Designers: Antoine Bauza
Artists: Nicolas Fructus, Picksel, Yulo
Play Time: 45–60 minutes
Target Age Range: 8+
There’s one word that always comes up when I talk to someone about Takenoko:
Well, that and several variations of the term. Adorable. Charming. Some of my friends have even gone so far as to shout “Kawaii!!!!!!!” (the Japanese word for “cute”) or simply emit a high-pitched sound that starts all the dogs on the block barking. But honestly, can you blame them? I mean… just look at those little pandas!
(The little girl panda is actually a part of the “Chibis” expansion, which I haven’t played, but she only helps to emphasize just how adorable this game is.)
The publishers also released a Deluxe Collector’s Edition, where all the pieces are supersized. (The panda, which is normally about an inch tall, is 4 1/2 inches in the deluxe version.) It seems a bit less practical, since it takes up about four times as much table space, but still—giant versions of games are fun. Still, I doubt I’ll be grabbing a deluxe copy any time soon!
But enough about the game being adorable. What’s it like to play?
According to the game, an ancient emperor of China gave the emperor of Japan a gift as a gesture of peace: a giant panda. Unfortunately, this panda is only able to eat bamboo. (“Takenoko” literally translates to “bamboo shoot” in English.) It is the players’ responsibility, then, to care for this animal while ensuring that the bamboo garden where the panda lives is arranged in a pleasing manner so that the emperor can enjoy it. Of course, this task is made more difficult by the fact that the panda has an insatiable appetite. In other words, the poor gardener must keep the bamboo growing while the panda follows after him, eating the bamboo almost as fast as it grows.
It’s a fun premise, and you can almost hear the beleaguered gardener’s cries of despair every time the panda takes a bite.
So here’s the thing that confused me at first—even though the instructions say that the player is the gardener, it works a little differently than you might assume. Rather than each player controlling their own gardener, all players share control over the gardener and the panda. In addition, they are also in charge of laying out the design of the garden and providing irrigation to each tile.
In order to score points, players draw cards from any of three separate decks.
The first deck requires players to lay tiles in specific configurations based on color. Players can choose to score these cards at any point once the board contains a set of tiles that looks like the ones on the card. But before any player can score, all of those tiles must be irrigated.
The next set of cards represents the panda’s cravings. There are three different colors of bamboo, and the panda wants to eat a variety of them. Whenever a player moves the panda into a space with bamboo growing, they remove the top piece of bamboo and place it onto their player mat. When they’ve gathered the required pieces, they can return those pieces to the supply and score the points on the card.
The final deck of cards represents the gardener’s wishes. In spite of the panda’s insatiable appetite, he’s constantly working to grow the bamboo in the garden to look perfect. Whenever the gardener is moved into a tile, the bamboo in that tile, as well as any adjacent tiles that have both been irrigated and share the same color as the original tile, will grow one segment. The bamboo on the card must match the color and height of the bamboo on the cards exactly—no taller, no shorter. This card may also require that the bamboo be growing on a piece with an improvement.
Some tiles contain improvements, such as ponds, fertilizer, and barriers. These improvements alter the way the game works on those tiles as follows.
Ponds (represented by a hexagon with a blue border) provide irrigation to a tile without connecting back to the original fountain. They can’t provide irrigation to any other tiles, but bamboo will start growing on them immediately.
Fertilizer (represented by a hex with a brown border) doubles the growth rate of bamboo on that tile. Instead of growing a single segment, that bamboo will add two segments every time the bamboo grows on that tile.
Barriers (represented by a hex with a red border) protects the bamboo from the panda. Try as he might, the panda can’t get to the bamboo on that tile. This means that the bamboo on a tile with a barrier will never get smaller, though, so if you’re trying to score a card that requires a stack of 3 segments and it grows to 4 segments, then you’re out of luck with that tile.
Finally, there is a die that controls the weather. I won’t go into how each type of weather affects the game, except to mention that the lightning scares the panda to another tile on the board, where he immediately soothes himself by munching on a piece of bamboo. Adorable!
The endgame is triggered when a player scores a pre-determined number of objective cards. (7 in 4-player games, 8 in 3-player games, and 9 in 2-player games.) Once a player has scored the required number of cards, they can score any remaining cards in their hand, even if that pushes them over the number. They also gain the Emperor card for finishing first, which grants them an additional 2 points. The other players then each get one more turn to score before the game ends.
The rules are relatively simple (which makes it easy to play for more casual players), but because there are several different paths to victory, the game is still challenging enough to keep the attention of players who would usually prefer a heavier game.
Visual/Physical Appeal (9/10)
The production value of Takenoko is really high. The figures are adorable, the art on the tiles is gorgeous, and even the tokens players use to mark their actions on the player cards have a nice artistic design on them. (A different one for each player.)
I have very mixed feelings about the box insert for Takenoko. The bins for the bamboo pieces are nice while playing the game, but the box itself is bulky, which makes it awkward to put in an area that’s reachable by all players. Having the bins in a separate, detachable piece would be much more helpful. Also, while there is a slot for every piece in the game, the insert isn’t very secure, so it feels like if you even look at the box wrong, then all the pieces are going to be spilled and mixed together the next time you open it up to play.
Overall, the game is beautiful, and it feels like the designers have put in some great effort to make the game look and feel good to play.
Setup Time (~3–4 minutes)/Play Time (45–60 minutes)
Because it’s a tile-laying game, Takenoko takes very little setup. All you really need to do is remove the fountain tile from the stack and place it in the middle of the table, then shuffle the rest of the tiles together. The bamboo pieces can stay in their separate basins inside the game insert, though having your own dishes for them will probably make it easier to keep them accessible for all players. Just make sure that the fountain tile isn’t too close to any edges and you’ll be fine.
A play through shouldn’t take much more than an hour, barring any delays.
Complexity (Rank 6.5)/Teach Time (5–6 minutes)
Takenoko does a great job of balancing on the line of being simple while retaining complex strategy. It’s the sort of game that parents could easily teach their older children, probably at around 7 or 8 years old. The aesthetic also helps to make it more accessible to young players. But there is enough variety in the game that it won’t bore older players who enjoy a more complex game. It’s approachable without losing appeal to more competitive gamers. It’s also very simple to teach—plus, the player cards have some handy visual cues to remind players what they can do on each turn.
Takenoko is one of those games where, because the board is modular and gets built as you play, you’re never going to play a game that is exactly the same as a previous one. There is enough randomness in the weather from the die and the tiles (which are drawn face-down) that things won’t get redundant, but not so much that it feels like a simple game of chance.
When you put it all together, Takenoko is a fun game that works for a lot of different skill levels. It’s got great art, fun character figurines, and enough ways to win that it can appeal to a wide range of play styles. It’s definitely one that I plan to have on the shelf at the cafe—probably multiple copies. It’s quick to learn, easy to engage, and appeals to all types.
Plus, seriously… I mean look at that panda! How can you resist!?