What is this game about?
Herbaceous Sprouts is a dice drafting game set in the same universe as Herbaceous, a small set collecting game. It's also from the same design team (Steve Finn and Eduardo Baraf) with the same fabulous art (by Beth Sobel). In Herbaceous Sprouts, players will attempt to collect various sets of dice (same kind, all different kinds, pairs, flowers), as well as tools that allow them to manipulate those dice. They will then plant "sprouts" in various spots in the garden, each of which has a different point value. The player with the most points wins. Whereas Herbaceous was a bit more streamlined, Herbaceous Sprouts has more interesting choices. You'll need to choose what card to draft each round based on the tools and dice available on the card—as well as what your opponent seems to be going for. You'll also need to gauge risk/reward effectively. You can often choose to spend your dice to plant a sprout on a lower-value location right away, and you will need to decide whether to go for the easy points or hold out for something bigger. Herbaceous Sprouts, like its card-driven cousin, is very light and filler length (ca. 30 min.), but it is slightly meatier.
How does it play solo?
As with Herbaceous and Sunset Over Water, Keith Matejka of Thunderworks Games has designed the solo mode for Herbaceous Sprouts. As expected, he has done a very good job. In a solo game, the player will alternate between playing as the Master Gardener and the Assistant Gardener. On the Master Gardener turn, you get to draft first, but the automated Rival Gardener will potentially plant two sprouts. When you are the Assistant Gardener, the AI gets to "choose" a card first (using a special solo deck) but also only has a chance to plant one sprout. Early in the game, it might feel like your rival is absolutely crushing you. But as the turns go on, some clever drafting can stymie it—the AI's location of choice is determined by the spots indicated on the cards it drafts. If those spots are already taken, the AI doesn't get to plant. This element of the game makes drafting more fun, because you need to consider not only the dice and tools you need, but whether you should draft a card that helps you more effectively block the Rival Gardener.
I should emphasize that this is no throwaway solo mode—it smoothly integrates into the game with minimal upkeep. In fact, the same Rival Gardener is used to balance 2 and 3-player games by taking up spots in the garden each turn to create more tension with fewer players.
I was not a big fan of the solo mode for Herbaceous, although I still adore playing Sunset Over Water. The solo mode for Herbaceous Sprouts is not quite as exciting for me as Sunset, but I definitely like it. It really suits the spirit of a Pencil First game—it's got enough tension to be an engaging game, but its overall vibe is relaxed, almost meditative. If you're looking for something heavier, then Herbaceous Sprouts will not sustain you. True to theme, this is a salad, not a steak. I myself am a steak and potatoes sort of gamer, and would not purchase this game strictly for solo. That said, this may be a game that I keep for my classroom or for newcomers on game night.
If, on the other hand, you want a chilled-out work night solo game, or a filler game that you occasionally play solo to blow off steam, then Herbaceous Sprouts may be an excellent choice for you. The game works beautifully, solo upkeep is smooth, and the game is very aesthetically pleasing. The one comment I have on the game's production is that it might have been nice to have a built-in way to keep track of your score. Your sprouts end up scattered all over the garden and you need to be systematic about counting up points!
Do I recommend it?
If you're looking for some very light solo fare, or for a filler game that you occasionally take for a solo spin, then Herbaceous Sprouts is a good choice.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.