Full disclosure: A review copy of Arboretum was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
So, we’re starting to pivot slightly from Gen Con games to Essen games, which is good and fun, but I still have plenty of Gen Con games to get through, so let’s not leave that totally behind just yet. Next up is Arboretum, from Renegade Game Studios, one of the many publishers that I frequent for What’s Eric Playing?
In Arboretum, you seek to plant trees and create pleasing paths for attendees, only to find out that someone else had the same idea as you! That’s frustrating, I imagine, since well, I can’t figure that this is a thing that a city wants 4+ of (similar to the problem Unfair has with one city seeing sometimes 4+ theme parks being constructed simultaneously). Will you be able to prove that your opponents should make like a tree and … get out of here? Or will you be left feeling uprooted?
No setup, basically. Set aside the Scoring Pad:
There are a few different sets of tree cards (1 – 8 in 10 colors). Use a different amount for each player count:
- 2 players: 48 cards (6 suits, 8 cards each)
- 3 players: 64 cards (8 suits, 8 cards each)
- 4 players: 80 cards (10 suits, 8 cards each)
Just shuffle the Tree Cards:
Each player draws 7. You’re ready to start!
So, really, the game is kinda simple. Every turn, you have 7 cards in your hand. At the start of your turn, you’ll draw two cards, one at a time, from any of these locations:
- the deck
- your discard pile
- another player’s discard pile
You may draw a card, look at it, and then draw another from any location, even one you’ve already drawn from.
You then must place a card anywhere in your play area such that it’s orthogonally adjacent (up / down / left / right) to an already-placed card.
Continue doing that until the deck of cards is depleted (note, not any of the discard piles, just the deck).
Once that’s happened, move on to scoring, where the real fun begins. You see, for each color, you’ll need to determine which player gets to score that color. That’s determined by the player with the highest-value card or set of cards of that color still in hand. Normally, the 8 is the highest card, but if another player has a 1, the 8 counts as a 0 for that purpose. That’s always kinda rough. If there’s a tie, all tied players get to score that color.
When you score a color, you score a “path” starting with a card of that color and ending with a card of that color. Cards in between the start and the end card can be any color, but they must be strictly increasing from start to end. It’s likely that you’ll have more than one path for a color; if that happens, well, choose the higher-scoring path. Here’s how the scoring works:
- 1 point per card in the path.
- 1 extra point per card in the path if the path is at least four cards and all cards in the path are the same color.
- +1 point if the path starts with a 1
- +2 points if the path ends with an 8
The player with the highest score wins!
Player Count Differences
So I only played this at two kind of intentionally; it’s got a reputation for being an incredibly mean (but fun) game, and that kind of intensity at higher player counts isn’t really for me. Part of it is that the game length can increase as players struggle with figuring out where to draw from (and the options will increase because you’ll have more discard piles to choose from) and that doesn’t jive well with the fact that it might all be for nothing if your opponent decides to mess you up (and manages to follow through on it). That said, it’s a fantastic two-player game, so, I’m inclined to just leave it at that, since I enjoy it.
- I tend to draw one card from my opponent’s discard pile and then one from the deck. This helps me a bit because then I don’t draw two really good cards (since I already drew one that my opponent threw away, though that’s highly subjective) and then have to choose which one of the cards in my hand to throw away. If I already have a garbage card in my hand, then I might draw two from the deck just to get rid of it. Just be mindful that doing this will make the game take longer, since you’re not depleting the deck as quickly.
- Create multiple paths. Not multiple paths of one color, but a core of a certain color or sub-paths within colors such that you can score on as many colors as possible, should you end up with them. There are plenty of times that players will end up collectively using all cards of a color, so if you have even a tiny path, you’ll score it (since a 0 from all players’ hands is a tie). Might as well do what you can to set yourself up for success.
- Know what to play and what to hold on to. Playing an 8 is a rough idea if you’re worried that your opponent has the 7 or the 6 of that color, but it’s not a good idea to hold on to it either if you know your opponent has the 1 (since that makes the 8 worthless). If you see every number played save for one, hold on to it — that might make all your opponent’s work worthless. If you see the 1 played, now you can hold the 8 since it’ll be worth 8 points towards control. If you see the 8 played, well, now you can play the 1 — it won’t help you much unless all of the other cards have been played. You need to be mindful of these pairings because (especially for large chains) you can’t afford to lose.
- High-value chains are great if you know that you can pull them off. If you’re going to do them, you really want to play at least four cards in the sequence and keep track of all the other cards in the game. Once you do that, though, your opponent is going to sit on high-value cards of that type, so maybe don’t commit to a color unless you’ve got at least the 6 and the 7, already? Otherwise you might set yourself up for a tragedy of, well, your own making. Which is rough.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the new art? I mean, Beth’s great, yes, but I think the new art is bright, crisp, and really nice to look at. The game looks very pleasant on the table, and it’s very eye-catching.
- Plays pretty quickly (at two). As I mentioned, I only played this at two because I just … didn’t want to play it at four, but I enjoyed how quickly it played. It’s not a terribly long game.
- Highly transportable. Another easy game to pop in the Quiver and take on a trip, which is nice.
- I really enjoy pathing mechanics in games. For me, there’s a lot of interesting strategy in making paths and trying to optimize them. It’s part of why I like games like Railroad Ink and Avenue so much, as well — it gives you a nice sense of accomplishment at the end of the game.
- The strategic challenges are really interesting to me. There are a lot of tradeoffs: do you risk making a path of one color? Do you play the 8 or the 1 or hold on to those? Do you try to keep an eye on what your opponent is throwing away? How often should you pull from the discard pile? I find all of these questions really interesting and the game presents a lot of good, fun challenges. It’s tough, but I enjoy it.
- Wouldn’t mind a smaller box. It’s essentially 80 cards, which could probably fit in a Coloretto-style box, but it’s in a box that’s closer to 3 – 4x that size. I get why box sizes are picked and how they influence sales (and the need to have a larger box for a larger scorepad is … a fine counterpoint), but I’d love a Travel Size Arboretum, even if it had tiny cards or something.
- This will bother some people, so I might as well mention it: in the first edition, “Arboretum” is misspelled on the backs of the cards. Honestly, if you don’t specifically look for it, you likely won’t notice it, but it seems like the kind of thing I’ll get some flak for if I don’t mention. Typos happen, and yes, this one’s not great, but it doesn’t really impact my enjoyment of the game any and I’m sure they’ll fix it for the next printing. So really, if you have the first edition, you have an even more special version from a certain point of view. Collecting sure is weird!
- You have to sort of internalize the game’s cruelty in order to do well. Make no mistake, this is the meanest game about trees that I’m currently aware of, and the dissonance between . If you wanna win, you’re going to have to work very hard to actively hurt your opponent, and all your work may prove to have been worthless by the end of the game. That’s going to put it in a class of games that a lot of people are not going to enjoy. You should be mindful of that before proposing that to someone, especially if they’re not much for mean games.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, Arboretum is a great two-player game! I mean, I like the theme and the art quite a bit, even if I think the game is a bit mean. The nice thing about mean games or aggressive games is that, at two players, they tend to mitigate it somewhat since you can’t really gang up on a player if it’s … just you. I’m not a huge fan of that, mechanically, and the potential is there in Arboretum (multiple players colluding to block one player), so I’m probably not going to explore much outside of the two-player range with this game. And I think that’s fine! Everyone’s got player count preferences for the games they play (for instance, I’ll never play Dominion at 5+) and I think that’s a good method of figuring out which games are right for which groups. That being said, I still have had a lot of fun with Arboretum, and if you’re looking for a great two-player game that you can take with you when you go somewhere, I’d highly recommend checking it out! Renegade’s update of this one is pretty great.