You’re a member of the Japanese Imperial Court, charged with looking after a Panda gifted to the Emperor by China. To do this, you must lay farm plots, irrigate them and grow several different kinds of bamboo. This is Takenoko, and it’s certainly an original premise.
The aim of Takenoko is to score the most points from completing objective cards, which come in three flavours. The most basic is eating a certain amount of bamboo with the Panda – two sections of yellow, or one pink and one green for example. Next there is setting out the hexagonal plots in a certain pattern, and finally trying to grow a bamboo plant to a certain height. Completing a number of these (depending on the number of players) then triggers a final round, with scores totted up at the end.
Initial setup only takes a few minutes, although reading through the instructions the first time probably took about 20 minutes. A central pond tile is placed, with the Panda and Gardener figures starting on it. Each player then gets a playing board, to help keep track of the game, and three objective cards, one from each category.
Mechanically it works well. A turn consists of rolling a weather die and applying its effect – rain grows a section of bamboo on one plot, a storm makes the Panda need to comfort eat – before making two actions from a selection of five. You can place a plot of land from the reserve, drawing three and choosing one, take an irrigation channel to support plots further out from the starting pond tile, move the gardener to grow bamboo, move the panda to eat some or pick an objective card.
Bamboo will only grow if a plot is adjacent to the pond tile, or if an irrigation channel has been built to it along its side. Once these conditions are met, it will automatically sprout a base, with the Gardener or rain then needed to grow it further, to a maximum height of four sections. There are also improvement tiles, some built into plots, others placed via the weather die. These can make a plot self-irrigating, immune to the Panda, or cause it to grow at double the rate.
Having played a couple of times, I can say that Takenoko is great fun to play. It becomes surprisingly tactical, too: say you work out that your opponent is trying to grow yellow bamboo up to four, you can use the Panda to prevent it from happening. As well as being quite challenging, certain cards task you with growing bamboo without improvements, or making a diamond shape out of two pink and two green plots for example.
The art design is gorgeous as well. The bamboo sections are wooden, each painted with a little design, and the figurines of the Gardener and the Panda are characterful and detailed. Even the instructions are interesting, the backstory introduced by a cartoon and diagrams at every step. The whole package feels like a quality game, definitely helped by the use of wood for markers and the die (I’m a sucker for stuff like that).
That’s not to say Takenoko is perfect however. In my games, the irrigation channels never really came into play, and the plot pattern objectives were by far the easiest to score. An effort has been made to balance that, as they are worth less as a whole than, say, a Gardener card, but because they are quicker to complete, you can outweigh your opponent with sheer volume, particularly as the game finishes when you have completed nine objectives in a two player game. That I’ve only played it with two people might be the issue however – with more people and thus more plots, I can see how irrigation and the other objectives would come into it.
VERDICT: Despite a few faults, Takenoko is a really fun game. The premise is original and the presentation is sublime, and while the main appeal may be for a younger audience, given the bright colours and cartoony visuals, it’s challenging enough to entertain adults.
It sits at just the right length as well, around 45 minutes for a game, and if you have three people to play it with it’s certainly worth a go. I’d especially recommended to parents with children in the early teens, as Takenoko is a game you can play with them and enjoy as much as they will.
Game provided for review by publisher.