Updated: Jul 20
When Stardew Valley was released for PC in February 2016, I was in my final year of university, and I had much better things to be doing. But if you tried to explain that to the villagers of Pelican Town or my menagerie of farm animals, they'd only be able to tell you about the polite young farmer who had joined their community for more than 100 total hours...
I was hooked on this game. It was so much more than a farming simulator in a pixel art style; there was a whole world to explore, and mine, and fish, and befriend, and rebuild, and an Elemental War between dwarves and shadow people to resolve. But how could you possibly pack all that content - a small universe's worth - into one board game?
Game Time: 45m/player
If you've not encountered Stardew Valley, let me try to sum it up in this paragraph. You play as someone fed up with the hustle and bustle of city life who moves to their late Grandpa's rundown farm. To make money, you need to start using that farm to grow crops, catch fish, mine minerals, or forage materials. But there's also the locals to integrate with, and they've become almost as run down as your farm, with their community centre a ruin that will need some otherworldly help to rebuild.
The designers of Stardew Valley: The Board Game (Cole Medeiros and ConcernedApe) have taken all those core themes and placed them lovingly into this board game without missing a thing. The map each player can move around is almost exactly the same, as are the actions you can take at each location; the mountain is a great place for lake fishing as well as mining, for example, but you can also get different species by fishing in the ocean or the river.
As you use the paths to traverse the map, you can pick up forageable items that lay beside the paths you use, and get refreshed with every season. These can be historical artefacts, minerals, seasonal plants and flowers, or wood or stone, which you can use to construct buildings that house animals on your farm.
You can buy seasonal seeds at Pierre's general store, plant them on your farm, then sell the produce you grow back to Pierre. While you're in town, you can pop into Gus' saloon to befriend a villager. Head east to donate minerals and artefacts to the town's museum, or head west to buy animals from Marnie's ranch - all very similar to the original game.
It might all seem like a happy, rural life, but this board game is punishing. There are two kinds of objectives you need to complete to win the game: bundles, which correspond to rooms in the community centre that get refurbished as you complete each bundle; and Grandpa's letters, goals passed onto you by the farm's late owner. Bundles tend to be more about using crops and resources to pay them off, while Grandpa letters tend towards achieving village milestones like making donations to the museum.
The game recommends you start with four Grandpa letters and six bundles to complete. It's co-operative, so much like playing the multiplayer mode of the video game, you're all working towards the same goals and pay into and out of the same pot of money, but if you don't collectively hit all your goals, you've lost the game. This means you've got to achieve a demanding ten goals to win!
This game is punishing [...] if you don't collectively hit all your goals, you've lost the game. You've got to achieve a demanding ten goals to win!
I got unlucky on my first playthrough and landed a Grandpa objective that was nigh on impossible for two players to complete. Most of the Grandpa objectives are proportional to the number of players (for example, befriending three villagers per player), but I pulled one to get to level 12 of the mine, the bottom of the board game's mineshaft. Both players spent at least one action mining each turn, often more; the lowest we got was level 8. Although there's a bit of luck in mining, even the best luck wouldn't have allowed us to complete this goal alongside all the others. Unless you're playing with the full four players, leave this
objective out of the shuffle.
You don't have a lot of time to complete these goals, either. Each turn consists of two actions, plus the option to move along one path in between them. Once each player has taken their turn, you make the weeks move on by drawing the next card in the season deck. Sometimes this results in good things, like receiving gifts from your villager friends; other results aren't so good, like a crow stealing crops in the process of growing.
Every four or five cards, the season changes, and with it changes the crops you can grow and materials you can forage. Unlike the video game, this doesn't kill off the crops you already have in your field (otherwise farming would be futile!), but the main reason to keep an eye on your season deck is that once you hit the end of winter, your time is up. Didn't achieve all your objectives before the end of winter? You've lost the game.
This means that a lower player count drastically reduces your chances of winning. Sure, some of the objectives do try to account for this. But one less player means one less set of special tools and abilities (you can choose to play one of miner, fisher, forager or farmer at the start of the game). One less player means six less inventory slots, which given the restricted movement can be very important to store all the things you need. Most importantly, one less player means two less actions every round, and since time is not on your side those actions are valuable. Add all those disadvantages up and the game seems a lot less favourable when playing with less than the maximum four.
Players of the video game will notice I haven't yet mentioned the main "threat" in the Stardew Valley universe: Joja, the soulless corporation that runs the megamart on the edge of town. Joja are even more evil in the tabletop than the video game - they now have access to the corridors of power, and on some turns they'll be able to enforce restrictions on your actions, like forbidding fishing in certain locations. Like real laws, the only way you can change them is by paying off the people who make them to make the restrictions go away.
These added a little flavour to the game, and in some ways it wouldn't be Stardew Valley without Joja's malevolence, but I found the restrictions didn't get in my way too much. Joja's actions are temporary, but time comes for us all, and time by far is the biggest challenge you'll come up against in this game.
Helpfully, because the game is so vast, you can make some changes to balance the odds and make things easier for your party of upstart farmers. The rulebook suggests you use fewer Grandpa letters, or even none at all - having fewer objectives definitely makes winning a lot easier. It also suggests you can reveal the community centre bundles right away, which in the standard rules are hidden and cost players villager friendship hearts to reveal.
Given the limited number of actions, my preference is to add more cards into the season deck to give you more of those precious turns, balanced out by the increased chance of bad season effects like Joja restrictions and crop-thieving crows, but still with all the objectives that make the game both challenging and fun. And, of course, there are a whole host of other house rules out there - this Reddit thread is a good place to start - if you want to make some tweaks to your game.
Earlier I tried to summarise Stardew Valley for readers who've never dipped into its universe before. If that's you, you're probably wondering: should I play this if I've never played the video game? Well, you'd probably have a good time, but allow yourself a bit more time to grasp everything that's going on. The board and video games are so closely related that concepts like seasonal crops, villagers' birthdays, and the map layout come much more naturally to those who have played the video game.
You might get some enjoyment out of the beauty of the game itself. The components are top quality, and it comes with some premium-feeling drawstring bags for you to store certain tiles in. Box organisation is clear and everything has its place, down to the individual tile. The art borrows very directly from the game - the end of each season even shows a confirmation screen with an 'Ok' button, like the video game - but instead of pixelated characters and objects, the lines are drawn smoothly. The crops look good enough to eat and the fish look clear enough to be ...thrown back into the sea.
Those who haven't played the video game obviously won't have the same relationship towards its characters though, and the game's difficulty might mean that an unlucky run could put you off the Stardew Valley world rather than hook you in. So even if you don't play the video game, I'd suggest at least watching a YouTube video or Twitch stream - and there are thousands - to dip your toes into the valley's people and places before attempting the board game.
Stardew Valley: The Board Game is surprisingly difficult, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Quite the contrary - I had lots of fun, and I haven't enjoyed a game this big for a long time. It combines the strategy of worker placement Eurogames with one of the richest stories of 2010s indie gaming, and adds a splash of luck to keep things interesting. A well-rounded game that would suit a place as the 'big game' at any games night.