Herbaceous: Review

We’re starting to think about a category of reviews that involves games about food. Okay, not really, but they’re starting to make up a good percentage of the games Fairway gravitates toward. In today’s review, Fairway picks up the flavorful game, Herbaceous, a recent Kickstarter delivery from Eduardo Baraf.

Herbaceous is a one- to four-player set collection game designed by Steve Finn and featuring the beautiful illustrations of Beth Sobel. In the game, players are trying to gather herbs in particular ways in order to score the most points at the end of the game.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The game is beautifully illustrated with soft colors to match the herbs. The full-sized art on the cards is soothing.
  2. The mechanics are particularly simple that teaching the game is a no-brainer: two draws and two placements, then an opportunity to score a set.
  3. I categorize this game in the delightful, time-passer category.
  4. While the game is competitive, it’s in the category of the British Baking show: players can be as cut throat or passive as they want without affecting the game too much.

Game play ^

Herbaceous mostly consists of a deck of Herb cards: nine copies of seven different herbs. The game also has nine “special” herb cards which are numbered and used for special scoring. All of these herb cards are shuffled together, some number are removed from the game, and the remainder are placed face down in a draw pile.

At the start of the game, each is given four container cards. These cards represents the four main types of scoring opportunities: unique herbs, same kind of herbs, pairs of herbs, and any set.  During the game, players try to collect a set of herbs to fill these containers.  In all cases, the more cards in the set collected into the container, the more points its worth.

Starting with a first player, players take turns until either everyone has filled their containers or all the of the herb cards runs out. On their turn, players will first take two “draw and place” actions.  On the first draw, the player decides whether to place the drawn herb into his or her “private” garden or into the communal garden. On the second draw, the player will place the drawn herb into the other garden.  After placing both cards, the player then can plant herbs.

To plant herbs, players take as many cards as they can from their private and/or communal garden and place them into one of the currently empty containers following the rules for the container.  The more cards planted in a container, the more points the container is worth at the end of the game. As such, players typically delay their plant action, press their luck, until there’s a fair number of herbs available.

In addition, there are special herb cards in the game. These herb cards can only be planted in the “wild” container. The special herbs also earn you between one and three points each when planted. And if you’re the first player to plant one of each (i.e., a one, two, and three point special herb), you can collect the “Herb Biscuit” bonus.

At the end of the game, players count up their total score, plus any bonuses. The player with the most points wins.

On the green ^

The art. The art is the clear selling point here. While the game is fun, the aesthetics really sell the game. The soft, natural colors have a very soothing effect. Kudos for the art and art direction in this game.

Play time and teachability.  This game is readily teachable and takes only minutes to play. This means that even for players who didn’t catch onto the decision making in the early parts of the game, you can quickly play another game.  I don’t believe any of our games went over 20 minutes even with all four players.

Relaxing but engaging.  I put this in the time-passer category. The game is unlikely to draw much conflict, and you can somewhat thoughtlessly take your turns if you want. However, the mechanics mean you can’t completely check out and expect to win–it is helpful to know what cards might still be in the deck.

Portable.  The game is also wonderfully portable if you just bring the herb cards.   The other components (including the scoring containers) are nice, but not really necessary. Using just the deck, you can play this game just about anywhere you have a little table space.

Where it comes up short ^

Herbaceous is exactly as it’s billed: a simple, light game. Any concerns about the game reflect the fact that the basic mechanic of draw/place is almost entirely luck based. At lower player counts, like two, the harm is mostly mitigated by the likelihood you’ll get a card and that your placement and control matter. As you add players, it becomes a bit more chaotic: probabilities get wacky, other player choices impact the community garden more, etc.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In the hole ^

Herbaceous is a delightful little game that’s accompanied by really beautiful art. There’s a delicious mix of carefree game play and player engagement. Herbaceous also fills a bunch of niches: a game you can use to introduce new gamers, a game for those that tend to shy away from competitive games, a game for my “suggestion for new games to try with families” category, and games to play with mom. Herbaceous is definitely worth picking up if the theme and art appeal to you.

Herbaceous is in the hole for a birdie. ^

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