Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Designer: Dan Cassar
Artist: Philippe Guerin, Chris Quillliams, Beth Sobel
Release date: 2015
Favouritefoe score: 9/10
There. I said it.
(Spoiler Alert): Definitely not a bad thing in my book. Just not what I was expecting. At all.
Now, I want to be up front about how I feel about this game from the get-go. Rage is generally within the remit of negative reactions. Like the heart-burn it induces within me, there is usually no upside to rage. No universal “yay” moment when it bubbles up and overspills.
When it happens in me, however, it is a sprint and not a marathon. A frenzied whirlwind of clipped tones, increased volume, slammed doors, and rigid muscle fibres. Head shaking at twice the speed of my rapidly increasing heart rate.
But, like a firework, the colourful effects fizzle fast. Being able to sustain a furious state over an extended period is beyond both my physical and mental capabilities. It is exhausting and leaves me running on empty. A state therefore to be avoided wherever possible. Usually.
Our game table is the exception. When a game slithers under my skin so insidiously that losing to my Bearded Moon causes my eye-balls to steam up and my hands to slam down in a visual display of seething wrath, we have a keeper. And, in Arboretum, the trees are a tantalising tinderbox just waiting to ignite.
Please don’t misunderstand me. My reaction to Arboretum and other equally inciteful choices is totally different to the kind of anger levelled at a game that is simply poor. Bad art, weak theme, confused mechanics – these all make players feel a varying mixture of disappointment, sadness, and ire. Thankfully, so far as I am concerned, Arboretum is guilty of none of those things.
And so, over the next few paragraphs, there is going to be a lot of references to rage. Eye narrowing, air puffing, jaw clenching anger. Against your opponent, against the draw pile, against your own hand.
And it is fabulous.
Please click the button below to view my 1 minute Rapid Review Video of Arboretum
If you haven’t played Arboretum before, it is very pretty. The ten species of trees depicted on the cards are lovely to look at, and your lips will curve upwards as you regard their beauty. Pink blossom, red leaves…….a veritable kaleidoscope of colours.
With seven cards in your hand, and a draw pile of potentials waiting to blossom (the size of which depends on player count as full suits are removed at lower player counts), the game is set up. You then indulge in the view, and start imagining the most attractive arboricultural formations.
But then, like the sap left inside a felled maple tree, the sweetness quickly taps out. And in its wake flow the cold, hard, cutthroat calculations needed to out-perform your opponent.
The Path(s) to Victory
Simple to grasp, Arboretum is a set collection, tableau building card game that will test your very best hand management skills. In reality, it feels very much like a tile layer, just with bigger pieces. Either way, it is despicably delightful.
With one card at your disposal each turn, you will be looking to link the beginning and end of a path using the same species of tree. You can only place a new card orthogonally adjacent to an existing card, and you have to discard one of the two cards you will have drawn (from any combination of the common pile or an opponent’s/your own discard piles) each turn.
The rest of the cards forming the path don’t have to match in species but your paths must grow in ascending numerical order (not necessarily consecutively though). And that is the game play. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing remotely rage inducing there.
Wait for it………
You see, the scintillating spitefulness of Arboretum comes not from the card collecting, nor the process of card placement. But from the scoring.
Spikey, thorn covered victory point denying scoring.
Each card in your longest species path will score you one point but only if you are also holding the highest total value of that species of trees in your hand at end game! Extra points are awarded if the path starts with 1, end in 8, or is comprised of the same species (so long as there are 4+ cards in the path).
But, at end-game scoring, 1s are worth more than 8s in your hand. So, not only can 8s be unlucky, you can be torn between wanting to lay them down in order to score bonus points in your own path and needing to keep them. Just in case you can bump up your hand value compared to your opponents. But, of course, so are they…..
And that is before you factor in that you also need to discard a card each turn. A card your opponent could collect on their next turn. A card you really want to keep. Because you are going to want to keep them all!
A Brain Burning Bonfire
As such, it soon becomes clear that every plan you made to gain the most (or even just some) points turns out to be wrong. Utterly wrong. Not just a little bit off. This is an out of the room-in a taxi-can’t even see the house-let alone the table anymore level void between what you thought you would achieve and what you have in fact earned.
And that revelation which hits like a mighty oak slamming into your face as you regard your grid of trees and the cards left in your hand is punishing. Rage inducing punishment.
There. See? I told you it was coming!
But in our house, boiling point is well worth the wait. Particularly if the arboricultural abyss is a direct result of your opponent calculating precisely which cards they need to keep in their hand for the sole purpose of denying you the opportunity to score.
The fact that they will sacrifice their own gains to deny yours is indeed the highest level of compliment at Casa Foe. A sign that you have them sweating at the mid-game stage.
Throughout this game, the trade-off between what you want to lay down, what you need to keep in your hand, and how much you want to avoid tipping off your opponent/discarding anything useful to them can be brilliantly intense.
I won’t deny it – Arboretum has a field day with my analysis paralysis – I can sit there trying and failing to commit to giving up a card until my opponents have to physically wrestle one out of my hand. And if you struggle with games that put you on pause, then the paths in Arboretum might be a little bumpy.
I actually find the process of laying cards into my paths less stressful than the more consequence weighted sacrifice to my discard pile. Only slightly, mind. Knowing that I could be furthering another’s efforts to annihilate me by giving up something that literally plays into their hand is going to have greater mental repercussions than simply failing to make good paths.
But I have nobody to blame but myself. I love tight, tense games. I love the brain-burn. I crave the cranial crunch. Even when it breaks me.
As a big fan of Battle Line, I rejoice in the pure, almost impossible decision making and trade-offs in Arboretum. I squirm in my seat, wrinkle my forehead, and wish I could keep all of my cards.
And I think that at 2 players, having that duelling sense in the gameplay and fewer species to fight over, intensifies the feelings in Arboretum even more. It’s now personal. I may be a weeping willow by the end of the game, but they are tears of joy.
I am sure there are ways to play Arboretum in a more relaxed state. In fact, I know there are because fellow gamers have previously recommended it to me as an option to try and dial up the chill and drown out the noise on anxious days. And whilst that versatility makes this game even more of a winner in my book, I don’t think I will ever be able to achieve that zen experience. But I am glad others can and will.
With ten species to keep my mind in overdrive, and replayability made easy by the (un)luck of the draw, Arboretum is my path to some seriously tree-mendous card battles against Bearded Moon.
If you like Arboretum, try Battle Line, Songbirds, and Schotten Totten 1 and 2