To me, Arboretum is wonderfully simple thematic experience. Despite being a relatively simple card game, Arboretum is a challenging and rewarding journey. The Japanese practice of Forest Bathing, which I once misremembered as wood soaking, is the experience of health benefits through enjoying nature, and, to me, Arboretum taps into this ideal.
I have had positive experiences with all Z-Man titles I have played, and this is by no means the exception.
The Pieces Nature's Beauty
The game is made up of 10 sets of eight cards. Each set represents one species of tree (e.g. Willow, Oak and Olive) all of which have a unique colour in the game (e.g. Dogwood’s are white), and are numbered from one to eight. The trees are nicely depicted, and the game gives the overall impression of high quality and attention to detail, for something which is relatively limited in materials. You also receive a short rulebook and a scoring pad both of which are pleasant and in keeping with the game’s general aesthetic.
The main concern might be that you are only buying a deck of 80 cards, a small rulebook and a notepad. Therefore, are you getting value for money? Given the overall gameplay experience, I would say that you are. This will be the case, even if the quality and attractiveness of the cards isn't sufficient for you.
Arboretum is for two to four players. However, the total amount of cards you play with is dependent on the number of players.
- Six sets for a two-player game.
- Eight sets for a three-player game.
- All of the sets for a four-player game.
The cards are shuffled, and each player is dealt seven. Then, apart from the starting player, everyone else has one card placed face-up to represent their discard pile.
On each player’s turn they have a choice to pick up two cards from the top of any player's discard pile or from the deck. This can be done in any combination. The player then plays one card by placing it somewhere in their Arboretum, adjacent to an existing card, and then discards one card.
The aim is to lay your cards in rows or columns so that they create numerical runs from low to high. In order to score any run, you need it to both start and end with the same species of tree. The longer the run the higher they score. You get double points if the run is all in one species. Each species is scored at the end of the game. There are also additional points for using the one or the eight.
However, the wonderful balance of the game lies in the fact that players can only score those points, which they have worked so hard for, if they have the highest total value of that tree species in their hand at the end of the game. So, if you have put down a beautiful run of Maples, but only have the Maple five left in your hand meanwhile one of your opponents has both the four and the two, then you will not score any points, undoing all of your grand landscaping efforts.
Seeing the Wood from the Trees
The tactics of Arboretum fall somewhere between attempting to score as many points as you can and trying to stop your opponent from scoring any points. This is dependent on what cards you draw and when. If you draw cards that already match those you have played you are more likely to lean towards trying to score. On the other hand, if you draw high cards that are from species your opponent has played you might be inclined to keep these.
However, you are constantly battling the limits of your own hand. You must weigh up the relative value of each card, unable to play some quickly enough whilst trying to not reveal too early what species you are trying to score. Sometimes you might find yourself taking the risk of using your own discard pile as an additional archive, throwing away a card one turn and then retrieving in the following, hoping that no one else decides they want it whilst you wait.
The game also enjoys the excitement and dread of the slow reveal. As you get closer to the end game players slowly realise what cards other players must have. As a result, they understand whether they are going to score any points for their meticulously designed row of willows. Also, if a player has the number one left in their hand, and another player has the eight, that eight is suddenly worth zero in the end game totalling.
This brings with it further mental conflict. You must try to work out whether somebody is still holding the one, and if so, what is the point in holding onto your eight. Do you take that gamble?
Final Thoughts on Arboretum
You spend your time trying to knit together your trees in such a way as to maximise your scoring. Representing its own little planning puzzle, you can inadvertently block your own ability to create runs if you lay the wrong card as they must be in sequence.
I prefer the two-player experience as the benefits of your own actions help you rather than another player. With a three or four-player game you can often find someone has won purely by the remaining players all cancelling each other out rather than their own efforts. This doesn’t lend itself as well to the overall light experience to me. However, others may enjoy the rivalry and the additional risk that this brings.
Despite the mixture of chaos and pressure, I find Arboretum to always be a relaxing sojourn. It's never quite the same, and it allows you to make different mistakes each time. However, you never feel frustrated. Instead, you tend to look back being able to precisely pinpoint where you won or lost the game.
It is probably clear by now that I really enjoy Arboretum. I think it is a light, charming and thoughtful experience, a tactical game of subtle conflicts where every decision feels decisive, and whether you win or you lose, at the end you get to look at the charming little forest you have grown.