Renature Is One of the Best Board Games Yet by Kramer and KieslingImages courtesy of Capstone Games Games Reviews board games
The design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling has produced some of the biggest successes in Eurogames, including the Spiel des Jahres winners Torres and Tikal, but in my experience their games tend to be better as academic designs than games to play. Tikal especially is one of the more overdesigned games I’ve tried, assigning players 10 (10!) action points to use in each round, which is an accounting problem nobody wants to face unless it comes with a large tax refund. The two designers have, in my opinion, done better on their own—Kramer designed Downforce (which has come out under several names) and Kiesling created Azul and Vikings—than in tandem.
Given that history, their most recent collaboration, Renature, is even more of a pleasant surprise, because it’s a solid game that doesn’t forget to make it fun to play, and the theme is better integrated into gameplay than with some of their highly touted designs. With extremely high-quality components and great art, it’s worlds away from Torres, a game that works reasonably well but that I have always found to be one of the most joyless game experiences for a player.
In Renature, players will lay domino tiles, each of which shows two images of animals, along the grass paths on the game board, and then will place one plant token in an adjacent square in a dirt area for points. Your domino must match any other tiles to which it’s adjacent, either showing the same animal or with one of the two showing whichever of the 10 animals in the game is currently the joker (wild). There are several ways to score in the game: you get one or more points for every plant you place, you get points for other plants already in that dirt area, and you get points when the area is completely surrounded by dominoes or solitary squares (which can’t be filled) if you have the most or second-most valuable plants in that area. At game-end, you score any unclosed areas, lose points for any plants you didn’t place, and may gain bonuses for any areas you won during the game.
There are two major twists in Renature that make it a little more complex than it might first appear to be, especially if you’ve played any other domino-like games (Kingdomino, for example, or its more complicated but inferior sibling game Queendomino). When you place any plant, you get one point, and then you get one point for every plant in that same area of equal or lesser value, regardless of who placed it. There are four types of plants, with values of one, two, three, and four, reflected in the relative sizes of the pieces (and shapes as well). When an area is closed and you score it, you add up the values of every player’s plants within that area to determine who had the most valuable plants and gets the top bonus plus the area tile, which has a secret bonus of one to five points on the back. That means that plants’ values matter when placing (one point for every plant of equal or lesser value in the area) and when scoring an area (add up all plant values, give the points shown on the area tile), but the plants’ values only inform point values if you have some left on your board at game end, when you lose the value of each unplayed plant. And, in a non-intuitive rule that does make the game more interactive, when you add up the values of plants in an area, any players who tie in total value get zero credit for them, so you can win an area despite having the third- or fourth-most points if everyone ahead of you was tied.
The second is that every player starts the game with some plants of their own and some plants in a neutral color, and may place those neutral plants as well for the immediate scoring value—you score for every plant in that area of equal or lesser value. When an area is closed and scored, however, the neutral plants count as their own player—a ‘dummy’ of sorts, but used in all player counts, not just with two players. Those neutral plants can be a pain, but because of the rule where players tied in total value in an area are considered to have zero plants there, you can place a neutral plant to tie another player and seize the area for yourself.
You do have a few bonus actions you can use in the game, although each of them is limited. Each player starts with six cloud tokens and can use up to four of them to change the joker animal to one of their choosing (two tokens), take an extra turn (three tokens), or retrieve a plant from the board (paying the plant’s value)—even if that plant is an area that’s been scored. Because of that last possibility, you don’t score an area when it’s full of plants, but only when it’s surrounded and placing a new plant there is impossible. There are only four cloud tokens on the board for players to claim, and they’re all at the opposite end of the board from the start row, so you have to use those bonuses judiciously. (For what it’s worth, the extra turn seems far less valuable than the other bonus actions in a two-player game.)
I don’t love the weird disconnect between plant values and points, which leads to a lot of parallel arithmetic in your head as you try to figure out the benefits of specific tile and plant placements, but the game itself is fun and moves along quickly. I was sure from reading the rules that it’d be too easy to end up without a legal play, since there are 10 animal types and you have only three dominoes in your hand at any time, but it’s pretty rare, and when it’s happened a player could just play two cloud tokens to change the joker. The components here are top-notch as well, with sturdy (and heavy!) wood dominoes, similarly sturdy wooden plants in easily distinguishable sizes, and amazing art on the dominoes and the board—and even the back of the board, a nice touch even if it’s one that will mostly go unappreciated. I’m in the minority on Kramer/Kiesling designs in general but this is one of their best.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.