Arboretum is a card game for 2–4 with a very peaceful theme: planting trees into your own Arboretum. The game looks serene, but do not be fooled. Arboretum is a real brain-burner, particularly when played with only two players.
The game includes the deck, which consists of 80 cards with 10 different trees that are each numbered 1 through 8. The Arboretum deck is probably the most beautiful deck of cards I have ever played with. The 10 different types of trees are absolutely stunning, and the card backs are very peaceful. In terms of cards themselves, you really can’t do better. The rules are short and there is a nice scoring pad that comes with the game.
The game has short rules, but I find teaching this game difficult. The way the game works is not very intuitive. How it is set up is very neat, but it has a much higher barrier for entry than would be anticipated. Players start with a hand of seven cards. On their turn, they must draw two cards, either from the discard of any player or the top of the draw pile. The player must then play one card into their arboretum, which is placed in front of the player, orthogonally adjacent to at least one other card played down. Once a card is played, it cannot be moved. After playing a card down, one card is discarded into a personal discard pile.
The goal of the game is to build paths in your Arboretum of the different trees. Think of a path as walking from one point to another in the arboretum. The patch must start and end with the same tree and must go up in numerical value. For example, there is a Maple Tree. A Maple path could be the Maple-2, Maple-3, Oak-5 and Maple-8. This would be a Maple path worth six points. Each card in the path is worth one point, and the 8 is worth two bonus points.
There is a catch though, and it is a huge one. You only get those six points if you have the most Maple points in your hand at the end of the game (ties are ok). So you need to hold onto Maple cards in reserve so you have the longest Maple path while playing Maple cards onto the board. This balance creates the tension in the game.
There are even more little rules, such as the 8 is worth nothing at the end of the game if someone is holding onto the 1. Score the 10 types of trees and add up the total and see who the winner is.
I really wanted to love Arboretum. The game is beautiful. Other people like games with Zombies and Superheroes and Monsters, I am drawn in by a game with a bunch of trees (look what my love of birdwatching has done to me). The ideas in this game are innovative, but I just don’t love the game.
For 2 players, the game is a complete brain-burner, using only six of the 10 types of trees. It is easily calculable and thus must be played as such. A little brain busting is good, but this much makes “analysis paralysis” inevitable with anyone taking the game seriously. I personally find it much too biting and harsh for two. Someone looking for an innovative, new game with this kind of mental strain may enjoy it more than I do.
I like the game much more as a 4-player endeavor. Still, it is hard for even experienced gamers to grasp at first. A filler-style game like this should not be this hard to teach to new players, but it is. Understanding how to place trees in the Arboretum is not as easy as people would anticipate. There is a spacial element, a hording, and a set collection element. Much of the time is spent figuring out what to discard, and how to discard things that help your opponents as little as possible while holding what is needed. It feels like building the Arboretum should be the bulk of the game, but it is not; instead the game most hinges on what piles are drawn from and what is discarded. Since that happens, it can make the game very analysis paralysis prone.
Arboretum is not a terrible game. Still, it faces hurdles that it ought not have. After defeating those hurdles, there is a decent game here. Some neat ideas are housed in Arboretum, but the execution is off. What cards to play seems obvious most of the time, and what to discard seems frustrating far too often. In the end, looking at the cards of Arboretum is more fun than playing, which just makes me sad.