There’s something aesthetically pleasing about a game which builds upwards. This is generally quite common with dexterity games such as Tokyo Highway and Men at Work, but also abstract strategy games like Akropolis and NMBR9. How does a game about clans vying for control of a garden stack up against them? Well, read on to find out! Garden Nation is a 2-4 player game where each player is a clan leader seeking control of a garden. This is done by moving to the seven territories and constructing a building or buildings in your clan’s colour. This might sound simple enough, but Garden Nation has a couple of interesting mechanisms to make it less so.
Each territory of the board has seven plots on them, each costing a different amount of your population to build on them. The rulebook suggests that the population move to inhabit the building, which is less bleak than what I thought happened at first. If you then want to increase the size of the building, you pay the same cost plus one. Having buildings stacked might help complete objectives, which I’ll come back to soon. Which of the seven plots you build on does matter, as it then dictates which of the seven territories the torticrane (the adorable player marker of the game) moves to next. This will be where you take your second action from, or where the next player takes their first action from.
At the end of every round, players gain population for each of the seven territories they have the most building modules in. Gaining more population is vital for building on future rounds, and they’re also worth points at the end of the game. It’s also worth mentioning that if you let your population drop too low at the end of the game, they’re worth negative points. Another way of gaining population is to abandon buildings. This means destroying a construction and adding that building’s population back to your track – hey, some sacrifices are necessary!
Another way of scoring points is by completing common missions and hidden objectives. Common missions are completed as the game progresses, and points vary depending on their difficulty. Hidden objectives are scored at the end of the game. Once a common mission has been completed, a player must signify this by placing a roof on the last completed building. This also means that building can’t be used towards hidden objectives, as those buildings must be without a roof.
The game finishes once one player has all their building modules on the board, and a final scoring is given for control in each territory, the population score and the hidden objectives. The player with the highest score wins the game.
Now the first thing I want to say about Garden Nation is that the production quality is outstanding. The modular boards fit together well, and the modules, player boards, cards and even the torticrane are so well made. The insert is also beautifully decorated (that’s probably the first time I’ve commented on how well decorated a box is on the inside). The board being modular also increases replayability. Not a single corner has been cut with the production.
I also really like having both personal and private objectives. This means that players can score points however they decide to play the game. I find that the learning curve of a game is more enjoyable if scoring points is possible from the first play, and Garden Nation certainly allows for that.
Some of you may have noticed that there’s an innate meanness to the game. When a person takes their second action, they decide which territory the next player will be building in. This can lead to a bit of sabotage. This might be frustrating to some, because it means you’re using your first action to set up your second action, rather than as an action itself. There are also three free actions, one of which is invading a building. This allows you to replace an opponent’s building with one of your own. This meanness might not be for everyone, but also may not be the meanest part of it.
In a 3-4 player game, once a player has taken their turn, they decide who goes next. This can mean that one player can be waiting ages for their turn if they were first in turn order one round, and then third or fourth the next. There’s also no real way to plan for your turn, as they’re often at the whim of others. The two-player version of a game feels less mean with this turn choice taken out.
Finally, there’s only a small pool of personal objectives to choose from, meaning that it can be quite easy to work out an opponent’s turns. This then can cause that meanness to rear its ugly head again.
I think someone who doesn’t like games that have elements of meanness to them will have already decided this isn’t for them. Some prefer to play euros which generally at their core avoid player conflict. If you can look past this, which is a lot easier in a two-player game, then there’s a very good game here. I’m quite conscious that I’m giving the impression of not enjoying the game. I do, but feel that it’s worth highlighting why it might not be for everyone.
The table presence of Garden Nation is undeniable. Seeing the game start to build vertically just gives it a wow factor. If you’re a fan of abstract strategy games and don’t mind a little bit of “cute but cutthroat,” you wouldn’t be going far wrong with this game.