Arboretum: A (literally) lovely card game

Dan Cassar’s game Arboretum from Renegade Games is downright lovely.  The illustrations by Beth Sobel are beautiful, the game is simple to learn but complex in a way that makes you want to play it again and again. Honestly Arboretum is not new, but there’s a reprint coming out this month if you can’t snag a copy at your local game store.

How to Play Arboretum

Arboretum is a card game where players are creating a grid of cards in front of them that will be their arboretum and at the end you’ll (hopefully) be scoring pathways of trees.  Everyone starts with 7 cards in their hand and the rest of the deck is a draw pile (how classic!). On your turn you:

  1. Draw 2 cards, either from the draw deck or any of the discard piles (everyone will have their own)
  2. Play 1 card to your arboretum grid
  3. Discard 1 card to your discard pile

arboretum maple cardHow easy is that??  Draw-Play-Discard. The play is really a walk in the woods (I couldn’t help myself, sorry).  The complexity comes in with the scoring.  First thing you have to know is that in each “suit” of trees the cards are numbered from 1-8 and only the person with the highest total of a particular tree is going to score that tree type in their arboretum.  Well, not totally true, if there’s a tie both people will score but that’s not very common, and if no one has ANY of a particular tree type in their hand, everyone scores.  But this “highest only scores” rule is the crux of the game. It doesn’t matter what kind of amazing you’ve created in your arboretum unless you can score it. And it’s a great way for other players to stop someone else from scoring — but you only can keep 7 cards in your hand,  so it’s a delicate balance of scoring and blocking.  Oh and you think holding that 8 is going to help?  That’s one of the twists in the game.  If you are holding the 8 of a particular tree in your hand and your opponent has the 1, your 8 is suddenly worth ZERO.  Ouch.

Arboretum Scoring Sample Path with same start and end card

Now that we know who is going to score each particular type of tree, let’s talk about how they score.  Contrary to what you might think, if you have earned the right to score a particular type of tree, not all of the trees in the path are going to have to be the same.  You just need to start with the specific tree type and then create a path going orthogonally adjacent (not diagonal, only up, down, sideways) in which each card’s value is higher than the last (consecutive not required) and it end with the specific tree type.  So as you can see in the example above, you start and end with the specific tree type but the trees in the middle can be any species. You’ll score 1-point for each card in the path, a 1-point bonus for a 1, a 2-point bonus for an 8, and a 1-point bonus for each card if the path is at least 4 cards long and all of the same species.  Cards may be used in more than one path (thank goodness!), and once all species have been scored, whoever has the highest score is the winner!  A tie is broken by the player with the most species of trees in their arboretum because.. it’s pretty.

My Thoughts

Arboretum has on my “to buy” list for quite some time and I impulsively dropped a copy in my cart recently and finally brought it home.  I’m guessing it was the fact that Chicago has been looking quite like the Arctic for the better part of a month now and I needed some colorful trees in my life, but whatever the reason, I’m glad it’s in my collection.  For me, the first play through was definitely learning some strategy of the game.  It’s not that the game is difficult to play, but it was finding that balance between what to hold, how many to hold and what to play and what to discard. It’s like we were all baby deer wandering through the forest looking a bit awkward, but by the second game we were much surer on our feet.

If you’re the kind of person who plays cards regularly and pays attention to what has been discarded you’ll likely do better at Arboretum than some of your friends.  To really find that balance of what to hold in your hand, you’re going to need to know about how many points are left of each tree type.  You play through the whole deck so the majority of the cards will either be played or discard, therefore the only mystery at the end is who is holding which cards.  Still that doesn’t mean that you don’t regret that card you tossed out way earlier in the game.  Overall, I enjoyed it.  I grew up playing cards with my family so this is totally in my wheelhouse and it’s really a nice bonus that it’s PRETTY.

Arboretum Stats:

$20 at Amazon or local game retailers
2-4 players
~30 minutes
Ages 8+ (there’s no reading but the scoring and strategy are a bit more complex)

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