- Number of Plays: 11
- Game Length: 30 – 45 minutes
- Mechanics: Tableu building, hate drafting
- Release Year: 2015
- Designer: Dan Cassar
- Artist: Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams, Beth Sobel, Waldo Ramirez
In this wonderful hobby, lots of games exist with lots of different themes. Do you want to build a bear park? We’ve got a game for that. Feel like managing the fickle demands of fast food customers? Boy do I have an experience for you! We got several games about quilts, and a somewhat unhealthy obsession about sheep. You’d think that after experiencing great games in a wide variety of themes I wouldn’t be so quick to write off a game just because it’s artistic direction does little to incite wonder in my heart.
In Arboretum you are trying to build the prettiest tree garden. But don’t let the beautiful artwork get your guard down. In this Arboretum only those with the strongest botanical skills will survive!
How to Play
Before the game begins the deck is constructed according to the number of players. With 2 players the deck is 48 cards in 6 different suits, 3 players is 64 cards of 8 suits, and 4 players has all 10 species of trees totaling 80 cards. The mathematically inclined among you may have noticed that each suit has 8 cards, valued from 1 to 8.
The game begins by dealing each player 7 cards. You begin your turn by picking up two cards either from the face down deck, or from one of the discard piles (each player has their own discard pile). You then must play a card, and discard a card. When you play a card into your arboretum, it must be placed adjacent to an existing card, in any orthogonal direction. When you discard, it must be to your own discard pile. The next player can then proceed with their turn.
The game ends when the last card is drawn from the face down deck. That player finishes their turn like normal, then all players compete for the right to score. One by one you go through all the suits in the game and reveal how many of that suit you have remaining in your hand. Whoever has the highest sum of cards has earned the right to score the trees in their arboretum.
The player who earned the right to score counts up the number of cards that exist in ascending order, beginning and ending with the suit that is being scored. Numbers can be skipped, but the trees must always be placed in ascending order. If the start or end card is a 1 or and an 8 respectively, you earn additional points. If you have four or more cards in the row and they’re all of the same suit you’re scoring, then each card in that row is worth two points each.
Once all types of trees have been scored, the player with the highest score wins. If two players tie, whoever has the most tree types present in their arboretum is the winner. If the players are still tied, both players must plant a tree. Whichever tree is tallest after five years is the victor.
Arboretum is a deception. The calm nature theme and gorgeous art does a lot to impart a sense of ease and calm before the game starts. There’s a couple of nuances that are often left uninternalized when explaining how the game works for the first time. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen eyes glaze over when I begin to describe how the scoring works. I’ve always emphasize that you have to earn the right to score, but more than once we’ve played a whole game only to get to the end and a new player didn’t realize you needed to hold cards back in their hand in order to score it, meaning their perfect row of 7 Blue Firs went unscored.
The mechanics of Arboretum pulls your heart in multiple directions. Cards in your hand are worth nothing if you don’t have any cards of the same suit on the table. Cards on the table earn you nothing if you don’t have enough left in your hand at the end of the day. You have a limited hand-size, but you also need to hoard cards of your chosen suit so you can not only build an arboretum worth scoring, but also have cards left in your hand that will win you the right to score. You’ll often be tempted to dump cards that you don’t need, but you know that every card you throw away has the potential to be incredibly valuable to the other players.
The need to keep cards in your hand is directly at odds with earning points from your cards on the table. While it might seem obvious that you could just keep an 8 in your hand and be confident that that you’ll win the right to score, Dan Cassar saw you coming from a mile away; if someone has the 1 value of that species in their hand, it turns the value of your 8 card to 0. This twist encourages you to keep your eyes on the cards that have been played. If the one is already on the table, suddenly the 8 is more powerful. On the other hand, if the 8 has been played, holding the 1 in your hand means almost nothing. And when hand space is a valuable resource, you don’t want useless cards clogging up your hand.
My copy of Arbortetum is the 2018 deluxe edition published by Renegade. This edition boasts stunning art by Beth Sobel and impressive holo-foil cards. The way the light reflects off the foil faces feels at odds with the rest of the aesthetic; the gaudy reflections feel audacious and unnecessary. Speaking of unnecessary, this edition comes in a wooden box at least three times too large. I pulled the deck, rulebook, scorepad, and velvet bag out of the strangely nice smelling box and tossed all the components into a plastic photo box. With a smaller footprint, comes portability. Arboretum is now a top pick when I’m packing games for travel.
One of the best features of this game is the unique scoring mechanism. It creates a tense push-your-luck element that makes the decision to place and discard every card significantly more stressful. In my experience one of the suits ends up being the universal junk tree that everyone is happed to jettison from their hand, and in doing so, the remaining suits are much more sought after and hotly contested. The final reveal of cards left in your hand at the end of the game is a tense chapter. While you usually have one suit for which you have counted cards in such a way that leaves little doubt you will be able to score, the other suits are more of a mystery. It is always exciting when someone has just the right cards to deny the other player a big scoring line (unless, of course, it was you that was the one denied). This chapter of the game elicits cheers and groans from everyone at the table as each person is invested in the outcome of each scoring.
Arboretum’s end game always approaches much faster than I expect. On average, the number of cards in my tableau normally sits around 11, not leaving much room for error, especially if I diversified and now need to have 3 or 4 different suits in my hand. On the other hand specializing in just one or two types of trees is only a solid strategy if you want to be in second place. Fortune favours the bold, after all.
Because Arboretum is just deck of cards, I pick this game to travel with me almost every time I embark on some kind of adventure. The complexity of the scoring mechanics causes me to hesitate when it comes to teaching new players. I have absolutely no issue teaching this to someone who professes themselves to be a gamer, but Arboretum is not a game that I would push on people whos gaming experience lies entirely in Rummy and Spider Solitaire.
Arboretum is the kind of game that gets lodged into your mind and keeps you thinking about it for hours after the deck has been packed away. You are left wrestling with the idea that if you had just done this one thing, or discarded that other card, then everything would have been different. I love when a game sticks with me after I’ve left the table, and in my experience most people are itching for a second go after they have had time to stew about their first experience.