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Review: Arboretum

Length 30 minutes

Release Date 2015 (New version in 2018)

Designer: Dan Cassar
Artist: Beth Sobel
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Category: Tile-Laying
Players: 2-4
Price: $20.00 Amazon.com

Arboretum is a card game of sequence-building, in which players each create a grid of cards, optimized to score points. The gameplay is easy to understand, but its clever scoring system makes it a challenging puzzle. It is a great family game with a surprisingly deep strategy.

Review

I was very pleased to learn that Renegade Game Studios was reprinting Arboretum. The first edition of this little card game came and went in a flash, quickly demanding exorbitant aftermarket prices. Following Renegade’s recent reprint of Byzanz, another out-of-print card game I really enjoyed, I was ecstatic to try Arboretum.

I’m happy to say it lived up to the hype.

Arboretum is actually more of a tile-laying game than a card game—it just so happens that the “tiles” are actually cards instead of, well, tiles. So maybe it’s a “card-laying” game. Whatever, I digress.

Like any good game in the genre, this one has a strong emphasis on spatial strategy. The goal of the game is to get the most points, and this is accomplished by arranging cards to form orthogonal “paths” of trees. The deck features 10 species of trees (basically, 10 card suits) in values of 1-8. Depending upon the number of players, some species may be removed for scaling purposes.

Each player begins with a hand of 7 cards, and leaves room for their own personal discard pile. The rest of the deck begins in the middle. A starting hand might look something like this:

Arboretum‘s turn sequence is about as simple as it gets:

  • Draw 2 cards
  • Play 1 card
  • Discard 1 card

That’s it. Cards can be drawn either from the deck or from any player’s discard pile. As they get played, everyone forms their own, individual tableaus. Once a player has placed her first tree, all subsequent trees must be played adjacent to an existing one, either above, below, or next to it. Essentially, each tableau is just a grid of cards. The strategy (and boy, is there strategy) lies in the way the points are tallied at the end.

Arboretum has a very clever scoring system: each color is scored individually, but only the player with highest sum of that color still in her hand gets to score it. This means that even if a player has an amazing arrangement of a particular color on the table, if she does not have other cards of that color left in her hand, she will likely score nothing for it.

If that sounds nasty, it’s because it is. And I LOVE it.

This game has an agonizing push-and-pull. The desire to optimize one’s tableau is directly at odds with the need to save cards in hand to ensure that the tableau actually scores. That, right there, is game design brilliance.

Another interesting facet of scoring is that if a player has the 1 still in her hand and an opponent has the 8, the 8 does not count toward determining which player gets to score. As an example:

Here, players are determining who gets to score for purple. To do so, they each look at the sum of the purple cards remaining in their hands; the player with the higher total earns the right to score. In this example, the player with the 8 seems to have the higher sum, but since an opponent has the 1, the 8 is not counted (the totals are essentially 6-0 instead of 6-8). Had the 8 been a 7 instead, however, its owner would have earned the right to score, since the totals would have been 6-7.

When the draw pile is empty, the game ends and players tally up their scores one color at a time. For each color, players first determine who has the highest-value set of cards still in hand—this is the player that gets to score. If multiple players tie, all tied players get to score the color.

To determine the points, the scoring player looks at her longest path of the color. Here are criteria for a valid path:

  • A path must start and end with the current color
  • The path must be orthogonally adjacent from start to finish
  • Each successive card in the path must be higher in value than the card before it

An example will be helpful here:

The above tableau has 3 valid paths:

  • The Jacaranda trees (purple) connect along the middle row, with the sequence 2-4-5-6-7.
  • The Willow trees (green) connect via the sequence 3-4-5-6-8. (Note that either the orange or the pink 6 could work in the sequence.)
  • The Maple trees (orange) connect using the sequence 1-2-4-5-6. (The green 3 could also be used in place of the purple 2, to make the still-valid sequence 1-3-4-5-6.)

The scores are determined as follows:

  • 1 point per card in the path
  • 1 additional point per card if the path is at least 4 cards long and all the same type
  • 1 additional point if the path begins with “1”
  • 2 additional points if the path ends with “8”

I realize that my verbose description makes Arboretum sound very dense, but it’s really, really not. This game is simple, yet extraordinarily thought-provoking. Keeping an eagle-eye on what opponents are doing is critical to the strategy, and that, mixed with a heavy dose of planning and risk-taking, is a recipe for a standout game.

Since any player can draw cards from any discard pile, what players throw away is just as important as what they keep and what they play. If a player is working on a sequence of red cards, for instance, her opponents will want to make sure they are not discarding red cards that she can then pick up and use. (If you have played the classic Lost Cities, you will understand why it’s important not to discard cards your opponent wants.)

The turn sequence is as basic as it gets, but as soon as the game begins, everyone will realize just how much there is to consider. To that end, I’ll admit that Arboretum can slow down a bit with analysis-paralysis-prone players; it just depends on the group.

Can we just take a moment to appreciate this artwork?

This game has a slight multiplayer-solitaire vibe, but it includes some indirect interaction as players must consider (and try to foil) their opponents’ objectives. It can be a bit nasty, though not in the Ameritrashy, “I’m attacking you” sense. It’s mean in the sense that everyone is trying to edge out competitors in an all-or-nothing cold war.

Arboretum‘s production is gorgeous, with lovely illustrations from the singularly-talented Beth Sobel. The strategy is multi-layered, and it leaves players wanting to try it again immediately. With a quick play time and a simple ruleset, this is a big game in a small box. It seamlessly mixes strategy and tactics, asking players to roll with the turn-by-turn punches while simultaneously planning long-term.

Arboretum is not a heavy game, but it kind of feels like one. It is one of Renegade’s stronger offerings, and I highly encourage you to check it out.

A review copy was provided by Renegade Game Studios.

The Bottom Line

Arboretum is a very clever card game. It is neither complex nor heavy, but it feels like a "full" game experience. Highly recommended.

 

8.7