Updated: Oct 29, 2022
WBG Score: 8
Published by: Sit Down!
Designed by: Kasper Lapp
This is a prototype copy provided for free by the publisher. The final game will have extra cards, and potentially some minor changes to the art.
Back in 2017 Kasper Lapp decided to bring a world of fun/stress to everyone's lives, with potentially the most passive-aggressive game component ever made, the "DO SOMETHING!" pawn in Magic Maze. Even the name split opinion. I was a big fan, but a lot of people did understandably find it very stressful, overly tense, and essentially the cardboard conduit to family arguments. But the game did offer something interesting. A cooperative, real-time, campaign game with limited communication with a wonderful learning curve. This fascinated me and I have followed designer Kasper Lapp with great interest ever since. Lapp's latest release, Gardeners brings back more real-time, limited communication, in a campaign (of sorts). This time with a pattern recognition mechanic, and garden theme. Let's get it to the table and see how it plays.
There are three training modules, as well as a beginner and normal mode. Depending on which one you are doing, the instructions will show you which cards and tiles to take. Separate the tiles into equal piles and place them face up in front of each player. If you are using it, (depending on which module or game version you are playing) place the sand timer into a central space, determine who will be the first player and flip over the timer to start the game.
How to Play
You will now have 15 minutes to complete the cards in the game you are playing. In the main normal or beginner game, this is all of the cards. In the training modules, this will be the specific cards to that module. The game asks you to play through the three modules and then the beginner mode before you play the full game. I did this on my first go, and it was fun. A good way to learn the game and a nice little 'campaign.' But in later plays with other players, I did go straight to the normal mode and it was fine. Perhaps this wouldn't be ideal for two new players though. But if one person knows the game, I don't think it's necessary to go through all the modules unless you want too.
At the start of the game, all tiles will be in front of each player in piles. Players can add them into a central play area, forming a 4x4, 5x5, or 6x6 grid. Depending on which module you are playing. The normal game plays with a 6x6. You can play as many tiles as you like, as often as you like, when ever you like. This game is in real-time. There are no turns. You can place your tiles wherever you like as long as they touch another tile orthogonally. (On the sides, top or bottom). Obviously the first tile can go anywhere.
At the start, players will simply be trying to get their tiles down as quickly as possible, meeting the criteria of the one single card that has thus far been drawn. When all the tiles are down, if the card requirements have been satisfied then the person who drew that card, declares a group success, and the next person round the table will draw the next card. Players will then try to rework the grid of tiles to satisfy the new card, whilst maintaining the first cards requirements as well.
To do this, you can take tiles out from the grid and pass them to other players for them to put back into another location. You cannot take tiles out and replace them yourself. The grid will be re-worked like this until it meets both cards requirements. At which point the person who draw that second card will declare success, and a third card will be drawn by the next player, or the first player again in the case of a two-player game. When this is done, the next player will draw a forth card, but the first card will now be "scored". It is removed from the game, and it no longer needs to be considered. So, you will only ever have three cards maximum to work to.
Play will continue like this until the 15 minute timer runs out, or all the cards are completed. At which point you will score points based on how many 'scored' cards you managed to work through. In the other versions of the training modules you will just need to work through the five or six cards. But in the main game, you keep going until the timer runs out. There are way more cards than there is time to do them. So, it is about your score, not time.
Here's the Twist(s)!
Sounds simple right. And it would be if this was it. But just like Magic Maze, in Gardeners you cannot talk to other players during the game. When you are taking tiles out and placing it in front of other players for them to replace into a new location, they may have no idea where to put that tile. Or know why you took it out. Because... wait for it, there is another twist. When a player draws a card, only they can look at it. The other players can only see the reverse of the card which will give limited information as to what that card requires, but not the full and exact details. Only the player that draws it will know this, and they cannot tell the other players what is specifically needed.
The cards are mainly about building patterns. A line of flowers. Greens must be in at least groups of two. Paths must be at least two tiles long. But there are also cards that are a little different. No pinks on the outside edge. A bench must face another bench. All reds must be on the outer rows. On the reverse of the card, all players will know what type it is. But the exact card, colour or specific tile will not be revealed to all players, just the one person who draws it. For example, this card tells the other players it requires a bench to face some thing specific. They just won't know exactly what that is.
Is it Fun
Enjoying Gardeners will be reliant upon two major factors. How much you enjoy the pressure of working against a timer in real-time. And doing so collaboratively, relying on another player to understand your intentions, when you are unable to talk to them. I appreciate how this will not be for everyone. But for those of you who do enjoy this sort of game, Gardeners does this very well.
I think the success of a game like this comes from the risk/reward scale. How much risk is there of you or your fellow team mates getting frustrated by the game or each other. How much reward will come if this go well. This is why games like The Mind polarise so much. Some people find huge satisfaction to doing well in that game. And the euphoria from winning, or even just doing ok, is enough to cover the frustration when you don't so well. Whether Gardeners has enough reward to make up for the intentional frustrations born from the limited communication and real-time nature of the game will be up to you. But I will try and distill it now for you so you can make an educated decision prior to playing the game.
First up, let's talk about the rewards. Under pressure, with limited communication, when you get this right cooperatively, it feels good. Really good. And let's face it, the things that feel better in life are generally the things we have had to work harder for. And this certainly does take a bit of work. And in games, I think most people are ok with a bit of work. People don't mind games being hard if they are workable. Hard is different to broken. But I would argue this is not even hard. It just takes a moment to get into the groove. Again, like The Mind, in Gardeners you do need to sync with your fellow players. Getting into a similar head space.
Which brings me onto the risk. If you are not in the same head space as the other player(s), but think you are, then other player(s) will start doing things that to you seem silly. Whereas that other player would obviously not be playing badly on purpose, and they may think that what you are doing is wrong. Or maybe they or you, or both of you are just confused. Either way, this will lead to frustration for all players. I have found that in this situation, you need to just pause. Reset your mind, and go again. But in Gardeners, you cannot do this. When you flip the timer, you won't ever pause the game. You do not stop until the game ends. There is no rest. No opportunity to pause and collect your thoughts. And this non-stop pressure can get to some people.
For me, I really enjoy this sort of game and the pressure it creates if I am in the right headspace. But then, what game does not work better when you are in the right head space. So, that may not be a fair criticism, or even comment. But I would say that this game does rely a little more on players being mentally prepared for it more than most other games. But when they are in the right place, and things click, this game feels like such a joy. You feel in sync with the other players. Working collectively, in silence, towards a common goal. And the satisfaction that comes from this quiet efficiency is wonderful.
I get a real sense of achievement from playing this game. It binds me to the other players I am playing with. I take a lot of satisfaction from beating previous scores and seeing if I can improve with my teammate(s). This is just a preview, but I have given it a score as the game feels complete to me. However, there will be additional cards that add more to the gameplay which I am very excited about trying in the final retail copy. I would highly recommend this game to anyway that enjoy real-time coop games with limited communication, and is looking to add something unique to their collection that rewards good team work, and concertation. I await the final game with great anticipation!