Anybody who has read even a few reviews on this blog knows that I love Button Shy. I feel like at this point I should be walking the streets in a Button Shy jumpsuit, like a NASCAR driver with a major sponsor. But what can I say? They make great, unique games and I will gladly take the opportunity to evangelize them whenever I can.
If you don’t know what Button Shy is,it’s an independent publisher who specialize in micro games that are released in actual, literal wallets and they have been on fire the past year. They’ve seen some of their most popular and beloved games released in 2018 and 2019. Games like the excellent Circle the Wagons, a two player tile laying game in the Wild West, Sprawlopolis, a cooperative city builder, and Stew, an amazing mix of push your luck, deduction and bluffing, are all proof that Button Shy is in their publishing prime.
As if those titles weren’t enough, Button Shy is also hot off the heels of their most successful Kickstarter project ever: Tussie Mussie. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, she of Wingspan fame, Tussie Mussie is an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ card game based around the Victorian era fad of communicating through flowers. Over 4,000 backers were part of the Tussie Mussie campaign, and I had the fortune to review it here on this blog. Check out my review here and, SPOILERS, the game was awesome.
Naturally, the next game in their Kickstarter line up has some massive shoes to fill. Button Shy’s latest offering is Seasons of Rice, a two player tile laying game set in the world of Cambodian rice farming. Just like with Tussie Mussie, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Seasons of Rice sent to me, courtesy of Button Shy. Is Seasons of Rice another gleaming jewel in the ever-growing crown of Button Shy’s recent hits or is it a disappointing step back? Thankfully, it’s the former.
As I briefly touched upon, Seasons of Rice, designed by Corry Damy is a two player tile laying game and it’s all about trying to create the best rice paddy farms in Cambodia. Like all Button Shy games, it’s just a deck of 18 cards. The cards are double sided: on one side is an Ancestor which provide bonus points or special abilities while the other side is a landscape illustration that you’ll be building your rice paddies with, featuring things like paths, farmers, houses and roaming buffalo.
The game is played over two seasons: the Wet Season and the Dry Season. The Wet Season incorporates a play and pass card drafting mechanic in the style of Sushi Go or 7 Wonders while the Dry Season has players drafting cards from a display left over from the Wet Season.
First, let’s start with the Wet Season. The two players start with a hand of seven cards and on each turn, players simultaneously choose two cards to play. One of those cards go into the player’s personal landscape, which is what you’re trying to build and expand over the course of the game, while the other goes into a row of cards that will be drafted from during the Dry Season. After this is done, players exchange hands and do the same thing. Rinse and repeat till your hands are empty and you move onto the Dry Season, where players simply alternate taking one card from the display formed during the Wet Season.
This drafting system is one of the things I really like about this game. The fact that you must pick two cards, giving one to yourself and giving the other to a communal row for a later round is really unique. It reminds me of games like Biblios and Herbaceous, which feature similar wrinkles on card drafting. You’ll obviously want to take cards that help yourself, but what about the card you’re punting to the Dry Season? Do you choose a card that might come in handy for your landscape later or do you choose something that appears useful to your opponent to block them from using it during the Wet Season? This makes for some real interesting decision making and helps set the tone for the second half of the game.
Of course, the drafting is just small part of the game compared to the actual tile laying. Considering the building of your landscape is what actually nets you the points in the game, you need to be crafty and smart with how you build things out. The rules of placement are pretty typical of the genre. You have to place adjacently and features in one card have to match a feature in the other card. The cool thing about Season of Rice though, is that you can place cards partially adjacent to each other, as long as you’re connecting like features. This is not something I’ve seen before in the genre and it leads to some cool looking landscapes. Being able to stagger the cards also opens things up strategically, allowing you to really get creative with how you form the paddies. This is a very good thing, since I was concerned landscapes would look too similar game to game as a result of the small deck size. Button Shy once again proves that it’s not the size of your deck, but how you use it.
As you build your landscape, you’re working to close paddies up on your farm. Closing paddies means you have a continuous, closed path cordoning off a set of squares in your landscape. You score based on the amount of squares and houses in the paddy as well getting bonuses from the number of farmers and buffaloes toiling away inside of it.
This means that it’s not simply about building the biggest paddy. A paddy with just two squares but a buffalo and a farmer in it can net you more points than a paddy with three empty squares. Not only that, but players score one point for every closed paddy they have in their landscape at the end of the game. So that means the player who small balls their way through the game, closing lots of small paddies and getting short bursts of points, will also find themselves with a bigger bonus at the end of the game than the person who patiently waited to complete just a few, large paddies. Of course, a well-built large paddy can net you double digit points and can help overcome the fact that you may end the game with just a mere three or four closed paddies. As like any great game, it’s a tight balancing act and the player who more shrewdly builds their farm with the cards available will end up winning.
The last thing I’ll praise about this game is the Ancestors. I very briefly mentioned them earlier as the opposite side of the landscape cards. At the beginning of the game, players have a choice of two Ancestors. Whichever one they choose will give them some sort of scoring condition or bonus ability to be exploited throughout the game. These Ancestors all provide a nice distinct feel to each game and help formulate the type of rice paddies you’ll want to construct. For example, there is Sovannarith, who gives you 4 points at the end of the game if you have more farmers in your landscape than your opponent, promoting a farmer heavy strategy. Then there is Vivadh, who allows you to increase the amount of points gained from buffaloes when they’re combined with farmers in the same paddy. With 18 possible Ancestors to be randomly selected from every game, chances are good you’ll end up with a different one, making Seasons of Rice very replayable for its diminutive size.
Unfortunately, every review needs to point out some negatives and this is no exception. I think my biggest issue with the game is that it can be tough to parse and visualize how certain cards can fit in your landscape. The game has lots of angles and zig zags and it isn’t quite as easy to see how things will line up and set up for future turns as, say, the roads in Carcassonne or the different types of colored areas in Kingdomino. In pretty much every playthrough I had of this, there was a lot of taking cards and physically lining them up, apologizing to the other player for taking so long as you tried to figure out how exactly the cards can best be used. It’s entirely possible I’m just dumb, but I do feel like the spatial aspect is a bit trickier and not as intuitive as other tile laying games I’ve played.
If you don’t mind a bit of a learning curve with the spatial puzzle of the game, Seasons of Rice is an enjoyable tile laying game with a wonderful and unique drafting system. At just 10-15 minutes per play, you’ll definitely find yourself playing games of this back to back to back. The Kickstarter for Seasons of Rice launches July 9th and if you want to experience first hand why Button Shy is one of the hottest independent publishers in the industry, I highly suggest you check it out.