• Number of Plays: 8
  • Game Length: 45 minutes
  • Mechanics: Dice Rolling, Tile Placement, Action Selection
  • Release Year: 2011
  • Designer: Antoine Bauza
  • Artist: Nicolas Fructus, Picksel, Yuio

Introduction – How I found Yin and Yang

Takenoko was among the first designer board games I ever played. My wife pitched the idea of going to the local board game cafe as a fun date (slightly against my will actually). That date opened my eyes to the world that is cardboard within cardboard. Little did she know that she was introducing me to a hobby that I would fall deep into, hard and fast.

Shortly thereafter, while thirsting for more board games I discovered Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show on YouTube and chose to watch the episode with Harley Morenstein from Epic Meal Time (of which I used to be a big fan). Tabletop introduced me to Takenoko, a beautiful game about trying to build an aesthetically pleasing garden and grow bamboo to specific heights, all the while a damned panda keeps eating it all.

If the panda is the symbol of harmony and diplomacy, I’m sure the gardener is the incarnation of rage and spite.

How to Play (First Edition)

Takenoko begins with a single blue tile in the centre of the table. On that lonely blue tile sits a single gardner and his eternal rival, the panda. Each turn begins by rolling the weather die (Skip this step on each player’s first turn). The result of the weather die gives you a little boost for your turn, like granting you a third action – the ability to do the same action twice in one turn, a free panda teleportation action, growing a single bamboo stalk anywhere on the map, an improvement tile, or your preferred choice of all the benefits I just listed!

The playerboard keeps track of everything you have, and the actions you’ve taken on your turn

After you apply the weather effect, you take 2 actions (3 if you happened to roll the sun weather benefit). You may not perform the same action twice in one turn (unless you have the wind weather benefit). The actions available to you are to draw 3 plots of land and choose one to add to the central play area; to take an irrigation channel; to move the panda in a straight line and eat the top section of bamboo from wherever he stops; to move the gardener in a straight line and grow bamboo on every irrigated tile of the same colour adjacent to the spot where the gardener stopped moving; or to draw 1 goal card.

The goal cards you hold are what influence all of your decisions. At the beginning of the game you’ll receive 1 card for each type of goal; plots, gardener, and panda. The plot goals encourage you to arrange certain colour tiles in specific shapes. Once the shapes have been satisfied with the required colours, and every landscape tile in the shape has been irrigated, you may claim that goal. The gardener goals task you with growing bamboo stalks to specific heights on certain tiles. Conversely, the panda goals are all about feasting on the appropriate type and quantity of bamboo, making the stalks shrink by one for every piece the little white and black bear stuffs his face with.

When an goal has been completed, you simply place the card down on the table. The first person to reach the required number of completed goals triggers the end of the game and earns the Emperor’s favour (which is worth a couple of extra points). Every other player gets one more turn to accomplish any remaining goals they’re holding before the game is over. The player with the highest sum of points on their completed goal cards has won the game and receives the congratulations of the Emperor.

Just because you’re the one to end the game and get the bonus 2 points, doesn’t always mean you’ll win the game

Final Thoughts

Takenoko is a light and charming game with bright and colourful components. I find the mechanics and goals easy to internalize, and I enjoy evoking ire of the other players by making the panda chomp down on their carefully pruned bamboo stalks that they’ve been trying to grow all game so they can accomplish their goal of having 4 green stalks, all at the height of 3.

Actually the mechanic of hidden objectives is something my wife absolutely detests. It’s one thing if some makes a decision to deny you what you need, but it’s another thing entirely when someone ruins all your plans without even knowing they’re doing so. Apparently she just doesn’t enjoy having her plans ruined.

I absolutely love the artistic direction and the components in this game. The plot tiles are thick and bright, and the panda and gardener miniatures come pre-painted. The real star of the show are the bamboo stalks that stand high off the table. The chunky wooden spires attract the eye and capture the attention of new players. Plus, it is fun to see how high you can stack them while you’re waiting for other players to take their turns.

The game itself is easy to play Each turn is straight forward with few opportunities for making any single turn overly complex or acheive big game changing combos. This is nice and keeps each turn moving quickly, but it can be frustrating when the player across the table from you had 4 more goals cards down, it can feel impossible to catch up.

Personally, I find the weather die to be a bit of a frustration. I find the sun benefit (an extra action) to be head and shoulders above the other benefits, each of which are only situationally advantageous. The other issue I have is many of the cards require specific advancements that either come preprinted on the plot tiles, or are only obtained by the cloud weather benefit. When you have one of the advancement tiles, you can only place it on a tile if there is no bamboo on that tile, meaning the tile must be either unirrigated or the panda must raze the vegetation before any advancements can be placed.

The Panda destroys what the Gardener grows

It’s not uncommon for players to creep close to the endgame without passing the line. In the 2 player game, the first person to reach 9 completed objectives triggers the end game. Often I’ll see the game suddenly stall at 7 objectives realized as each player tries to queue up extra points in their hand. Considering that each other player gets one last turn to complete as many of their objectives as possible, it just makes sense. I find that players draw several plot objectives at the beginning of the game, then slowly move to drawing mostly gardener objectives at the end as the garden sprawls further and further away and the spires of bamboo reach the sky. The randomness can be aggravating as you somehow draw the one goal card that nothing on the board is nearly close to, while your opponent draws cards that are one bamboo segment away from being finished.

Ultimately Takenoko is a lovely game that you can use to allure people who would otherwise turn their nose up at the waves of beige that dominate other board games. With a commanding table presence and easy to play mechanics, Takenoko is often a winner when I’m not playing with my normal ‘advanced’ board game group. I wouldn’t introduce this to a complete non-gamer, as the amount of decisions are a little much (5x weather effects, 5x different actions). If someone has expressed interest and is willing to be engaged in the experience however, this game is a hit!

Lesson of the day, never store Takenoko on its side

I also really like to imagine a world where a gardener is trying to carefully cultivate an aesthetically pleasing garden, but one patch of trees happens to grow much more aggressively than the rest, so his solution is to source a panda and hold it over the tall tree to cut it down to the proper size. I don’t know if that world exists, but that’s the world that I want to live in.