The Chinese Emperor gave the Japanese Emperor a giant panda as a gift of peace, but the court is far from peaceful. They’ve been tasked with caring for the giant panda, but it keeps eating all of the precious bamboo in the Emperor’s bamboo garden! It’s best to keep the panda happy though, since it is a symbol of peace.
Tile Placement, Set Collection
Number of Players
Takenoko doesn’t have much down time since each player only does two quick actions per turn.
How Does it Play
Takenoko is a gorgeous game that’s extremely easy to learn, which is always a great combo for newcomers or younger gamers. There are only five actions to choose from each turn, which cuts down on the analysis paralysis new gamers often get when there are just too many options to choose from.
Each turn, players will choose two actions out of the five available actions to do. These two actions must be unique instead of doing the same thing twice.
Drawing plot tiles is the most common action in the beginning of the game. Without tiles, the bamboo garden can’t grow after-all. You can only play one plot tile for your action, but you get to draw 3 of them which allows you to find the color you want easier. Plot tiles must be placed either adjacent to the beginning pond tile or adjacent to two other tiles.
Plants need water to grow, so the plot tiles must be irrigated if you’re planning on growing bamboo there. All of the tiles adjacent to the starting pond are automatically irrigated and will grow bamboo right away, but that only works for a few tiles. To irrigate tiles farther away from the pond, you will have to take an irrigation channel as one of your actions. These irrigation channels send water from the starting pond in a continuous line to other tiles. The first time a tile is irrigated, a section of bamboo will automatically grow. My favorite part about irrigation channels is that when you take them, you don’t need to automatically place them. Instead you could put them in your reserve to use later, without spending another action to put them out on the board.
Once a plot tile is irrigated, the gardener can finally start working his magic and grow beautiful bamboo the same color as the tiles. The gardener can move as many tiles as you want, but must move in a straight line and can’t hop over empty spaces. He’ll grow one section of bamboo on the tile he ends his movement on, but he’ll also grow a section of bamboo on all adjacent tiles of the same color if they’re irrigated. If the gardener ends his movement on a tile that isn’t irrigated, no bamboo will grow on that tile, but it will still grow on all adjacent tiles of the same color if they’re irrigated. This is a great way to get around the fact that the gardener can only move in a straight line. It also shows why irrigation is so important.
Sadly, the gardener doesn’t usually have time to admire the bamboo he’s grown since soon the panda will come along to gobble it all up. Just like the gardener, the panda has to move in a straight line and can’t hop over empty spaces. If there’s bamboo where he ends up, he eats the top section, which gets put on the player’s board for scoring objectives.
The last action available is drawing objective cards, which is how you win the game. The objective cards are sorted by type (panda, gardener, and plot tiles) so you can choose what play style you’re going for. You can only have up to 5 incomplete objective cards at a time and you can’t discard any of them, so the luck of the draw can be a bit annoying if you happen to draw a few difficult ones all at the same time. There is also an optional advanced rule that states you have to draw a new objective if the one you drew is already complete.
Plot objectives are often the most difficult to complete since the tiles not only have to be in a specific arrangement pictured on the card, but they must also all be irrigated to score the points. This can take a long time if the tiles are far away from the starting pond tile, so they tend to be the least chosen objective card type. The best time to take these objectives is in the beginning of the game when players are often putting tiles out every turn to expand the board, plus that’s when the tiles will be closest to the starting pond for irrigation purposes. They’re also good objectives to take towards the end of the game in the hopes that you’ll draw an objective that’s already been completed. More often than not, you’ll draw an objective card with a tile arrangement that’s almost on the board, but one tile is in slightly the wrong position so you’ll have to draw more tiles to complete it.
Gardener objectives require you to grow a certain color of bamboo to a specific height. For example, some objectives want you to grow two different pink bamboo stalks three sections high. The fact that the bamboo is shared by all players instead of you owning specific stalks can help or hurt you depending on how the other players are changing its height. Sometimes the other players will unknowingly grow the colors you need to the exact height you want, but other times they’ll grow them too tall. The most troublesome aspect of gardener objectives is when the other players keep sending the panda to eat your bamboo right when you almost had it at the right height! They don’t know what your objectives are, but some players are very good at guessing based on how you react to things. Since it’s inevitable that players will be growing bamboo, it’s best to keep one or two gardener objectives in your hand.
The panda objectives seem to get taken the most, especially in two player games. All you have to do is send the panda to eat the bamboo colors on the objective card. Once you have them all on your player board, you can discard them to score the points. Panda objectives are best to take if you know other players took a lot of gardener objectives. If that’s the case, you know you’ll get food for your panda (hopefully in the right color) and you could prevent them from scoring points by continually eating the bamboo they’re trying to grow. This is often called the panda eating strategy, but it doesn’t work as well with more than two players. One downside to the panda objectives is that they always take multiple actions on your part to complete since you usually can only eat one piece of bamboo per turn, at most two pieces, but the objective cards often require three pieces. That’s one small reason the gardener/plot tile objectives can be a little nicer since the other players could potentially finish your entire objective without you taking many actions.
One thing to keep in mind with objectives is that Takenoko doesn’t have an equal number of plot tiles and bamboo in each color. There are actually more green tiles/bamboo than yellow and more yellow tiles/bamboo than pink. Due to this color rarity, the green objective cards are always worth less than the yellow, which are worth less than the pink cards. For example, green objective cards for tiles/bamboo growing are always two points less than the same card in pink because it will be slightly more difficult to complete the pink objectives.
There’s one more element to Takenoko that I haven’t touched on yet: the weather dice. Just like gardening in the real world, your bamboo garden in Takenoko will also be at the whim of mother nature in the form of a random dice roll at the beginning of each turn. Unlike other games, the randomness of the dice doesn’t affect you too much though since each side has a beneficial bonus action on it. There are generally still results you’d prefer to get, but it doesn’t usually ruin your turn if you don’t roll them.
Rolling the sun allows you to take a third action of your choice, but it still has to be different than your other two actions for that turn.
Rolling the rain symbol allows you to place a bamboo section on one irrigated tile of your choice. This is really helpful since you could grow bamboo on a spot the gardener wouldn’t be able to reach on your turn. It’s also interesting since it lets you take two of the same action in a way, by letting you grow bamboo from rain as well as growing bamboo using the gardener.
Rolling the wind symbol is the only way to take two identical actions. My favorite use for this identical action is moving the gardener or the panda twice in an L shape to get them into a better position, which is often difficult since they move in straight lines. The biggest disadvantage of this roll is that you still only get two total actions for the turn, but all the other dice rolls give you a bonus action while still allowing you to take your two normal actions.
Rolling the lightning storm always makes me feel bad, since the panda gets terrified and runs away. You’ll get to put the panda on any plot you want though and if there’s bamboo growing there, the panda will eat one section to calm down. This is another roll that allows you to have a duplicate action if you want by eating bamboo to calm the panda down as well as choosing to move the panda as your normal action. Plus, you’d still have one normal action left to take, unlike the wind weather condition explained above.
Rolling the cloud symbol lets the player take any improvement chip they want and either play it automatically or keep it in reserve to use later. Improvement chips are small tokens that you can put on a tile for different abilities, but only one improvement can be on a tile. Some gardener objectives require specific improvement symbols on the plot tile, so it’s often good to keep one of each in your reserve in case you need it. Sometimes I’ve gone an entire game without rolling the wind symbol to get improvement chips, but thankfully many of the plot tiles have the same improvement symbols on them by default so you can still complete the scoring objectives that require them. Your odds of finding the symbol you need on a tile increase since the other players will often be drawing tiles as well.
The improvement chip that usually gets taken first is the watershed since you can put that improvement on any tile and it will be irrigated, even if it’s not touching any of the irrigation channels. This is more helpful than you’d think since it takes a long time to irrigate tiles far away from the starting pond tile.
Another really helpful improvement chip is the fertilizer, which makes two sections of bamboo grow on that tile every single time bamboo grows there. This can be extremely useful, but it also makes growing bamboo to 3 high difficult. You’ll have to use the panda to trim them down a bit if that’s the case. He’d be happy to oblige, though.
The last improvement chip is an enclosure, which prevents the panda from eating bamboo on that tile for the rest of the game. Usually I only play this if one of my scoring objectives requires it, but once in a while it’s a good prevention technique if the other players are eating a lot of one color. The down-side is, you’ll probably need that color too at some point.
The final side of the weather dice is a question mark, which lets you choose any side of the weather dice you want to use. This is the best roll when it comes to planning, but it’s a little bit overpowered since you’re turning what should be a random outcome into whatever suits you best.
The weather dice gives another reason why the plot tile objective cards are the least chosen, since they’re the only objective type that doesn’t get a benefit from the weather dice. The panda objectives get a bonus if you roll lightning and the gardener gets a bonus if you roll rain, but nothing helps the plot tile except the double action, which then limits you to only two actions.
Takenoko ends when one player completes the required number of objectives, which varies depending on how many players there are. That player gets the Emperor card, which grants bonus points, and then all the other players get one final round. This final round is where the optional advanced rule of forcing players to draw a different objective if the one they drew was already completed really comes into play. I’ve played multiple games where last ditch efforts for points have actually changed who was going to win the game by players drawing already completed objectives in the final round.
There are two different strategic play styles for ending the game. The first is for a player to keep their completed objectives in their hand to lull the other players into a false assumption that there’s a lot of game time left. This can be a big shock when that player suddenly triggers the final round and the other players didn’t have enough time to finish their plans. I feel a bit cheated whenever this happens, but that’s why it’s a good strategy to take people by surprise. This is best done with plot tile objective cards since those tiles won’t move around or panda objectives since once you eat the bamboo, nobody can take it away. The other players would notice you stockpiling bamboo on your card though. The gardener objectives are incredibly risky to keep in your hand once you complete them because the bamboo needs to be the exact height on the card when you play it. Too often somebody will change the height of a bamboo stalk and the objective that was complete, won’t be anymore.
The other play style is to rush to the end as fast as possible, which usually means playing the lowest point objective cards since they’re the easiest to complete. By doing this, you could get all of your objectives done before the players trying to complete high point objectives get many done. Playing low point cards is a risk, but can work out well if you get them all done fast enough to end the game before anyone else gets good momentum.
Takenoko has very little complexity. The five actions you can do a turn are very straightforward and it’s almost difficult to have a terrible turn since no matter what action you choose, it can benefit you somehow. That makes it an ideal game for new gamers since even if they’re not sure what’s happening the first few rounds, as long as they’re doing their two actions they won’t get too far behind. Some games don’t have that forgiveness in the beginning and if you don’t do the right thing, you’ll be annoyed by it the rest of the game.
The tiles have a good weight to them and the artwork varies slightly from tile to tile which makes the overall garden look amazing.
The bamboo sections look great, plus they go together easily and stand well. There are some sections that are bases, but the rest are interchangeable. Once in a while some of the pieces feel very difficult to put together, so I just tend to grab a different bamboo section when that happens.
The irrigation channels are probably the most boring looking aspect of Takenoko. They just remind me of roads in Settlers of Catan instead of water channels.
The gardener and panda both look fantastic. An interesting note is that I’ve played different editions of Takenoko and these minis have looked different depending on which version I’m using. For example, one panda is a lot blockier looking than the other.
The objective cards are a little bit flimsy, I’ve already accidentally torn one or two from normal use.
The weather dice is made of wood which I think fits the Takenoko theme better than if it had been plastic.
The improvement chips are good quality and a nice size in comparison to the tiles.
The player boards are extremely helpful rule reminders for new players. Almost all of the main rules are easily pictured directly on the player board as well as places to put some of the tokens you receive throughout the game. There are wooden action markers you can use to keep track of your actions, but since a turn is so simple I don’t often use them.
The box fits all of the components nicely with specialized segments for each individual game piece.
The theme is very strong in Takenoko. Not only does the bamboo garden look amazing when it’s done, but since it’s a calm zen style game even the players attitudes usually fit the theme. I think the frantic feeling of the gardener running around trying to grow bamboo before the panda eats it all comes through very well, too.
The game mechanics don’t change at all from game to game, but it’s always nice to have a solid casual game to play. It’s easy to get people to at least try Takenoko so it’s often brought to the table for casual gamers.
My favorite part of Takenoko is definitely watching the bamboo garden grow. It looks so fantastic once there are lots of different heights and different colored bamboo on the board. If you’re a visual person, Takenoko is basically board game eye candy.
Least Favorite Part
The objective cards don’t seem balanced. The plot tile objectives are rarely worth all the effort it takes to complete them since they’re not worth more points than the other two types. Some of the gardener objectives are really time consuming and difficult as well. On the other hand, the panda cards are all the same easy level and it doesn’t take long to notice that. We’ve actually run out of panda objective cards in a few games while almost the entire stack of plot tile objective cards was still there.
Games Like Takenoko
Carcassonne is another game that ends with a really cool looking board made of tiles. It’s got a lot more direct player interaction than Takenoko though so doesn’t always have the same calm atmosphere.
Ticket to Ride has secret objectives just like Takenoko does and it’s an easy to learn game.
Takenoko only has one expansion, called Takenoko Chibis, but it looks like it adds a lot of variety to the game. One really interesting aspect of this expansion is that some of the plot tiles can grow more than one color of bamboo. Plus, you get another panda!
The Bottom Line
Takenoko is a gorgeous game that’s become one of my top three choices for getting people who have never played games into the hobby. It’s simple and avoids any analysis paralysis new players often feel with too many rules. It’s a little too simple for some experienced gamers so I’m hoping that the expansion will add some necessary variety and strategic options.
This section is for confusing rules. Basically, if I had to look a strange rule up, I’d rather make it easier on anyone reading this and list it here. I apologize if I’m wrong on any of them, please feel free to correct me.
Do both actions need to be chosen at the same time: From the FAQ, “The two actions are chosen sequentially. This means that if a player choses to draw a new objective card, he can look at it before deciding what his second action will be.”
Plot Tile Objective: To score a plot objective card, all of the plots must be irrigated. This rule is easier to miss in older versions of the game that don’t have a drop of water pictured on each plot on the objective cards.
Weather Dice: “Weather comes into play during the second round of play. In the first round, players ignore this step and proceed directly to the next.”
Ignoring the Weather Dice: In the rulebook, I noticed that the sections for wind, rain, and storm use words like “can” or “may”, indicating that they might not be mandatory even if you roll those weather conditions. On the other hand, the sun, clouds, and question mark sections use words like “gain”, “choose”, and “gets” which all sound a lot more mandatory. According to the official FAQ, all the weather dice results are optional. “A player never has to apply the effect of the weather dice, he can decide to ignore it.”
Improvement Chips: “Improvements can only be added to plots where bamboo has not yet grown (this means plots which were just placed, plots which are not irrigated, and plots where the Panda has just eaten everything!)”
Irrigating off a Watershed Improvement: “A watershed cannot under any circumstances be used as the beginning of a new irrigation system.”
Can the panda/gardener stay where they are: “To benefit from their action (Gardener or Panda), a player must move them at least one space.”
Plot Tiles: Just a note, the rules differ on where to put the two tiles you don’t choose when you draw three tiles as an action. One version says to put them on the top of the tiles and the other version says to put them on the bottom. It makes more sense to me to place the tiles on the bottom otherwise you could keep getting stuck with the same few tiles that nobody wants.