My wife and I have been busy with our back patio renovation all summer long, spending countless hours outdoors. In the scorching summer heat of south Louisiana, where humidity is so high that it instantly soaks our clothes, it’s been quite a challenging project. Some days, we make significant progress, while on others, we simply plant cucumber seeds in a planter or place a lemon tree in a flower pot. Surprisingly, during those moments, the suffocating heat seems to dissipate. Initially, I attributed this feeling to the relief that comes with completing a project stage, but playing Gartenbau made me reconsider.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of gardening, despite not being the best at it. During my childhood visits to my grandfather’s farm on the Mermantau River, I would wander around towering stalks of okra and chase mosquito hawks through beds of tomatoes and bell peppers. As a married adult, gardening has always played a small role in our lives. One summer, I even grew a plethora of peppers that took up a significant portion of our little box garden. However, my favorite area in our previous house, the one I dedicated the most effort to before moving to Lafayette, was our rose garden. Perhaps my last name, or simply the color, had something to do with my affinity for these beautiful flowers. Every year on my parents’ anniversary, my dad would gift my mom a bouquet of roses corresponding to the number of years they had been married. I remember running around Baton Rouge in search of the best deal for thirty roses on their thirtieth anniversary. Times were tough that year, so my mom cherished an extra silk flower my dad gave her, adding it to her collection as a symbol of their love.
When I received a review copy of Gartenbau from 25th Century Games, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, as I had played the game during its Kickstarter campaign. From a gameplay perspective, I knew that Gartenbau was a complex puzzle in which players navigate a rondel of seedlings and resources, strategically placing tiles in a Number 9 pattern and topping them off with beautiful flower tiles for maximum points.
But what about the opinions of my friends and players outside my usual gaming circle? I introduced the game to some friends at the recent ChuckCon and played it with my family as well. Spoiler alert, I loved the fact that designers David Abelson and Alex Johns managed to create a game that was both mentally challenging and accessible to all, allowing for enjoyable conversations while playing.
My experience at ChuckCon exceeded my expectations. Kelly, Steve, Nina, and I spent an hour marveling at the beautiful patterns on each other’s gardens, chatting about the fun events at the con, and solely focusing on our own boards. It was the perfect ending to my plays with Gartenbau, a relaxing yet stimulating pursuit of points using exquisitely illustrated tiles.
You already know Gartenbau’s elevator pitch, but let’s delve into some more details, starting with the stunning rondel. The board itself resembles a giant flower, with each petal housing a stack of seedlings. These double-ended seedlings, like dominos, feature six different seeds and correspond to plants stacked in descending order off the board (the top choice of each color being the easiest to build but scoring fewer points).
The turns in Gartenbau are simple and fluid. Players move their wheelbarrow meeples along the rondel, leaving behind resources if they skip a spot. Landing on a seedling space allows for juicy choices of seedling dominos and the opportunity to collect resources left behind by other players or replenish sunlight and water tokens. Moving to spaces between the seedlings enables players to pick up plant tiles matching the pattern in their garden.
Exposed plant tiles score points at the end of the game, but the real point bonanza comes from the four flower cards, either drafted or pre-assigned in beginner games. And here’s the twist, my fellow green thumbs, that sets Gartenbau apart. Each square flower tile must cover two flower dominos, matching the requirements on the card, and is worth a different amount of points. With the knowledge that all four tiles may not be completed, players must calculate which combination offers the easiest path to scoring the most points.
Yes, in some ways, Gartenbau is a standard efficiency puzzle. It’s a race to reach points A, B, C, and D before other players trigger the endgame by emptying the flower rondel stacks. However, the garden’s gradual expansion, with interlocking seedlings and layers of plants and flowers, creates a relaxing and visually pleasing experience.
Rediscovering Gartenbau since receiving the post-crowdfunding copy reminded me of playing Verdant, another plant-themed game, at BGG.Con. However, Verdant focuses solely on mental exertion, offering little opportunity for relaxed conversation (at least for someone as feeble-minded as myself). Gartenbau excels in both areas. It presents players with a definite challenge of efficiently reaching their goals, but the journey feels intuitive and less mentally taxing than in Verdant.
I do have one complaint, though. I understand the thematic reasons behind using beautifully hand-drawn versions of plants and seedlings. Admittedly, the layout looks gorgeous on the table. However, every group I’ve played with has remarked on the slight variances in color and appearance among some of the flowers. While easily distinguishable with close inspection, these subtleties are often missed during quick glances, which is unfortunate considering the game’s dynamic and fast-paced nature. I wish these differences had been better defined.
Nevertheless, that is my only grievance. I have thoroughly enjoyed every playthrough of Gartenbau. Unfortunately, my regular playing partners didn’t share the same enthusiasm for the theme or the gameplay pace. To paraphrase their sentiments, they found Gartenbau to be slow, like a leisurely August afternoon walking through a cow field to pick a bushel of snap beans.
Contrastingly, I witnessed Kelly and Steve thoroughly enjoying themselves during our play at ChuckCon. While contemplating whether to bring the game back to Louisiana with the hope of changing my wife’s mind, the decision became clear. I gifted Gartenbau to Kelly. She appreciates nature-themed games, loves showcasing beautiful games to her family and friends, and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of meeting the flower tile goals in her hand.
I won’t be playing my review copy of Gartenbau anymore, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I’ve planted the seeds of this beautiful puzzle in another garden. Let’s see what sprouts up next.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler.
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.