There are some games that just scream ‘PRETTY!!!’ at you. Games like Sagrada, Azul, or Wingspan. Games that make the rational part of your mind go ‘now, now, my impulsive friend, looks do not make a game – is this a good game?’
Well, if you’ve played Sagrada, Azul, or Wingspan, you’ll realise the answer is ‘yes, yes it is. Oh, when will you just take notice of me, rational mind?’
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into a long narrative about the internal love story between my rational and impulsive minds (besides, Netflix have bought up the rights, so I am contractually obliged to non-disclosure) – this is actually a review. A review of a very pretty game, Four Gardens. Looks don’t make a good game though, right?
Gardener’s Quest Time
Lay groundwork: a card is placed face-up in front of the player. There can only be three active groundwork cards at a time. You can’t double these up – the queen likes to see variety in her panoramas). To turn groundwork into landscape, you have to get the right resources, which is done by:
Reallocating resources/placing a wild: if your card has all four resources in the top left corner, you can take one resource and place it on a card or in one of your resource slots. If it has a cart symbol, you can take a resource from the resource slots and place it on one of your groundwork cards, or back in its resource pile (to clear space). Of course, to take resources from your resources slots, you need to:
Gain resources from the pagoda. Did I mention the pagoda? Yes, there’s a pagoda, and this is your major source of the four resources. Each card will have a picture of the pagoda in the top right-hand corner which indicates which floor you can turn, and whether you will be gaining resources from top to bottom or bottom to top. Each floor has a different resource on it (wood, water, plants, and stone) with a value of zero to three on each face. This is done at random, so you don’t know what order the resources are going to be in.
Once a player has used their three actions, they draw up to five cards. Either from four cards revealed from the top of the deck, or drawing blind from the deck itself. Play then proceeds to the next gardener.
Big Scores, Small Spaces
So that covers the playing of Four Gardens, but how do you score?
Well, once you have completed the resources on your groundwork, you flip over your card to reveal one beautiful part of a panorama. Each part will have a god symbol on it, which you score to the appropriate god track. As well as scoring the card, you also score every completed card in that panorama on their respective god track. If one of the cards has a wild (all colour) symbol on it, you choose which track moves. The more cards in the panorama, the more you can score.
There are also benefits to choosing smaller panoramas, as you get a bonus for completing them. You take a bonus tile, and the bonus tiles come in three delightful varieties:
One tile allows you to add an extra slot to your resource store. Very useful for those overflow resources that you are bound to pick up for later on.
One tile allows you to grab wild resources. This means you might be able to combo a couple of cards, as you can put the resources directly onto your groundwork. Better get in quick though.
The final tile gives you victory points on any track, which means you can put a quick surge of points.
And this is where things get a bit not-quite Euro.
The score trackers go from two to ten and all players start on three, which seems a bit curious, but there is a reason for this curiosity. When a player gets to the ten slot on any track and they score on that track again, they will push every other player on that same track back one space.
And yes, they can push players off the track. Bit mean, eh?
This means that players have to keep track of their tracks for fear of losing their pieces. You could potentially come out of the game with a score of nil points! Quelle dommage!
The Victory Garden
So is this a Dig for Victory or Garden SOS?
Personally, I like Four Gardens a lot. The rules are very straightforward, presented with clear illustrations for the visual learner. The game is not language-dependent. And though there is a theme of sorts it is very much an abstract game - and a medium for extreme prettiness. It is pretty Euro, which really narked a friend of mine (hi Pete, fancy a game of Hansa Teutonica?), so will not be to everyone’s taste. But doing everything through the cards gives it a lovely gameplay synergy. Like a Carl Chudyk game but with nicer artwork.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room - or the pagoda. Does it really need something so imposing? To be honest, it probably doesn’t, but the mechanic works very smoothly and it looks intriguing to the passing bod. This is a good thing for me, as I'm something of a board game evangelist and want to convert more people to the hobby. Any game that can become a talking point is alright by me (see also: Rhino Hero Super Battle).
The early stages of the game can be a bit protracted as players work out what they are doing. There can be a bit of analysis paralysis as players decide whats to focus on, so it lives in that awkward place between light and medium. Not quite light enough to be a starter, not quite heavy enough to be an entrée; a fish dish perhaps?
It is very pretty though and plays nicely, with good components and a well thought out box, which leads me back to the opening question. In this instance, I’d give Four Gardens a definite green thumbs up.