Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Walnut Grove: Not of This World

Walnut Grove is a cross between jigsaw puzzles and worker placement, with the players as farmers who find their plots merging into a single landscape as time passes and their holdings grow.
-- from BGG

Once you start laying out tiles, you notice something funny about Walnut Grove. I've lived on Earth most of my life, and lived in Minnesota almost as long. This farm you're creating looks nothing like a typically terrestrial rural area.

There are: water areas, woods areas, yellow wheat fields, green fields with some sort of milk-able animals grazing on it. And mountainous quarries.

IAnd what about these farmhands?

There's all sorts of laborers for hire in Walnut Grove, of all different colors. At first I thought the different colors denoted a specialty. Like the yellow laborers produced more wheat in wheat fields or something.

But the color denotes what they eat.

At first, I made a slight alteration in my own mind: you were paying these laborers in a specific type of resource. I could envision a seasonal worker at the time signing a deal to be paid at the end of the season in a specific good they were interested in.

But the rulebook is specific: laborers are eating these resources, and sometimes they demand twice and much as originally promised. What laborer only drinks milk, or only eats fish?

An Alien One.

The Theme of Walnut Grove falls apart pretty fast unless you take the drastic leap of assuming you are in some Alien Science Experiment.

Prison? Zoo? Laboratory? Created long ago by inscrutable gods, the strange planet sits in its own pocket dimension…inescapable, unobservable, solitary to its bizarre inhabitants.

Each "field" is its own biome. Separated by an invisible barrier, each field contains a complete ecosystem along with all the requirements for a particular intelligent species to thrive.

You can send laborers to produce resources in any area, all of them can breathe the air, and harvest the 3-eyed whale fish or milk pods or whatever. However the color of the laborer pawn refers to the alien's home biome, and when it comes time to feed he (or she, or it) MUST devour a resource cube from that color. All other colors an anathema.

This means yellow laborers only eat from the wheat fields. Blue laborers only eat from the blue fish fields. White laborers only eat from the green milk fields. It is a simple system, once you understand.

If This is a Town, Where's Are All the People?

The town of Walnut Grove (if you want to call it that) is eerily deserted. The buildings look like facades in a barren artificial world. Yet each building provides valuable opportunities for advancement!

At one store, you might purchase a new laborer in exchange for a cube of milk.

At another, you might build a new barn on your property in exchange for a cube of milk and a cube of wood.

In fact, milk is the primary lubrication for a variety of commercial endeavors, replaced by stone when you move up to the victory point doubling bonus tiles. Who do you pay the milk to? I imagine some advanced android, constructed from the same artificial cells found in the surrounding plants.

A God of Your Own Realm

Finally, tile-laying in the game gives an interesting feeling. Since you are allowed to pick from a couple different tiles, and then choose the exact spot you want the new tile to go, it feels much more like you are creating your world rather than exploring it.

This is a very powerful feeling, to terraform blank useless space into mountains, or lakes or grand green fields full of chittering multi-segmented milk-producing organisms.

But it does't feel like Earth.

Perhaps it's a test of sorts

But Who Wants to Live on Earth Anyway?

From the perspective of a strange organism constantly fighting against the constraints of the machine around me there is something refreshing in Walnut Grove.

Making the long journey to an alien world, where I can forge my own empire out of the empty wasteland, staffed by milk-sluicing reptoids appeals greatly to me. So by no means does any of the previous commentary intend to steer you away from this board game.

And the mechanisms are awesome (although some could do better). But more on that to come.


  1. It occurs to me that Jay Tummelson (Rio Grande) would never have published this game. He is way too much of a thematic stickler.

    1. Yup, its pretty obvious the mechanisms were number one, and the theme was loosely built around them. Plus the art is terrible (except for the box cover). Terrible! Luckily the game is pretty fun with the right mindset.