I love abstract strategy games, so designer, Reina Knizia, is always on my radar. He is a master of puzzles and challenging play. As soon as anything new pops up by him, I am instantly interested. Having only been a hobby board gamer for just over a year, there is a huge back catalogue of his games (600+ at last count!) to satisfy my cravings.
I am also a keen solo gamer. Being able to sit and focus on a game without pressure or pace is one of my happy places. So, when I learned that Reina Knizia had a series of games called “Brains” and this one happened to be a solo as well as a tile layer, I simply couldn’t help myself and got myself a copy of Japanese Garden.
Just like its namesake, Brains Japanese Garden is understated in its design but will have you thinking hard in short, sharp bursts. With only 7 tiles and 50 sheets of paper in the entire game, it doesn’t look much, but it’s what you have to do with those tiles and paper that counts!
The object of the game is simple; to lay out the perfect Japanese garden using some or all of the 7 tiles provided. How you do it is not so easy, however, because each one of those sheets (10 for each level of difficulty) contains instructions. These must be followed to the letter of your design is to hit the correct combination of aesthetic, spiritual, and philosophical ideals. Miss any of them and you have failed to build the elements essential to any respectable zen green space.
You'd think matching symbols or linking up paths on the tiles to those on the edges of the squares printed on the level sheet would be easy, and the first few rounds are. Requiring only one or two tiles, working out how to link up the correctly coloured flowers and ensure paths contain the right number of bridges is a no-brainer.
Orient-ing Like a Zen Master
However, those are just the warm-up. Whilst the game-play doesn’t change, you move past the tenth sheet and things suddenly get trickier. No longer are you instantly spotting which tiles you need, and how to orientate them. No, with more paths needing to cross a specified number of tiles. Just more bridges, and more of all the other features your garden needs, the burn starts to build.
This is in a large part down to your mind rebelling against the task at hand. “7 tiles. Only 7 tiles”. “This should be simple. Why is it not working?” That frustration is very clever in its effect. If you are like me, after an initial refusal to go on, you will be back at the table. You won’t be able to help yourself. You will have to finish that level. To master it. To not let a 7 tile puzzle beat you. After all, you can handle massive, sprawling, complex euro-games. You can lead the pack in racing games. You can deduce the culprit in bluffing games. So you will NOT let a 7 tile puzzle beat you!
[Note: not that you will want to use it but the box helpfully contains a booklet which, on one side contains hints for each level, and the solutions on the other……you know, just in case you want to confirm your puzzling prowess!]
First Degree Burn
Don’t get me wrong, Brains Japanese Garden won’t be the hardest puzzle you ever do. In fact, it might not even be the trickiest one you do this week. Nonetheless, it is a small, interesting solo challenge that increases in difficulty as your confidence in your skills grow.
The level 5 sheets are not easy for someone who is as spatially challenged as me, and the fact it only has 7 tiles really amps up the “I should be able to do this” frustration factor. Budget wise, it won’t burn a hole in your pocket either. Indeed, it would probably make a really good stocking filler for brain teaser fan friends and family members (if you’re already thinking ahead that far!). And if you like Japanese Garden, there are others in the series (Magic Potion (solo), Hidden Treasures, and Castles and Dragons (2-4 players) to try!