Don't be fooled! Deep Print Games' Renature may look like a simple children's dominoes game but beneath its cute woodland-themed veneer lurks a fiendishly cutthroat tussle for area control.
The 2-4 players each start the game with their own individual stack of facedown dominoes and a player board containing cloud tokens and a selection of wooden plant meeples of value 1 to 4. When eventually you place these out on the main board, you'll note that the height of the plant corresponds to its value - which is a nice touch. Most of the plants on your board match your player colour but you'll see that you also have plants in a neutral colour. More on that anon...
Players each draw three dominoes from their stack and position them on their edge so that they can see their pictorial side but their opponents cannot. Each turn you'll be playing one domino and replacing it at the end of your turn with one from your stack. Rather than spots, the dominoes each feature various woodland creatures - rather like the dominoes you give to pre-school children who haven't yet learned to count. To place a domino, you need to lay it either at one of the starting squares at the top of the board or adjacent to a matching creature. One of the creatures is always a 'joker', in that it can be matched up with any other critter.
The main board represents a woodland setting with a stream running from top to bottom. You'll be placing out dominoes along the green squares that follow the path of the stream and, as you do so, you'll have the opportunity to place one of your plants in an adjoining brown plot. You score a point for the plant, plus an additional point for every plant of equal or smaller size already in that plot. When the plot is completely surrounded with dominoes, or where the surrounding spaces cannot accommodate any more dominoes, the plot is scored for area majority, with points going to the player with the highest and second-highest value of plants in the plot. The token indicating the points values is taken by the player who closes off the plot, whether or not they scored within it: the token itself gives that player a points bonus at the end of the game. But it's not quite as simple as majority wins... For Renature, designers Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer have neatly borrowed the scoring mechanic popularised in the dice game Las Vegas (Ravensburger/alea): you only score if your total is unique. That means if two players tie, their plants are completely discounted and the player with the next highest score takes the points. It's this device that really generates the cut and thrust of Renature. It's also how players can make use of their neutral plants: these can be used to match a rival's total and deny them points, and in a three- and four-player game, players trailing behind a runaway leader may well try to use their neutral plants in unison as a collective catch-up mechanic.
I mentioned the cloud tokens. These can be spent during the game to switch the 'joker', to take back a plant previously placed or to take an extra turn (or, more accurately, bringing forward a turn because players will always only have the same total number of turns per game, corresponding to the total number of tiles they start off with: 13 in a four-player game, 18 with three players and 26 with two). Cloud tokens are worth 1 point each in end-game scoring, so players may be reluctant to spend them in game for their special actions. You'll find tho' that there will be circumstances where taking two turns in a row, in particular, can net you a worthwhile score. Players are penalised with negative points if they end the game with any unused plants so don't use the clouds to recover any plants unless you are sure you can use them, and to profitable effect.
Renature is a great game. It has appealing table presence and it's easy to teach and learn. It'll certainly appeal to those who return to games like Azul (Next Move), and, like Azul, its charm belies the sharp competitive edge that underpins the game play.
Deep Print Games have partnered with different publishers in different parts of the world. In the UK, Renature is published by PSC. In the US, they're partnered with Capstone Games. You can also find editions published, amongst others, by Pegasus Spiele and Matagot.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)