The farming and socializing simulator Stardew Valley has proved very 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 cooperative board game adaptation and now we’ve got one, courtesy of the same publisher as the video game, ConcernedApe.
Cramming the sheer variety of a video game into a cardboard box is no easy task, let alone trying to replicate the chill feel of farming in the valley. So it’s a brave step for a video game developer to try their hand at board game design 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. Underneath that is sheet after sheet of punch-out cardboard tiles. Tiles for fish, tiles for minerals, tiles for crops, tiles for scavenging and even tiles for ancient artefacts. There are so many tiles that the game even includes a special tray to sort and store those that don’t belong in the supplied draw bags.
The fold-out board showing a map of Stardew Valley as well as lots of bookkeeping spaces, plus some decks of cards, dice and pawns round out the contents. The game uses standard gaming pawns rather than miniatures or standees 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. It gives the game a strong sense of identity, at once evoking the video game version while still clearly being its own thing. The whole assemblage looks great set up on the table, even without the benefit of miniatures.
Rules and How it Plays
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’ll deal out a selection of objectives from two decks. One is Grandpa’s Goals, which give varied, high-level targets like each player ending the game with three friends, or exploring down to the bottom of the mine. The other deck determines what’s needed to repair rooms in the community center. These are resource-based, requiring quantities of things like gold, fish or minerals and start face-down. Your play group will need to work together to reveal and achieve them all in order to win.
At the start of each turn, there’s a season card that either shows a festival or a chain of pre-turn effects that can run from rain watering your fields to having the wicked Joja Corp slap charges onto board locations. There’s a lot of variety here, including additional sub-event decks for more detail and it really helps keep players on their toes and engage with what would otherwise be a dull phase of book-keeping.
Actual play involves you choosing a location on the board and either taking two relevant actions there or taking one then moving to an adjacent location to take a second action there and scavenging along the route. Location actions include things like buying seeds at Pierre’s General Store in town, planting them and then moving to the fields to water and possibly harvest them. Over time you can fish in various locations, buy buildings and animals for your farm, explore the mine and give items to the museum.
For the most part, actions allow you to obtain or exchange resources that you can use to pursue the game’s goals. And the first time you play, you might be in for a surprise. While the Stardew Valley video game has a reputation as a chill activity, the board game is quite demanding. With some of your goals secret, you need to reveal some early and then construct a game plan to get them fulfilled. And if you don’t plan well, it’s very possible to lose.
If you’d prefer to play a more relaxed session then Stardew Valley: The Board Game has you covered with some less challenging difficulty sessions. But from the point of view of the average cooperative board game, this is good stuff. It rewards repeat plays to learn the nuances of the strategy and encourages groups to work together and come up with creative solutions to problems. The varied goals ensure this process is never straightforward, while the random shuffle of cards and roll of dice ensures it never becomes mechanical.
However, those random effects do create problems with some of the objectives. One of Grandpa’s Goals involves reaching the bottom of the mine and exploring down there is a mixture of dice rolls and card draws and can be extremely capricious. Another objective requires legendary fish which are very rare and you’re reliant on luck to pull them out of the bag of fish tiles, followed by needing a successful dice roll to catch them.
You can of course just leave out the most luck-based objectives before you deal them out, but luck is baked into the entire system. To reveal the community centre 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. This can cost precious time in a game that’s usually tight, but all you can do is try to ameliorate the luck by collecting as many different items as possible before you try to gain a friend.
It’s also a game that tends to tail off toward the close. Revealing objectives, creating a plan to fulfill them and then seeing that come together as your farm grows and prospers are the key parts of the appeal here. Aside from the excitement of tile draws, actual turns are a bit mechanical and start to feel repetitive as the game draws to a conclusion. Often it’ll be clear whether or not you’re going to win a couple of turns before you get there.