There's no doubt that the standout feature of Korea Boardgames' Four Gardens is the magnificent three-dimensional pagoda that stands in the centre of the table as you play. It's not purely decorative. Each of the four levels shows one of the game's four resources with a different quantity on each of its four sides (0,1,2,3). One of the actions players can take on their turn is to discard a card to rotate sections of the pagoda and take the resources shown.
Players start each turn with a hand of five tarot-sized cards. These show a panorama on their reverse side and a 'groundwork' side on the other. It's the groundwork side which you'll be initially concerned with. You take three actions on your turn (which can include the same action up to three times). Every action costs you a card. You can play a card to your tableau, where it goes groundwork side up. To flip it to its panorama side, you need to place on it the specific resources indicated. To collect resources, you need to discard a card to take the pagoda action shown on it. This shows which level of pagoda you rotate (taking with it the levels above it) and the order in which you collect the resources shown on the pagoda. This is a key element of the tactics of the game because resources can only be taken onto your planning tile and you only have spaces on that tile for four resources. If the planning tile fills up with resources you cannot use, then you've wasted actions... Any card can be discarded to take a 'reallocate resources' action, allowing you to move resources from your planning tile to a groundwork tile (to flip it to its panorama side) and to clear space on your planning tile by discarding unwanted resources.
Satisfying as it is to collect resources from the pagoda and complete your panoramas, with attractive art by Rachance, that's not actually the objective of the game. The cards each bear symbols representing one of the four god tracks on a scoreboard (some cards have a 'wild' symbol that can be used to represent any one of the four gods). Every time a card is flipped to its panorama side, you advance your marker along the god track relating to that card. The panoramas are organised into sets and whenever you add to a set, you advance too on the god track for every panorama card already in that set. When a set is completed, you get to take a bonus tile, worth either end-game points, free resources or a fifth slot on your planning tile. This latter bonus is especially valuable; so much so that in our various plays at Board's Eye View we found it could often be a winning strategy to focus initially on getting a short two-card panorama set completed simply to get early access to that invaluable fifth slot for resources.
As the game progresses you'll find players can advance quite rapidly along the god tracks. When you reach the end of a track then any further advancement instead moves all the other players back, and if you fall off the left-hand side of a track then you are removed from it altogether so you can't score at all for that god. You can't afford therefore to ignore any of the four god tracks.
Once you understand the straightforward mechanics you'll find that, in Four Gardens, designer Martin Dolezal has come up with a very accessible game that will appeal particularly to those looking for something that's maybe just a step up in complexity from gateway games like Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder). The rules are clear, tho' we'd have liked to have seen the inclusion of individual player aids summarising the actions available to players; without these, you'll find you spend the first few turns having to pass the rulesheet around until players completely familiarise themselves with their options. Our only other gripe was that even with just five cards it's awkward seeing what's on all the cards while fanning them in your hand; so this is a game where you'll probably want to use card racks.
We had a lot of fun playing Four Gardens. It's definitely a title to check out.
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