|Cottage Garden (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.89]
The more games I see iterating upon the idea of constrained polyomino placement the more I come to believe the idea is an evolutionary dead-end for game design. There’s a certain amount of basic satisfaction that comes from the task itself – it is inherently enjoyable to take a difficult shape and place it in a coherent way within a fixed grid. It’s like deck-building, or action selection – you get a kind of baseline fun from that mechanic regardless of the game you build around it. Increasingly though it seems every variation of this particular system is just an inferior, flabbier knock-off of a better game. Nobody is getting any closer to beating Patchwork – every game just gets farther and farther away and Cottage Garden is no exception.
It’s a good game. It’s a satisfying game. And it’s not a game I will ever choose to play over Patchwork because every new mechanism within the box is just added cruft. It makes the game different, but it doesn’t make the game better. It’s a sequel, really – it’s by the same designer, and the DNA of the original is threaded all the way through like flecks of gold in a fancy cocktail.
Like many sequels though it suffers in the comparison because certainly in the modern era sequels tend to be bigger, louder and more action packed. They feel the need to be more than what came before, but sometimes that’s the wrong direction to go. Sometimes what you want is to strip away rather than strap on. I like The Empire Strikes Back better than A New Hope in part because the malevolence of the Empire takes on a far more personalised and intimate character. The second Hunger Games movie was hugely effective because of how it narrowed the focus not onto the dystopian action but the consequence of that action. The second Godfather movie is the best because it tells a story of cycles of corruption that inform and reinforce each other. All of these sequels refine the stories of the original rather than simply expand upon them. None of these movies would have been improved by the addition of more spectacle, or just more things happening. A sequel should enrich and refine. Cottage Garden does neither.
Where Patchwork has its ever-revolving circle of cloth pieces, Cottage Garden has the nursery – a four by four grid of polyominos around which a gardener die orbits like a watchful babysitter. Every turn, a player takes one of these weirdly shaped flower planters from the appropriate row or column, and places it on one the two garden plots arrayed in front of them. These plots are peppered with flower-pots, each of which are worth a red point, and cloches which are worth a blue point. You can cover any of these up with the flower beds you select, but when you do you sacrifice the points they’d award. When a plot is completed, you score it and grab another one from the waiting pile.
The garden moves on a space around the nursery every turn, and when it gets back to where it started the die face it is showing is rotated up one. When it gets to six, the final round begins and everyone has to complete their remaining flower plots or lose points every single turn. At the end, the person with the largest number of points wins. Sort of. Scoring is kind of weird.
Instantly you can see why this is a perfectly enjoyable game – it’s nice to pick flower beds and place them. It’s interesting to think about what you can do to get the most out of the plots in front of you. It’s intense to look at the nursery not as a buffet lunch from which you pick but as a kind of revolving sushi bar conveyor of inefficient opportunities. At the simplest level Cottage Garden is about picking what you want for your plot, but at its more challenging levels it’s about denial – looking several moves ahead to see where your column intersects with a row of your opponent and vice versa. Sometimes your job is to take something just so your opponent won’t get it in the future. There’s a predictability to the nursery that is absent in Patchwork, and that lets you do a reasonable amount of joined up thinking when it comes to planning out your cottage garden. This is also emphasised in the way the nursery gets refilled – when you stop at a row or column with three or four empty spaces you start filling it up again from the track that circles the nursery. Pieces re-enter the nursery in a predictable manner, and you can weaponise this knowledge if you’re good enough.
Scoring is the other main area where Cottage Garden differs from Patchwork. You have six separate scoring cubes each of which gets moved independently as you complete your plots. Your end score is the sum of all your cubes plus a few bonuses, but those cubes move around in ways that lend you some strategic advantages. When you’re done with your plot, you pick a red cube for your flowerpots and move it along the track/ You do the same with a blue cube for your cloches. When any cube passes the red line, you pick up a cat token – that’s a kind of ‘wild’ 1×1 tile you can place at any time on your turn. If you reach the twenty spot with a cube, you take a ‘hive’ token which counts for extra points at the end. It’s… overly complicated. It’s like the scoring system someone might have come up with in a fever dream and then tried to reconstruct from the erratic handwriting in a dream journal. ‘No, like… there’s six cubes and they all move around the track. Except some spaces are two points and others are one. But like, there’s cats too? Cats.’
The cat tokens are phenomenally useful, and not to the game’s credit – much like with Barenpark the easy availability of these has a corrosive effect on the game’s core tensions. A Tetris-style game should be about controlling an inevitable descent into hilarious failure. Cottage Garden offers a scenario that is too controllable because of those cat tokens – you can even place them after you placed another tile. They don’t even come at the sacrifice of a more useful opportunity. Similarly, you can choose at any time during your turn to eschew picking a flower bed for collecting a flower pot – that’s also 1×1 tile but it also increases the value of your plot when you place it.
All of this is absolutely fine – it really is. I enjoyed played Cottage Garden, but not enough to actually buy it. We had a chance during the Glasgow Games Festival to pick it out of the games library and give it a go. I’ve also played it an awful lot on the app because playing board-game apps is what I have instead of a sleep cycle. Each time I’ve thought ‘Yeah, that was absolutely fine’. The problem is that’s not enough here – the bar is too high for games these days. Absolutely fine isn’t fine.
In our Barenpark review I explained a little about what I look to see in a game like this – about how the job of the game mechanisms is to create the circumstances under which I undermine my own future success. Others may feel differently, but they can make their own cases for the alternative on their own blogs. Me, I play to make an arse of myself and to put off that conclusion as long as I possibly can.
Both Barenpark and Cottage Garden share a fundamental game philosophy that undermines the fun for me – they think the player should be in more control of the experience. They are designed around players being able to make meaningful decisions to optimise the placement of weird shapes in weird configurations. That’s not wrong – in fact, in almost every other kind of game I would scream bloody murder at the idea that the role of skill should be undermined. I just don’t think control improves games in this particular category. I think it undermines them in a structural way.
Let’s talk a little about Tetris again, because it is a perfect example of both why Patchwork is excellent and Cottage Garden isn’t. The original version of Tetris gave you foreknowledge of the next shape and no more. You didn’t get to select it, you didn’t get to bank it until later versions. You didn’t even get guidelines to help you position it. You reacted to what you got and if it wasn’t helpful well… tough. Compensate for it later. Work around the damage you just inflicted on yourself. Oh, did that make the next block worse? Tough. Did you lose out on the opportunity for a full four line clear because of those two last blocks? Tough again.
And do you remember what it did when you got into an agreeable groove where you had entered flow and could deal with anything it threw at you? It sped up. And it kept speeding up. It sped up until you barely had a chance to rotate a shape before you had to find a home for it. Your role in this wasn’t to deliberate and ponder – it was to react. It was to engage in an ongoing act of damage mitigation. It wasn’t to play perfectly. It wasn’t to complete the game or reach the ending cinematic. It was to survive as long as you could.
With that in mind, it’s interesting that at least to the player the block selection strategy of Tetris is indistinguishable from randomness. Some later versions of the game would provide statistics for which blocks had been generated, but in the end all you could do was focus on this block and the next one. Everything else was hidden from you.
Cottage Garden and Barenpark both do the opposite – they focus on giving you more meaningful control over the blocks you place. For me, that’s just not where the fun is. As such, the more I see games like this released the more I think they’re all going to get farther away from the perfect expression of the idea. Patchwork is still as close as anyone has come, and the designs are heading in the wrong direction. You get too much room to place your tiles. You suffer too few consequences from screwing up. You have too much time to consider what’s heading your way and too much influence over what you place in your board. That’s still fun. That’s still satisfying. But every new game I play in this vein feels less fun and less satisfying. Swapping out a garden plot for scoring is cathartic, but it doesn’t have the same sense of accomplishment that follows from reaching the brink of failure in Tetris and clawing yourself back to relative and precariously temporary safety.
The other problem that’s deep in the heart of Cottage Garden is that with all of this it’s just too damn long. You play six revolutions of the nursery, and in that it’s like Tetris as designed by Henry Ford. This is horticulture on an assembly line. Pick a piece, place it, score the board, swap it out. Pick a piece, place it, score the board, swap it out. In every game I have played of Cottage Garden I’ve been ready for it to end about two full revolutions before it did. In this it shares another property with sequels and movies in general these days – too damn long.
I think the next meaningful iteration of the Tetris style game is going to find a way to add uncontrollable chaos into play. Perhaps it’s going to be app driven, forcing players to choose within random time constraints or from a restricted set of options outwith their control. Or perhaps it’s going to adopt a competitive model – suddenly I have an idea about playing Cottage Garden where you select tiles not for yourself but for an opponent. Your job on your turn is to place the horrendous trash your opponent just gave you. That could get me interested. That could get me excited. I’ll likely never get to see if this would make Cottage Garden a game I could recommend people buy. I didn’t buy Cottage Garden because fundamentally it seemed like it couldn’t belong in a collection that already contained Patchwork and once I’ve finished writing this sentence I’ll forget about it forever.
Cottage what? Something garden? I’m sorry, I don’t remember that – are you sure that was a review I wrote? Doesn’t ring a bell I’m afraid. Anyway, how about a nice game of Patchwork?