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Bamboo Board Game Review

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

WBG Score: 8.5

Player Count: 2-4

You’ll like this if you like: Bitoku, KanaGawa,The Red Cathedral.

Published by: Devir

Designed by: Germán P. Millán

This is a free review copy. See our review policy here.

Back in 2021 Bitoku was released. It was a massive hit winning numerous awards. I myself chased after it like a lunatic at Essen, eventually getting a copy just after the show had ended. It excited people, I think, because it was a Euro game that looks pretty. It baffles me that so few good euro games look good. But we are where we are. German designers seem to love brown. Anyway, Bitoku was a fantastic game, and exists within a beautiful world, similar to the movies of Studio Ghibli. After it success, and the plaudits the game got for the art and universe it created, it would be strange if the designer and publisher left it at that. And, thankfully, they didn't. Bitoku is all part of the Kemushi Saga. As well as Bitoku, we had 2018 release Silk. And now, Bamboo. But what is this world? Well, the rule book suggests that "this is the story of a world, about the struggle between natural chaos and artificial order. A story that stretches over thousands of years." The games are linked by nothing more than the art style and some of the theming, but the idea is interesting. And if you like one, you may well like the others. So, let's get it to the table and see how it plays.

Bamboo Board Game Review

How To Set Up Bamboo

First time out the box, sit tight make yourself a cuppa. You got work to do! There are a couple of little tile holders to build, a whole heap of tiles and coins to punch out, and then all the coins need their middle separately popped out. How does all this stuff fit in this tiny box? But once that is done, the subsequent set up is quite simple and can be one in under six minutes. I know, I have timed it! It is especially simple if you put all the individually player components and specific Bamboo pieces into their own separate bags. You will need a few separate baggies for this. There are plenty in the box, but they are all tiny. I also separated the parts used for a three or four player to aid set-up based on player count. Doing all this will save you a lot of time. It makes me wonder why designers don't think of these things themselves and suggest it and create bags specific for it?

Bamboo Board Game Review
Bamboo Board Game Review

To set up, place the main board down on the table and give each player their own player mat. There are two sides, make sure all players choose the same one. The day side is the same for all players, the night side has some icons marked already in the home area for some variation. Give each player all the pieces in their colour (hopefully now all in one bag), and add the coins and tile trays by the main board. It's best to place the tile trays above the areas they are going to be put into in the game. It looks nicer and aids the gameplay. See them as a conveyor belt above the board, ready to feed the empty slots. Add the balance and home tiles from these trays to fill the slots on the board. Next, mix up the spirit of the forest tiles and create four groups of four. Place these into the four temple spaces on the main board and put the left over tiles back into the box. Four a two player game there is one extra step here. Mix up the four temple tiles and place them on each of the four temples. Then get the brown incense pieces and add the shown amounts on the temple tiles into each temple. This will act as a dummy player in the area control battle for these four temples.

Bamboo Board Game Review

The next step is to place the round tracker into the top left space of the board, representing Spring, and then to place the four gift from the forest tiles into the top middle section. These show icons for each of the four main actions. Place these face down. Each player will add one of their incense sticks into each of the four positions next to this, representing the four rounds of the game. Then place the 12 Bamboo pieces with diamond icon into random places on face up into the bottom left of the main board. Finally for the main board, add the food tokens into the space at the bottom of the board, all face down, bar five that you will place into the specified places face up.

All players will then ready their own player mat. To do this, you need to place your remaining three incense sticks onto the bottom left of the mat, the action marker off the side of the board, then your happiness counter which tracks your points onto the fifth space on the points tracker on the main board. Next, take one of the central balance tiles from the tray and place this into the one of the two central spaces on your player mat. These tiles represent the ways you can score points in the game from your items as you place them, and each player starts with one to give them some early direction. Each player will then take three coins to add to their mat. The final thing to do is to set up the Bamboo. You will notice some of the Bamboo has a pot icon on the bottom. These are the bamboo that start on your player mat. Each player receives one piece (again, hopefully from your own player bag) in each colour with this symbol on, and places it into the matching coloured temple space on their mat. Any remaining shoots with this symbol are placed back into the game box, although they should by now be in the other player colours own bags ready for a later game. Finally, mix up any remaining shoots and choose two per player. Players will then draft in turn one of these pieces until all players have two extra Bamboo pieces to add to their board. A random player is assigned the first player marker and you are now ready to play.

Bamboo Board Game Review

How To Play Bamboo

Playing, or at least explaining how to play, is simpler that the set up! The game runs across four rounds, clearly labelled on the main board. And each round has four seasons. Starting with Spring.

In Spring players will receive one extra stick of incense and 'gifts from the forest'. The four gifts from the forest tiles are shuffled and then one is placed face up for each player. Players will then in turn choose one of these each. They show the four main actions in the game, which players can now carry out their chosen one. The four main actions are:

1. Gain two extra coins.

2. Take one face up food token.

3. Perform a balance action which means to gain one point, or to take two balance tiles and add them to your main board, or score two balance tiles already on your board, or one of each.

4. Improve your home, which means to gain one coin, or buy one item from the market. This will come at a cost shown on the board, but also score you instant points, also clearly displayed on the board.

The balance tokens create placement challenges for your home. Rewarding you with instant points when you have achieved them, and on a later turn, take the Balance action in order to score it. The challenges are about the placement of the items in your house. The items need to be placed either on the left, right, or in the middle, based on the balance token requirements, and/or next to other specific items.

Players will want food to feed their family in the Winter, one food per item in their home. Coins help players buy new items for their home and refresh the Spirits when they have been used.

Bamboo Board Game Review

In Summer, the main part of the game, players will take it in turns to take these main actions until they run out of incense at which point they must pass. When all players have passed the next season begins.

To take a turn, players will move their action marker to any of the empty spaces on the four temples on their player mat. In later turns, you must move it to one of the other three spaces. You cannot stay at the same temple twice in a row. The Temple must also have at least one Bamboo piece present. Players will then place an equal amount of incense pieces into the matching coloured temple on the main board as they have bamboo on this Temple on their player mat. If they want to place them into another Temple they may do so at the cost of one coin per Incense. And herein begins the reason why you will either love or just tolerate this game. No one hates games right? The choices here are delicious. Which Temple do you want to place your incense in? Which actions do you want to take? Which actions will you need to take later?

If you do not have as many incense as you had Bamboo, just place as much as you can. But if you have an equal or higher amount, you must place the same. You cannot ever choose to place less but you can if you don't have enough, but you can only carry out the number of actions equal to the amount of incense you offered that turn. This was previously incorrectly explained by me but now edited to be correct. Thanks to Brian Bord (what an awesome name for a board game fan by the way!) for correcting my mistake.

The Bamboo in each Temple is a mini area control game to win the Spirits in the next phase. The Spirits grant you special powers and big end game points. Choosing which Spirit you want and which one you think you can win is a large part of why you will do what you do each turn. But this is not even half of the picture. The Bamboo in the Temple on your player mat that you carry your action out in each turn now transfers to the main board. You can choose which of the four rows to place the bamboo in and split them across multiple rows if you wish, but you must place all the Bamboo in your temple that you are activating, no matter how much incense you just used. The Bamboo you place then dictates what actions you take this round. On the Bamboo you will notice the four main action symbols. There is also a star, which acts as a wild representing any of the four actions. This is the second most important part of your turn, deciding which actions you can benefit the most from. Once you have taken your action, you will then move the Bamboo you placed up, pushing the other three pieces along with it, and then take out the bamboo you displace from the top, and add this back into your Temple on your player mat, based on the colour of this Bamboo. Deciding which actions you will want for later turns is the final part of decided how and what you will do each turn. Remember, the Bamboo you add back to your board will dictate the actions you are able to take in later turns.

Bamboo Board Game Review

So, the Temple you choose to place your action marker dictates which Temple you move your incense too, which Spirit you can potentially win, which Bamboo you remove from your board, which actions you can take that round, and which Bamboo you will add to your board, which in turn affects which Temple you can visit in future turns and what actions you can do. It's a lot to think about! Juicy huh?

In Autumn players will take the Spirits from the main board and add them to their play area, based on whomever has the most incense in each temple. In the case of a tie, the tied player with the most recently and thus highest placed incense takes the Spirit. In a two-player game, if the dummy player wins the Spirit, it is simply discarded. The Spirits have various powers that players can use at their discretion through the game. They allow players to take extra basic actions, add extra food to their stores, treat any Bamboo placed as a wild Bamboo, or place Incense into any temple at no extra cost. When they are used, they must be turned 90 degrees to show they cannot be used again until refreshed. Players will then remove their incense from the Temples on the main board and place them back to their own player mat ready for the next round.

In Winter players may awaken any previously used Spirits. This is done by paying the cost shown on the tile, most often one coin, although Kitsune has no cost. All players must then feed their family, one food per item in their house. For any food that you cannot pay, you will lose a point. The bottom row of the balance and home items on the main board are removed and the middle and top rows move down, and the top row is replenished from the trays. Fill any empty spaces and finally pass the first player marker one space clockwise. If this is the final round, move to final scoring otherwise advance to the next round and run through the four seasons again.

After the fourth round players will score two points for each unique Spirit they have attracted and half the points for each completed balance tile in their possession that they have not scored in the game. However, players will also lose points for any imbalance in their house. To do this, each player must work out the value on the items in their house (shown on the icon on the tile) for all the tiles on the left and the right of their house. They will then lose two points for every point of difference between either side. Total your points, and unsurprisingly, the most points wins!

Is It Fun? Bamboo Board Game Review

If you enjoy strategising in games this this could well be for you. It is not the most complex game to learn and play. And on your turn you only really have a few options. But the cascading effect of what you do, and the result of each turn on later turns is massive and I take a lot of pleasure from puzzling this out. It could leave you thinking for a moment or two. Don't worry though, this is not a problem, as the game plays naturally at a more relaxed sedate pace. Helped by the gorgeous art that you can see above. I took the tiles off so you can get a proper look. But I am not talking huge pauses for thought. More those delightful moments when your brain starts thinking that you want this specific action to get this specific thing, and you can get it if you place that Incense into this Temple, but this other Temple has a Spirit that you want more, and are more likely to win the area control for. But that will result in a turn that is less than optimal, so I will go for plan A and try and make use of this Spirit if I win it, but accept I probably wont and go for the other Spirit later. Whilst other players wait they will be thinking the same thing, along with the added thought of, so long as the person before me doesn't change anything significant!

The game plays pretty quickly too. It has the same energy as The Red Cathedral. Another small box game from Devir that also packs a lot of game and strategy into a small box. Similarly to The Red Cathedral, Bamboo offers simple turn structure, but big strategy. As you play Bamboo you will feel like you are in a bigger game, both in terms of the size, weight, and length. but it will all be over within an hour, less with fewer players, but your thirst for playing a "proper" game will most likely be quenched. For now.

There are many ways to score in the game, and you will progress a long way in your score as you play, but there are a large amount of points up for garbs in final scoring. I like games that offer both in game and end game scoring. It gives you a reward as you play but also keeps the final winner a mystery as players will not know exactly how the final scoring will play out until they get there.

Thinking about which actions you want to do, how to fulfil each balance goal by getting the right items into the right place, whilst also keeping your house in balance overall and still competing in the area control battle for the Spirits is a lot to think about. But it is not overwhelming, just crunchy. The game offers a delicious balance between a relaxed and calming theme and look with thoughtful and genuinely meaningful turns that affect your overall ability to do well or not. There is no real luck in this game, other than the tiles you flip and have access too, but generally you can make any tiles work for you when you understand the game.

The only thing I don't like about this game is the size. A bigger box and bigger board would have been better for me. And the tile holders are very annoying. As they begin to empty, the remaining tiles start to slip and it starts to get hard to take them out in the right order or not see the ones that are coming up. A vertical stand would have been a lot better. But these are minor aesthetical quibbles. The game itself is sound.

I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys the other games in the "series" of similar games from Devir. They have created a lovely collection of small-box, big-strategy games that I hope continues over the years. It will be exciting to see what comes out next.

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Brian Bord
Brian Bord
Nov 29, 2023

Good synopsis, but one key correction: you can't activate more actions than you have incense sticks offered to the temple. So for example, if you visit the red temple and only have one incense stick left to offer, you can only trigger one action no matter how many red pieces of bamboo you have on your board (but you still have to return all of them to the main board).

I am in full agreement, though. The small box Devir games are a welcome surprise, and offer FAR more depth than the size of the box would seem to indicate.

Jim Gamer
Jim Gamer
Nov 29, 2023
Replying to

Ah yes! You’re right. I’ve been playing that wrong. Thank you. I just re-read the manual and I see now how you can use less incense if you don’t have it, but that doesn’t mean you can carry out more actions than the amount of incense you used that turn. Good spot. And thanks for letting me know. I’ll update that part of the how to play now so it’s correct. Thanks!

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