Context of Document
This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.
Our view of Takenoko is a little different from most. We acknowledge there are systemic flaws if you want an engaging and strategic game experience. However, we think there’s something more meaningful to be found within its game systems. It’s a game of meditative reaction, rather than grand strategy. We like it a lot, and as such we gave it four stars. It’s singularly lovely, and manages to tightly bind its components and rules into a game that will flow over you if you let it. Does that sound nice? Let’s find out if you too could experience that sense of oneness with a wooden panda.
Ooft. You know when watching the Olympics, and you see a gymnast run up, leap fifteen feet in the air and then shape-shift into a golden falcon that rotates eight times in a Mobius strip? You know how it looks like they’re only vaguely connected to the Earth by the same implacable rules of physics as the rest of us? And then you know how they land clumsily and end up with a half point for their efforts? Imagine that instead of leaping into the air they fell, face-first, onto the vault and broke their teeth. That’s Takenoko here.
Takenoko is a game of harmonious colour – where you place hexes, how you interact with them, and how you score them is all colour coded. Unfortunately, there is no category of colour blindness for which they won’t be a problem.
If you squint, you can make out some differentiation in tiles of different colours, but that’s going to need you to rely on a fair degree of confidence in fine-grained colour discrimination. The tiles, aside from colour, are identical.
But the problem is deeper, because it’s even worse on the objective cards when looking at bamboo and gardener goals.
Again, if you really, really wanted to you could probably work out which is which but it will be awkward, unreliable, and ultimately frustrating.
In a game that is almost Zen-like it the way it forces you to act without knowing your opponent’s objectives, the entire experience is undermined by any forced leaking of intention. As soon as you ask ‘what colour is that tile’ you reveal a point of weakness for an opponent to exploit. It becomes a game of asymmetrical intention, and that leans in to all the flaws we discussed in the review.
We strongly recommend you avoid Takenoko if you have any form of colour blindness.
If you have any ability to discriminate colour, Takenoko is actually surprisingly accessible. While the tiles offer no tactile differentiation, they are brightly coloured and except for those that have improvements that’s the only information you need to know about them. Even the improvement symbols are generously proportioned, although angle of viewing may make it slightly more difficult to make these out.
The physicality of the game means that the changing game state represented by bamboo shoots is easily to determine. While you can relatively easily knock over tall shoots if you’re careless, you can assess how many segments are present by touch with little difficulty. And, since they grow taller the more segments are there, provided there is some ability to discriminate light levels you can likely visually identify the largest sections and where they are.
The panda and the gardener have completely different form factors, and are visually distinct against the tiles and the bamboo shoots themselves. The only issue there is that sometimes, depending on how they have been played, they’ll be hiding behind stalks and not necessarily especially easy to see. Asking where the gardener or the panda is though does not leak information in the same way asking the colour of tiles might. It doesn’t necessarily mean you plan on playing them – just that you need to know where they are. Perhaps you want to assess the risk of someone else upsetting your plans.
The objective cards adopt a clean aesthetic and reliable symbolic language that is large and easily visually parsed. As such, while the game adopts a hidden hand of objectives it’s not something that is likely to cause problems unless it’s compounded with a complicating impairment.
The map objectives are the only ones someone with visual impairments are likely to have any difficulty in assessing at a distance. They require cross-referencing against the map itself and a fair degree of spatial intelligence when it comes to rotating the card to find a match. This also involves making sure that each of the tiles are irrigated, and irrigation channels are the least visually accessible element of the game map. They nestle into the edges of tiles where a natural break point would be, and so are easily missed.
The game makes use of a non-standard dice, which is a problem. However, it’s a single d6 and in a pinch you can use the player board in front of you as a decent lookup table.
We’re prepared to strongly recommend Takenoko in this category, and we think that with some relatively simple modifications and support from other players it could even be reasonably playable to those that are totally blind.
You can, if you are very clever, deduce what your opponents are trying to do but it involves a great deal of roundabout thinking, long-term observation, and more than a bit of mentally assessing the probability of the decks. It can be done, and the more practise you get with the game the more of a feel you’ll get for it. It’s not at all easy, and extremely cognitively expensive. If your expectation in play is that everyone is going for the win, there are other games we’d recommend ahead of this one. Not just in terms of accessibility for those with cognitive impairments, but in terms of simple fun and feasibility. Takenoko is not a game that excels in this design space.
However, if you’re prepared to treat it as the borderline meditative experience of turn by turn reaction that we discussed in our review, there is a much more accessible and satisfying game in here. There is so much tactile enjoyment that comes from just making a nice garden that the scoring is almost optional. If everyone is simply enjoying watching the garden evolve and change and doing what limited things they can on their own turn to achieve their objectives, this is a very cognitively accessible game.
The game flow is consistent and reliable, except for the first turn which skips the weather die. What happens within a turn is variable, and will change depending on the rolled weather, but it still follows a fixed structure. The movement rules are simple, and the effect that each action has is straightforward. There are some opportunities for forward planning (such as picking up irrigation channels and stocking up on them), but few opportunities for complex chains of events. Some of the mechanics needed to achieve particular combinations of garden states can be a little complex, but simple trial and error will get you a fair chunk of the way.
There’s no reading level required of the game, and very little numeracy. Scoring is an exercise in arithmetic, but that’s all and it can be done by a central player if it’s likely to be an issue. The game employs a symbolic language for communicating instructions and win conditions, but it’s very straightforward and borderline skeuomorphic. The symbols conform heavily to the visual state of the game in front of you.
There is an element of decoupling when it comes to irrigation and weather effects. One effect gives you an improvement you can place on an unimproved tile, but it can be stored up and spent later when it’s appropriate. Similarly with irrigation – channels which are picked up need not be placed as the same action. It’s minor, and the player board gives you a visual reminder of the ones you’ve collected. It is one of the few areas of the ‘meditative’ game where forward thinking is rewarded – it’s possible to block opponents out of the necessary irrigation, or pre-emptively improve tiles you think they want left alone. More complex chains of events can be set up by placing tiles, placing improvements, and then placing long channels of irrigation to reap the benefits. These aren’t earth-shatteringly important, but worth bearing in mind.
The game state is not complex, but it is difficult to meaningfully change in a way that is compatible with any given player’s end-game scoring. The visual representation of the game state though makes it extremely accessible since the layout of the thing is its own reminder. You don’t need to mentally translate from abstractions such as cubes or tokens – what you see is what you get.
As such, we have a pair of contradictory conclusions. If you want to play Takenoko as a game of competition, we’d advise you to pick another game. We’re going to work on the assumption though that you’re going to want to maximise its accessibility if you’re reading this section. As such the relaxed and reactive game we discussed in our review would be excellent in that capacity. We strongly recommend Takenoko in this category with that caveat underlined and chiseled in stone.
Again, this section is highly dependent on how you choose to approach the game. Treat it like any other strategic experience and you’ll be consistently infuriated. It’s very difficult to line up everything that needs to be done in the garden, and curating it in a way so as to bring your objectives to the fore is harder still. You’ll often need multiple applications of the gardener and the panda to get everything where it needs to be, and they can both only move in straight lines. Unless you get the right weather effect, you can only move them once per turn. That can lead to repeated turns of moving one of them onto the right hex to get to the one you need in the next turn only for someone else, some complete bastard, to move them somewhere awkward. Or even worse, moving them back where they came and upsetting all your previous laid plans by growing bamboo where it is not welcome, or eating bamboo when it is not desired. You won’t be able to prevent it, and you won’t even really be able to understand why they’re doing it. It all looks so arbitrary, and so random.
And then you’ll often find that you’re engaging in the age old comedy of errors trope – you’ll move the gardener, who will spawn bamboo everywhere. But now you’ve got a hex with four segments, and you need three. So your next turn you plan to move the panda, only to find someone else moved the panda to an adjacent square and now instead of the 3-3-3 you were looking for you’ve got 4-3-2. So now you’ve got to bring those into balance, which will inevitably result in something else being thrown out of whack.
I called Mrs. Meeple a nasty name during our first playthrough of this as a result of this kind of thing. I was joking, mostly, but the joke was fueled by genuine frustration. It’s got that irritating itch of trying desperately to catch the end of a roll of Sellotape only to find your fingernails bounce harmlessly off the edge each time. After a few minutes of that, almost anyone can erupt in a tantrum. It’s not sensible, but it’s entirely natural.
As we’ve discussed though that’s not how the game is best played. If you ignore all of that and just focus on doing the best you can when your turn comes around, it’s almost transcendental in its relaxing power. I’ve said this several times – it just feels nice to tend a fake garden. However, that requires a mind-set that may be too much to ask of most players, and much more of those where issues of emotional accessibility have to be taken into account.
Much of Takenoko requires a calm sense of engaged resignation to the futility of long-term planning. You are looking for the point where you can achieve maximum benefit in the garden you see before you, not the garden you wish you had. Every single turn, the garden will change and while it will sometimes be in your favour it usually won’t. As such, every single turn can be its own extended ‘take that’, where other players are undermining your hard work and not even getting the fun of screwing you over. They do it accidentally. The result is that it’s neither funny nor clever. It’s just bewilderingly erratic. It’s entirely possible for the whole table to act against you without being aware, and as a result to open up potentially massive score disparities.
Mistakes in Takenoko can take a long time to correct, and the repair attempt can be reversed, interrupted or completely ruined at any point of the process. You might find yourself carefully setting things up so you can finally grow bamboo on the empty tile that will get the points only to find someone plops some fertiliser on it before you get a chance. Improvements stay when they’re placed, and while every possible combination of tiles is available over the game not every tile will make it into the board. As such, you might find yourself with a handful of cards you can’t complete, fighting back the anger that comes from staring into the face of inevitable futility.
Really then this section comes down to this: do you believe that you can expect a certain degree of Zen calm from those with whom you’re playing? You can prepare the ground for that, explaining to them that the game is built around the idea of controlling chaos with imperfect and unreliable tools. In the end though knowing is only part of the battle.
We don’t recommend Takenoko in this category, but not because we believe that the game as we describe it is emotionally inaccessible. We just believe that it’s asking an awful lot of people to approach the game in this spirit, and that’s doubly true when dealing with the behaviour patterns we address in this section. Your mileage, as ever, will vary – if you think people will be up for it, then the game can be extremely calming and enjoyable just as a kind of meditative toy.
Here’s the thing – if you’re willing to buy into our overview of Takenoko as an enjoyable simulation for getting the relaxing thrill of tending a bamboo garden, you can’t really pick and choose the elements that go into it. So much of the joy of Takenoko comes in the physical tactility of the pieces. It feels good to lay down bamboo shoots, and slot hexes into position. It feels nice to nestle the pieces into each other, and feel the garden take shape under your fingers. I believe, very strongly, that this tactility is critical to the Takenoko Experience and to lose it would completely undermine the game’s meditative value. I mean, when you start with this:
And gently nestle the segments into place to grow the garden in the right way:
That’s just a lovely, satisfying feeling.
Unfortunately, that means that not only is the game physically inaccessible but that the usual workarounds of verbalisation will leave the experience sorely lacking. There is a difference between snipping a branch off of a Bonsai tree and telling someone else where they should cut.
It’s probably pretty obvious, right from the start, where the physical accessibility flaws are to be found – they’re to be found everywhere.
- Placing tiles requires them to be nestled against each other, which can create an alignment shockwave anytime the board is nudged. Given the nature of growth, it’s also likely to expand in ways that aren’t very predictable, and in inconvenient directions.
- Bamboo is broken up into shoots and segments, and you need to spend a fair bit of time searching through the box, as if hunting for just the right bit of Lego, to find the one you might need. You can mitigate this with pre-sorting, but what kind of monster would do that?
- Placing bamboo segments into other segments is one of the key tactile elements of the game, but it requires a degree of fine control and lightness of touch. As the bamboo shoots get larger, they become easy to knock over and break up. Some pieces don’t fit neatly into others, and need a little bit of forcing.
- Manipulating pieces and bamboo must sometimes be done in a dense thicket, and unreliable precision can easily knock these over or make hexes difficult to access.
You can verbalise some of your game instruction clearly, but not all. Mostly you have to approach it as a kind of chess notation system where you don’t express your movement but rather the intended destination. ‘Gardener to Panda’s red four’ kind of thing. When it comes to eating and growing bamboo, it’s based on the position of the gardener or panda, but you need to get them where they’re supposed to go first.
The game makes use of hidden hands of objectives, but the hand limit is a svelte five and a standard card holder will deal with the problems that might come with this.
If you can engage physically with the game, most of the issues will be small. If you need to rely on others to make your moves on your behalf, it is my view that you would lose much that is of value in the gameplay. It’s not that the physical act of manipulation is important to play, but it is a vital part of the overall experiential package. As such, we don’t recommend Takenoko in this category, but bear the discussion in mind before dismissing it outright.
There are few characters represented in the game. There is the gardener, the panda, and the emperor. In the accompanying comic, there are also various hangers-on in the royal court, sitting around and doing nothing. Not a single woman to be seen, even if it would have been trivial to have an Empress, or a female panda. God, would that be better? I don’t even know. The manual carries this through to the text, which defaults to an assumption of masculinity throughout. However, the metric tonnage of adorability in the theme does tend to make one a little more forgiving of these oversights.
I’m not sure what the list price is, but I see it hovering for sale around the £25 mark – you can see every penny of that money reflected in the box with the absolutely top-notch wooden components and gorgeous visuals. You don’t wonder where your money went. However, with a maximum of four players there’s a hard ceiling on the kind of gatherings you’ll be able to bring it out for.
Overall though, we recommend it in this category.
No communication is required for play. Meditative silence will carry you through to the end of the game with no drawbacks.
If visual impairments are coupled to colour blindness, what is an otherwise visually accessible game will become completely inaccessible. So much of our discussion on visual accessibility is built on the idea of being able to differentiate colours – if that can’t be assumed, then avoid the game.
The game makes use of hidden hands, but these show only patterns for the garden and don’t come with any complex or conditional logic – as such, while it’s difficult to offer support for those with a combination of cognitive and visual impairments it’s unlikely to be too much of an issue.
The use of a non-standard die is often a problem with compound conditions, such as when dealing with the intersection between visual and cognitive accessibility. Here, we see that problem manifest because the dice rolls also come with a differing impact on game flow. While there are cues given for each different kind of weather effect on the player sheet they may not be instantly understandable and don’t map meaningfully on to the designated weather effect. Why would sun give an extra action? Why would wind let you do the same thing twice? There’s no logical connection that would make the symbols more tractable.
We don’t offer a recommendation for those with physical impairments, but we do accept it can likely be played without too much difficulty provided verbalisation is an appropriate interaction strategy. However, if this is paired with a communication impairment this would obviously create fundamental difficulties that would render the game entirely inaccessible.
There is an awful lot of downtime in Takenoko, especially with larger player counts, and if cognitive issues are paired with certain behavioural conditions this might create the context for a frustrating play experience. It can be difficult to keep someone’s attention fixed on a game that requires them to stoically accept what fate has in store for them. That’s especially true if they are compelled for most of the game to watch their hard work be undermined through the actions of others.
The game lasts around 45 minutes, although given the difficulty of actively achieving objectives it can sometimes run a little long. There’s no formal mechanic for dropping in and out, but it’s relatively easy to redistribute accumulated irrigation and improvement tiles should someone wish to take a break from play. However, while there is no fundamental reason why it couldn’t be finished off as a solo game, so much of play is dependent on the delta of disharmony represented by the actions of other players. The theoretical floor on the game is one, but the floor of an engaging game is two.
Takenoko is a great game, but one that requires you to surrender all sense of strategy because if you approach it with a competitive mindset you’ll leave its company feeling downhearted and disappointed. All those gorgeous components are an aide to immersion. Sometimes, play is serious business. As a result, the game asks a lot of its players.
In Takenoko we see some of the tensions that go into accessible design. The tactility means it’s a very physical game with a state you can investigate with nothing more than your fingers. That’s great for those with visual impairments. However, that comes at the cost of its physical accessibility. There are though flaws that don’t stem from its physical design, especially in the area of colour blindness.
If you approach Takenoko with the right attitude, you’ll find it a rich and rewarding experience. That is, if you’re able to play it at all. We gave it four stars in our review, although that came with enough qualifying assumptions to render the verdict all but meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We have enjoyed the games we’ve played of it, and anticipate enjoying more in the future. If the game is accessible to you, give some thought to trying it out.
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