Full disclosure: A review copy of Vadoran Gardens was provided by The City of Games.
I’m a sucker for games with good art and / or cute animals (see: the entire Dale of Merchants series). Naturally, the cover of Vadoran Gardens caught my eye right away, to say nothing of it being a neat little tile-laying game (technically, since the tiles are cards, but again I’m not really here to make pedantic distinctions). It’s part of the City of Kings universe, which I haven’t played, but, I’m sure the lore isn’t going to be totally dependent on that.
So, in Vadoran Gardens, you play as acolytes vying to become next High Priestess of, well, the Vadoran Gardens. Naturally, this means that you have a wealth of tasks set before you as you create paths through this environment (and some studying to do, because there’s never a bad time to learn). Will you be able to master the final 10 (or so) lessons and prove that you are fit to lead? Or will your ambitions (and your studies) be held back?
Surprisingly not much to do, here. Shuffle the Lesson Cards:
Reveal two; place one below the other. This will define your card rows. Deal 8 more into a stack above the top one; that’s the Lesson Deck for this game. Now, shuffle each set of achievements and reveal them:
They can go to the left of the Lesson Cards. Between them, shuffle the Pathway Cards and place the deck in the middle:
Deal each player two, and then put two + the number of players Pathway Cards in each row.
Set aside the Lost Items:
And give each player four player tokens:
Determine a player order and have each player place their token on a card in the top row of their choice; once you’ve done that, you’re ready to go!
So, the game is played over 10(ish) rounds. In each round, well, it plays similar to Kingdomino. You place cards, build up your area, and ultimately score points at the end of the game. Unlike Kingdomino, you can also score Achievements and take Lost Items back to where they should go for bonus points. Once the game ends, the player with the most points wins!
Turns progress from the leftmost player token in the current row to the rightmost. Take your token, take the card below it and add it to your hand, and then place your token on a new card in the other row.
Now, with the cards in your hand, place a card according to the rules of the Lesson Card. Usually, that means one of a few things:
- The Pathway Card you play must have one of the pictured signs.
- The Pathway Card you play must overlap another card from your hand. Since you’re playing two, draw a card from the deck at the end of your turn.
- Add a Lesson Card to the deck and play an extra round. Nice thing is that you can play any card you want, this turn.
- Flip the Pathway Card you’re playing upside-down. That’s always a fun one; keeps things fresh.
There are also basic rules that apply to playing any Pathway Card:
- You must overlap the right column of the last Pathway Card you played. Your new card goes on top of the old one.
- You may shift your new card vertically, but your total Pathway area cannot exceed 5 rows. A single card is 3 rows, for the record.
- The Pathway Card must be played with the Lesson Icons on top. No rotating or flipping unless the Lesson Card makes you do so.
Beyond that, knock yourself out. If, after playing your card, you have completed an Achievement, place one of your player tokens on the highest available space (without any other player’s token) on the card. You’ll gain that many bonus points, and now you know why you have four player tokens. Even if you cover that space later, you still have earned the achievement. You can only get each achievement once, though.
If you play a card with a Lost Item token (without a 5 on it), take the corresponding token from the Supply. Even if you cover that space later, you still keep the token. If you play a card with a corresponding space with a 5 on it (and that’s still visible by the game’s end), you will score a bonus 5 points.
Once all players have played, slide the cards in the current row as far left as you can, and then refill the Pathway Card slots from the deck. Flip a new Lesson Card on top of the old one for that row, and play the next round using the other row of Pathway Cards. Like I said, similar to Kingdomino.
Play continues until the Lesson Card deck is depleted; that means you have one more round. After that, scoring begins. You’ll add points as follows:
- Scoring Areas: Any group of orthogonally contiguous tiles of the same color with at least three tasks scores one point for each tile in that group. If there’s a tile with a “7” on it connected to that group, score an additional 7 points, but only if that group scores.
- Achievements: Score the value of the achievement each of your player tokens is on.
- Lost Items: For every “5” space on your board, the corresponding Lost Item token is worth 5 points.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not really much of them until you hit four players. At four, well, there are only three slots on the Achievement Card, so it’s “likely” that one player is going to be disappointed. The thing about that is, well, there will probably be enough contention over cards that I would be astonished if three players even scored the same Achievement. I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m not terribly worried. This does mean that scores will also skew a bit lower as players will likely diversify (to avoid getting crucial cards taken by competing players). Personally, I’ve enjoyed it at 2 and 3, so that’s my recommendation for this one. Your mileage may vary, though.
- Go for the high-scoring achievement. Generally speaking, Achievements let you double-down on already highly-successful areas; you can score those areas and then leverage them to get 10+ extra points on an achievement, provided you get the right cards. Just make sure you actually can get the achievement; this might require you to snoop on other player’s Pathways, occasionally. You don’t want them beating you to your first one.
- Plan ahead. You can see what the next lessons are going to be; make sure that you’re taking cards proactively to be ready for them. If you can’t play a card, you don’t play a card. That’s pretty much the worst possible outcome, so you need to make sure that doesn’t happen. This also means having sets of cards prepped in case you hit any of those double-up Lesson Cards.
- 7s are great if you can get them, but don’t bend over backwards. I generally try to play one in the early game if I can get the right cards, otherwise I just kind of extend whatever I’m already doing and forget about it. It’s almost impossible to do anything but start a Pathway with a 7 (unless you get one of the Flip 180 Lesson Cards), so I occasionally go for them if I’m trying to go after a new Achievement (and a new Pathway).
- Cover up Lost Item Spaces, if you can. They’re not doing a ton for you once you get the token, so don’t feel bad about having to dump them. Just try to avoid covering up their point-scoring counterparts; that’s less of a good idea, in my opinion.
- Covering up other spots is fine, once you’ve scored the Achievement. You only need them for as long as it takes to get that Achievement; once you’ve done that, you can put whatever you want down. That’s usually when I switch over to another type of Pathway, personally.
- Diversify, a bit. I don’t think it’s necessarily good to have only one big Pathway of one type (unlike Kingdomino, where it rules). You can only score each Achievement once, so once you’ve got it, like I said, switch over to something else. Even scoring 3rd place on an Achievement is free points (and your tile grouping likely will still score). Plus, this helps you overcome unfortunate draws on previous turns (if your opponents decide to hate-draft you a bit).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art’s really nice. It’s bright, vibrant, detailed, and colorful, and that’s just the box lid; the cards are really nice as well. It’s a very nice game to look at and play, and I appreciate that.
- Generally a big fan of tile-laying. Again, in this case, it’s card-laying, but with the same practical rules, so I’m pretty into it. Always happy to see new variants on it. I do think this game is sort of situated between Kingdomino and Queendomino (I should really publish that review) in my mind, in terms of weight (and roughly how much I enjoyed them).
- The limits on how you can place cards does heavily reduce analysis paralysis. There aren’t a ton of options on your turn, so players aren’t agonizing quite as much.
- I appreciate the variable setups. The achievements and the starting cards do give players a variety of options, and the per-round limits / variations on what cards can be played are a smart way to switch things up without making the game feel too random or arbitrary. Overall, it feels like a pretty smart design, which I appreciate, especially given how compact it is.
- The box isn’t a super convenient size. Uniquely-sized boxes are always a challenge. At least the insert is good, though; if it were both things, well, it’d be On Tour.
- I feel like it takes a game or two to “get”. At least, it did for my game group. That’s fine, generally speaking; just worth mentioning.
- I’m not a huge fan of “random card can add an extra round to the game”. Especially because there’s more than one, meaning the game length can randomly extend more than 20% on the whims of card draws. Thankfully, you get some advance notice, but I think I’d just as soon make those cards just “play anything you want” rather than “add another round to the game and play anything you want”.
- Also don’t love the rulebook. Key Concepts being situated between setup and how do I play this game kind of breaks the pacing, for me. I basically always want to know what to do on my turn as quickly as possible, especially given that I’m explaining this game to new players all the time.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Vadoran Gardens is a solid little game! Like I’ve said, a bunch, it definitely occupies a similar space to the Kingdomino / Queendomino family, but I think I’d put it in between those two. It’s a bit more complex than Kingdomino, since there’s a directionality to the pieces (but it adds an Achievement system that I wish Kingdomino had [it’s similar to the expansion, to be fair]), but it doesn’t have the “ever so slightly too much” that Queendomino has. That said, I tend towards lighter games, so that should give you a pretty good idea where the needle is on this one, for me. Beyond that, I think it’s a smart design, with constraints designed to both challenge players and reduce analysis paralysis (which is always good) and increase play-to-play variety. While randomly extending the game length is annoying, it’s … not the worst thing in the world, especially for players that desperately need one more turn. Either way, if you’re looking for a relatively quick and light card-laying game (or you’re really into fantasy garden construction), I’ve enjoyed Vadoran Gardens; maybe you will, too!