So, the Chinese emperor has kindly given you, the Japanese emperor, a giant panda, and you need to keep it fed constantly. The board game Takenoko sets up this unusual and pleasantly ridiculous scenario for a game where you build the board as you go. The instruction booklet sets out the scenario as a comic strip - this is bound to be one slightly surreal game to play.
Each player is given three objective cards. Purple cards challenge you to eat certain combinations of bamboo, which you do by moving the panda to appropriate tiles. Blue cards require you to establish a particular pattern of irrigated tiles. Red cards give configurations of bamboo towers you need to build. Each objective carries a number of points. Depending on how many people are playing the game you have a different number of objectives to complete to win (7-9).
You start off with the gardener and the panda both on the pond tile. You're aiming to build plots with tiles, irrigate them, grow bamboo on them and then probably eat it. After all, you wouldn't want your panda to die of starvation; they are an endangered species. There are three colours of tiles (pink, yellow and green, with green being most common). Correspondingly there are three colours of bamboo, and any given plot tile can grow a tower of up to four bits of bamboo.
The panda and gardener stranded on the pond and ready to play
On each turn a player can make two of five moves. They can move the panda to eat some bamboo, move the gardener to grow some, draw a new objective card (maximum five in hand allowed), take an irrigation channel, or draw three tiles (unseen) and place one on the table (where it has to be next to either the pond or two other tiles).
This series of moves is complicated by the dice roll at the start. Six weather conditions govern extra or different actions you can take. Lightning allows you to move the panda anywhere to eat more bamboo. Cloud means you can take an 'improvement' card which might help you achieve an objective. Wind means you can take two identical actions instead of two different ones. Sunshine means you can take three actions, but they all need to be different. Rain allows you to grow bamboo on any irrigated plot tile. One wild card question mark allows you to choose the conditions you want. It's useful to have sunshine initially, as the extra turns get the game going. Later on, rain helps grow more bamboo to eat, lightning allows you to eat it, and cloud can speed up growing bamboo (with fertiliser) or get you out of a long irrigation wait with a water hut. There is one final improvement, which is to stop any of the bamboo being eaten on that tile. This could be used to defend towers you're trying to build, or as part of an objective you've been set.
Once someone has achieved the set number of objectives, they claim the green emperor card, worth another two points. Everyone else gets one more turn, then the points of the declared objectives are added up. So, you might be the first to complete your objectives, but you might still lose on points. The game requires a level of strategic insight to choose the right objectives to play. Too many hard ones, and you'll never complete enough to win, but too many easy ones and you won't have enough points to win.
The game is recommended for age 8 plus, and it could be used with such an age group, but it can become quite complex with its phased turns. You have to tune in to the other player, so it is quite collaborative. Estimated play time is 45 minutes. Once you're used to it, this is a reasonable estimate. It is relatively complicated to learn given all the different elements of a turn (only a basic set of rules is explained here), but it is good fun to play. More creative than many standard empire building games, it also has the kitsch cartoon element which will appeal to all ages. French-made, and Japanese-themed, this well-produced game is definitely worth a try. It scores moderately on board game discussion sites, but they might be being hyper-critical when a bit of good fun is needed.