Teaching Time: 20 mins
Playing Time: 20-80 mins
Setup Time: 15 mins
Value For Money: Mid
There are games that I want to love, but that just won’t let me. I’ve picked up Petrichor in Friendly Local Gaming Stores multiple times, but never quite justified its price for a solo game, which is what I always suspected it would be for me. So, when a review copy landed on my doorstep I was happy and excited, that only increased when I opened the box up. As a product Petrichor goes far beyond the standard for its Kickstarter origins (2,294 backers for $135,449), everything about its components is lovely to look at and hold, thick tiles, delightful little cloud trays and little glass beads representing rain drops, all held by the sort of inlay that you want inlays to be, plenty of space and places for everything that actually clearly fit what’s meant to go in them. Added to that its theme is so attractive for anyone looking to pick up a game that’s not about the more standard tabletop areas. For those not aware, in Petrichor you take the part of a rather nebulously defined part of the plant growing weather cycle. In theory you are the raindrops, yet points are gained by the crops you generate with them, and the rounds of weather controlling voting you achieve, but more on that in a minute. Everything was there for this game to grab my heart, then I played it.
Gameplay consists of playing weather cards which either generate clouds to be the little homes for your raindrops, add more raindrops, move clouds around or make them spill their contents onto the fields below. These cards also add votes relating to which weather pattern will be generated at the end of each round of play. After a set of turns, the main weather cycle occurs and voted for patterns will happen, causing further effects and bumping up those who won votes on a scoring track. Finally, harvests can occur, sometimes during the game if a set of harvest dice resources have been claimed, but certainly at the end of the game. When harvests finally happen any rain drops that have been spilt onto the crops below can score points, depending on various conditions. At the end of the game, most points wins.
The process of many parts of the game are entirely charming, dropping the little glass raindrops into clouds which you puff around the fields and finally pouring them out onto the thick card fields is mightily sweet. There are also bits of this process that really work mechanically, bump two clouds into each other and they form up into a storm cloud, more ready to spill its contents, or overload a cloud with rain and it automatically overflows onto the field below. Also, some of the ways that crops score are both thematically and mechanically lovely, so coffee scores more if it is developed with sunshine as well as rain. Its likely that knowing other players are fighting for these effects adds a real spice to the voting in a multi-player version of the game, but this is a solo review, and in solo, it doesn’t quite work.
The solo engine is somewhere between an AI and an automata system. AI in that it acts generally like a player, but with fewer more powerful actions, Automata in that it has no logic gates or thought to its actions. Cards are flipped that designates the game’s actions similarly, but the cards never attempt to form any kind of plan, they largely blunder around from place to place arbitrarily. As such if the game had just the abilities of a normal player the engagement would be totally one sided. To even this up the game is given enhanced abilities, allowing it to drop rain directly onto fields or generate clouds already with more than one drop in them.
At first I thought that the game gave the AI and the player an equal number of actions, to be honest even after re-reading the rules multiple times I’m still not certain that they don’t, and playing with that belief the first three or four games I found the game gave a pretty stiff challenge requiring players to really force the advantage of the AI’s slow wittedness. However, I realized that the intent appears to be that players essentially get the option to take up to two actions to the AI’s one if they have the right cards, and at that point the game becomes almost laughably easy, the enhanced AI abilities don’t close to even up the intelligence of a human player paying even half attention to the game. The AI will repeatedly pour raindrops into clouds and fields that they gain no further advantage in and vote in ways that hand up choice and points to the human player. On rare occasions it gets incredibly lucky, scoring a second place or stealing a voting march by pure fluke, but it is extremely rare that the various stars align for the AI.
For many players the theme for Petrichor is one of its biggest attractions. Being little raindrops and growing lovely crops has an attractively natural, relaxed and quite cute ring to it. It also steps outside of the accepted norms of tabletop gaming to suggest something interesting and more inclusive. Which is why when that theme has some of its more Euro style papered on moments it’s so annoying. For example, in theory players are raindrops within a weather system, but they get to vote on which sort of weather happens at the end of rounds, which really isn’t how weather works at all. It ends up popping up odd questions, are players raindrops? Are they weather gods? Are they crops, praying in some sort of little planty way for certain forms of weather? When the game works at its best its when little weather effects automate in the way that it feels like weather would in reality, clouds colliding generating storm clouds, or overflowing when they contain too much weight of water. The voting system essentially breaks otherwise satisfying and intelligent engines that simulate little moments of weather.
Then there are the effects of some parts of the weather. Sunshine adds more rain to a cloud. I can understand that maybe there’s an argument that sunshine can result in evaporation that makes clouds bigger, but it never sits well when voting for a third turn of blazing sunshine to generate more water, to the degree that I found that even on a third playthrough I was checking the middle pages of the rules to be sure of some of the weather effects. Equally, frost creates storm clouds, why? Well, it feels like the reason is that the game needed a way to create storm clouds and wanted four different weather effects that could easily be designated by clear iconography. The issue is that I don’t really think in iconography, I think in ideas, and the idea of frost working that way is something that’s never going to hook into my brain. The interesting and unusual nature of Petrichor’s theme is a real draw, and the spots in which it shows its gaps are therefore very disappointing. Personally, I’d rather a joined-up theme and set of mechanics than having a frost icon separate from a raincloud icon instead of a thunderbolt icon.
In conclusion, there’s a lot to love Petrichor for, and those things have no doubt led to its great success, and I’m willing to imagine that in a multi-player game the cracks can be well papered over. As a solo experience though it lacks the challenge to hold attention for long, most of the engagement is with the busy work of the game and once your attention starts to wander you’ll start to question why exactly raindrops get to decide if the sun will shine tomorrow.