Late-stage prototype pictured below. Art is final; graphic design isn’t. Pumpkin Patch: Bad Seeds will be on Kickstarter in the first half of July.
Pumpkin Patch: Bad Seeds. It’s the kind of schlocky, B-movie premise that tempts less scrupulous critics to say childish things like “a hauntingly good time”. But rest assured that the straight-laced, always-professional games coverage that you’ve come to expect from The Thoughtful Gamer will not be moved by a game about evil pumpkins, no matter how amusingly macabre their design. I have not, and will never be, accused of hyperbole or found to be an alliterative punsman!
But, I mean, look at these pumpkins. They’re clearly up to no good. And they’ve got their deranged crow friends (or enemies? I’m unclear on the plot) around to annoy the players profusely. But hiding behind all of the gruesome art is an interesting sort of abstract puzzle game that provides some genuine moments of good, old fashioned thought.
The game is comprised of a deck of cards numbered 1-8 and two of the aforementioned crows. Each number is associated with a different pumpkin, each of which have a particular ability. On your turn you’re going to pick a card, play it to the display, and gather the appropriate number of points (called “seeds” here). How many points are appropriate? Depends on the card. The 1’s will start a new plot and give you only a couple of points. But if you manage to connect a whole bunch of orange pumpkins when you drop a 2 down, you could rake in the points by the handful.
The restricting factor is that you can only place a card down on a space if it’s the next ascending number in that stack. In a 2-player game in particular this creates an immediate, interesting problem: the 2’s are both orange and score points based on how many orange cards they can connect. So if you place one down and there’s space to add to that collection of contiguous orange cards, you’re only opening up a play for your opponent to also lay down a 2 but get one additional point.
In abstract games in particular there’s this idea of “tempo”, where you want to make plays that not only reward you immediately, but also against your opponent in the pace of the game. In chess, for example, a move that further develops a piece and puts the opponent in check gains tempo, because you’re not only advanced the piece, you’ve also forced your opponent to probably do something they didn’t want to do before on their turn. Tempo is exceedingly difficult to attain in Pumpkin Patch, so much so that a move that does clearly give you some tempo may be the play that ultimately wins you the game.
The crows are a key part of this, as they block cards from being played on or moved and you have to move one each turn. The two player game again utilizes them best, as you get ownership of a crow at the beginning of the game–you’re only allowed to move that one. So if you need to block a critical space, you only get to block it for a turn. In a 3-player game each person can move either of the crows, and that creates a fair number of “crow camping” situations where the same spot is blocked for many turns.
I get the impression that the core of the game was developed and then patched. Many of the game mechanisms seem like necessary band aids covering up what would otherwise be fatal flaws. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Sometimes in an effort to patch up a problem in a game you develop a system more interesting and engaging than would be there otherwise. I think the crows are a decent example of that, but so is the discard rule. In Pumpkin Patch you’re allowed to discard as many cards as you want at the end of each turn before drawing back up to three. Ostensibly this rule is in place to prevent someone from getting stuck with a bad hand of late-game cards. In practice it’s a bit more interesting than that. Certain cards in this game simply have greater point potential than other games. Of particular import is the 5 card, which allows you to move another card and then score points as if you had played that card. I’ve seen dramatic point swings happen because of that card. So if you draw one in the early game, do you hold onto it to make sure you have one when the opportunity comes around? Do you risk not drawing card you can play and wasting a turn? In a game that is designed to be very close throughout this is a legitimately tough decision.
Another little mechanism that seems like a patch is the predetermined pile of 1, 2, and 3 cards set out from the beginning of the game that either player can play from instead of using a card from their hand. This one doesn’t work so well outside of mitigating some of the randomness that comes from drawing from a pile of cards. Most often it simply causes people to fall into that trap of zero-tempo plays I alluded to above where you simply open up a better opportunity for your opponent. Still, it’s probably better than no pile at all.
The part of the design that has me most uncertain is the 8 card–the final pumpkin that, when placed, immediately ends the game. It also grants you 5 points, which is quite a bit. Most turns you’re going to be getting around 2-4 points, so a 5 point swing is quite significant. On the plus side it plays well into that risk/reward dynamic with how you can cycle your hand of cards. But it feels like so many points that whoever gets the chance to throw it down and end the game is probably going to win.
This gets into a further issue that I alluded to earlier. In the 2 player game in particular it’s so difficult to get any kind of point separation from your opponent that, if you do, it can feel like the game-winning maneuver. The alternative, however, is that the 8 pumpkin becomes the game-winning maneuver. Neither are completely satisfying when you look back on them.
However, that’s not to say that Pumpkin Patch isn’t an interesting game while you’re playing it, even if the conclusion can feel a bit lackluster. It’s another abstract game, like Onitama, that puts a soft cap on how far you can plan ahead, making it an abstract with some modern euro sensibilities. During the course of the game you’re going to have a good time puzzling out which plays net you the most points, and which limit your opponent the most. You’re going to have fun fighting passive-aggressive crow battles over key spaces. Most of all you’re going to enjoy the delightful art and the casual introversion of Pumpkin Patch: Bad Seeds. I’m not going to put it in any kind of modern abstract pantheon, but I can’t deny that it’s a good time.
Review copy provided by publisher.
+Good puzzly gameplay
-Difficult to make clever plays or gain momentum
-Final pumpkin seems unsatisfyingly significant
Length: 30 Minutes
Learning Curve: 1/5
Brain Burn: 2/5