An Encounter with Arboretum: The Peace is a Lie
Out of all the games I've played over the last 5 years, only one game--Dan Cassar's Arboretum--has felt so equally maddening yet satisfying. Arboretum was originally published by Z-Man Games in 2015, but is now available from Renegade Game Studios.
If you saw in on the shelf, it's packaging, painted in elegant patterns and shapes in the softest hues, seems to make promises of a beautiful and serene gaming experience. Even the description on the back of the box uses flowery language and only gives a hint at the potential for conflict. It insists that you will "…create carefully planned paths for your visitors to walk as they take in the explosion of buds and leaves" ultimately to "…win the renown of nature enthusiasts everywhere."
The box contents are as simple and unassuming as you might expect from a card game about a path through nature. There is a rulebook, a scorepad, and 80 cards. The cards are broken down into 10 "suits" which are represented by different species of tree. Some are immediately recognizable (i.e. Maple, Oak), but others might require a quick Google search if you're not a botanist and also curious about the tree in real life (i.e. Jacaranda, Cassia). The art representing the trees is gorgeous and might be enough to satisfy your curiosity or tickle the nature enthusiast inside you. This is where the peacefulness ends.
With seven cards already in hand, each turn requires you to draw two cards, play one, and discard another. You're creating a grid of cards in front of you with no restriction in their placement, instead using the scoring guidelines to make decisions on how to build your pathways of numbered trees.
The conflict starts early in the game. With so many options and a nearly empty table in front of you, the first few turns can be internally grueling. You want to set yourself up for success but not reveal too much about your plans for the future. Then very quickly a new problem is introduced. Now that you can see what the other players are building in front of them, you feel the need to hold onto cards that might be valuable to them. In just a few turns, a hand size that initially felt like an abundance now feels like a burden. You're now struggling to keep all the cards that would benefit and putting in just as much effort to avoid giving up cards that would help your opponents. This goes on until the deck is diminished. That this point you proceed to scoring, which is where you learn how much you despise everyone else at the table. In the last four player game of Arboretum that I played, two of the players ended the game with ZERO points and I'm not even sure if that is an uncommon outcome.
Needless to say, those fantasies of pleasantness dissolve shortly after opening the game box. I don't mean that in a negative way at all, only to suggest that Arboretum is not for the faint of heart. Each time you are successful in winning (or even scoring) it can feel like a tie-breaking goal in the World Cup. A strategy that you developed and executed expertly over the course of a 30 minute game can be one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have gaming, but if you find yourself on the other end of the spectrum then a table flip at the edge of your subconscious is almost expected.
Omari Akil is a writer, game designer, co-founder of Board Game Brothas and former education tech wrangler. He spends most of his time making games and working to foster more inclusive and inviting gaming communities in New Orleans, LA and Durham, NC. Occasionally, he can also be found dancing like nobody is watching, most often in very colorful sneakers.