Let’s all admit that the name Samurai Gardener is one that certainly draws the mind. It conjures up images of people fighting carnivorous plants with long katanas or perhaps defending their orchard from some particularly persistent scrumpers. Just me? Whatever the picture in your mind it is probably not that of an abstract tile laying game of ponds, paths and trees. Well more of a card laying game I guess, which is exactly what you are going to get in this small box of puzzles and odd thematic choices.
A coy by any other name
Consisting of a small deck of cards, a few tokens and a scoreboard there isn’t much to Samurai Gardner, but underneath it’s exterior lies an interesting little game of card laying and point scoring.
You start with a small patch of land, a single card, representing a 2 x 3 square part of the garden, and over the course of the game will be building rows of ponds, garden, paths and tatami (japanese mats). Each card you gain can only be placed vertically i.e. with the thin end pointing towards you. As you form rows you get to score points. longer rows scoring better, mostly, and multiple rows in a turn mean more points. So far, so tile layey.
The wrinkle comes with how often you can score a particular type of row. You have a record of what you scored in front of you in the form of 4 cards showing the different row types. When you score a row, turn the corresponding card facedown now you can’t score that row type again. You can turn it back up when each row type has been score, leading to you having to balance your garden, very zen.
Being a diligent gardener you of course don’t want to ruin any hard work you’ve already carried out, restricting your card placement from covering existing rows you have created. There is a really interesting little puzzle here balancing how to optimise the score in a given round, not stomp over your previous work and time what you are scoring and when.
Yes there is a but
Much as I like this game I was almost instantly put off it by the method of choosing a card for each round. Dealing out a number of cards equal to the number of players the starting player is meant to call ‘Ei’, ‘Ei’ and then everyone shouts, and the rulebook emphasises shouts, ‘Oh!’ and point to the card they want. Any ties are resolved by who got their first or whoever has more of their hand over the card.
This feels out of kilter with the rest of the game, and reminded me of recent controversies over the habit of ‘Banzai’ calls at the start of ‘Legend of the Five Rings’ card game tournaments, something that FFG thankfully addressed. This weird shouting at the start of the game does have the faint whiff of racism about it, and the people I played the game with were of the same opinion. I feel it also puts off people who might just not want people shouting at them over what is ostensibly a pretty abstract tile layer with a fairly zen like theme.
Thankfully there is a drafting variant at the back of the rulebook but this did highlight why I think they introduced the realtime choice thing in the main rules. Drafting massively slows down the game, and I was only playing with 3 for that particular playthrough. At 5 I can only imagine how long a round of choosing cards might take.
Cutting it down to size
Samurai Gardener is a perfectly functional tile layer and not a bad little puzzle but it just doesn’t have much life to it, no spirit. It never feels like you are building a garden, more that you are just matching the squares to score points. I prefer my tile layers to have a stronger theme like Suburbia, where you actually feel like you are creating a town, albeit a mostly awful one.
The theme in Samurai Gardener is totally pasted on so essentially what you have is an abstract with a not bad little puzzle as it’s engine that I did quite enjoy noodling out. As a compact tile layer I think it’s actually pretty good, it’s just a shame that my opinion of the game was soured by the weird choice of the designers on the card selection mechanic.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can make you choose one game over another, and with so many titles out there, you really have to consider all the angles when making design and publishing choices as just a slight misstep can see a game being overlooked in favour of another.
If you are after a compact tile, card, laying game then maybe Samurai Gardener will scratch that itch, but if you have room for something bigger I would plump for Patchwork or Suburbia over this, which although a bit of a bigger undertaking, are both far better games.