Welcome to the fifth installment of our Shelf Wear series. We began this series with a desire to look more in-depth at games we’ve played a lot. In order for a game to be considered for this series, we must have played that game more than fifty times–a tall order in the saturated hobby board game market of today. The first game we looked at was 7 Wonders, and we followed that with a look at Ascension, Dominion, and Race for the Galaxy. Today we’ll shift gears to something for a much younger audience: HABA’s First Orchard.
Welcome to the Orchard
Board gaming is one of my main hobbies, and when my first child was born, I wanted to bring him into the joy of gaming. Most of the recommendations for children’s games were aimed at precocious tots–“My three-year-old has no trouble with Ticket to Ride.” “Isle of Skye is so easy–it’s just matching tiles.” I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear someone claim that Twilight Imperium was well suited for toddlers. These recommendations were frustrating to me because my child wasn’t precocious, at least not in board games, and there seemed like there was nothing to get my two-and-a-half-year-old son started.
I had recently discovered–and loved–HABA’s Animal upon Animal, a game for children, and even though this was outside my son’s fine motor skill ability, I wondered if HABA had any other games suited for an even younger audience. When I saw First Orchard and read about it, I thought it was worth a shot.
Those first games with my son went…okay. His attention wandered, he didn’t understand why anyone else would want to take a turn, and moving the raven to the “next” space was confusing. But gradually, this became an activity that was no longer just Dad directing the play; he could take his turn, pass the die to me, and be invested in the outcome. Through those initial plays, I realized that First Orchard was just what I had been looking for.
Harvesting the Fruit
First Orchard has a very simple premise: gather all the fruit from the fruit trees before the raven makes it into the orchard.
The game is cooperative, and each turn, a player rolls the die. There are four kinds of fruit, and four sides of the die have one color represented. One side is a basket (wild). And one side has the dreaded raven.
When a color or wild is rolled, the player places that fruit in the basket (if there are any). If the raven is rolled, the raven moves one space farther along the path to the orchard…and one space closer to his illicit feast.
Players win if all the fruit is in the basket before the raven comes in. The raven wins (and presumably attacks the players and takes their pickings) if he makes it to the end of the path.
Sharing Is Caring
I’ve written before that for my enjoyment in gaming, the most important thing is Interesting Decisions. I want my choices to be interesting, and I want them to matter. If I choose one thing, I want another avenue to be closed to me. This is my top value.
Or so I thought. Because despite First Orchard’s completely deterministic play structure (you roll a die and do what it says), it is one of my most-played games, and it points to a deeper value I have in gaming: sharing an experience.
I’ve had First Orchard for over three years now, and I’ve had a chance to play it with each of my three kids. My oldest is now seven, and my youngest just turned three. For each of them, First Orchard has been a crucial stepping stone in learning to play and enjoy games.
There are several things that make First Orchard great for young kids. First of all, the typical HABA attention to detail in components makes First Orchard a winner. The fruit pieces are chunky, hefty wood and well painted. They are appealing to kids. In fact, they’re so appealing that even my older kids will usually play if the youngest wants to, even though First Orchard has what I would assume to be a limited age range. The colors are well chosen and easy to distinguish, and each of the fruit tree mats has visual cues that indicate which fruit should be placed there without showing actual apples, pears, and plums. My three-year-old now insists on setting the game up himself, and he’s quite good at it.
Beyond the components, though, I think First Orchard strikes the right balance between being a structured activity with a goal while also being low stakes. It’s cooperative, so everyone wins or loses as a group. And while I’m not one to let my kids win, it is nice to have a little reprieve from the… “character-building” that goes on in other games, especially in a game for children so young.
Also, it’s refreshing to have a game that is completely comprehensible to a young mind. First Orchard has a simple structure: roll the die, do what it says. This is easy to understand. It gives my kids, if not agency, at least ownership over what they do. I don’t have to move pieces for them or show them what to do (after a game or two). They are in charge of their own turn, and that makes a huge difference. In fact, when my kids and their cousins get together, this is one of the only games they can all play together without any adult influence. (Although, to be fair, there’s usually an older child at the table to help.)
Yet even though First Orchard is comprehensible, it’s still teaching valuable things to my children. All three of them solidified their understanding of color through First Orchard. All three of them have learned that we take turns in games through sitting around the table. All three of them have learned the joy of victory and the sting of defeat while sparring with a pesky raven. (Although, as mentioned before, winning and losing are pretty low stakes.) I’m grateful to have a game that teaches these very basic concepts when kids aren’t quite ready for Ticket to Ride or even other children’s games.
But above all, the thing I’ve valued most in my nearly 70 plays (and counting) is time I’ve been able to spend with my kids where they aren’t begging to sit in front of a screen, when we’ve been able to enjoy an activity together on the same playing field. I love seeing the kids get into the “story” of the game, such as it is. My son makes flapping noises when he rolls the raven, and occasionally, if the kids are feeling particularly theatrical, they will run around shouting, “Oh no! The raven!” They might add little bite flourishes when placing the fruit in the basket, or my three-year-old, proud of his still somewhat new ability to name colors, will announce the color he rolled and the matching fruit’s name before placing it in the basket. These are memories I cherish.
First Orchard isn’t a game I find particularly enjoyable on its own, and I would never bring it out for adult friends the way I might Animal upon Animal or Cheeky Monkey or Rhino Hero or other games for kids that adults enjoy too. This is a title for young children, full stop, but it works marvelously in that context, and all of the little gamers in my life have enjoyed their time with it. I know it’s a game that has a limited window of utility, but as you can see from the nearly 70 plays I’ve logged with the children in my life, it’s well worth it and well loved.