one of their unique Flower tiles onto their Garden, covering two Plants that meet the requirement of the Flower. Upon placement, players are rewarded with three resources where they can pick two of one color and one of the other.
This is what Gartenbau is all about. You’ve been slowly building your Garden from Seedling to Plant and now you’re ready for that Plant to bloom into a fully-fledged Flower. In game mechanics, you’ve been lining up Seedlings around your other Flowers so when you place Green 1, you are able to score a great deal of bonus points at the end of the game. Placing a Flower is typically the moment you’ve been preparing for.
Take Resources: Players can take three resource tokens from the bank. They can take no more than two of the same resource.
With Plants costing money (and sometimes Seedlings you really want). it never felt like a wasted turn to grab resources. We played with a limit of ten resources that could be stashed in your reserves and honestly never really ran into an issue with that. There are always resources available to get more or to buy something else that maybe wasn’t your first choice but is definitely a solid plan B.
Players have to choose one of the four actions and cannot pass. The game continues until either the last Seedling tile is played (and not just put into the Market) or one player places their fourth Flower tile in their Garden. The player with the most Prestige points at the end is the Gartenmeister.
Scoring will take a few moments for the first several games. I believe the game will include a score-pad but we definitely had to use pencil and paper to calculate our scores with all the variety of the Flower tiles. Nothing is difficult to calculate; it’s just a matter of doing the math and keeping track of everything.
The assortment of the Flower tiles, with or without the draft, adds a range of gameplay and scoring options and can make for vastly different Gardens. In one of our games, I had Violet 2 (gain points for the number of edges in your final Garden) whereas my SO had Amber 2 (subtract two points for each edge in your final Garden). We loved that there were two completely different scoring aspects at play and it caused her to try to end the game early as her Garden was uniform whereas I was trying to make mine as spindly as possible. Even the Flower tiles that we didn’t enjoy so much added new breath into each play, such as Teal 1 (bonus points for having the most of each Seedling color in your Garden) because you would be constantly looking at what other players were grabbing, playing, and covering up. Our favorite scoring Flowers were Amber 1 (points for each identical Seedling in your longest orthogonally connected set of Seedlings), Amber 2, Magenta 2 (copy the scoring bonus of a Flower to your left or right), Violet 2, and Chartreuse 1 (starting at forty-two, subtract two points for each Seedling in your final Garden). Chartreuse 1 took Seedlings from something you placed to make your Garden to something that you have to cover.
Playing Gartenbau gave me some of the same feelings that I have when playing Azul. There’s the immediate action of grabbing a Seedling (tile) and adding it to your Garden (board). There’s the tactical action of placing Seedlings in a way to grow them into Plants (placing that tile in a row to complete a column). Lastly, there’s the strategical action of building off of that tactical action by creating a flower that scores you more points due to the existing layout of your Garden (that tactical tile completing all five of a color). I’m sure I could simplify other games to match this generalized overlay but it has the feel of a good abstract strategy game. I was immediately drawn in after playing and then wanted to play again once the game ended.
Each decision is important and each decision is important in conjunction with previous made choices. I never felt like I was taking a wasted turn or doing an action just because I needed to do something. Even when I would take resources, it was still with an end goal in sight. This felt especially true due to the “take two of one color and one of the other” rule for resources. It made me think about what I had done, what I was going to do, and what I needed to do.
Each flower has their own special scoring circumstances and the designers did a good job of creating some variety among the flowers as well as grouping them for first-time and beginner players. We weren’t fully comfortable drafting flowers until maybe our fourth game and while that does create a great way to play the game, I don’t think it’s something that has to be done if you loathe drafting. The drafting adds an interesting layer of strategy for the entire game as you have an idea of what flowers are available and what players are gunning for (as well as being able to pick flowers that you want and think you can complete) but if you just want to deal out some flowers or use the pre-made combinations, the game still works great.
What I enjoyed about playing this game was that while I had similar strategies for some of the cards, I could dictate the pace of play and that would change the game dramatically. If I rushed to complete my flowers and end the game, I might end with a low amount of points but I might force my opponent to make poor decisions as they try to keep up. If players want to make sprawling Gardens, they can do that too as they try to maximize their placements and the points they’ll make. It’s a very cat-and-mouse/tug-of-war feeling as players play the game as well as one another, which to me is the hallmark of a great game. This is incredibly important for a game like Gartenbau where you have your own player area and the interaction between one another is indirect at best.
Gartenbau plays two- to four-players and minus the pre-start drafting, the games play exactly the same. The only noticeable differences are that the Seedlings will cycle through faster, Plants will cycle faster, and table space may be at a premium in a higher player count game. With more players, it makes the game more tactical as the items you want to grab have a higher probability of not being there when your turn comes around. At two, you can typically better plan out a few turns ahead especially since you’re armed with the knowledge of what the player across from you has flower-wise. It can be frustrating as you prepare to buy a two Sun and one Water costing Plant only to see the players ahead of you buy them, thus jacking up the price and keeping you from buying what you want. Lastly, with a four-player game, ensure you have a fully cleared off table as some Gardens can become lengthy and you want to ensure that you have the entire space available to you and others.
Regardless of player count, Gartenbau is a game that could cause some analysis paralysis in players as they try to perfectly predict their next several moves. You know you need to get these color Seedlings so you can acquire those color Plants which will allow you to place that color Flower and it can be a lot. We had games as quick as fifteen minutes and some as long as forty-five. Once we were in the groove of gameplay and scoring, games lasted around twenty-five minutes which I found to be a perfect amount for the depth of strategy introduced by Gartenbau.
I’m biased as I really enjoy abstract strategy games but I really enjoyed Gartenbau. It was competitive without being cutthroat (not that I mind that), it was challenging without being frustrating, and it was clever without being complex. It would take as much effort to introduce this to my parents and grandparents as Azul did.
Gartenbau is live on Kickstarter now.