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Stardew Valley: The Board Game—a loving production but a mixed review from Grandpa


Stardew Valley: The Board Game—a loving production but a mixed review from Grandpa

Charles Theel

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Stardew Valley: The Board Game was a surprise February announcement. Somehow this colorful collaboration between Cole Medeiros and Stardew Valley‘s sole developer Eric Barone was kept hush-hush for two years. When it was finally announced, it sold out quickly.

Given the long development time and the obvious demand, expectations were high for this cardboard adaptation to deliver on its potential. Unfortunately, there’s a few sticks and crumpled refuse mixed in with the game’s gifts of starfruit and ore.

Mini-game madness

When you first open the large box, none of these concerns will be on your mind. In terms of looks, this board game is impeccable. It captures the bright, whimsical tone of its namesake exceptionally well. The box is packed with cute custom dice, a mound of cards, and enough beautiful tokens to bury the entire valley. Even better, the package includes a plastic tray to store all of the market tiles, which speeds up play and helps limit component sprawl.

The board game also shows an obvious love for its source material. This is evident not only in the artwork and graphic design but in the construction of the various mini-games. Pretty much every task you’d expect to carry out is present here, each with its own sub-system to explore.

For instance, you can take a gentle stroll with your fishing pole. To catch anything, you roll three of the colorful dice and then select a fish from the public row with matching symbols. The hitch is that you can only choose fish with a tile border that matches your current location: ocean, lake, or river. It’s a simple system, but it’s engaging to manage that row of fish tiles (which are themselves drawn from a large bag). Trash will even occasionally clog things up, but you can remove it when you fail to catch anything of value.

The mine is the most complex task, requiring you to roll a pair of dice and then match their coordinates on the mine map. This is a grid of sorts, randomized from a larger deck of cards. Lucky results will yield geodes that can be taken to the smith and opened. The smith of course requires another roll of the dice, which can result in artifacts or ore.

While fishing is relatively simple, you could spend an entire game focusing on the mine, where you can explore deeper levels and find more precious minerals and items. As you descend, you also reveal new monsters which may inflict harm on your miner.

The most relaxing activity is purchasing seeds and planting them in your garden. This slick little procedure has you placing crop tiles on a track. These planted tokens will advance over time, and the process can be sped up if you water them. It is peaceful—and quite satisfying—to watch a crop germinate and grow into prized blueberries or peppers. The mechanism wonderfully captures the spirit of Stardew Valley as you perform a task, take a breath, and just relax. Sure, you can give things a bit of a nudge, but growth continues even without your assistance. Just hope no crows randomly pop up to devour those immature plants.

You can also buy animals which produce milk, or you can donate artifacts to the museum, or you can make friends by gifting those elements you’ve harvested. It’s all here and lovingly crafted for fans of Stardew Valley.

So many gorgeous components. Here's the market tray.
Enlarge / So many gorgeous components. Here’s the market tray.

The vibe

So why isn’t Grandpa giving up the Statue of Perfection? Because Grandpa’s a cretin.

Instead of a gentle evaluation of your progress at generous intervals, this old dude kicks you in the rear and demands instant gratification.

Grandpa’s evaluation matters from the get-go. At the start of a game, you deal out four goal cards, which dictate your objectives. These include requirements such as reaching level 12 of the mine or having 10 gold per player, and they must be accomplished by the end of a single year.

Players cooperate and mosey about town, engaging in mini-games to get their farms up and running. Each player must establish a self-sufficient economy in service to the goal cards, but it’s easy to get distracted by all of the different options.

Unfortunately, I found the goal system suffocating and uneven. Some goals may be accomplished with ease, while others will prove annoyingly difficult. In addition to finishing these objectives, you will also need to spend time unlocking bundles to complete the community center, further ratcheting up the pressure. There’s little room to breathe and you can’t waste time fishing for fun.

This style of board game, with its co-operative objectives and a time crunch, is a typical approach to modern design, and it makes sense at a high level. However, it does frame the game’s strong reliance on randomness —via dice rolling and card drawing—in a more negative light. While your decisions certainly matter, the output of those decisions is often at the whims of the game as opposed to the whims of the players. This is not at all a game for those seeking a high level of strategic input.

I’m generally fine with that. And the mini-games here are charming and legitimately enjoyable. But given all the randomness, the oppressive time limit really rubs your face in the dirt.

Friends, and the gifts they love.
Enlarge / Friends, and the gifts they love.

It feels like a missed opportunity. The current system comes across more as a one-season speedrun event as opposed to the feeling of laid-back exploration than many of the video game’s fans would expect. Letting players live in the board game longer as long as they’d like might have fit the spirit of the video game better. Some optional rules do include a scoring system, and I suppose you could ignore the game’s natural time limit, but the game systems themselves aren’t intended to scale for a longer period of time.

The time limit was probably necessary because the game itself is already quite slow. It takes far too long with three or four players, as each additional participant adds roughly 45 minutes to the playtime. With this many players, you will undoubtedly want to flip to the back of the rulebook and use the shorter game variant. (The game’s official storefront includes this warning: “It’s really important to us that as a buyer you understand Stardew Valley: The Board Game is not a casual quick game… If your game group or family prefers short playtimes [less than 45 minutes] with a small number of rules and components, this game might not be a good fit.”)

The current design approach, with its prickly timed goals, feels so-so. It does offer an entertaining experience to fans of the video game who are perhaps not already jaded by a huge collection of other board games in their basements. But it ultimately fails to capture the fundamentally relaxing nature of Stardew Valley, which is unfortunate. Maybe come back with a diamond in a year’s time and we can re-evaluate.



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