Everything is starting to look unkempt, straggly and very untidy in the garden today. I think my bush definitely needs a trim… now where are those secateurs? They should be here in the shed! Where the blood and thunder are they?… oh, look! I spy trampled tulips over there, beside the shed… don’t tell me, Edith has been round and borrowed them again?!
So What’s All The Fuss About?
In this instance the fuss is about horticulture… well, back yard gardening with aspirations of horticultural grandeur. I am endeavoring to master the companion method of gardening, namely growing corn, beans and squash… The three Sisters. There is also the orchard to contend with, all the perennial borders and fruit bushes…
The fus is about Ben Pinchback & Matt Riddle’s Three Sisters new roll and write game.
I may have green fingers, but only from my leaking pen, as this is my first real venture into the roll & write genre of gaming, and a particularly interesting example I have here to try out.
Immersion or Subversion?
I have seen numerous roll & write games, comprised of dice and a score pad, with a somewhat remedial task of rolling a dice, collecting a resource, or completing a simple action indicated by the die face. Not particularly awe inspiring… not at all.
Interestingly, this is so far from the truth with Three Sisters. Admittedly we do roll dice and we do mark off parts of a score sheet, but this is where the similarities end with the more mundane of the genre. The theme of backyard gardening is not quite high fantasy questing, which, to be fair, is a theme that has saturated the gaming market, so to engage in some sedate pottering in one’s own back yard does have a certain appeal.
I meander from the point and must focus… immersion? Well, I have to say – definitely!. I know the score sheets are gorgeously illustrated and give us that old garden potting shed ambiance, that musty tool shed and tilled earth veggie patch feel, but the game play is what really immerses us deep into the theme. I will touch upon the mechanics later, so for now I will say that the actions we have available, the way we interact and develop our garden, all feel as if we are actually tending to our daffs, tulips, apple trees, bee hives and even the compost heap. To summarise, yes, this definitely immerses us completely both in gameplay and in aesthetics.
Now we are talking! …and I am afraid that my excitement at this point may well give away my final thoughts, even at this early stage. I was expecting to chuck a few dice and tick off a few boxes. Job done!
Nothing could be further from the truth with Three Sisters, as once we have thrown the dice, then begins the real entertainment.
The game is segmented into three phases beginning with the planning phase (which is, to all intents and purposes the dice chucking phase) Once rolled, dice are grouped together and placed in ascending order from the last position of the Farmer Edith meeple on the action rondel. After the rondel has been populated, players (or player & AI in solo) draft dice in turn order and carry out the actions illustrated on the rondel. This is the most interesting element of the game for me, as the only actions we have available are dictated to us by the dice’ location… further more, the dice pip count also dictates certain restrictions regarding locations in our garden that will be subject to the aforementioned actions. So, for example, a 2 pip die on the gardening action (plant & water) affects only the number 2 area of our garden. The only location where we may plant or water. This might seem restrictive but I shall mention later of ways to negate luck.
When the dice have been placed, I should add, Edith moves to the location after the last die which will be the starting location for the next round of dice placement. This ensures a constant randomness or unpredictability of action choices, forcing us to plan for all manner of eventualities.
And so, as turns progress over 8 rounds, as we draft dice and plant seeds, water plants, grow fruit, harvest fruit, make honey and grow perennials and so on and so on. But there is yet more. Each turn before using drafted dice, we also get an additional opportunity to plant seeds or water (the garden action), before taking regular actions. To round things off, an event phase throws up even more opportunities for gardening antics.
If this was all that the game held for us, then I could see it growing weary over time, but life is actually far more exciting in the back garden. Obviously caring for perennial plants until mature will reward us with victory points at the game’s end, as does caring for and harvesting a range of fruit plants, and looking after our bees. However, the path we take to achieving these magnificent blooms, sweet honey and rosy red apples is the most captivating and thought provoking element of the game.
As we carefully use our actions, we mark off spots/boxes on all plants (and even garden shed tools) in an attempt to bring these plants to maturity (complete each one’s track), yet we are rewarded with bonus actions and bonus goods as we fill each track… I forgot about the goods track. As we tend our plants, we are rewarded with goods (fruit ect) and recording these goods often means we earn bonus actions, just as growing the plants can also earn bonus actions…
…and all of a sudden complex action chains can be triggered, as one track rewards an action that then triggers a second reward that possibly triggers a third. Suddenly, we have to think very carefully. What do we wish to achieve first? How can we create interesting chains of actions that very quickly swell the volume of our garden flora? When one of these high reward action chains is triggered, it really does make you feel like you have accomplished something great.
I also like how we can “cash in” compost from our compost track, in order to influence the pip count on a die. Some actions do not rely on pip count, but those that do, well, suddenly having the ability to negate the randomness of the die roll opens up our strategy further
Wood Chits And Cardboard Bits:
I have a prototype copy sent to me for review, but even at this stage, the quality of artwork, score sheets and meeples is pretty exceptional. There are two sets of score sheet pads, rule book, action rondel, a farmer meeple and a first player pumpkin… well, it looks pumpkinish to me
Meeples and Standees:
Designer: Ben Pinchback & Matt Riddle
Publisher: Motor City Gamworks
Artist: Marlies Berands & Beth Sobel
Play Time: 20+ minutes for solo
Gangs of One: 1-4 players
Age of consent: n/a
Ordinarily I absolutely hate the “play the game alone and beat our own score” notion as a solution to solitaire play. Three sisters does require us to complete the game and compare our score against a small success reward chart, which should be quite alarming, but this isn’t as dreadful as it seems. This is mostly because of the interaction with our neighborly farmer, Edith. She interacts, interferes and generally causes unnecessary complications throughout the garden, forcing us to adapt, change and develop our strategies as the game progresses. In other words, there is sufficient challenge with Edith drafting dice (as a live player might) and disrupting our plans by preventing us from developing certain aspects of our garden, that just getting to the end of the game with a daffodil and an apple in our pocket, is rewarding enough
Bots and Wotnots:
The game plays up to four players, although special attention has been given to the solo variant. In principal the game plays exactly as in a multiplayer game, with no change to the human player. The surprising difference with this AI system is that Edith the AI farmer does not actually compete against us. She is not aggressive, confrontational or competitive. So how does she work and what is the point?
Edith has a list of priority dice drafting choices, each resulting action has its own list of consequences that affect us, based on the dice pips on the drafted dice. So she makes our choice of dice drafting smaller, prevents certain bonus actions from becoming available to us, accidentally tramples on pumpkins or knocks the blooms off our perennials, and, surprisingly borrows tools from our shed and forgets to return them. This is a very simple system that makes us, the live player, have to work so much harder, think longer and have to constantly adapt to changing circumstances… Because of Edith’s accidental interfering, reaching a large victory score is particularly difficult, and as such, makes us forget we are trying to merely achieve a personal best score, as we are so focused on the uncertain journey to potential victory however meager the end score …as was the case with my first couple of games… but then I quickly bought in to the notion of working on ways to trigger the chain of actions to achieve the most progress
The Real Nitty Gritty
- Winners and Losers: Every game we will get to the end of the eighth round, but whether we achieve above 40 points (the lowest winning score that tells us we are competent enough gardeners to show our produce at the county fair) is another matter. I failed with my first game, and even after 10 games, I have yet to get beyond earning my blue ribbon at 50-64 points. So we will never be true losers, just sometime we will not be good enough gardeners to achieve recognition from other gardeners
- Rules is Rules is Rules: The 14 page A5 rule book is full of lavish illustrations detailing rule explanations in an easy to understand visual manner. The game rules are pretty simple and the book explains in an easy, methodical fashion. 2 pages are dedicated to the solo mode and, although the Edith the farmer is not a complicated AI player, most of the text is given over to her hierarchy of action choices… which tool she will borrow from the shed, which fruit she accidentally knocks from our tree… and so on
- Lucky Bugger Buggers: As with any game that involves evil spotted cubes, we are faced with a high luck element regarding dice rolls (and subsequent action options). The compost track, which we should always keep an eye on, enables us to manipulate pip counts on die. This is most useful when we wish to focus on a specific area of our garden and don’t immediately see the die we need on the rondel
- Lows and Highs: Even with my first loss, I did not experience a low feeling. That loss brought my attention to the potential of triggering action chains, and this became my focus for future games
- Footprints All Over My Table: This is definitely an economic space saver game. With the 2 score sheets and the action rondel, we only need the space of, let’s say, a regular laptop to just about squeeze everything onto
- Set It Up Just To tear It All Down Again: As there are only 2 score sheets, an action rondel, an Edith meeple and four six sided dice required for solo play, set up is probably only a matter of a 30 second operation.
Me, Myself and I:
I had a feeling that the game would be good when Matt asked if I would like to take a look at Three Sisters, as the design team have a decent previous track record. I had no idea I would actually become so addicted to the game, though. I have been a little skeptical of roll and write games in the past, yet here I find myself hooked on Three Sisters solo. There are so many options to grow our gardens and a whole host of actions that can be linked together with careful planning. And triggering those chains of actions really is so rewarding. I think the rondel performs an excellent job mixing up the actions, making each round different depending on where Edith moves to… oh, and I have to say, as innocent as Edith is, her bloody great farmer boots were forever accidentally trampling my flowerbeds to catastrophic effect, at times. And boy does she borrow a lot of equipment from my garden shed (and never returns it either). I feel this has been very cleverly conceived, executed and (once in production) well finished.
Yay or Nay?
If you have yet to figure out, then I shall make it a little more transparent… this is most definitely a yay for me, myself and I, and as such, Three Sisters mulches, composts, prunes and waters the BSoMT 1d8 die to a blooming 8
Well, I think I have to wander into the perennial flower beds and water a few plants… I guess I should really have gone to the toilet before coming to the garden, but when nature calls…
Something For The Weekend Sir?
Kickstarter link (coming 9th March) pre-launch page https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1478832610/three-sisters-a-backyard-farming-roll-and-write-game
Motor City Gaming on Twitter https://mobile.twitter.com/MCGameworks
Three Sisters Board game Geek page. https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/291845/three-sisters
Motor City Gaming in Facebook https://www.facebook.com/motorcitygameworks/
All You Ban Board how to play Three Sisters
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