Designing board games is like nurturing a bonsai as in both situations, patience is key.
Today, we’re diving into the Zen-inspired journey of creating Bonsai, a game designed by Massimo Borzì, Rosaria Battiato, and Martino Chiacchiera. This is a tale of six years of growth, collaboration, and friendship.
The Seed of Inspiration
The story began when Rosaria and Massimo pitched the idea of Bonsai during a contest at Etna Comics, an Italian games and comics convention. The concept of arranging hex tiles to form a bonsai was intriguing, but the jury found the gameplay short on depth and the scoring seemed unfulfilling. More work was needed to make it shine. The game yearned for more thematic richness, more “Zen-feeling”, and the chance for players to create their own unique masterpieces.
That’s when Martino, former developer at DV Games and currently a freelance game designer, stepped in. He instantly fell in love with the bonsai-themed game, and sensing the potential for something special, he immediately reached out for a collaborative effort.
Then he waited for ages. Well, it was about one or two days to get a reply, but it felt like a long time as he was so excited to be allowed to work on this project, he couldn’t bear to wait even a second.
Eventually Rosaria and Massimo joyfully agreed to co-design the game, and together they embarked on the journey to rebuild the game from the roots up.
Some playtested versions of the game
Hold On — Why Bonsai and Not Some Other Plant?
It was a choice driven by passion. Massimo, Rosaria, and Martino shared a deep love for Japan, with a Zen garden nurtured at their home and years of studying Japanese (to list a few of our related side hobbies). The dream of nurturing a bonsai held a special place in our hearts, a dream that time and the dedication required never allowed. Creating the game wasn’t about profit; it was about realizing a cherished dream together.
In other words, we enjoyed the idea of caring for a bonsai so much that doing a game that would “make us do it” was already a payoff greater than anything else.
A picture of Massimo’s Zen garden in Sicily
The Art of Pruning
Over two to three hundred years, erhm…, playtests, we meticulously cultivated the idea of Bonsai. In growing bonsai, patience is key, and here are some key areas we managed to achieve:
We needed a system to get resources and another to get cards. We didn’t want to introduce the usual action just to get those, and we didn’t want to introduce a currency to pay for resources and cards as first of all that idea lacked theme, and secondly it wasn’t as elegant and interesting as something else.
But what else then? After a few other ideas, we realized we could combine the two problems to get the solution! We therefore introduced a line-drafting system in which the longer a card remains untaken, the richer it becomes in resource rewards. This elegant mechanism mirrors the passage of time and the evolution of both the bonsai and its caretaker. As the ancient proverb says, “A bonsai is the reflection of the grower’s soul.”
This system would provide interesting and dynamic choices every turn, and it’s up to the player to consider each time which card is optimal at every given turn, evaluating also which resources are gained by selecting it over another.
No bookkeeping is needed since the board itself tells you what reward is attached to each card
The Cards of Wisdom
To keep the game accessible while still offering depth, first we tried many different effects that cards could possibly do, then we proceeded to streamline the list of effects to focus on the most engaging possibilities. Minimal design is all about removing the unnecessary because less is more, and that’s exactly what we did.
Balancing the Deck
Fine-tuning the deck of cards was like shaping a bonsai as it required meticulous care. We had to ensure that the game remained variable and balanced without resorting to predetermined card orders. Players had to adapt, much like a tree bending with the wind.
An insane amount of different prototypes were done, all differing just by the composition of the deck. We therefore proceeded to stress test all of them, iterating and iterating each time in the effort of “finding the perfect combination”, and we never rested until we got to a point we felt nothing could be done to improve it further — or so we thought…
Reading the Canopy
While Bonsai doesn’t have direct negative player interaction, the ability to anticipate opponents’ moves is a crucial skill. Like a bonsai’s branches reaching out to the sun, understanding others’ intentions can provide a vital edge.
Every card on display is a juicy opportunity for boosting the growth of your bonsai or scoring more points with it, but none of that is useful if you fail to work with what you have.
The Artistry of Interface
We thought the placement rules were easy and logical: wood grows adjacent to other wood, leaves hang on wood, flowers hang on leaves, and fruits show up between leaves. Also, two fruits cannot be adjacent one to another because that’s the way it usually is.
A player aid is included to help someone remember both the placement and scoring rules of each of the four elements, but the game’s interface already guides the player to follow them naturally. Each of the four different pieces, in fact, elegantly visualizes its placement rules, creating a harmonious blend of form and function.
The Beauty of Aesthetic
Looking for a great art style, one that could capture the unique feeling of the bonsai world, we had the luck to stumble upon Davood Moghaddami, a talented artist who was instantly in when we found out that along with being a great artist, he is a passionate bonsaist!
Speaking of visual art, we also want to thank the talented Spoiled Boiled for making this amazing video. Watch the official teaser now!
We wanted the game to be all about the theme, and one thing that no bonsai can miss is style. Objectives, akin to the goals in Kanagawa and Augustus, were therefore implemented to add depth and tension.
Players now face choices and predictions as they pursue three tiers of goals. To take a small reward now or aim for a bigger prize later, that’s a tough choice to consider as soon as you achieve the requirements to score an objective. To keep the game fresh and make the game-puzzle differ each time, a unique mix of three different objectives is selected in each game, and you can claim only one tile in each color.
Freedom of Self-Discovery and Self-Expression
In the world of Bonsai, the most beautiful bonsai is not just a work of art but also the one that scores the most points. Just as wisdom and care transform a humble tree into a living masterpiece, your decisions shape your bonsai’s destiny. In order to achieve that, we implicitly made the tiles score more points if added to your bonsai in a thematic way, so to speak.
Rules for placing tiles and the requirements of the objectives are specifically designed to make you build something realistic, but the objectives also differ from game to game — and in the end how you shape that bonsai is up to you anyway.
This, in the words of many playtesters, happened to create a “Zen and relaxing experience” without losing the puzzle and challenge for scoring the most victory points. On the contrary, having more freedom, players also have more agency than usual in finding their unique path to optimal scoring.
The implicit effect of this is that both the tile scoring and the objective requirements leave you space to get to them as you prefer. They provide requirements, but not an exact way to fulfill them. Players are therefore free to build the bonsai almost as they like, and no two are going to look the same!
Before presenting Bonsai to the world, some more aspects were meticulously cultivated:
• DV Games developers Marta Ciaccasassi and Luca Appolloni started right where we had stopped, and spent countless hours polishing the deck and rules, ensuring every card was a piece of the puzzle.
• Together with us, the designers, they nurtured our solo mode, now enriched with unique scenarios to challenge even the most introspective bonsai enthusiasts.
• Several playtesting groups and board game clubs were involved in intense blind-testing sessions to gather feedback, pictures, and numbers in order to assess whether the balancing of all elements was right. This blind-testing process gave us more perspective on the end-user perception and provided great insights on how to improve the game and all its assets.
• We did extensive research on the topic of bonsai and also consulted with the UBI (“Unione Bonsaisti Italiani“, an Italian bonsai association) in order to double-check and review all aspects and info related to the game and the world of bonsai. Some of these are summarized in the rulebook for people interested in learning more about this beautiful hobby.
As we wrap up this designer diary, we’re reminded of these words of wisdom: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”
It was this quote from the Internet that really got us and the publisher thinking; we realized we could do more than “just a game” as everything is a chance to make a difference. First, even though it was more expensive, the game has been entirely produced with FSC materials, including the wraps and inks!
Second, the publisher arranged an agreement with Trees for the Future, a nonprofit organization committed to building more resilient communities and a healthier planet. Through Trees for the Future, DV Games was able to plant eight thousand trees in the last two years.
The Final Blossoming
Bonsai sold out at Gen Con 2023 within minutes, and while it’s going to be available only in English and Italian at SPIEL ’23, many countries are going to release it soon after in their own language. It’s not released worldwide yet, but it’s already a success! We are grateful for that and couldn’t be happier. As mentioned before, it has always been about the journey, not the destination. We enjoyed working on the game no matter the end result, and therefore the fact that we can finally share the fruit of our labor and passion with so many people fills our hearts with pure joy. We cannot wait to see YOUR unique bonsai growing!
This project is the culmination of years of care, patience, friendship, and collaboration. It’s an invitation to embrace the art of shaping and growing, both in the game and in life, so whether you’re a seasoned gamer or a novice in this field, come and discover the beauty and tranquility of Bonsai.
How to Play Bonsai
Now that you know everything about how Bonsai was born, learn how to play it by following the tutorial made by Watch It Played!