So before we start, this is about the Japanese only version of the game, technically named ??? or Karesansui, and called Stone Garden on Board Game Geek. This is not the American game Zen Garden and/or Karesansui from Eagle-Gryphon. All clear on this point? Ok.
Got to play this thanks to Tomo who ordered it from Japan for our work lunchtime plays (thank you Tomo). The game is conceptually a strange Carcassonne with more player interaction, more complicated scoring, and amazing quality pieces. Each turn you pick up a tile, decide whether you’ll play it (possibly having it stolen), gift it, store it, or discard it. Gifting earns you virtue, discarding loses it, and stealing loses even more. You then can move your assistant (the little pawn), have him buy and place a stone, or have him meditate to gain virtue.
The first level of complexity lies in the virtue management and the associated risk balancing. You might hold off on placing a critical tile until your opponents don’t have enough virtue to steal it, but then you give up your only storage spot, possibly wasting a great tile later. Buying stones moves your virtue to zero, which means that for one turn you can’t discard. Drawing a terrible tile then can mess up a whole arrangement.
The second level complexity of the game lies in the scoring and choosing between going slower for maximum points, or rushing with sub-optimal tiles, but hopefully finishing first and forcing your opponents into suboptimal gardens (the game speeds up once the first garden is finished). You get positive points for pleasing patterns of sand and moss, negative points for unmatched edges, big bonus points for your hidden objective, and then you get to the rock rules. Various rock patterns count for points, while other rocks simply score points by being present in the right place.
What’s nice is the game is genuinely rooted in the art of stone garden design, so you do learn a tiny bit from gameplay. You won’t be an expert by any means, but you’ll learn why certain rocks are placed where they are, and what they are symbolically meant to signify (famous islands, ships, etc).
What made the game a such a word of mouth hit is the quality of the pieces though. Cause of how good the rocks look, while working on your fake stone garden you genuinely create what looks like a really pretty little stone garden. There’s a genuinely joy in seeing everything come together as the game runs, which then leads to people tweeting photos of their gardens, and the game then spreads from there.
The high quality also leads to a scarcity: the publisher simply can’t make the games very fast, so the game is difficult to find most places. And even once acquired you still probably need to get a good translation sheet for the rules, gardeners, and scoring patterns.
Having said that, I definitely think it’s worth it. The gameplay is genuinely interesting, and the components are just incredible. I genuinely hope it manages to come to the US without loss of quality because it’s a fantastic and unique take on euro-gaming, with a beautiful theme on top.