Orchard: A 9 card solitaire game - Review by Nick O'Neill
There's a spot in most people's hearts for the small guy, whether it be the underdog athlete who wins a major tournament, the local muso with a guitar who suddenly makes it big, or even the unknown game designer who comes up with a really great idea. Who knows why that kind of thing gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it just does, more so when that success or that recognition is deserved and overdue. Thankfully the board gaming community is so tight and so friendly that with a bit of luck the efforts of the smaller designers eventually get noticed and they end up getting something like the recognition they deserve.
Board gaming also allows smaller publishers and designers the opportunity to get their product out there, and while the same may be true of publish-it-yourself authors and musicians, the cardboard community still remains small by comparison. Add to this the fact that the members of Board Game Geek (the site for board games) run occasional competitions and challenges to spur their fellow aficionados to greater heights, inspire their designs, and elicit constructive feedback, and all the ingredients appear to be in place to allow talented designers, whether they are happy as hobbyists or aspire to something bigger, to showcase their wares.
Enter, stage left, Mark Tuck, professional graphic designer and hobbyist board game designer from London, whose efforts include a range of solitaire print and play games, most of which are decently rated, almost all of which would be totally unknown to anybody who is not interested - no, make that really, really interested - in solitaire print and play games. Mark has been producing games of this ilk for some time now, and while I have heard of Snooker Solitaire enough to recognise his name I had never played one of his games until recently, also because I am one of those people who is not really interested in the effort associated with printing and assembling games.
Well, we should all be interested in Mark's Orchard: A 9 card solitaire game, and I am here to attempt persuade you to craft and play this little gem. Rather embarrassingly, I now cannot remember how I first came across this design - most likely it was a blog post, possibly a link from some other game's page - but I was intrigued enough by the description of the gameplay to make my own copy with a deck of blank cards and some felt tip pens, and it is, without doubt, the best money I have never spent on a game.
But you don't just have to take my word for it - Orchard was also the winner of the 2018 9-Card Nanogame Print And Play Design Contest on BGG. As the title of the competition suggests, this annual gamefest is for designs consisting of 9 cards (although both sides can be used) and up to eighteen other components. Orchard does that double-sided card thing, and the remaining components are three sets of five dice and two tokens or cubes, so it all sneaks in just under the hard limit of eighteen extra bits. Each set of dice should in theory be in a different colour, and for the purposes of the game it is best if they are yellow, red and blue, but I have played with various different types, so while having the correct dice is aesthetically pleasing and makes the game ever so slightly easier to play, it is by no means obligatory. Orchard also won the category for Best Rulebook in that BGG competition, which hints at a clear and clean design, and it genuinely takes only two or three minutes to learn, although, in common with some of the very best games, it takes much longer to learn to play well.
If playing with the nine-card deck (the game is also playable with eighteen single-sided cards) the sides are randomised and a single card is placed in the centre of the playing area as the starting orchard, and in each turn you draw two cards and decide which one of them to add to those that have already been played. Each card has a different design and represents six trees in the orchard, pears, apples or plums (hence the yellow, red and blue dice) and the trick is to overlap cards so that like trees cover each other. Whenever you manage to place the same type of tree on top of another you score points. The first time this happens a die is placed on that tree with the 1 uppermost, but the next layer scores 3, and another would score the maximum of 6 points. Each subsequent layer of card is therefore more valuable than the previous one.
It all sounds pretty easy and simple, and so it would be were it not for the fact that a player is only allowed to overlap a tree that does not match twice in the entire game. Each time that happens the player needs to place a spoiling cube on that tree, losing three points in the final scoring, and while it is easy at the start of the game to tell yourself that you will just avoid spoiling, it becomes very tricky to score decent points without incurring a penalty at some point.
There is also the slight wrinkle, not immediately apparent upon the first play, that each colour of tree only has the five dice. This may not sound like a feature of the game, but it is easy to find yourself backed into a corner in the late turns and unable to place the die that you would like to, or, conversely, with a surfeit of points available for a particular type of tree but no die to place. Here, once more, the spoiling cubes come into play, for a spoiled tree that already has a die on it allows you to return that die to your pool. It is an expensive option, but in extremis it is there and can be used tactically to free things up.
Having two cards in hand on each turn apart from the final one is another clever touch. With a single card players would find themselves backed into very tight corners for almost the whole game, and certainly at the mercy of what is in their hand, but having a choice of two allows greater flexibility on each individual turn and also the possibility for more skilled players to set themselves up for some big scores on future turns. It balances luck and skill in an impressive way, one that at least makes Orchard's players feel that they can outrun whatever fate might throw at them.
Once the final card has been placed the game is over, and it simply becomes a case of adding up the scores on the dice and subtracting three points for each spoiling cube. The rules come with fruity levels of achievement for different scores, from "Pal-tree" to "Pretty Pear-fect (take a bough)", but it is frustratingly difficult to break into those top echelons. Beating Orchard at the highest level of achievement definitely takes some time, so the game remains challenging through several plays.
The game might not sound like much in its mechanisms, and I must admit that I thought I would get a couple of plays out of it and then move on to something else, but it is surprisingly addictive and challenging, and there are so many available placements for each of the two cards you get to choose from on all but your final turn that it is impossible to come away from a play of Orchard without the feeling that you could have done slightly better...and it only takes another ten minutes or so to get in another play and find out. It is emphatically far greater than the sum of its meagre parts might initially suggest, and has that great quality of nagging you, urging you to sneak in just the one more play. After all, work can wait.
Orchard is pretty much the perfect microgame, portable in the extreme and very nearly the easiest thing in the world to get out and play on practically any surface, and it neatly avoids that disappointing lack of depth that so many of these kinds of games have, which are good perhaps for three or four plays but not much more. Orchard powered past ten plays for me in very short measure and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. There are even challenges appearing for the game on BGG's Solo Challenges list, so you can see just how poorly you play compared to the others out there who are beating the game.
Even for players who do not usually print and play games, and I write as one of those, Orchard is worth putting together - just grab a few blank cards and some dice from your favourite Euro and go planting in your own little patch of land. It is worthy of addition to pretty much any collection, but will surely find a good home among gamers who tend to do most of their gaming solo, and for other players it will fill in those awkward gaps in the day when other games are either too long or too light to do the required job.
In summary, Orchard is in interesting and fun game, one that is cheap to put together, easy to learn and play, but difficult to master. Of course it does not posses the depths of something like Agricola or The 7th Continent, but compare it to other games that have a similarly short playing time and you might see quite how much this little production punches above its weight. In short, and in the spirit of the puns that pepper Tuck's work, it's a peach.
But there's more. Mark Tuck has now made Orchard available in a printed to order version with all the components supplied to you by The Game Crafter, cards, dice and cubes all tucked together in a small box, presumably a Tuck-box (the image is up there in the header). I have already ordered my copy, which will completely replace my scrappy homegrown version and supply me with the correct dice to boot, and I suspect that it will live in the backpack that I take with me pretty much everywhere.
Whether you want to craft this game yourself, or spend a little money buying the preprinted version, there is now no excuse not to try this game out and to discover what it has to offer, to support the small guy, and, maybe to ensure that he can continue to devote time to developing more games. Thus far Tuck has come up with games on subjects as diverse as fleas, tour guides, snooker, orchards and many other things besides. I have no idea what he might come up with next, but I will be keeping my eye on the 2019 Nanogame contest on BGG and following with interest.
My name is Nick O'Neill and I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including complete seasons of Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it. I review for GamesQuest UK, write for Yaah! Magazine and tweet gaming thoughts @meepleonboard. In real life I am @ukcomposer.