Saturday, July 22, 2017

GJJG Game Reviews - Herbaceous - by Pencil First Games

Designers: Steve Finn,
Eduardo Baraf, Keith Matejka
Publisher: Pencil First Games
1-4p | 15-20m | 8+
GJJG Game Reviews - Herbaceous - by Pencil First Games

One hobby that my wife and I have is gardening.  Maybe I should say 'had' though.  As our boys have gotten older and more involved in extracurricular activities, and homeschooling them has gotten more time consuming, gardening has taken a bit of a backseat (and the sorry state of our garden is the result).  Fortunately they're very interested in gaming and my involvement in the hobby has grown immensely in the last few years.  But I still miss my time gardening and enjoy the little time I get to spend outside, even if it's just pulling weeds or mowing the lawn.  Fortunately there's Herbaceous, which let's us scratch that gardening itch without all the sweat and dirt.

Herbaceous is a quick filler for one to four players from Steve Finn (Biblios, The Butterfly Garden) and Eduardo Baraf (Gempacked Cards, The Siblings Trouble), both very well known for their quick, family friendly games.  Herbaceous even has a solo variant designed by Keith Matejka (Roll Player, Bullfrogs).  But the star of the game is the gorgeous artwork by Beth Sobel.  As in all of her artwork, the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous.

So, we know the game looks great, and had some great names attached to it.  Does it stand up to expectations?  Read on to learn more.

Game Overview:
Herbaceous is a pretty simple game to learn.  There are really only two steps on each turn: Pot and Plant.  The idea of the game is that you're planting an herb garden and then potting those herbs for use in your kitchen once they're growing in your garden.  Each player will have their own garden, plus a community garden that everyone has access to, and four pots that they'll eventually fill with herbs from the gardens to score points.
Fill your containers with herbs from your garden to score points.
On your turn you'll have the option to pot your herbs before planting.  I'll cover this step more in a bit.  Then you get to plant.  When planting herbs you'll draw two cards, one at a time. For each card you'll need to decide to either plant it in your own garden or the community garden.  One card has to go in each garden, so if you place the first in your garden the second must go in the community garden.  Placing an herb in a garden means you just place the card face-up in the appropriate location.  That's it!
You'll have a private garden, public garden, and your containers to collect herbs in. 
After a few rounds you'll decide that you want to start your turn by potting some of the herbs that are growing in the gardens.  Each of your four pots has a different requirement for scoring.  The purple pot requires one card of each different type of basic herb (there are seven different basic herbs).  The blue pot requires all of just one type of herb.  The black pot requires matching pairs of herbs.  The green pot takes up to three of any type of herb, but this is the only pot where the special herbs (there are three of those, but they're more rare than the other herbs) can be potted.  The special herbs also give bonus points, and the first player to pot all three of them in their green pot earns an herb biscuit bonus of five points.  Each pot scores you more points the more you fill it, but once you put stuff in a pot you can't go back and add to it.  When you choose to pot, you can take herbs from both your garden and the community garden.
Once you add stuff to a container you can't add anything more.
The game plays until everyone has potted their herbs, or until the deck runs out.  This is usually after about 20 minutes, so you can play several games in a short time!

Components & Packaging:
Even though Herbaceous is just a card game, the components are all top notch.  Everything from the linen embossed quality cards to the super thick box with UV spot varnish is premium.  Thanks to the very successful Kickstarter, there are even garden markers for each player to designate their own garden area and a great insert to keep everything nice and organized.  The markers have no real purpose in the game, but are a great, thematic way for each player to identify their own garden area.
The box, insert, and component quality is excellent! 
What really stands out about every aspect of Herbaceous, though, is the artwork.  Even if the game components were of the lowest quality, Beth Sobel's artwork would still make Herbaceous a stunningly beautiful game.  With Beth's artwork on top notch components, Herbaceous is probably my most beautiful small box game.  This is artwork that any gardener would love to have framed on her (or his) kitchen wall.  Beth has been creating some of the most gorgeous artwork in board games today (Between Two Cities, Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, The Last Garden, Viticulture, etc.) and Herbaceous owes as much to her as it does to the designers.  It's her artwork that really makes Herbaceous a joy to play.
Every single piece of artwork is DELICIOUS!
The only thing that might make these components better would be scratch-n-sniff! 
Score: 10/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Rules and setup are a breeze.  Herbaceous only takes about 20 minutes to play, so quick setup and learning are essential.  Setup consists of passing out four pot cards and a garden marker to each player (a reference card, too) and then shuffling the herb cards.  Depending on the number of players, you'll also need to remove some of the herb cards from play.  If you're playing with the flavor pack mini-expansion, you'll also shuffle two of the three spices into the deck.
All set up and ready to start playing.
I pretty much covered all the rules in my overview above.  So it's super fast to teach Herbaceous.  You can be up and playing with new players in less than five minutes!  If you're playing with the Flavor pack, when a spice card comes up, everyone does what it says, then you continue on with your turn.

Score: 9/10 x2

Both Steve Finn and Ed Baraf are known for designing fun, light games that are great filler and family games, and Herbaceous may be the best yet from either of them.  Dr. Finn is probably most well known for Biblios, a great casual game of set collection, press-your-luck, bluffing, and bidding.  Herbaceous borrows quite a bit from Biblios, particularly that game's initial phase of collecting and distributing cards.  In fact, when I first described the gameplay oh Herbaceous to my wife her response was "that sounds like Biblios light", and it sort of is.  Herbaceous takes the collecting mechanics of Biblios and makes that the entire game.  This is great news for anyone who doesn't like the bidding phase of Biblios (like my wife).  That said, Herbaceous is definitely not just a rethemed, lighter Biblios.

For all that Herbaceous shares with Biblios, there are a few features that really set it apart.  Both games have a similar press-your-luck mechanic where you draw a card, decide where to put it, then draw again, but in Herbaceous you are only drawing two cards per turn, so the feel is different.  The press-your-luck element doesn't feel quite so stressful, especially since the card you didn't take will go into the community garden, so there's a chance you'll still get to grab it if it's the card you need.
Cards added to the community garden are still available for your use, until someone else grabs them. 
The set collection is also much more straightforward in Herbaceous.  Since all gardens are publicly visible, the decision of what to keep and what to put in the community garden is fairly strategic at times.  You know what everyone is collecting, so you can make decisions based on known info.  In Biblios the sets everyone are collecting are much more secretive, especially since some sets may get dumped during the auction phase, and you never see what someone takes, only what they offer up publicly.  Herbaceous is both more friendly and occasionally more cutthroat because of this public information.
You can see who is collecting what, and set scores are very clear, so sometimes you'll
take a card you don't want just so someone else can't get it.
My wife enjoyed Herbaceous a lot more than Biblios and everyone else I played with had a great time, too.  Turns move quickly, so there is very little downtime.  The hardest decision is when to pot your herbs, but since that happens at the beginning of your turn it's something you can be thinking about and planning between turns.  At least until the player before you pots some herbs and uses those plants from the community garden you were planning to snag.
Building a set and scoring some points!
Also available for Herbaceous is the three-card mini-expansion called the Flavor Pack.  If you choose to use these, two of the three are shuffled into the deck.  When they come up they 'spice' things up a bit.  Each spice has an effect that affects all players.  This might allow players to steal herbs from a neighbor, add something to an already potted set, or take an herb from the community garden.  These do exactly what their name implies.  They don't change the game drastically, just spice it up a bit.  Unfortunately the flavor pack isn't available in retail copies of Herbaceous, but if you really want the cards, keep an eye on the next Pencil First Games or Dr. Finn Games Kickstarter to grab a set.
The flavor pack is very flavorful!
One other thing worth mentioning is that Herbaceous has a solo variant as well.  The solo variant was designed by Keith Matejka, of Roll Player and Bullfrogs fame.  I found the solo game to be very light.  It's more of a snack than a savory meal.  Play is very similar to the standard game, except you start with half the deck and on each turn you put one card in your garden, one in the community garden, and one gets discarded from the game.  Whenever the community garden fills up to five cards they're all discarded from the game, which does provide some tension and forces you to make some critical decisions.  However, with so many cards removed from the deck I felt that there was way too much luck in the solo variant.  Mechanically it worked, but I felt like my success was based more on chance than skill.  So while I love Keith's games, and I think Herbaceous makes a great multiplayer game, as a solo game it felt a bit bland.  I won't knock the score though, because the game is really meant to be multiplayer, and that's where it is most delectable.
While still fun, the solo variant felt like just a diversion, not a full game. 
There is also a team variant, however I didn't get a chance to try that out.  In team play players draw three cards each turn, one for their garden, one for the community garden, and one for their partner's garden.  Team scores are summed at the end to determine the winning team.  Expert team variants include limiting tabletalk and having the team only score the lower teammate's points.

Score: 9/10 x3

Herbaceous plays very quickly, especially after you have a couple of plays under your belt.  You can knock out a game in under 30 minutes pretty easily, and even under 20 minutes sometimes.  It's a great game to introduce to new players, warm up with at game night, as a filler, on your lunch break, or just to play whenever you have a few minutes.  Setup is quick, cleanup is fast, and it looks gorgeous!  Herbaceous is definitely a game that'll hit the table quite often if you like quick fillers.
Fortunately if you don't get the herb biscuit at first you can play another game!
Unlimited herb biscuits... I wish life was really like that!
Score: 8/10 x1

General Fun:
Everything about Herbaceous is fun!  From the beautiful, thematic artwork to the tight mechanics, Herbaceous does everything right.  It offers a game that is light enough to allow for social conversations, but strategic enough that it doesn't just play itself.  You can play this with non-gamers and have a great, casual time, and you can play it with seasoned gamers and have a great, cutthroat time!  I've had a blast with everyone I've played with, from family to gamers, kids to adults.
Filling up your containers with savory herbs is a ton of fun! 
Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
Herbaceous has a $25 MSRP, but you can find it for about $22 on Amazon and other online retailers.  For a game that is essentially a large deck of cards, that may sound a bit high, but the component quality, gameplay mechanics, and box size all feel right for that price.  Considering that four people going to a movie for two hours is about $50, you'll definitely get more entertainment than that from Herbaceous.  It's well worth $20-$25 for such a beautiful, fun game.
For $25 or less you can get cards that are almost worth framing!
Score: 8/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
When I first saw Herbaceous I was drawn in by the artwork, but after reading about the mechanics I wondered how similar it would be to Biblios.  I didn't back the Kickstarter because of this concern.  My gaming budget is limited and I thought I didn't need another game just like Biblios in my collection.  But when the opportunity to review Herbaceous came up I jumped at the chance.  I'm thrilled that I did!  Herbaceous definitely stands out as a unique game, even though it shares some mechanics with Biblios.
I could sit and stare at these cards all day...  Except I'd get hungry and have to search down an herb biscuit...
 The more I play Herbaceous the more I like it.  Each game is different, and timing when you pot your herbs is critical.  I like the open information and interaction that the community garden promotes.  I like the swiftness of play and how games can be casual or very competitive depending on who you play with.  I absolutely LOVE the artwork!  I really can't think of anything that I don't like about the game.  If you want a quick game that you can play with just about anyone, grab a copy of Herbaceous now!
These special herbs get you some bonus points if you have them in your glass jar.
 Overall Score: 87/100

Want another opinion?  Herbaceous was also reviewed by Dane on the Everything Board Games Network!  Check out his review here!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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