Thursday, September 19, 2013

Garden Dice

In a surprising turn of events I've actually left the apartment two days in a row now, to play board games at different locations downtown. Once in the basement of a Magic/gaming store, and once in yet another board game cafe that's just opened in Toronto. I learned five new games over the two days, with one game being played both days. That game was Garden Dice, and it has a mechanic that felt both mean and bad, but I tried it out anyway and wanted to look at it more now to see if it is actually reasonable or not.

The way the game works is you roll 4 dice at the start of your turn and then get to take actions based on the dice rolled. For most of the actions a bigger number is strictly better but there's one action where you might want a smaller number instead. The typical way to score points is to spend one die picking up a seed, two dice to put the seed on the board, one die to water the seed into a vegetable, and one die to harvest the vegetable for points. You score points equal to the face value of the tile, which is also the number you need to roll to pick up, water, or harvest the tile. You can also roll higher than that number so you can spend any die picking up a 1 tile but the end result of your 5 actions will only be 1 point. The tiles range from 1 to 5, so you could instead get 5 points for those 5 actions.

There are some other things going on too. Place your tile in a specific spot and you can get +3 points when it scores, or you can double the value. There's also an interesting combo mechanism where watering and harvesting tiles can carry over to adjacent smaller tiles. So you could spend 5 actions for 5 points, or you could spend an extra 3 actions picking up and placing a 4 beside the 5 before you water and harvest to get 9 points for 8 actions. If they're both on a +3 or x2 spot that could be a lot of points, especially compared to someone who may have spent 5 actions playing, watering, and harvesting a 2. A lot of the game seemed to come down to building these chains and proccing them in order to save actions. You can even tag along on other people's chains if you sneak in beside them so maybe you don't end up using water or harvest actions at all!

The attacking mechanic in the game lets each player play and control an animal tile on the board. The animal starts as a bird but you can spend a 6 die to switch your bird into a rabbit. Once your animal is in play you can spend a die to move your animal that many empty spaces in one direction, with birds being able to move onto a seed and rabbits able to move onto a vegetable. If that happens they immediately eat the seed or vegetable, removing it from the board for your opponent. You can then spend a die of equal or higher value to pick that tile up yourself, off board, as though you'd taken the seed from the supply. Or if you don't want it you can remove the tile from the game completely. Doing this requires you to add a control token to your animal which restricts how many things you can have going at once. (You have 8 tokens and everything you pick up or have in play needs a token on it.)

The question is, is this worthwhile to do? If I roll a 5 I can just pick up a 5 seed on my own. Instead I could spend 2 actions to play my bird, 1 action to move my bird, and 1 action to capture the seed. So I'm spending 3 extra actions in order to deny my opponent 3 actions. In a 2 player game this is a reasonable thing to do, and could be great if you can break up a good chain or deny a big 10 point play from a doubled 5 tile. In a 4 player game it feels a lot like you're hurting yourself to hurt one other player and the other two players should be dancing a jig.

Things do get a little better once you take this action once. It's still going to cost your opponent 3 actions to pick up and play the replacement seed but if they place it near your bird you can spend a mere 2 actions to move and capture the seed, and one of those would have been used picking up a seed from the supply anyway. This is action positive in a 2 player game, and pretty much means your opponent will avoid playing a seed in range of your bird, which can give you a fair amount of area control which seems like it could be pretty nice. But in the 4 player game it still seems fairly bad. You're costing one opponent 3 actions and yourself 1 action. With 3 opponents this is actually neutral, and you may well be able to target the 'leader' or to spread out the pain.

The rabbit takes an extra action investment up front, but costs your opponent an extra action when you eat a vegetable. This seems great in a 2 player game, and does swing things into the efficient category in a 4 player game, assuming you get to eat enough vegetables to make it worthwhile. Unfortunately I don't think that's going to actually happen. It's possible to both water and harvest a given seed in the same turn, and they'd both chain the same way, so it's actually pretty rare for vegetables to just sit around on the board. Maybe it would happen when there are no rabbits in play but once someone spends the time to make a rabbit it feels a lot less likely to happen. Especially since animals move in a straight line and are blocked by objects they can't eat!

Having a bird or rabbit in play near your stuff does cause you to play differently, so just the threat of an animal attack probably has some value. But with the 8 token limit it felt hard to pull off. In order for the threat to stay viable you need to spend one token on the animal, and you need to keep a couple tokens off board in order to threaten the steal. This drastically limits your ability to build up a good water/harvest chain, especially if you also spend a token on your other special tile. Oh, and that other special tile is the one that gives +3 points for nearby harvests and also protects adjacent seeds from enemy birds. So even if the bird is a strong play there is a limited but direct counter to it.

My feeling after two plays (both 4 player games) is the animal just isn't good enough. On the other hand each game had one player make a rabbit and that player did win both games (once myself, once Duncan) so maybe there's more going on there. I don't think Duncan even ate anything with the rabbit, but the threat of the rabbit did cause Sara to avoid watering some seeds on a turn and I think that may have been the difference between them in the end?

There's also a set collection system of end-game bonus points in play and I think using the animals as set denial might be strong, especially in a 2 or 3 player game. There are 10 of each seed type in the 4 player game and in the game today we split the 1 seeds up 4-3-2-1. If someone had managed to eat Duncan's single 1 seed he would have lost the 15 point bonus for the full set which would have been a bit of a blowout. He probably could have found a way to animal back someone else's 1 at some point, but that probably would have cost a lot of extra actions and slowed him down.

I can imagine playing this game with Andrew... Both of us would have birds in play with 4 or more of our 8 control tokens on them because we'd just be eating each other's seeds without taking them for our own. OM NOM NOM!

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