Interview with co-designer, David Abelson, on his game Gartenbau. A game for 2-4 players where players will be using color theory and tile-laying to grow their planted seeds into flowers.
David, it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you about Gartenbau, which will soon be on Kickstarter. Could you tell us a little bit about the gameplay?
David: Sure. Gartenbau is a tile-laying game in which players build and grow unique gardens by acquiring and arranging domino shaped tiles in a tableau. Tiles will be placed end to end and also on top of one another. The game is based on basic color theory and has three levels of tile:
- The seedling tiles include seedlings in primary and secondary colors. They are the basic building block of your garden.
- The plant tiles include plants of the same six colors (primary and secondary) and these can be acquired to grow from the appropriate color seedlings. For instance, a red seedling and a yellow seedling will grow to form an orange plant.
- The flower tiles are the goal. They grow to fit on top of two plants that fulfill the color requirements of the flower. Flower tiles come in primary, secondary and tertiary colors and each can be grown from the right combination of plants. Each flower tile thrives under very specific conditions. Include those conditions in your garden and you will earn a lot of Prestige – the Victory Points in the game.
Players start the game by drafting flowers and they will each have a combination of four flowers to grow before the end of the game. Using resources: water and sunlight – players take turns acquiring tiles to build their garden. When a player plays their fourth flower, the end game is triggered. At the end of the game, players calculate the Prestige earned on each grown flower. The player with the most Prestige wins.
Every game’s creation has some kind of story behind it. What is Gartenbau’s?
David: Let’s start at the beginning then…Gartenbau was created by Alex Johns and myself. Alex and I were taking his game Healer’s Path around last year and we took it to the Unpub Convention in Maryland. On the plane, I was working on an idea I had for an 18 card game using domino style tiles. I was fiddling but hadn’t come up with something concrete yet. Alex and I play games at the same store in Charlotte. I happened to stop in the store after the Unpub to see him at the table with a bunch of domino tiles with colors on them. He explained what he was thinking – about a color theory oriented game with domino tiles that could stack on top of each other. I explained what I had been working on and immediately asked if he would mind designing the game together. My first experience with the very raw early game reminded me of the basic genetics we learned in high school and I suggested we make it a game called about fruit flies where players use flies of different colors to create hybrid flies. I had some cute ideas about the fruit flies but after taking it to Origins and playing it around there, I was sure that the fruit flies theme was too cute for this game. After much soul searching Alex and I settled on a similar genetics experiment – this time featuring botany. It IS abstract mind you, but there you have it.
And gartenbau means something like horticulture in German, correct? So fruit flies didn’t really work, how has the acceptance of it being a flower game been?
David: Yes, the name means horticulture in German. Both Alex and I have German ancestry…and we decided to name the game in a way that honors its Euro nature. People have been very accepting of the new theme. It places us in good company. In recent years garden games have been very well accepted: Herbaceous, Cottage Garden, Lotus – all great games with flower themes. Most of the people who have played so far have enjoyed the theme and I feel as though it is refreshing to play a game that stays away from the common gamer themes. There are no zombies in this game.
Was it challenging at all to work color theory into the main theme of the gameplay?
David: This particular game started mechanics first, so it was more about working the theme into the color theory and yes, there were some challenges. I think the bottom line question we had to answer was, “How abstract can the game be while still being thematic?” I feel confident that we answered that question. I don’t expect plant scientists to be pleased with what we have done, but it feels good and thanks to Will Meadows’ art it looks good too.
The drafting you mentioned is almost like a mini-game before the game. For an easier or quicker set up you will have set you can start with. Why not just start with pre-determined sets all the time?
David: Great question. We do have pre-set hands of flowers that beginners will want to use to start. We tested other ways of getting flowers. There are really two reasons we feel strongly about the draft:
- Challenge. Drafting tiles with asymmetric abilities and then attempting to maximize the combination you draft is, for many, both challenging and stimulating. Players have tended to agree, with one caveat. They would like to have preset flower combinations with which to learn the game. That makes sense.
- Replayability. Many games get played once and never again. It’s sad really. I look at my game shelf of nearly 200 games and think how horrible it is that so many of them have only been played one time. Some have never been played. When players are done with their first game of Gartenbau, they usually feel a strong desire to play again, using the knowledge they have gained during their first play. Drafting allows for a unique and new experience for every player nearly every time. We want players to get their money’s worth.
Let’s talk art for a second. You mentioned Will Meadows, who many may not know as an artist, but as the co-founder of Tantrum House. What drew you to his art that you know it was right for Gartenbau?
David: Your readers may not know – Tantrum House published a game a few years ago. Will was instrumental in the design as well as the graphic design for that game – Steam Court. Last summer I had the opportunity to spend some time with Will at Dice Tower Con, demonstrating his game and discussing the finer points of graphic design – a skill that we have in common. We later discussed the types of illustration styles he felt comfortable with and came to a common vision about what we thought the art should feel like and when I asked if he could be the guy to do it, He agreed. Good art is a very valuable part of the equation…but more important is a good working relationship. Will has been very easy to work with. He is naturally very collaborative and he’s a fun guy.
What was the best piece of feedback or advice you received from a playtest of Gartenbau in regards to the gameplay?
David: The best advice…was to make sure that every action player’s take is meaningful. We have spent months streamlining the game to meet that expectation – including switching from one currency to two.
Close second in my opinion was advice regarding our use of color theory – from an early iteration of the game. We were told to make sure the game is VERY clearly playable without needing to know the colors. An integral part of the development of Will’s art was the need for all the seedlings, plants and flowers to be uniquely distinguishable in lieu of their assigned colors. I believe we have accomplished that!
When someone walks away after playing Gartenbau for the first time, what do you hope they walk away thinking or feeling?
David: I hope they walk away feeling stimulated by the experience. I hope they are asking themselves, what can I do next time to have a better chance of optimizing my Prestige (the game’s Victory Points) and I also hope they leave wondering who they know that would also enjoy the challenge.
We really should mention that you are working with One Tree Planted. Could you tell us your pledge that deals with them and Gartenbau?
David: Sure. Well, there is a little more to the story than that. As you know, Gartenbau is a gardening game, and the Kickstarter campaign ends on Earth Day! I decided to work with OneTreePlanted.org to plant one tree for each backer of the Kickstarter campaign, and one tree for every copy of the game sold after the official launch.
After giving it further consideration I started to think that maybe manufacturing board games isn’t the best for the environment so now I’m looking into sustainable packaging options… Not just for Gartenbau but for every game we make from now on… If it’s feasible. I haven’t worked out the details yet but the fancy molded tray will be a stretch goal in the campaign so I should be able to make it happen with the support of the backer community.
As we come to a close, is there anything else you would like us to know about Gartenbau?
David: Not much. I would like for you to know that Alex and I have enjoyed making Gartenbau, so much that we are finishing up the design for a solo variant and we’re hoping to have a five-player expansion in time for the Kickstarter.
Thanks again, David, for taking time out to do this interview.