I have absolutely zero interest in gardening. My personal gardening motto is “It’s impossible to control nature, so why bother trying?” If it wasn’t for my wife, our landscaping would just consist of whatever hardy weeds happened to come out on top in the epic Darwinian struggle for control of our front yard.
However, my love for food-themed board games is well-documented. I know, it’s kind of weird that I like food games given that my personal food motto is “You have to eat, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time on it.” (Again, if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be subsisting on microwave meals and whatever foods can be cooked and eaten while creating no more than two dirty dishes.) Still, I just like board games about food.
In fact, last year I had a streak going on Kickstarter where I’d backed four food-themed games in a row. At that point, Pencil First Games launched a campaign for Herbaceous, a card game about herb gardening.
I was not excited about the gardening part of it, but herbs! Herbs are technically a food! This could technically get my streak up to five! Plus, the game was designed by Steve Finn, and I’d heard a lot of great things about Biblios and other games from Dr. Finn’s Games. I decided to give Herbaceous a try.
Herbaceous is a card game for two to four players. Each player gets four pots for planting herb cards and a private garden area for staging herbs—plus there is a community garden in the center of the table. Turns are very simple. First, you can take herbs from your private garden and the community garden and plant them in one of your pots. Next, you add more herbs to the gardens: you draw one herb card and add it to either your private garden or the community garden, then you draw a second herb and add it to the other garden.
Each of your four pots is different. One can only contain identical herbs, one can only contain different herbs, one can only contain pairs, and the last one grants bonus points for certain special herbs. The more cards you put into a pot, the more points you score. Once the draw deck is empty and everyone has potted everything they can, the game is over and the person with the most points wins.
The real catch is that each pot can only be planted in once. So, over the course of the game, more and more herbs build up in the gardens, and you wait until the perfect moment to grab the biggest set of cards you can and use up one of your pots. Since everyone is trying to do that at the same time, you end up with several simultaneously ebbing and flowing, “if I don’t grab these now, are they going to grab them” situations.
When I read the rules, my first thought was, “This is definitely not going to be as relaxing as it looks.” In a sense, there’s not much going on in the game since you’re kind of only doing four things the entire time. On the other hand, because you can kind of only do four things, there’s a relatively high sense of tension.
The feel of the game is also quite dependent on the number of players. With two players, you randomly leave a lot of the herbs out of the deck, making the game much shorter. In fact, it’s so quick, tense, and strategic that it almost feels like a microgame.
In some ways, I actually found the game more enjoyable with more players, though. With four players, it feels like there’s less brinksmanship. You basically just have to take what you can get—an experience that aligns better with the placid looking cards.
Speaking of the cards, Herbaceous is hands down one of the most beautiful card games I’ve ever seen. I found myself looking through my board game shelf to see if there was something that I could try to claim is objectively more beautiful than Herbaceous, but I came up empty. There are many gorgeously illustrated games, but I’ve never seen one that conveys quite this feeling of watercolory tranquility before. Maybe Dixit or Lanterns: The Harvest Festival?
Flavor Pack expansion
The Kickstarter version of Herbaceous also includes a “Flavor Pack” expansion, which consists of three spice cards. I like the concept of a spice expansion (herbs and spices… get it?) and the spice cards have the same gorgeous illustrations as the herb cards. But, otherwise, I wasn’t a big fan of this.
First of all, the instructions are confusing. There are two instruction cards. One of them says to shuffle the spices into the bottom half of the deck; the other one says to “slide” the spices in and implies you shouldn’t shuffle. Obviously, it would be problematic to not shuffle them in because you’d have a decent idea of when they’re going to come up. But, if you’re expected to thoroughly shuffle them in anyways, why do the other instructions explicitly tell you to not put them on the top or bottom of the deck? That’s confusing, but it’s a relatively minor annoyance.
My biggest gripe is that the expansion changes the whole feel of the game. The core game has a very harmonious mix of predictability and randomness. However, with the expansion in play, you find yourself going along, watching the cards, making a plan—and then a random spice card pops up and completely disrupts the entire flow. At best, it makes you do something that feels pointless, like move cards around. At worst, it has you taking cards from other players and them taking cards from you, significantly increasing the amount of hostility in the game.
Also, this is a corner case, but one of the spice cards (star anise) can put you in a situation where you have to cause yourself to lose points (if you’re facing just the right mix of cards, you can be left with no option but to plant a regular herb in your special herb pot, costing you bonus points). That’s just not fun.
I might be okay with the spice cards if there were more of them. But, with only two in the deck at a time, they’re very jarring. I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out if I didn’t have this expansion.
There’s a duality to Herbaceous. On the one hand, you’ve got the breathtaking artwork. On the other hand, you’ve got the rules of the game. There’s a kind of dissonance in the intersection of the two halves. When you see a game about gardening, you probably expect something that recreates the peaceful feeling of sinking a trowel into fresh soil to plant a colorful spring flower. This is not that game.
In the grand scheme of things, Herbaceous probably isn’t “mean” or “aggravating,” but it’s definitely meaner and more aggravating than it looks from the artwork.
Don’t get me wrong—I really like Herbaceous.
But I’ve also seen people get really ticked off while playing this game. Fundamentally, I think that has to do with the scarcity of actions. You’ve basically only got four chances to score points over the entire course of the game, and each one of those chances requires you to have a very different set of cards. So, when someone else torpedoes one of those chances, it’s pretty frustrating because there’s not much you can do to readjust.
Lately, I’ve been reading this novel—The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood. In it, the main character has these vaguely supernatural encounters. At the same time, he experiences a sort of awakening, becoming aware of a level of consciousness where the Earth is a single living organism, where he can feel more than just his own body. He begins to express a desire to live one half in the material world of perception and one half in the world of greater awareness: a perfect balanced outlook.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom inside that “half-in, half-out” philosophy. None of us are going to meet a centaur, but there’s still something in there that we can all apply to our own lives. We can get so wrapped up in the things around us when the universe is much vaster, deeper, and older than our transitory problems. We can’t spend every minute of the day spaced out and thinking about abstractions, but we’d all have an easier time dealing with difficult situations if we were less focused on our immediate reality and more focused on the brief, small nature of all the material things we interact with.
This is particularly true with Herbaceous. When you’re playing, you really have to keep in mind, “half-in, half-out.” Sure, people are taking the herb cards you want, but it’s okay. There will be other plantings. If you stay focused on that, it’s an all-around beautiful game.