I wear ear plugs to bed. Uncomfortable wads of polyurethane foam stuffed into my auditory canals. An inelegant but effective solution to the problem of pissed people screaming at the top of their lungs; Chicago, The Doobie Brothers and Skynard blasted through my walls and the swish-honk-swish of the fleets of cars, that make their endless parade past my bedroom at three o’clock in the morning. Living in the city is the price I pay for my arts degree. I stand before the dour threshold of middle age, qualified for nothing and living cheek by jowl, with humanity at its noise generating worst, because if you’d put a hammer into my hands, I’d try to sing into it.
T’was not always thus, though. I was raised in a bucolic idyll. Childhood summers filled with endless days, clumping through sweet-scented orchards or wheat fields being transformed by the alchemy of the sun. I remember lying, lizard like, on hay bales, soaking in the syrupy early autumn heat, feeling the countryside leech into my blood. Screwing my face up at the sourness of freshly scrumped fruit and throwing clods of mud at friend and foe alike. Those formative years made me into a “country person”, so much so that if you cut me I smell like composting grass and oak apples.
This is why Cottage Garden, the first game from Berlin imprint Edition Spielwiese and the umpteenth from game design Titan Uwe Rosenberg made me salivate like one of those dogs that got too friendly with a Russian psychologist.
This is a game that enters the room waving faded Polaroid pictures of me weaving in and out of my Auntie’s bean poles and eating garden peas directly from the pod. It promises to pull me out of the white noise and dirt of the city and plonk me into a land of eternal gentle summer where strawberry cake abounds. It promises to do this; but does it achieve it?
Uwe Rosenberg is an iterative designer. His games are built on the foundations of his previous ones. He tweaks and teases rather than starting anew. His influences shine through strongly in each of his designs and his influence is always and unabashedly, Uwe Rosenberg.
Cottage Garden owes a lot to Patchwork, a beautifully tight, two-player race that pits you against your opponent but also the tyranny of time as you scramble to build a button-rich quilt. Patchwork is a tense game and a harsh game and, due to its two player nature, can be a zero sum game. Patchwork is pure stitch and bitch and it is all the more glorious for it.
Cottage Garden, while superficially similar, is a much more gentle pursuit. Rosenberg’s iteration on his original system allows for player error in ways that Patchwork never does.
Players are parochial horticulturalists, trying to find the perfect arrangement for their newly acquired box hedges and hardy perennials. This is simulated by the players choosing from a pool of polyominoes and placing them on their square-gridded garden beds. The goal is to cover every available square except the ones that are already occupied by clay flower pots or blown glass plant covers. When every space in the bed is filled, they are scored with the flower pots yielding one point each and the covers yielding two. Then you grab another bed and start again. Tokens with cats on them can be used to cover single squares or point gifting pots can be bought at the cost of your access to a plant tile for a turn. After six rounds, the gardener who managed to leave the most pots and covers intact wins the game.
This is a game that trades fully on its gentility. From the E.H Shepardesque artwork, blooming with hydrangeas and lazy bumble bees, to the pleasing tactility of laying those puzzle pieces; Cottage Garden is a game that strives for pleasantness rather than challenge and in this it succeeds admirably.
There is a game here but it is much more forgiving than its snarled up predecessor. In Patchwork there is no recycling of tiles. Once a tile is taken and laid on the board, there it stays. In Cottage Garden as soon as you complete a plant bed, the tiles are added back into the general supply. The choices in Patchwork are like tattoos while in Cottage Garden they are more like a haircut. They may be disastrous now but they don’t mark you for the rest of your life. If you make a mistake you can ride it out and, in time, fix it. It’s not like you’ve had an India ink spider web needled onto your private parts.
It is in its gentleness that Cottage Garden revels and in its gentleness that it succeeds. This is a game that is a pleasure to play. Cottage Garden works the brain while lowering the blood pressure and while it is true that a diet of clotted cream and summer pudding would result in angina and gout, there is no doubt that a little bit of what you fancy does you good. Just as the right doses of gentle, pleasurable games like Cottage Garden can be a veritable polish to the soul.
Those hazy, sleepy, sepia days of my childhood are gone for good. Only traces of them remain in regret or nostalgia but Cottage Garden, for the hour it takes to play, gives me a feeling of what it was like ramble through those corn fields or be taught a forward defensive stroke by my father and for that I applaud it and highly recommend you play it.