Garden Dice

[In this issue, we welcome Derek Croxton. Derek remembers when putting “dice” in a game title was only done sarcastically, as when referring to Avalon Hill’s War at Sea game as “Dice at Sea”. He got into the hobby via Dungeons & Dragons but quickly moved on to Titan and wargames. Like many gamers of a certain age, he has found his time too limited for many wargames but enjoys the lighter fare that has become available. He works as a software developer and still has one foot in his former profession of historian – his latest book is Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace. Derek’s other writing credits include bylines in the wargaming publication Fire & Movement. We are delighted to have him join the ranks of Gamers Alliance Report contributors as he shows off his green thumb.]

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Reviewed by: Derek Croxton

gardendiceboxGarden Dice is at the intersection of two gaming niches: family games and dice games. My wife loves to garden so the theme caught my attention immediately. On the other hand, I have seen some very bad dice games, so I was cautious.

Back in the mid-1990’s, when collectible card games were proving a quick way to riches, companies tried to cash in by making collectible dice games: most notably, Iron Crown produced Dicemaster and TSR created Dragon Dice. These didn’t gain much traction, however. A decade later, companies tried spinning every popular title off into card and dice versions. Thus, there are dice versions of Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Ra, even Coloretto, and, of course, the inevitable Munchkin dice game – the sure sign of a trend. The latest in the evolution of dice games seems to be stand-alone games, from pure dice games like Quarriors and Martian Dice to mixed dice and board games like Kingsburg and D-Day Dice.

Garden Dice definitely falls into the category of mixed dice and board games. In fact, although dice are a major element in the game, it isn’t such a dice-dominated game as one might expect from the title. It comes with only four dice and there are no re-rolls and no pushing-your-luck elements which are commonly staples of dice games. It is not, therefore, taking advantage of a trend (except perhaps in the title) but an original concept that was funded through Kickstarter.

Designer Doug Bass has done an excellent job with his first production. The box is solidly made and attractive to look at. The board portrays a fenced-in garden area divided into six rows and six columns, each identified by a picture of a die showing one to six pips. A scoring track from 1-100 goes around the outer edge, and a few stray illustrations add to the feel. The main pieces are tiles depicting a bag of seeds on one side and a fully-grown vegetable on the other. There are five types of vegetables, each with a number from 1 to 5 and a distinctive color on both sides of the tile to make them easy to sort.

gardendicepcsEach player gets a set of 9 round, wooden tokens to mark his score and the tiles he controls. The dice are by far the least interesting part of the production – four ordinary wooden dice with rounded corners. On your turn, you roll the four dice and use them to buy, plant, water, and harvest seeds and vegetables.

To buy a seed, you must use a die with a number equal to or greater than the seed’s number. Therefore, the seed numbered “1” can be bought by any die, while the one numbered “5” requires a 5 or a 6 to purchase. To plant a seed requires two dice, which correspond to the co-ordinates on the board where you will put it (reading the dice in either order, so a “2” and a “3” can be used to plant a seed on the 2nd row, 3rd column or the 3rd row, 2nd column). Watering and harvesting work just like purchasing: you need a die equal to or greater than the seed’s/vegetable’s number to undertake each action. When you harvest a vegetable, you score the number of points on the tile, so the most expensive ones, which are 5’s, are worth five times as much as the cheap 1’s.

So whoever rolls highest wins, right? Not necessarily. First, you score important bonuses at the end of the game for collecting sets of each vegetable (15 points for all five) or multiples of the same vegetable (10 points for three of the same, 15 for four, and 20 for five or more of the same). That means that you can score big points for the cheap vegetables if you can harvest enough of them, and, likewise, you get nice bonuses for getting a whole set.

gardendiceexampleWatering seeds has an interesting tactical element as well, because the water “flows downhill,” so to speak: all adjacent seeds with a lower number than the one you are watering also get watered. Therefore, if you water a 5 seed, any seed next to it that is less than 5 gets watered too. Moreover, this effect cascades: if a 4 gets watered because it is next to a 5, it will also water all seeds next to it that are numbered 3 or less. You can use this to your advantage to water several of your seeds at once. Of course, you can also take advantage ofsomeone else’s watering by placing your low-numbered seeds next to their higher numbers, in which case they will water your seeds for you – and get nothing in return. As seen in the example at right, if you water the artichoke marked with a red “O”, it will also water the seeds marked with a red “X”. Harvesting works the same basic way, except that you do score one point for helping someone harvest a vegetable – a small enough bonus for saving them the trouble of doing it.

You also have two special tiles that you can place on the board at any time using two dice for co-ordinates as usual. The sundial is a handy one because, once it is on the board, it allows you to modify your dice by up to two pips when placing a tile on the board. This can be very useful if you are trying to arrange a chain for watering and harvesting, for example. The other special tile is the bird. Unlike the sundial, it can use dice to move around the board in a restricted fashion, eating any seeds it lands on. This makes it your one opportunity to attack another player directly. However, it is not as simple as taking their seed off the board. You then have to either buy the seed yourself using another die, just as if it were coming from the bank, or you have to put another of your control tokens on the bird. This is important because you only have 8 control tokens, and once the game gets going you will normally use most of them. Having extra markers unused on the bird puts you at a significant disadvantage.

There are two defenses against birds. One is simply to water your seeds, because the bird won’t eat a vegetable once it has grown to full size. The second is to flip your sundial over to its scarecrow side, which requires using a die that rolled a “6.” The bird will not eat any seeds adjacent to the scarecrow. Moreover, the scarecrow gives a bonus of three victory points for each of the owner’s adjacent vegetables that are harvested, and this is an important factor in scoring. You can also use a “6” to flip the bird over, turning it into a rabbit. Rabbits eat vegetables (not seeds) and are not afraid of the scarecrow.

As should be clear by now, there are a lot of tradeoffs in Garden Dice. Rolling high numbers will get you high-valued seeds but you also have to balance using your “6’s” to flip the sundial to a scarecrow and back. There are also six spaces on the board, all on high numbers, that score double victory points, another factor to consider when using high rolls. Arranging your seeds so that you can water and harvest several of them with one die roll is an obvious strategy but it can be hard to get them to the right co-ordinates to do this, especially if you also want to get the advantage of the scarecrow’s bonus points.

Attacking other players is expensive. You have to use two dice to put the bird on the board, more dice to move it around, and you have to use “6’s” to flip it to the rabbit and back. Meanwhile, it takes up one of your control markers and you have to buy a tile even if you capture it. Is it worth it? Perhaps not, but the threat of a bird can also wreak havoc with your opponent’s tile placement as he may be forced to water seeds before he is ready or flip his sundial to a scarecrow when he doesn’t want to. In my limited experience, a crowded board, which is common with more players, makes it hard to use the animals successfully but they can definitely be a nuisance. You can also leave them out if you want to play a family-friendly game where no one’s feelings get hurt.

Garden Dice is not a long game but it does take an hour or more which may be more patience than some family members can muster if you’re going that route. The game ends when all the seeds run out so you could reduce game length by removing two or three of each seed type before beginning. Obviously, the large number of dice rolls mean that luck is a significant factor in the game but you have enough options that it should rarely be decisive by itself. The biggest frustration is likely to be the inability to roll a “6” when you need it to flip your sundial to a scarecrow which can be a crucial point in the game. Even rolling four dice, you could easily go three or four turns, or even more, without getting a “6”, which would probably have a bigger effect on your outcome than the cumulative sum of your dice. You do get a “sun” token that you can use once per game to set a single die to the roll of your choice or to re-roll all four dice once so that mitigates somewhat against this particular problem.

Garden Dice is a worthy addition to the recent spate of dice games. It offers a unique take on dice-driven gaming and has the additional merits of being well-produced, strongly-themed, and moving quickly. Garden Dice offers enough to challenge the serious gamer. In fact, it might appeal to serious gamers more than casual gamers who could be deterred by the game’s length and depth of strategy. Nevertheless, it is certainly simple enough that you can try it on kids and non-gamers; just don’t be fooled by the title into expecting something very quick and light.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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