The Origin Story of Pandakai - Takenoko Review!

If you've read my recent ManorCon report, you'll have already grabbed my first impressions, but due to the ease of getting this game to the table, it's been a doddle to get this review out nice and quick. I've been keen to try Takenoko out for a long, long time, but I didn't know many people who owned it and so getting a run-through was proving difficult. Thankfully two saviours came to my aid (thanks to Mark Haywood and Cal O'Dowd for the opportunity) at ManorCon to put this gaming itch to rest.

Why was Takenoko such a high priority target though for me? Well other than the colourful aesthetics and panda miniature, this game had the potential to fit a space in my collection that was running a little low on choices, that being a gateway game (excluding micro games) that wasn't a co-op. Naturally I find co-op's to be the best gateway game choices because the other player doesn't feel like they're at a disadvantage. But for conflict titles I only really have Survive, Sheriff of Nottingham and Catan and the first of those can be too mean for some. So I needed something fresh and friendly to appeal to the non-gamer masses.

So was this the perfect game to meet my criteria or was the cute panda a giant bait and switch?



Designer: Antoine Bauza (2011)
Publisher: Asmodee / Matagot
No of Players: 2-4
Ages: 8+
BGG Rank/Rating: 165 / 7.36


Trees.....Beaches.....Bam...Boo!


The premise of Takenoko is best represented by the comic strip inside the rulebook. The Chinese Emperor has a large garden which grows a wide selection of bamboo plants, maintained by the one and only Gardener. However the Emperor has now received a present - a large panda bear that he lets roam around in his garden. Unfortunately the panda has a particularly large appetite for bamboo much to the annoyance of the Gardener.

And so players will build the garden with tiles while controlling the Gardener and Panda both to grow and eat bamboo plants. There are objective cards for growing bamboo of varying heights, eating certain colours and laying out the garden in a particular fashion, which will score points upon completion and the weather can change giving players additional options on their turn.

The concept is a simple one and the rulebook does a great job of explaining the rules while being very colourful and interesting to read. The comic strip is a neat little addition to show the setting upon which Takenoko is based and they even give you the English translation of the word "Takenoko" which essentially means "bamboo shoot" - yeah you can see why they went with Takenoko! One read of this book and you can teach this game to people in less than 5-10 minutes.


This Panda Doesn't Do Kung-Fu


Eyes will always peer over your shoulder to check this game out when you're playing it and when you open the box and set it up you can see why immediately. The component quality goes above and beyond what I would expect a gateway game to have especially for a fairly low price point (£25-£30) with nice colourful, wooden bamboo pieces that fit together and high quality tiles and cards.

But the real stars of the show are the two miniatures, one for the Gardener and one for the Panda. These are fantastic little models, fully painted to a good standard and they steal the spotlight from everything else. The publisher could have easily replaced these and the bamboo pieces with tiles or tokens to keep costs down, but going for the final result was a sound decision. I find it difficult to not make noises when moving the models about, smiling all the way and then doing "om nom nom" sounds for the panda eating bamboo. It's silly fun and you just don't care.

And all of the above gives the game it's relaxing charm. You almost feel like you're going through a Zen enlightenment journey as all stress and hardship is purged from your system when faced with such colourful asthetics and a smiling panda. Of course if you don't like pandas, then that's another story, but how can you not like a cute cuddly bear? In case you didn't notice bears are one of my favourite animals!

There is of course a little tension between turns when you're crossing your fingers that an opponent doesn't chew on your precious bamboo tree or scare the panda away, but it's so mild that you're not going to stress yourself out and any time your plans do get foiled, you're probably laughing it off making up amusing reasons why the panda did what it did. Some games just bring out the roleplay and sense of humour in players (Sheriff of Nottingham for example) and this is one of them for me.


Meeting The Objectives


Downtime is kept to a minimum in Takenoko with turns taking very little time to process (roll a die, take 2/3 actions out of a choice of 5) and as such the estimated game length of 45-60 minutes is accurate even with a full complement of players. In fact I would go as far as to say that 60 minutes is a cautious worst case scenario as I've yet to take this long in any game played so far with 4 players. As the rules are straightforward and the graphic design is clear and concise, this can be picked up by non gamers and children alike without difficulty making it ideal for families. The cap at 4 players restricts it a little, but adding more may simply make the game a little too chaotic while extending the time beyond the acceptable boundary. And even though the game works fine as a two player, the full potential isn't really realised without multiple players.

With multiple ways to earn points, the question of balance is brought to attention. You can earn points from laying a pattern of tiles, eating specific bamboo pieces and growing bamboo trees to various lengths. The points earned vary depending on the difficulty of the card, although one or two minor issues have arisen. A couple of Gardener cards despite being worth 8 points (highest available) are notoriously difficult to achieve and tile objectives depend heavily on whether your opponents are also grabbing tiles as your patterns can get messed up if you're not careful. That being said, there is plenty of variation in the objectives in each pile and the tile issue can be mitigated.

For example if you need a specific layout, you should be focusing your turns on grabbing new tiles and using any "wind" effect on the weather die (use the same action twice) to spam the action. With the wild die face there is a 1 in 3 chance of achieving this and if you're spamming tiles, opponents will likely focus on other actions while you get the board set up for them so the issue as stated is relatively minor. Call that a free strategy tip from me! So for the most part, the balance is fairly strong and in my two victories to date I had a balance of objectives achieved. After all focusing on only one type means your actions are limited and thus your turns might not be efficient.

One caveat I would make however is that you should always play with the advanced variant rule. Advanced is a bit of a misrepresentation here, it simply means that when you draw an objective card, if it's one that you already meet the conditions for, you must discard it and draw a new one. Playing by the normal rules means that sometimes a player can get lucky with "instant objectives" particularly with the garden tile objectives in the late game.



Verdict

The two best words I can use to describe Takenoko are "relaxing" and "charming". It's difficult to think of anything to dislike about the game even though it's not the best one in existence, but it's just so soothing when you play it. Even with the tension of hoping the other players don't mess up your plans it doesn't feel like a stressful game at all and everyone just feels at peace when playing around with the gardener and panda miniatures. These combined with the wooden bamboo pieces and solid tiles result in one of the best set of components I've seen in any gateway game to date.

Takenoko is a perfect way to wind down after a long evening of gaming or to act as a quick filler between meatier ventures. It's a solid choice for anyone looking to acquire a gateway game to teach to new players as the rules are simple and tie into what's going on nicely. In fact I enjoyed the game so much after trying it at ManorCon that I bought my copy there and then and it's already become a hit with my new converts.

And with the prospect of the upcoming Chibi expansion introducing a female panda, I can see the jokes writing themselves. It took me a long, long time to find someone to try this out with, but it was definitely worth the wait and it's now currently plugging up that aforementioned gap in my gateway game collection.


You Will Like This Game If:

You want a simple, fun game to bring new gamers into the hobby.

You want to play this with children - the rules are not complex and the colourful aesthetics will appeal to them.

You like pandas. Come on, how can you not like the miniature panda in this game?


You Will Not Like This Game If:

You are looking for something heavier - it's a simple, light filler game with choices, but not much strategic depth.

You are keeping the player count at 2 - it's fine with two players, but I think its full potential is with more.

You don't use the advanced variant rule - players getting lucky with draws might irritate some people.

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