Garden Nation is a boardgame terrarium. It will turn your tabletop into a miniature garden realm, enchanting all who look upon the canopy of varying bramble, dappled with player towers and intricate leaf rooftops. Amongst the foliage will be the Torticrane, an intriguing tortoise and construction crane fusion that will travel across the board, denoting where player actions will take place. Players will take up the role of four unique clan leaders, with their wonderfully illustrated attire ranging from thimble hat to beetle cloak. Each look suitably serious and sullen, ready to dominate this micro garden world with their buildings and inhabitants.
Garden Wrath : Invasive Clans
Anyone drawn in by the look of it alone may be in for a surprise. The Clan leaders are what hint at the true nature of Garden Nation, as this seemingly tranquil green oasis is in fact a competitive area control game, where two to four players will attempt to dominate across seven garden territories with their buildings. Each territory is pieced together along with the outer edges to form the garden. This can make the board a little flimsy but serves to shuffle up the landscape for each new game. Territories are made up of green grass, tall yellow grass and red leaves that vary in cost to place your building floor from your supply. The colours have also been assigned icons to help players with colour vision deficiency. Each territory also has an unassigned bramble for which any of the three types can be placed for a cost of 5. Population serves as the game currency and is managed by a population track on each player board. The rationale for this is simple; by placing a building floor you are planning for the inhabitants it will receive. You can also build upwards, placing floors on top of one another which will incur a higher cost. Spreading outwards and upwards across the territories will be rewarded at the end of each round, for the player who dominates each territory will obtain additional population to spend next round. Depending on the player count, each player will start the game with a set amount of 3D building floors in their player colour and as soon as any player uses up all of their floors, the game will end. Why then are these different landscape types important and why would you aim to build on one rather than another?
DIY For Borrowers
Territory control is also a means of accomplishing both community projects and secret missions by way of pattern building. In this regard, Garden Nation is comparable to Takenako, the bamboo munching Panda game where you grow bamboo in various colours and heights to fulfil the conditions in your hand of cards. In Garden Nation, however, your patterns can only be formed from your own placed building floors, creating a sense of urgency to lay claim to the plot you need to create your pattern. This is compounded by the fact community projects you’re working towards could also be claimed by your opponents before you. The cards, illustrated by Maxime Morin, depict copper kettles, clocks, radios and books among many other human items adapted into garden structures. Some projects require particular building floors to have a leaf rooftop, whereas others will specify having floors without. Placing a rooftop must be carefully considered because it will prevent you from building any higher floors on that plot. Anyone familiar with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers could easily envisage this as a borrowers garden paradise. If you successfully form the pattern you can claim the community project card and place in your player area, gaining the stated victory points. This is the key way to score during the game with your secret missions scoring at the end. How then can you accomplish these projects and move to the spaces you wish to build on?
Torticrane In The Spotlight
Nothing can be built without the trusty Torticrane. Representing player movement, the Torticrane will dictate where players can build or take other actions during their turn. This brings us to one of the most unique elements of Garden Nation; the influence over your opponent’s location and action. Within a territory, your choice of which plot to build on sends the Torticrane to the respective territory for the next action. For example, if you select the far left plot, the Torticrane will be moved to the far left territory at the end of your action. It makes your choice an interesting one, as you may decide to forego selecting a more desirable plot in order to ensure your opponents are kept away from a territory you currently dominate. This form of movement control can make planning your actions difficult, as at least one of your actions will take place in a territory dictated for you. A little hedgehog meeple will track turn order at the bottom left of the board where cog icons will signal how many actions a player can take. You will either be playing with the 2/4 players side or the 3 player side of the board. In a four player game, for example, the first player will take 1 action, then players 2 and 3 will each take two consecutive actions before the last player takes one action. The last player in any round will become the first player in the next so will still be able to take advantage of two consecutive actions. In a 3+ player game the active player chooses the next player to take their turn, helping to further manipulate things in their favour, which highlights how Garden Nation’s turn order mechanism works better with 3+ players.
Adapting your strategy becomes key to success but there may be occasions where you either can’t or won’t want to build in a territory. In such cases you may want to take advantage of your ploy tokens. These present a number of additional actions you can take, such as destroying your own building for a wealth of population points or an opponent’s. During our playthroughs, we rarely reached a point where we struggled to afford what we needed, so there was little incentive to take advantage of this option for the population benefit. However, it could be useful to enable reuse of building floors elsewhere, or move an opponent out of your way. The ploy tokens are also the only way in which you can move a rooftop to another building floor.
Garden Sensation Or Inflation?
It’s a little hard to wear a frown when playing Garden Nation, even if that would be befitting of a clan leader set on garden domination. In fact, despite some natural frustrations when opponents lay claim to an area you had your eyes on, or, worse yet, break up your three level building, the board never truly feels like a battleground. Is this a criticism? Slightly. Area control usually means ruthless war, whereas here it all feels rather pleasant, like gladiators sent into soft play. It could just as easily be a family disagreement over where the treehouse should go, or whether there should be a treehouse at all. But is that so bad? For some, this more gentle approach to area control may be why they enjoy the game, being particularly suitable for families or those that enjoy lighter to medium weight boardgaming. That said, it will mean for some this will not be a challenging enough game to warrant being in their collection, even if they have fun playing.
There’s a lot to love about Garden Nation. In terms of table presence alone it is a boardgame that needs to be experienced for the sheer joy of taking in Maxime Morin’s illustration, as well as the quality feel of all components. There are unique elements to the gameplay too, such as the Torticrane and its influence on opponent’s actions that certainly make it an interesting and enjoyable game. That each clan and the Torticrane come with a detailed backstory in the instruction manual further emphasises how designing it has been a labour of love. The mechanisms of area control, pattern building and community goals work well together to create a fun game with a good level of player interaction. However, the surplus of currency means it can all feel a little easy without much effort required to balance what you want to do. The consequence is a lack of challenge that can make it feel like you’re just playing in the garden, rather than a true investment in the battle for control. That being the worst than can be said of this game, however, can only highlight what a wonder Garden Nation can be to play if you’re happy to just go with the enchantment.