Farming and socializing simulator Stardew Valley has proven hugely popular, selling over 20 million copies across a variety of platforms since its release in 2016. With its mix of resource generation and strategic building, it’s a shoo-in for a co-op board game adaptation and now we have one, courtesy of the same publisher as the video game, ConcernedApe.
Putting the variety of a video game into a cardboard box is no easy task, let alone trying to replicate the chilly feel of valley farming. So it’s a brave step for a video game developer to try their hand at designing board games for the first time. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone better to capture the spirit of the original, at least.
What’s in the box
At the top of the box is the rulebook with a nice welcome letter on the cover, reminiscent of the opening of the video game. Below, sheet after sheet of perforated cardboard tiles. Fish tiles, mineral tiles, crop tiles, salvage tiles, and even ancient artifact tiles. There are so many tiles that the game even includes a special tray to sort and store those that don’t belong in the draw bags provided.
The fold-out board showing a map of Stardew Valley as well as numerous accounting spaces, as well as decks of cards, dice and pawns complete the content. The game uses standard game pawns rather than miniatures or standing figures and the dice are custom printed.
Everything is illustrated in a fun cartoon style that’s very reminiscent of the source game without veering into pixel art. This gives the game a strong sense of identity, both evoking the video game version while clearly being its own thing. The whole assembly looks great on the table, even without the benefit of miniatures.
Rules and how it is played
Given that the video game offers a smooth tutorial-based introduction, you might be surprised to find that Stardew Valley: The Board Game is moderately complex. At the start of the game, you will distribute a selection of objectives from two decks. One is Grandpa’s Objectives, which give varied, high-level objectives, such as each player completing the game with three friends or exploring the bottom of the mine. The other deck determines what is needed to repair the parts of the community center. These are resource based, requiring amounts of things like gold, fish or minerals and start face down. Your playgroup will need to work together to reveal and complete them all in order to win.
At the start of each turn, there’s a season card that shows either a festival or a chain of pre-turn effects that can range from rain watering your fields to the evil Joja Corp slamming charges on the locations of the board. There’s a lot of variety here, including additional sub-event decks for more detail and it really helps to keep players on their toes and engage in what would otherwise be a boring phase of bookkeeping.
The actual game involves you picking a location on the board and performing two relevant actions there, or performing one, then moving to an adjacent location to perform a second action there and search along the way. Location actions include things like buying seeds from Pierre’s general store in town, planting them and then moving to the fields to water them and eventually harvest them. Over time, you will be able to fish in various locations, buy buildings and animals for your farm, explore the mine, and donate items to the museum.
For the most part, actions allow you to get or trade resources that you can use to further the game’s objectives. And the first time you play, you might be surprised. While the Stardew Valley video game has a reputation for being a relaxing activity, the board game is quite demanding. With some of your secret goals, you need to reveal a few of them early on and then come up with a game plan to achieve them. And if you don’t plan well, it is very possible to lose.
If you prefer to play a more relaxed session, Stardew Valley: The Board Game offers less challenging difficulty sessions. But from the perspective of the average cooperative board game, that’s a good thing. It rewards repeated play to learn the nuances of strategy and encourages groups to work together and find creative solutions to problems. The varied objectives ensure this process is never easy, while the random shuffling of cards and dice rolling ensures it never gets mechanical.
However, these random effects create issues with some of the lenses. One of Grandpa’s goals is to get to the bottom of the mine and explore it. There is a mix of dice rolls and card draws and it can be extremely finicky. Another objective requires legendary fish which are very rare and you rely on luck to get them out of the bag of fish tiles, followed by a successful dice roll to catch them.
You can, of course, leave out the more luck-based objectives before handing them out, but luck is built into the whole system. To reveal community center objectives, you need hearts. To get hearts you need friends and to get friends you need to give them a gift, but you won’t know what gift until you meet them by flipping the card. It can cost valuable time in a usually tight game, but all you can do is try to improve your luck by collecting as many different items as possible before trying to win a friend.
It’s also a game that tends to run out of steam towards the end. Revealing goals, creating a plan to achieve them, and then seeing them come to fruition as your farm grows and prospers are the key elements of the call here. Aside from the excitement of the tile draws, the actual spins are a bit mechanical and start repeating as the game draws to a close. Often it will be clear whether or not you are going to win a few rounds before you get there.