Top Of The Table – Takenoko
The use of panda diplomacy has a long history within China. In pursuit of closer diplomatic ties with other countries, China has a centuries-long practice of gifting its giant pandas in an act of generosity and political friendship. The act was first recorded as early as the 7th century. Takenoko (literally: bamboo sprout) is a light-hearted homage to this ancient tradition, telling the story of a panda given to the Japanese emperor by his Chinese counterpart. The panda is set loose in the royal gardens, and the poor royal gardener is forced to deal with an animal that is suddenly eating all the trees.
To start off this year’s tabletop recommendations, we take a closer look at Takenoko. This brilliant game by Antoine Bauza is extremely easy to learn, and its cute characters and non-violent themes make it a perfect fit for families. However, its strategic depth is far more than you might imagine at first glance, thanks to an asymmetric approach to victory conditions, and a tile-based board that evolves over the course of play.
Takenoko comes in a thoughtfully designed square box that comfortably holds all its components, and even includes easy-to-access cups to store components during play, keeping the rest of the table clear for the growing tile layout that develops over the course of a session.
Two to four players each receive a sturdy play mat that includes spots for storing game components for later use, as well as a pictorial reminder of a player’s actions on any given turn. Since the game board develops in the natural course of a game, setup is incredibly simple – a central tile is placed in the middle of the table, and the tiny gardener and panda figures are placed on top, ready to spread out across the board as the game begins.
With the player mats as visual aids, a player that has read the rules can easily explain the entirety of the game to fellow players in a matter of minutes, and then the bamboo eating gets underway.
[Next page: Growing bamboo only to chomp it away]
Theme And Story
While it’s not a story-focused game, Takenoko gets points for its creative and surprising concept. As I played, I found myself imagining the hungry panda lumbering about the garden and the frenzied gardener trying to keep up with the bear’s excess eating – almost like a variation on an old Tom & Jerry cartoon.
The beautiful art on the tiles is filled with muted colors and tiny vistas of natural splendor; the rest of the game components all help create the illusion that you’re slowly creating a miniature Japanese garden as the game continues.
Takenoko’s greatest thematic strength is its visual presentation. While the game begins with a single tile at the center of the table, the shape of the board rapidly changes as players take turns. New hexagonal tiles connect up to the center and stackable plastic bamboo shoots begin to sprout up across the board. Long blue wooden game pieces start to create a web of irrigation across the board, representing places where bamboo can be grown. And all the time, the tiny gardener and panda are constantly moving back and forth. By the end of the game, there’s a verticality to the game board that’s very cool to look at, and the shape of those stacked tiles and bamboo trees is different in every game.
Each player’s turn of Takenoko begins with a roll of the weather die, which determines a special ability available to the player on that turn. Roll a sunny day, and you get an extra action, or roll a rainy day, and you get to grow one bamboo segment for free. Each of five choices might help change or refine your selection of later actions.
Players then choose two of five actions to take, including laying out a new hexagonal plot, digging an irrigation channel, moving the gardener (to grow new bamboo), moving the panda (to eat bamboo), or drawing a new objective. Three different colors of bamboo can be grown, depending on the color of the tile, and much of the strategy comes down to creating the correct combination of colored bamboo in a given place.
Objectives are split into three categories, and you can choose which type to shoot for. Some objectives demand you create a particular layout of land plots on the board, another variety demands a particular formation of colored bamboo be grown, and a third that the panda eats a certain variety of bamboo. Players continue completing objectives until one player hits a certain number (dependent on the number of players participating), and then the emperor arrives to survey the garden and reward victory.
What’s fascinating about the game is the way that no one player is exclusively in charge of any one element. You may control the panda on one turn, but the next player could move the panda to an entirely different place. You’re forced to strategize and create winning situations, even though you don’t always have control of the game elements that might lead to those moments of success. While building the board out to your own victory conditions, you’re also paying close attention to what your fellow players are trying to do, and attempting to thwart their efforts – but without a completely clear idea what their goal might be. For instance, you might see a fellow player working hard to create a row of green plots. You may not know how many plots he needs for his objective, but you can guess that putting a yellow plot in his way is probably a good idea.
[Next page: How long does one game take to play?]
The basics of Takenoko only take a few minutes to grasp, but like many of the best games, it takes much longer to master the strategies involved. A good player pays attention not just to his or her own objectives, but also tries to guess what his or her fellow players are doing. Focusing just on plot, gardener, or panda objectives is rarely a key to victory, so you always have to be watching the board and making careful choices about when to pursue a new objective and how to keep your plans hidden from your fellow players.
Even though the game can be strategically complex, I wholeheartedly recommend this title to families with slightly older kids. While the box recommends players aged 13 and up, I can envision introducing the game to kids as young as nine or ten without too much trouble. Meanwhile, if you’re playing with adults, I’ve found that most players I’ve tried the title with immediately gravitate to Takenoko’s unusual premise and quick-moving turns. Even your first game of Takenoko isn’t likely to take over an hour, and once you’re familiar, it’s not unusual to play a complete game in as little as 30 minutes.
What else do I need to know?
Takenoko is likely to run between $30 and $50 at most retailers, depending on where you shop. A knowledgeable local hobby and game store could easily run you through the games rules in-store before heading home, or you could also track down the game online at retailers like Cool Stuff Inc. or Amazon.
With its straightforward mechanics, beautiful art, and modular game board, Takenoko is a great option for shorter play sessions, or for a palette cleanser between longer games during a marathon weekend of play. Every time I have played Takenoko, I’ve come to enjoy it a little more, and recognize more of its clever ideas. It’s unlike any other game on the market, and it’s hard to imagine a gaming group that won’t be won over by its charm.
Looking for some other recommended tabletop games? You can read my Top Ten Tabletop Games of 2013, or 2012, or get a more in-depth look at Ascension, Tannhauser, Castle Ravenloft, Yomi, Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Agents of SMERSH, A Touch of Evil, Mage Wars, The Adventurers: Pyramid of Horus, Dixit, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Lords of Waterdeep, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Eldritch Horror, or Robinson Crusoe.