One word to describe the game - pleasant. The background story is that the Chinese emperor has given the Japanese emperor a giant panda as a token of goodwill, and the Japanese emperor now has to keep it in the royal garden. The imperial gardener who is in charge of the garden is now engaged in a constant struggle with the panda, which keeps eating the bamboo in the garden. During the game, players place tiles onto the table to expand the garden, move the gardener and the panda, grow bamboo, and (have the panda) eat bamboo. All these activities are done to help you complete secret objective cards. The board situation keeps changing, and players manipulate it to score their cards. Sometimes by watching the objective card types (of which there are three) and the actions taken by your opponents, you can guess what they are trying to achieve and you can try to hinder them. Sometimes you will inadvertently create favourable situations for your opponents. When one player completes a target number of objective cards, the game enters the last round. Players then total their scores to determine who wins. Objective cards have different values depending on the difficulty of completing them, so the player who triggers game end may not necessarily win.
On your turn you roll a die to determine a special ability which you will enjoy during your turn, and then you get to pick two different actions out of five options, e.g. moving the panda in a straight line, drawing a new objective card, and adding irrigation. The panda eats bamboos, and the gardener grows bamboos, so the board situation is constantly changing.
Wai Yan taught Allen and I this game. We missed some rules, but the general flow was correct. The game board is fully open information, but the players' objective cards are secret information. However the card backs of the three types of objective cards are different, so you have some idea about the focus of your opponents. Landscape objective cards require landscape tiles of specific colours to be arranged in a specific way. Gardener objective cards usually involve growing bamboos to specific heights on specific landscape types. Panda objective cards require you to have moved the panda to eat a certain mix of bamboos types. You start the game with one objective card of each type, and during the game one of the actions you can take is to draw new objective cards. This is how you decide which area to focus on.
Wai Yan was quite unlucky in our game, because the moves Allen and I made kept undoing what she was trying to achieve. It is probably a valid strategy to pay attention to when your opponents wince and what you are doing at the time, and do more of whatever it is you are doing. Allen completed his objective cards at an amazing speed. The game moved briskly. We were able to plan ahead, but sometimes what an opponent did could force a replanning, either because an opportunity was lost, or a new one presented itself. Some objectives required dedication and needed to be worked upon over a multiple rounds. This was one way to try to guess what your opponent was trying to do. The game ended by Allen completing his 7th objective. When we added up our points, we were on 31, 31, 30pts! Allen won by tiebreaker. Wai Yan who had an unlucky start overtook me to claim second place.
Takenoko is a light strategy game and I would say it is very suitable as a family game. There is definitely some luck in the game - what objective cards you draw, what landscape tile you draw, how others' actions inadvertently help or hinder you. You just try to make the most of the situation. There are ways to read your opponents and to try to mess with their plans. Your objective cards more or less determine your strategy, but you can always decide to forgo some objective cards and draw others. The shifting situation on the board is a source of cheers and groans. Sometimes you get lucky and others complete your objectives for you. Sometimes your objectives clash with everyone else, and your efforts keep getting undone. But it's all in good fun. When there is such a cute panda in the game, it's impossible to take it too seriously.