Base price: $60.
2 – 4 players.
Play time: 60 – 75 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 10
Full disclosure: A review copy of Garden Story was provided by Flat River Games.
It’s been a frustrating week. You may be able to read about it patchwork-style in a few of my reviews, but I’ve been managing both sleeping real bad and a bout of pretty severe writer’s block, so of course, minutes before I go to bed, I finally get back into a groove with writing and now I have to choose between sleeping and finishing a review. I’m going to sleep, of course. Well, after I get this paragraph done. You know how it is. It’s a mostly-good choice, which feels fair. That and finishing up a few more rounds of Burgle Bros. with my friend, our evening ritual. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s focus on the task at hand, which is Bombyx’s Garden Nation! I’ve been really impressed with some of Bombyx’s latest offerings; Sea Salt & Paper is exceptional, and Look at the Stars is quite fun too! But those haven’t released in the States yet, so let’s check out this one!
In Garden Nation, players take on the role of various factions vying for control of the garden. You’d never imagine they were there, given how small they are, but they’re there. Some follow bugs, others the remnants of humanity, but they all have needs and wants, and a lot of what they want are small towns for their people to live in! You’ve mostly agreed to share custody of the Torticrane, a large tortoise that will build for you, but she wanders a bit, so you might have to deal with things not entirely being where you want. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Each turn, players choose to spend population to construct a floor on one of the seven subsections of the section of the garden where the Torticrane currently is. Whichever you choose, the Torticrane moves to the corresponding section of the garden for the next turn to be taken. Then, you get to choose which player goes next! As you build floors in various areas, you can complete public missions to earn points (and make secret progress along your private missions for even more). Just be careful! When you put a roof on a building (to score it for a public mission), it may not count for your private mission anymore! You’ll have to manage all of these things and keep your population ever-growing (by controlling sections of the garden) if you want your faction to be in charge. Which faction will end up in control of this great garden?
First, you gotta assemble the frame of the board:
Then, shuffle the territory tiles and place them within the frame so that they all fit.
The Objectives board gets placed to the right of the main board:
Shuffle the public projects and place four face-up on the board, placing the deck next to them on the board:
Place the bramble tokens nearby:
You should place the roofs near them:
Each player is going to take a player board, matching tokens, and floors based on the player count:
- 2 players: 20 floors
- 3 players: 17 floors
- 4 players: 14 floors
The first player is chosen randomly; give them the Torticrane:
Have them set their Population to 38. Everyone else starts at 35. Then, the first player places their player token on the first space of the turn track. Place all the score tokens on the 0 space. Finally, everyone gets private projects:
Deal each player four and let them keep two different ones. You should be ready to start!
Your goal in Garden Nation is to create a new city! Naturally, not everyone agrees with your vision, so you might have to bring them into the fold in a slightly more aggressive manner. Invasion is never out of the question. Each round takes place over three phases; let’s go through each!
To start, each player takes one or two actions, based on where they are on the turn track. Your actions are limited to the current location of the Torticrane, but the Torticrane moves to the territory tile that matches the location chosen during the previous action. If I take an action on the top-right space, the Torticrane moves to the top-right tile for the next action, and so on. Fun stuff. Your actions are as follows:
- Construct a Building: You can add a floor to any unoccupied area, but it must be filled with inhabitants! Decrease your population by the amount indicated on the space and place one of your floors on that location. Some areas are brambles, so building on them allows you to place a bramble token, making that space that color for the rest of the game!
- Add on to a Building: You can add to any floor of your previous building, but the cost goes up. To build the subsequent floor, you must spend population equal to the cost of the location plus one for each floor that currently exists.
- Abandon a Building: In the same way, you can get rid of a building! You do so by removing the floors from the location and gaining two times the total number of population spent on the entire building.
If you can’t perform or afford an action, and you don’t want to abandon a building, you may move to the next territory in numerical order until you can perform an action (or just pass your turn).
As you perform and complete actions, you might fulfill the public projects! In doing so, you can complete one by placing a roof on the last floor you placed. Then, take the project card and place it in front of you and score the indicated points. Then, reveal a new project card. You may only complete one project per turn. Buildings with a roof cannot be used for most private projects at the end of the game, though, so keep an eye on that!
Additionally, you can spend up to three Ploy Tokens over the course of the game on three possible things:
- Strategic Movement: This is probably the most complicated one, which tells you about how intense these are. Spend one of your Ploy Tokens to move the Torticrane to either the next or previous numbered territory in numerical order (7 wraps to 1 and vice-versa). Then you can take your action.
- Roof Transfer: This one’s not too bad. You can just move a roof from any of your buildings to any of your other buildings in the same territory.
- Building Invasion: This one’s pretty easy. You just choose a building on your territory tile and pay your opponent two times the number of inhabitants they spent on it. Now it’s your building. You have to have the population and the floors to pay for this.
After a player takes their action(s) (the first player only takes one action each round), they choose which player follows them in turn order. The final player will become the first player next round. Once all players have taken their actions, the next phase begins!
In the Territory Control phase, each territory is evaluated. The player with the most floors in that territory gains two population. If there’s a tie, all tied players gain one population.
Finally, the Preparation phase occurs. The final player to take actions becomes the first player to take an action next round.
If any player runs out of floors, the game is over! Finish the current round, and then proceed to the end of the game. Calculate points earned from private missions and any remaining population, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Functionally, you don’t see much happening in a two-player game that you don’t directly control or fight against. It’s wholly zero-sum, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews of similar games. Any territory you don’t control is usually controlled by your opponent, and your opponent takes a turn, then you take one, then they take one, then you take one, and the next round it’s the opposite order. It turns the game into a pretty solid abstract, I feel, since there’s often plenty of space for both of you anyways. With more players, things become a bit different. Now, you’re feeling the push and pull of not only more players vying for the same amount of space, but more players putting you in unique locations! Plus, there are some strategic changes to how you choose player order, since now you can pick the player who takes their turn after you. Keeps things pretty fresh, but very chaotic, as well. This again goes back to that classic tension between planning and chaos; if you want less chaos, go for two players; if you want more, go for three+. I’ve enjoyed both, though, so I don’t have a strong preference, here.
- I usually like to dump the Torticrane in an area controlled by another player and then let an entirely different player go next, to mess with the area control of it all. They usually have to put something in one of the spaces on that hex (unless they use a Ploy token to move it, sneaky), which puts them directly in the sights of another player. Now they’re fighting over territory, and usually both players forget that I was the one that set them up for that? At least, that’s what I hope happens. Otherwise they might both take it out on you. Area control is fickle, like that.
- Always keep your secret missions in mind. If you’re going after buildings of a certain height, for instance, try to make sure those buildings aren’t roofed and that you’re constantly making progress on them. They’re worth a lot of points at the end of the game if you play your cards right.
- Getting a bit of an early-game spread on territories can be handy, since you’ll get some population gain out of it in the long-term. You may not gain a lot, but even getting second place in most territories is +1 population in each of those territories, which can be helpful when you’re trying to build on expensive areas. At higher player counts, you might have to invest a bit more in getting a foothold in certain territories, unfortunately, but this is usually helpful in two-player games.
- You also may want to deconstruct buildings that aren’t useful for your secret missions before the end of the game; you’ll get a big population boost. You get 2x the population required to build a building if you deconstruct it, which might be really useful towards the end of the game! That can let you shoot up and focus on building the buildings you need (or it might just push you into the higher point-scoring echelons for population at the game’s end).
- I tend to build secret mission-relevant buildings on low-cost spots so that they cost less to build up. Ideally, I just kind of bust them out and keep going. That said, using the wild “you can make this space any color when you place on it first” space is often a helpful way to go after a quick public mission. Secret missions, I tend to go for the tall building ones, so I want to build on the cheapest spaces possible.
- Using your Ploy Tokens to your advantage is also always a good idea. They let you move around for free (always useful), steal a building (rude, but helpful in the right contexts), or move a roof from one building to another one of your buildings (a great way to free up a building for your secret missions). You don’t get many Ploy Tokens, but they’re pretty much always helpful if you use them right.
- Keep an eye on your population! Don’t let it get too low, especially towards the end of the game. If you let your population get too low, you’ll end up losing a chunk of points at the game’s end. It’s definitely a great feeling to finish the game with zero population, but losing that many points is probably not going to be an ideal outcome.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I do love a modular board. They’re fun to set up! Honestly, it was always one of my favorite things about CATAN. There’s often some debate in my circles about whether or not this makes a game “replayable”, these variable start conditions. Functionally, they don’t cause me to vary up my strategy a ton, so I’d probably lean no, in this instance, but I just think they’re neat.
- I like how your actions determine where you and your opponents play from next; it’s a fun bit of strategy. You can also use it to determine where you play next, allowing you to chain actions together (or forcing you to think about how to modify your actions so that you can stay in one high-value spot; up to you). Both are pretty entertaining, though. I think it adds a nice layer of geography to your strategy, as you play, so I find it pretty interesting.
- The somewhat-subdued color palette is pleasant; the art is nice as well. It feels like it fits with the characters and the overall narrative, plus it’s nice to look at. There’s a whole little world down there!
- I also like how the components look and work! They’re a very pleasant plastic. If I were into or better at painting minis, I would probably try to paint the Torticrane something nice. It’s an area I want to get into better. For those of you looking to get better at it, I’d recommend checking out JamieDaggers’s streams; that’s how I plan to learn.
- Each turn is relatively quick, which I appreciate. You just kind of place something, take something, or move something, and then you’re done. I think many abstracts benefit from relatively speedy play, especially since they allow players to then take the time that they need for relatively significant turns. Some turns are just more important!
- The Ploy tokens are also interesting. I always like ways to subvert the traditional pathways of a game (as long as they’re not interrupts that are used during another player’s turn). Here, they’re just nice alternative ways to structure some moves to give your strategy a bit of wiggle room, which is good.
- There’s a lot of strategy around population management, too. I appreciate that it’s essentially the currency used during the game (and that they clearly indicate on the board how many points you get for each tier of population at the end of the game). Figuring out what buildings to try and go for and what to sell before the end of the game adds a bit of resource management to the abstract strategy of it all.
- Another area control game that I enjoyed, which is nice given that it’s not my particularly favorite genre. I’m trying to like area control more, but it’s something that I routinely struggle with. I think it’s because it’s a very direct-competition genre, and I tend to prefer “we all do our own thing and, eventually, someone wins”. Drafting or deckbuilding are about the highest echelons of direct competition that I’ve been tolerating, lately. I just … like cooperation more.
- Calculating the territories (for population gain) can take a while. It’s the kind of thing (like calculating scoring in Evergreen) that makes me long for Board Game Arena’s automated processing of it. I think BGA is just making me lazier, though, so it’s hard to be more than mildly put out about it.
- While I do enjoy the lore of the game, having four huge pages of lore at the front of the rulebook gives the impression that the game is a bit more dense than it actually is. I was really worried when I first started reading this that it was going to take forever, only to find that the first big pages were all just lore-dumps about the characters. I love it, I really do, but put that at the end of the rulebook. Front-loading it just means that players have to flip through it to find reference information.
- It can be a bit annoying if the public missions don’t align with your secret ones. Naturally, it just means that you have to be a bit more flexible, but the game is significantly easier if you have a good overlap between your secret missions and the ones that are available on the table to all players. Sometimes there’s nothing for it, but that swing of luck can annoy some players.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Garden Nation is a pleasant abstract game! I’ve been really enjoying it on Board Game Arena, lately, though I do wish there was an undo button for all the times I misclick on my phone (it’s not optimized for thumbs, I think). Not as much of a problem in real life, but oh well. Garden Nation is a pretty solidly fun abstract that has you bouncing around the board building up various floors of buildings in different territories to achieve both private and public missions. It handles the abstract play nicely, layering on a fun theme of tiny folks trying to dominate the garden and a tortoise with a crane attached; all fun. Nice pieces and a modular board help, as well, since there’s almost no one right way to play any time you get to it, and with more players you get a clever turn ordering system where players choose the player who goes next. This lets you do the nasty business of moving into an area that your opponent controls and picking your other opponent to go next, forcing them to make moves against your common foe. That honestly makes the game feel a bit less hostile (plus, I haven’t seen any abstract as openly hostile as That Time You Killed Me in a while, so there’s definitely an intense end of the scale that Garden Nation does not hit). I like the theme and the art a lot, but I particularly like that element of movement, where building on or interacting with a small location forces the next player to move to choose a space within the matching large location. It reminds me a bit of a tic-tac-toe variant I played as a kid where each square was, itself, a tic-tac-toe game; playing in a sub-square would force your opponent to take a move in one of the sub-squares of the matching main square, and winning a sub-game would win the larger game for your X or O. It was interesting, and I think Garden Nation expands intelligently on that game for a compelling and strategic experience, adding some missions and ways to maneuver out of a sticky situation. Honestly, writing about it now just makes me want to play again. If you’re looking for a fun abstract strategy game with some area control elements, you just thematically jive with Pikmin and small creatures exploring gardens, or you just want to see a mini of a tortoise with a crane attached, I’d recommend trying out Garden Nation! It’s been a lot of fun to play.
If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!