“The rain it raineth every day upon the just and unjust fella, but more upon the just because the unjust has the just’s umbrella.” Usually attributed to Hilaire Belloc, this short verse may spring to mind when playing the curiously titled Petrichor. You will find no umbrellas in this game, but Petrichor is built entirely around the theme of rain.
When I first heard the title Petrichor, I assumed it was an addition to the growing stable of games dealing with the petrochemical industry. I was wrong. ‘Petrichor’ is apparently “the pleasant earthy smell after it has rained”: a never-before used word to file away in your collection next time you play ‘Call My Bluff’.
I wandered lonely as a cloud…
Designed by David Chircop, best known as co-designer of Pursuit of Happiness and And Then We Held Hands, in Petrichor players are using weather conditions to manipulate clouds and deposit rain on plants that need the water to grow. This all sounds very eco-friendly, but peel away the veneer of theme and you’ll find beneath a cleverly designed area control game.
To be honest, it isn’t entirely clear what players actually represent in this game. In their description of the game, the publishers describe players as clouds, but players in Petrichor have no proprietary ownership or control of any individual clouds. Suffice to say, each player has their own colour of raindrops (attractive transparent glass beads). Most of the action takes place on an array of tiles representing plants, each of which scores various amounts of points when ‘harvested’, provided they have enough raindrops on them for that plant to grow. Past this minimum threshold for growth, players score each tile for area control: plants mostly rewarding with the most points the player who has contributed the most rain, with descending amounts or no points at all for those who have made a minority contribution. Because it is made up of tiles, the modular board will vary from one game to the next. The number of tiles used is varied according to the number of players (Petrichor takes from 1 to 4 players).
Don’t rain on my parade
In addition to the modular tile board, a second fixed board is used for scoring and for “voting”. Yes, you read that right: voting. Petrichor involves a mechanic that is commendably democratic if disconcertingly unthematic. In addition to competing for area control and points among the plants, players will be using their votes to compete for area control of the weather, both for that weather’s effect and for the prospect of racking up more points for having a majority stake. It feels odd and you’ll need to get over the thematic disconnect but the two different elements do actually work once you accept them and go with the flow.
Players each have a hand of cards. These each represent one of four different weather conditions. They each serve two purposes: they let you manipulate a cloud or add your raindrops to it and they let you cast votes for one of two weather types. Each of the weather conditions determines a different action on the field of plants: frost lets you place out a new cloud and put one your raindrops in it; sun allows you to add two raindrops to a cloud in which you already have one or more raindrops; wind allows you to move to an orthogonally adjacent square any cloud in which you have a raindrop; and the rain action allows you to take one raindrop (not necessarily your own) from up to two clouds in which you have a raindrop and place them on the tiles under those clouds. These actions aren’t actually set out on the cards themselves, and the iconography is not entirely self-explanatory, so players will need to learn these four basic options: happily that is not too onerous a task.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
Of course there are more rules to consider: clouds containing four or more drops become thunderclouds (shown by affixing a lightning bolt to them). Thunderclouds are also formed whenever two clouds collide (as a result of a player using a wind action to move one cloud onto the space of another). When a thundercloud has eight or more raindrops in it, it bursts and all the drops are deposited on the tile below.
Meanwhile, votes will be accumulating on the scoring and voting board. At the end of a round, the two weather conditions with the most votes are actioned for all players: each weather condition having an effect which differs from the effects determined during card play. Sunny weather allows each player to choose any one cloud and double the number of their raindrops in that cloud (which may of course cause that cloud to burst). The Wind effect allows players to move to an adjacent tile any one raindrop that is already on the ground (which may get a plant over the threshold required for it to be considered as growing or which could result in a previously growing plant losing that status because it now falls below the growth threshold). Frost turns every cloud into a thundercloud and the Rain weather condition has the effect of causing all thunderclouds to discharge their contents onto the tiles below them.
This isn’t by any means a complete summary of the rules but I felt obliged to summarise just some of the detail to convey a flavour of the level of complexity of the interaction between the various elements of the game. Each individual action is pretty simple and straightforward but the complexity and subtlety of Petrichor is in the opportunities these give for strategy and tactics.
Sometimes I wonder why I even bring the thunder
For sure, you can bring this game to the table and attract non-gamers to dabble with it. Aside from the overly fiddly little round wooden voting tokens that roll everywhere (bring back little wooden cubes, all is forgiven!), they’ll admire Petrichor‘s visual appeal: they’ll like the look and tactile feel of the coloured glass raindrop beads; they’ll love the cutesy cardboard clouds, especially when they have lightning bolts fixed to them to denote they are thunderclouds. It’s experienced gamers though that will get the most out of Petrichor because this is a game demanding a lot of strategy and forward planning to really rack up those victory points.
Plants that meet scoring their scoring threshold only actually pay out their victory points when a harvest phase comes along. These don’t automatically occur every round: they are triggered by the dice which function as markers that count down towards the harvest whenever a player opts to take a victory point as an alternative to placing out a vote. Other than at game end (after 4 rounds for the short game; 6 rounds for the long version of the game: the scoring board is two-sided to provide for both options), harvests only occur when all three dice show the harvest symbol. That means that players can, as an alternative to casting a weather vote, manipulate the dice to bring forward a harvest. Since, if there is one, the harvest phase follows resolution of the weather voting and the actions that follow that, players will need to calculate a host of variables to determine whether it will be in their own or one of their opponents’ best interest to advance a harvest.
There are tactics too over voting – not just for which two weather actions will prevail but, sometimes even more important, over nabbing the reward of an advance on the voting track that is given for securing a majority in one of the ‘winning’ weather conditions. The maximum points for position on this track can rise as high as 36 in a 6-round game, so may well prove decisive in determining the game’s overall winner.
Walking on cloud nine
And don’t be fooled by the cuddly theme. Played with two, three of four, Petrichor is a game where almost everything you do involves interaction with other players. If you don’t like ‘take that’ games where players are ‘attacking’ or ‘stealing’ from one another, then this is probably not going to be the game for you.
Aside from the obvious replayability inherent in any game with a modular board, Petrichor comes with official rules for spicing up the game by replacing the random card deals with card drafting – almost always a popular option among seasoned games players. The game also comes with a clever solo mode for solitaire play. This is designed by David Turczi (Anachrony; Days of Ire) and has a quite different feel, and it even includes several optional variants for stepping up the difficulty. I’ve not yet seen a copy of it but a Petrichor Flowers expansion has already been published…
Although the eco theme and visual look of this game are very clearly part of its appeal, you’ll quickly discover that, underneath the veneer, Petrichor is in reality a well-balanced, cleverly designed abstract game that might just as easily have been given a wholly different theme (given that it is at heart an area control game, one could easily imagine it rethemed more consistently as rival squadrons of paratroopers). Judge it as a competitive abstract strategy game and you’ll find you’re drawn back to playing Petrichor time and time again; a well-earned 8/10 rating for this one.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.