Board in the Stacks: Herbaceous

Herbaceous is a simple set-collection card game where players are competing to pot herbs by strategic placement, and the swift collection, of sets of cards. Each player has exclusive access to their personal herb garden and shared access to a community garden. The only thing that could make this any more country is if Mary Berry came in, poked my herb biscuit, and then commented on my subtle (but well-formed) layers.

English baking aside, the turns are simple. They consists of two parts: First, a player can optionally pick up herbs from both their private and/or the community garden and place them in one of four containers for points. The only restriction is that every card picked up must be potted into the same container according to that container’s specified restrictions. Each container can be filled up only once so players need to be wily when they decide to pot on their turn. Remember kids, please pot responsibly.

The normal herbs which are all gorgeously rendered by Beth Sobel.

After taking the option potting action (or not), the player must plant some herbs. They will draw a card and place it face-up in either the community garden or in their personal garden. Then they draw a second card and place it in the location not chosen. Basically, at the end of a turn, one card is in the communal garden and one is in the personal garden. In the team version of the game, three cards are drawn with cards placed in the community garden, your private garden and one card is placed in your partner’s private garden.  

The community garden, my private garden and the draw deck.

The goal is to fill as much of your containers as possible. Each player has the same set of four containers: The Glass Jar can fit three herbs and is the only place to pot the Special Herbs which provide bonus points and ownership of the prestigious Herb Biscuit; the Small Pot can collect 1-6 different pairs of herbs; the Wooden Planter can accommodate 1-7 different herbs; and the Large Pot fits 1-7 herbs of the same type. The game ends when everyone fills their pots and/or are unable to pot anything. You score the amount of potted herbs for each container, any bonus points from the Herb Biscuit and special herbs, and one point for each unpotted herb in your personal garden. The Herb Biscuit is awarded to the first player to get the three special herbs (Chive, Mint, and Thyme) potted in their glass jar.

The three special herbs that provide bonus points but can only be potted in the glass jar.

Since it will be mentioned at least once during a session of this game, none of the herbs in the game are hallucinogenic and the bonus Herb Biscuit is not *that* type of edible. But this would be a wonderful expansion to the game if each player could have a secret garden where they grew … other things.

The End Game 

Herbaceous is a delightful combination of gentle push your luck and set collection. It thrives in low light and casual environments. It doesn’t ask too much from you and you don’t really want too much from it. Set collection is a slightly overdone game mechanism and I am surprised that it works so well here. If it were too simple, it wouldn’t be engaging but just barely ramping it up with the different containers made it more compelling. It also paired nicely with the push your luck mechanism. Players will be aware of which pots the competition is going but someone snagging a couple of the cards you want will slow you down without completely wiping you out. It is never overwhelming an overwhelming experience with most games ending with a fairly tight spread of points.

The much contended for Herb Biscuit. The bottom is not soggy and herbs are well-dispersed.

You are making very simple decisions. Do I want to pot right now? y/n. Then the decision is simply community garden or my garden. That is it → Pot? y/n and then My Garden? y/n. This entire game hinges on those two questions. Additionally, my version of the game came with three Flavor Cards (Peppercorn, Cinnamon, and Star Anise) which when added to the deck provide some additional actions when pulled. These were meant to ramp up the player interaction. However, the game didn’t need them and I prefer to play without them.

The Flavor Expansion that didn’t really add much flavor.

End of the day, Herbaceous is a welcoming and simple game with amazing artwork that plays well for emerging gamers but will likely bore most experienced ones after a couple of games. The slim ruleset and easy mechanisms will attract new players and the quick gameplay requires minimal investment. While the gameplay is fine, it would shrivel up and blow away in the wind without Beth Sobel’s delightful artwork. Her work can be found in some of my favorite Stonemaier Games such as Viticulture and Between Two Cities. It matches the theme and fits the mood of the game perfectly. The warm colors and breezy hues give the game a relaxing appeal. The game would be unpalatable with any other artist.

Four containers to fill with herbs and a well-stocked private garden.

Board in the Stacks: Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft

In Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft (BGG, Amazon), the famously super-smart brothers Sherlock and Mycroft are investigating an explosion in Parliament. But like most siblings, they couldn’t possibly work together and are competing against each to be the first to crack the case. Time is limited and they have one week to search and find clues, talk to contacts and solve the mystery.

The board had eight spaces for cards plus the ever-present Doctor Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Eight character cards are placed face-down on the board and as the days of the weeks drift by on an opioid-induced haze new characters are drawn and placed onto the board. The clue cards are shuffled and placed next to the board with four clues face up to form a market. Clue cards consist of numbered clues, wild cards, and map fragments. The numbered clues are a pyramid deck (I adore a pyramid deck) where there are three cards ranked a three, four cards ranked a four on up to nine cards ranked a nine. Lastly, each player gets three meeples and five magnifying glass tokens. The tokens are used to purchase clues, and the meeples are placed onto the board to complete actions.

The game is played in seven rounds. At the beginning of the round a new character card (two are added on day one) is added to the board. If you are familiar with the round cards in Agricola, this will sound familiar. Take the top card from the deck and place it in the spot appointed for the current day. Any meeples placed on the board from the previous round are stood up. One day one, each player has all their meeples so this can be ignored.

During a player’s turn, they will select a character card, move and place their meeple *flat* on it, and then take the card’s action. They can move any upright meeple to any card which currently does not have one of their own on it. Once a meeple is moved it is laid down to show it have been moved this round and can’t be moved again until the next round. Play then moves to the opposing player and this continues until all meeples have been moved and placed and three actions taken.

At the end of the round, any character card with two meeples are flipped over and unavailable for the following round. Any cards flipped the previous round are flipped back over and available the next round. Think about how exhausted you would be if *both* Holmes siblings grilled you in one day. The only ones immune to this are Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade who due to their constant interactions with the brothers have, no doubt, built up some amount of resistance.

I’ll spare you a description of all the cards. Dr Watson lets you spend one magnifying glass token to take one clue card from the market and place it in front of you. Mrs Hudson allows you to draw three magnifying glass tokens from the supply. And Inspector Lestrade lets you spend three magnifying glass tokens to pick any two clue cards from the market. When a clue card from the market it pulled, it is placed face-up for everyone to see. However, cards pulled face down from the deck remain secret and are placed face-down.

At the end of the game players can assign any wild cards (one wild card per clue type) and each of the number ranked clues are scored. The player with the most cards of a rank will get points equal to the rank of the card minus the number of cards the opposing player has. So if Sherlock had two of the three ranked cards and Mycroft had one, Sherlock would score two points for that rank. Bonuses are scored for having all of one type of clue. Map fragments are scored -1/1/3/6/10 points for 1/2/3/4/5 fragments.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is a very simple worker placement, set collection game. It feels like a step up from Lost Cities or Shotentoten. While most games like this will limit the amount of choices as the game progresses, the decision space increases as the game moves towards the end. The variability of the character cards makes it more difficult to form a consistently winning strategy and requires more tactical actions. The order of your actions is just as important as the actions you are taking especially with the flipping of character cards as they get exhausted.  

There are some additional cards that can be included in the game if you wish to increase the difficulty. Sherlock/Mycroft cards allow clues to be reserved from the market and the villain cards cause players to lose clue cards or magnifying glass tokens or decrease the number of actions that can be taken. Personally, I preferred the game without these additions. In fact, the way the game randomizes which characters will be added to the tableau and in which order provides enough variability. This prevents a stable strategy from emerging early in the game and forces players to be more fluid.

Endgame: There is always room in my collection for simple worker placement games and Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft, for what it lacks in theme, makes it up in simple game-play and enjoyment. This is not the immersive experience that is present in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective but more a head to head abstracted game of push and pull as you attempt to deduct what clues your competitor are collecting. New gamers will have an easy time getting into this game and it is a perfect introduction to worker-placement style games. For experienced gamers, there are slight but pleasant notes of Ticket to Ride and Agricola that fit into a much briefer time frame.

Board in the Stacks: Pocket Madness

Pocket Madness (BGG, Amazon) is a funky little filler card game from Passport Games for 2 – 4 players which plays in 30 minutes. It is inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos cycle of books and stories by H.P. Lovecraft. In the game, each player is delving into the adorably dark mysteries of the void and beyond by researching, opening portals, and publishing what you’ve seen and learned of the beings who reside there. There is a danger to all this research into the unknown as players will slowly grow mad as they learn more and more. It is, quite literally, publish or perish at Miskatonic U.  

There are two types of cards — Portal Cards and Location Cards. There are 7 portal cards numbered from 6-12 and they are placed face up in the middle of the table. The Location cards are numbered 6-12, and they are 6 sixes, 7 sevens, 8 eights and so on. This is known as a pyramid deck…and I love a good pyramid deck. The location cards are shuffled and each player gets dealt 2, and 17 cards are removed and placed face-down. The remainder are flipped face-up. Then the two decks (one face up and and the other face down) are shuffled together and fanned out on the table. The result is an array of cards some exposed and others hidden.

The Portal Cards are up top and the splash of cards below (17 face-down and the rest face-up)

I know this may sound complex but this isn’t much harder than setting up for a game of “Fish.” Don’t sweat it, you’ll do just fine.

On their turn players can take one of three actions.

  1. They can “research” by drawing the first 1-3 cards from the deck.
  2. They can “publish their research” by playing a complete run of cards from 6-12.  When you play a run every other player needs to take a madness token. For every subsequent run played during that round an additional madness token is collected. So, for the first run each opponent gets one madness token. The 2nd run gives 2 madness tokens to each opponent and the 3rd gives 3 madness tokens to each opponent.
  3. They can play sets of three or more of the same card and collect the corresponding portal card of the set played. Portal cards provide the owning player with a special power they can do once a round.


Play will continue until one person plays all their cards or the draw pile is exhausted. If a player runs out of cards first then that person wins the round and can discard half their madness tokens and all the other players gain one. If the round ends because the draw pile is exhausted, everyone takes one last turn to play cards and then players get one madness token for each different location still in their hand.

Another round then begins and keeps on going until one player had 10 madness at the end of a round. At that point the game is over and the person with the fewest madness tokens (so the most sane person) wins.

Here we have an example of some Portal Cards and the abilities they provide.

Pocket Madness is essentially a rummy game where the object is to draw up cards into your hand in order to make sets and/or runs and then meld them to score points. In Pocket Madness, rather than scoring points, you are punishing other players with madness by making them read your hideous thesis or by playing runs and sets, and gaining extra abilities.

This is an enjoyable enough filler game. Nothing particularly exciting. The theme is thin. The art is cute and colorful. The gameplay is engaging and provides enough interaction to mess with other players. Those new to the space may not be attracted to the theme and be turned off by the tongue-twisting names. However, the rules are simple and familiar enough that as long as you don’t try to sound out “Nyarlathotep” or “Shub-Niggurath,” you will likely find a fun and accessible card game here.  

Buy it if you have need for Cthulhu themed filler and if Cthulhu games are popular at your library. Otherwise pass on it.

A set of 12’s and THE GUG

Games in the Stacks! The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game

The Game

Stefan Feld’s The Castles of Burgundy is a classic Eurogame. The components are simple and barely adequate. The theme hardly a veneer (you can chip it off with your fingernail). The player interaction minimal. The strategy deep and the paths to victory many. Ironically, there is nothing glamorous about The Castles of Burgundy. Yet, despite the lack of looks, there is no mistaking the fact that The Castles of Burgundy has a solid mechanical foundation that makes this game a popular choice. Despite this, it isn’t one of my favorite games. Set up is a drag. When you calculate into the equation teaching new players, it turns into a 2+ hour drudge. Even with two players (and I hear often that it is the perfect two player game), it tends to hit the 90 minute mark more often than not.

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