“If you’re reading this, you must be in dire need of a change…”
In 2016, Stardew Valley–the solo creation of indie designer ConcernedApe became one of the most successful games of its kind ever to hit consoles and introduced a generation of gamers to the joys of small-town communities and living off the land.
Five years later, without any real warning, ConcernedApe teams up with Cole Madeiros to make Stardew Valley: The Board Game. It sells out in less than 24 hours, leaving board gamers everywhere demanding a second edition. That edition is finally here, and while there’s no denying the original’s runaway success, is the board game as magical as its predecessor, and does it bring anything new to the franchise?
Livin’ Off The Land
Stardew Valley: The Board Game is a beautiful, brightly coloured game of farming and friendship. Players take on the roles of up to four farmers starting out in Stardew Valley–a small town of friendly residents and an abundance of natural resources.
Throughout the course of a year, represented by the season’s deck, the players must farm, mine, fish and forage in order to accomplish four randomly determined Grandpa Goals, and restore the local community centre. If the players can do this in sixteen game rounds, they win.
There are plenty of ways to spend actions on a turn in Stardew Valley, and Grandpa’s Goals direct the focus of a game. If you have a goal of raising animals, you’ll need to build a barn. This means you’ll be chopping wood and focusing on making money. If your goal is to restore the museum, you’ll want to visit the mine or forage for buried artifacts.
There’s a goal that encourages fishing, another that pushes you to make friends, and since only half of Grandpa’s Goals are used in each game, every playthrough is different.
Making Friends And Completing Bundles
While Grandpa’s Goals will direct much of your focus, the rest of your time will be spent restoring the community centre. This is done by completing bundles. Each bundle requires specific resources from the various mini games on the board. The pantry pushes you to farm certain crops, the fish tank requires you to catch the right type of fish, the vault needs money, the boiler room will want something from the mine, and so on.
And the bundles all start facedown. To reveal them requires heart tokens which are gained from befriending villagers. A trip to Gus’ tavern lets you befriend a local by gifting them one of your resources. Each villager has certain items they love and others they hate.
If you have a favoured item, you get a bonus heart token, and if it’s the villager’s birthday, you get a third. But if you only have resources they hate, you fail to make a friend. The people of Stardew Valley are charming, but very picky!
Friends also have gift abilities that will aid you as the year continues. There are also items to be found and used, upgrades to tools and special profession powers earned at the end of each season. It’s not all rewards and gifts, though. The evil Joja Corporation will block your actions, fish and forageables will fall out of season, monsters in the mine will disrupt your adventuring, and pesky crows will consume your crops.
It’s impossible to review Stardew Valley: The Board Game without comparing it to the video game. Fans of the original will feel a spark of joy every time they open the game board and see the familiar map. The art has received a cartoony upgrade from the retro style of the video game, bringing new life to the characters and the world.
There are a ton of cards and tokens, each a reference to resources available in the video game. You can even marry your favourite villager if you can find the elusive mermaid pendant.
Other cute nods to the original include the seasonable foraging tiles scattered around the board. If you opt to move during your turn, you can collect a forgeable tile from the path you travelled. These random rewards are highly reminiscent of strolling through a video game and stumbling on a hidden treasure. There are also festival cards that can be randomly added to the season deck.
While the game can be played by someone completely new to the franchise, there’s no doubt that fans will get an extra kick out of the theme.
The Spirits Are With You (Or Not)
So, what are the main mechanics of Stardew Valley? The answer is mainly dice-rolling and resource gathering. Stardew Valley: The Board Game involves a lot of random chance. Catching fish involves rolling matching symbols on custom dice. Mining uses the same dice in a grid system. Befriending villagers is a random draw from the villager deck while minerals and fish are drawn randomly from bags of tiles. So much luck can unfortunately lead to feel-bad moments when your turn is wasted on dud rolls.
The game timer is also very tight. Completing four goals and six bundles in 16 turns might not sound tough, but with multiple steps required to complete each goal, you’ll find a dead turn can be devastating. Not all goals are born equal, either.
The challenge to catch one legendary fish per player can be almost impossible at higher player counts because fish are drawn randomly. If one of those legendary fish is at the bottom of the fish bag, you might never see it! In contrast, getting to level twelve of the mine is easy with four players, but a real challenge in solo mode.
Also, some of Grandpa’s Goals work better together than others. If you get the ‘Raise Animals’ goal, then you’ll need to build a barn, which is great if you also have the ‘Build Buildings’ goal. That’s two for the price of one. But if you get the expensive ‘Raise Animals’ with the ‘Save Money’ goal, that’s going to be a lot of gold required to win the game! Experimenting with combinations of Grandpa’s Goals will have a big impact on the difficulty of any given game. Which brings us to…
Homebrew And House Rules
I’ve seen a lot of requests and suggestions online for house rules to mitigate the luck element. Some people suggest allowing for rerolls when fishing and mining or making certain crucial resources available for purchase rather than relying on a lucky forage. And while I will always support playing a game the way you think is the most fun, having played the game multiple times and at multiple player counts, I don’t think the game needs these changes.
Stardew Valley is a surprisingly complex and heady game, given its theme, and the balance has been finely tuned. Yes, it can be frustrating to fail multiple times to catch a fish, but the game has taken this into account with its myriad of different powers, upgrades, rewards and items.
Part of the challenge of Stardew Valley is looking for ways to use what you have. Instead of doggedly rolling dice to no avail each round, maybe a new friend could help you. Maybe next season you’ll get an upgrade to overcome the problem, or help you avoid the problem entirely.
And sometimes, you’ll lose, but that’s okay, too. Firstly, because if you always won, it wouldn’t be much of a game, but also because the act of playing Stardew Valley is a win in and of itself. You may miss out on a bundle or two, but you’ll have fun trying to get there, and isn’t that what Stardew Valley has always been about?
Stardew Valley: The Board Game has one crucial difference from the original. The video game was all about taking time to explore the world. You could dedicate hours to fishing at the lake and never worry about the mines or the community centre. But the board game is a tight race to the finish line and wasting time at the lake isn’t an option when there are animals to rear and crops to be harvested.
But is this difference bad? I appreciate that this is a surprisingly heavy game under the fluffy theme. It would have been easy to slap the Stardew brand on a Monopoly board and call it a day, but the developers challenged themselves with something more and the result is a lot of fun.
I’m a fan of the original, but I’m more of a board gamer than a video gamer, and Stardew Valley: The Board Game scratches a very specific itch. It’s a game for when you need to get away from the stress of daily life and challenge yourself with something different, something new. It’s a game for when you’re in dire need of a change…
Editors note: This post was originally published on April 13th, 2022. Updated on July 27th, 2022 to improve the information available.