Arboretum doesn’t look like it, but this is a game about when the Ents go to war. Arboretum is a scorched-earth battleground set in the Lord of the Rings universe. It doesn’t say it anywhere, but that’s the only conclusion a reasonable person could reach. A game about planting a nice arboretum couldn’t possibly be this mean spirited so it must be something else. It must be, and so it is. That’s logic, baby.
I should note before I get into the review proper that when I was taking photographs for this I didn’t realise until I actually cleared the last card away that I was playing a two-player example with a three player deck. At that point I was faced with a choice – write a lame disclaimer at the start of the review, or spend another hour doing a meticulous reshoot like someone dedicated to doing the best job they can do. A reshoot that would show that someone was a professional, taking real pride in the job they have picked for themselves – real pride in the service that they offer. A reshoot that I wouldn’t even tell you happened, because behind the scenes bloopers are for Saturday television and DVD extra features. Those were my choices.
So I’m going for the disclaimer, obviously.
Also, my copy of the game is in German because – well, just because that’s the one I bought. It was in print, the English one wasn’t (or isn’t, or won’t be, or something) and the German has vanishingly little impact on play. So don’t worry – your browser isn’t mysteriously translating text on the fly for you. It’s not anti-Brexit propaganda. Wilkommen, wilkommen. Gluklich zu sehen, Meine Damen und Herren.
Now we’ve got the preamble out of the way, let’s talk about why Arboretum is the one of the sharpest games in my collection – a game so sharp it can draw blood. A game where from little acorns grow mighty resentments. Every time we play Arboretum I shake my head and say ‘that’s a mean little game’.
Arboretum is a mean little game. It’s a vicious clubbing in card form. It is the best of games. It is the worst of games.
Each player in Arboretum gets dealt out a hand of seven cards. Depending on the player count these will be made up of six, seven, eight or nine suites of trees. Each suite has a tree numbered from one to eight. Each turn, the current player picks two cards from the draw pile, or any discard pile around the game. They place down one card, they discard another, and play moves on to the next player.
To what end? Well, towards the end of creating a beautiful arboretum that people would enjoy exploring. A lovely arboretum is made up of paths – paths begin and conclude with a tree of a particular kind, and have an ascending numerical progression that can be traced between these endpoints. Paths don’t need to be of a particular tree type – any tree will do, provided you can trace a path from a lower number to higher number. You can skip numbers and re-use trees – it’s all really flexible and easy and relaxing and calming.
Calming – that’s the obvious word here. What could be more calming than making a nice arboretum? You look at your cards, and you pick something pretty to play. What trees do you like? Are you going to start low and attempt to build up a path of a single suite? Or are you going to start with a mid-value card and construct an arboretum around it? There are no wrong answers in celebrating nature. What trees are you going to have, and how are they going to be distributed? That’ll depend on what cards you have had dealt your way, of course, but there’s no harm in planning ahead. The world is your orchard.
You’re going to keep doing this – picking two cards, playing one, discarding one, until the draw pile is completely depleted. When that happens, the game is over and scoring begins. We’ll get to scoring. Oh my – we will definitely get to scoring.
You never know what an opponent has in their hand, other than what you see them pick out of discard piles. That’s where the first string of Arboretum’s thorns can be felt. Seeing someone merrily reach over and pick a card out of your discard pile is startlingly invasive. They need to take them in stack order of course, but as they slip your unwanted tree into their hand all you can hear ringing through your head is ‘I’ve made a huge mistake’.
Here’s the thing about Arboretum – you will never be able to have everything you want. Every turn that draw pile is being whittled away and it takes time to curate your garden. You’re going to be left, at the end of the game, with a hand of cards that represent wasted possibilities – those cards usually aren’t just what’s left over. They’re almost always cards you desperately needed to keep and very much wanted to play. You just don’t have time to do everything you want to do.
Every single card an opponent plays is a signal – there are only eight cards of each tree, and if someone else is building heavily in that suite then you probably shouldn’t be too reckless with your own agenda. Building an arboretum is part luck of the draw and part wild scavenging through everyone else’s garden waste bin for their unwanted offcuts.
Actually, a better way of thinking of this is that each card that is casually thrown onto the composting pile is a leaf falling from a tree. Each of those leaves, from each of your opponents, forms a drift that may contain treasures that you want for yourself. No card is every truly thrown away in Arboretum – it’s always available to those that want to dig for it. Both of your draws on your turn can be from discard piles, so if you see gold glinting in the autumn leaves you can take the time to grab it.
That’s a dreadful idea though, because it’s like bailing out a ship – by the time you’ve thrown out a glassful of water, another two have poured in. Every turn you need to discard a card of your own, and so digging through the waste is never going to be a great use of your time. Opportunities are never lost, but the cost of seizing them soon escalates out of sensible consideration. By the time you know just how valuable a card will be, it’s usually too far gone to be worth the excavation. Usually.
Seeing your cards arrayed before you reveals an important part of the puzzle – the ability of other players to construct meaningful paths. Sometimes in playing a card someone else simply reveals that they wasted their turn and you can use that to steal the initiative. You played a four of Cassia? Look what I’ve got, buddy – that was a chump move and you don’t even know it yet.
But you don’t necessarily let them know that it was a chump move. Not right away – you want people building paths even if you’re the one that’s going to do the best job with the trees they are most tenderly cultivating. That’s because of how Arboretum is scored. Up until this point it’s undoubtedly seemed almost impossibly charming – like the kind of game you’d imagine cartoon rabbits playing in a children’s movie. Mid-review plot twist though – if this is a game from a children’s movie the movie is Watership Down and the blood is about to start gushing everywhere
You lay down another Jacaranda, creating the first path in the game – it’s worth three points because it has two cards (2 points) and starts with a one (an additional one point). You get another two points if it ends with an eight. You get double points for each card if it’s at least four cards long and each card is the same kind. A single, uniform path can be worth a lot of points.
But for whom?
In Arboretum, each tree type is scored by exactly one player. Do you know which player? No, it’s not the one that made the best path, silly. No, it’s not the one that played the last card of the path. Or the first! You are so cute. So very cute. The world is going to eat you up you little scamp, and once it has it’s going to chew furiously and then spit your bones out into the gutter.
No, the path is scored by the player that has the highest summed value of that tree still in their hand at the end of the game. All those ‘missed opportunities’ we talked about earlier in the review – that’s nonsense. You want people to be playing trees they can’t possibly score, and you’ll be liberally discarding the trees they want the most. You want to make sure every moment they spend planting is a moment spent in futility. At the end of the game you curl your hand into a fist, and that fist around a club, and you use it to bludgeon the joy out of everyone else around the table. It is glorious.
Keep the eight and you’ll be fine, right? I mean, that’s a lot of advantage in a single card. That’s true, but if you compare hands against someone that has the one of that suite, your eight is worth nothing. Eight beats everything, but one beats eight. That eight is a Goliath right until a tiny one propels a stone towards its colossal forehead. It’s Schrodinger’s card, simultaneously worth nothing and everything until you make a comparison. The only time the eight becomes truly safe is when the one has been played out into the game. Otherwise, don’t go placing too much faith in its numerical advantage.
Look at this arboretum – those lovely oaks are going to be worth a lot as the game progresses. It’s a flexible grid too – you can see places where it can adapt to deal with larger and smaller numbers of cards should the opportunity arise. Nice, isn’t it? But the longer and more valuable you make that path, the fewer cards you’re leaving in your hand for end of game scoring. You need to play enough cards to make the path worth your time, while still keeping enough that the points go to you in the end.
Look here – two paths are being formed – a lovely Cassia path and a less lovely, but still nice, Jacaranda path. There’s room to grow here, room to change, room to reflect all the beauty of nature. Imagine though if all that work you put in, the effort you poured out all game is worth absolutely nothing. That’s always the risk you take, and the worst thing is the other players around the table know more about your risk than you do. See, the other really nasty thing about Arboretum is that you don’t need to have played any cards to score them. Often you’re not pipping someone to their points, you’re straight up burning the points down to the ground. If you can’t have them, nobody can have them.
As time goes by, each of your plays becomes increasingly tense. Every card of each suite is used in every game, so if a card doesn’t manifest you know someone else has it. There’s no uncertainty here – it’s an imperfect information game where every piece of information is perfectly available to someone. Who has the six of oak? If it ends up being you, that’s a massive score awaiting you. You could retire from gaming off of a score like that. Who has the six? Is it you? Then WHO HAS THE EIGHT? Oh god.
And God, where are all the willows? Maybe they were discarded, but if they were does that mean you’ll get the scoring for this even if your path isn’t as long or as beautiful? Can you score the Cassia? What about the Jacaranda? How much of what you do is going to be about protecting your investment and how much is going to be about increasing its return?
Arboretum is a game where the largest emotional cost comes in discarding because you want to keep absolutely everything. You can’t though. Throw something away. Throw it away. Pick something. It’ll be fine. It’ll be okay. Shhh. Shhh. It okay. Don’t be cry.
You pick something and then you throw it away only to watch someone else reaches over with a massive grin and says ‘yoink’.
What did you do, you absolute idiot? You probably just lost the game. That was it. No point even worrying about it now. Or is there? I mean, they don’t know what you have in your hand – maybe they’re over-estimating their own ability to score. Maybe? Maybe not? Maybe you actually wanted them to take that card because you know they’re just going to play it and they don’t know you’re the one that’s in a position to score it.
I mean, consider the two arboretums above. Let’s say we’re player one with our lovely twisting trail of oaks, and this is the hand from which we need to choose a discard:
Well, we don’t want to discard the olive trees because we have a three tree path in our arboretum we need to score and the one isn’t in play. We have a four, or a twelve, depending on where the one is. We can’t get rid of either of those cards. Similarly for the Jacaranda – we’re not placing those, but our opponent is. We won’t get any points of our own, but we can stop them scoring if we hold on to that pair. If we discard either of them we’re almost certainly going to give our opponent the scoring rights. We can’t get rid of either of those cards. Similarly with the willow – we absolutely can’t get rid of those because we both have willow paths, and we know for a fact that we’ll get to score it if we keep them. Our total is eleven – the highest our opponent can have is four because the three long vanished into a discard pile. So we absolutely can’t discard those. But we also can’t discard the Cassia because the path our opponent has been building of Cassia is punishingly good.
We can’t get rid of any of them. So what do we do? We suck it up and get rid of one anyway. It’s not uncommon for players to emit an animal yowl of frustration when the discard moment comes their way.
But don’t feel too bad, it’s just as difficult for everyone else – every single card is a potential advantage you’re giving away. There aren’t enough cards in the game for you to freely abandon any. You need to be able to play, and score, and triumph.
The worst thing about Arboretum, as far as this part of the game is concerned, is that when the final card is flipped over it is an intensely revelatory moment for the player responsible. You finally see, usually at the point it’s far too late, that nobody had the card you thought was lurking in someone else’s hand. If you knew the eight would come to you, your arboretum would have looked much different. But you didn’t, and then finally there it is – the god-damn eight of god-damn Jacaranda. And now that you know it’s safe to play all your other Jacaranda you don’t have the time to do it. The game is over. Play your last card. Your mistakes are trees. They’re planted. You can’t just uproot them and stick them somewhere else. Thanks for playing, but you’re done now.
People enter the scoring phase of Arboretum as broken shells of themselves. You look mournfully at your Jacaranda path and know that you can’t score it because the cards you needed to see in your hand are hidden away in someone else’s. You know that’s the case because at the end of the game there are no more cards to draw – the one you wanted is in the discard piles, safely out of danger, or in the hands of one of the dead-eyed goblins that you once called friends.
‘I have a total of nine in Jacaranda in my hand’, you announce in a funerary monotone. You look at your path – nine points. Nine beautiful points. Those nine points were going to put your pet squirrels through college. Now they’ll need to turn tricks for the beavers down at the dam for just a sniff of an acorn.
‘I have a total of fifteen’, says someone else that doesn’t even have a Jacaranda in their arboretum. ‘So, nobody scores anything’.
A moment’s silence. A calming breath. Just breathe. Keep breathing.
‘Now Oaks’, you say. ‘I don’t have any’.
‘I have four’, says the player with their trailing path of Oaks taking up half the table. ‘That’s thirteen points to me’
Each tree is scored, the total totted up, and the winner is the player that most effectively balanced their personal expansion against preventing their opponents taking advantage of their own hard work. The winner, in other worlds, is the biggest bastard.
Let me tell you about the last game of Arboretum I played with Mrs Meeple. The whole game I was spooling out Cassia to my discard pile in ever increasing values. I groaned every time, remarking that I knew I was giving her exactly what she wanted but everything else in my hand was more important. It’s important in Arboretum that this isn’t a bluff – everyone is wrestling with the same problem. vTurn by turn – she played out the two, so I discarded the one. She played the one, and I discarded the three. I basically fed her a steady stream of Cassia seeds even though I knew I had the six and the eight in my possession. I made her waste every single placement with a tree that was never going to yield her anything. In the process, I took advantage of the Oaks, and the Jacaranda, to create my own intricate arboretum free of serious competition. By the time she realised that she was never going to see the high suite cards, it was already too late. Her point total for the entire game? Three points. Mine? Twenty six.
A mean little game, indeed.
But also a very good game. It’s a game where the frustration comes primarily from having too many desirable options as opposed to not enough. In many games, you discard freely because that which you give up doesn’t contribute to your overarching strategy. In Arboretum, every discard is a regret, the intensity of which is magnified by the speed at which someone swoops in and plucks it up. The puzzle in Arboretum is intensely absorbing because the consequences are so great. A bad turn in Arboretum can lose you the entire thing. Trusting opponents too freely can slowly erode your competitiveness. Trusting for fate to deliver the cards you need – that’s absolute folly. And yet, maybe just this one time it’ll be right…
It’s also a game though that’s hard to recommend too freely, because that nastiness is truly spectacular. Many games allow you to block opponent progress, few allow you to completely take it away. Arboretum lets players play Lucy, holding the ball in place for Charlie Brown to kick. You build up momentum, admiring your form and your poise, only for the ball to be hauled away at the last second yet again. You levy a powerful kick at the empty air, fall to the ground, and angrily stare up at your grinning foe as you rub your numb arse. Sometimes the trees you construct are just handy places to hang a noose – you put your head in it willingly, and it’s only as the draw deck dwindles away that you realise how tightly your opponents have been pulling it around your neck.
Arboretum has much to recommend it, but perhaps consider whether or not you really want to end up dead in a knife-fight triggered by an otherwise charming game about planting trees.
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