Category: Educational Card Game
Designer: Trevor Hyde
Publisher: Self-published (Kickstarter)
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 15 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play (with kids)
Most Saturdays, I start my day at the local farmer’s market. I pick up some groceries, chat with friends, and sometimes swing by the artisan stalls to see if there’s anything that might make a nice gift or decoration. In 2019, I found myself passing a stand where a young man was demonstrating a card game with some children. The cards all had different edible plants on them, and he was explaining the relationship between the plants to the kids as they played. The game soon finished, and he turned his attention to onlooking adults to explain that he was planning to crowdfund publication for his game on Kickstarter soon. I joined the mailing list, backed the game, and less than a year later my copy of Oregano: The Veggie Card Game arrived.
Oregano comes in a cute little box. It’s immediately apparent that this is a game for children. The cards are small to accommodate small hands (standard "European Mini" sized) . Each card has four parts: the name of the depicted plant, a picture of that plant, the taxonomic family that the plant belongs to, and a small image that highlights what parts of the plant we consume. For example, a Dandelion card is part of the Asteraceae Family, and people eat the roots, stems, leaves, and flower. (If you haven’t had dandelion before, I recommended it! It has a peppery taste like arugula, which can kick your salad game up a notch!)
The gameplay resembles Crazy Eights or Uno. Each player receives a hand of seven cards, and then the top card of the deck gets flipped face-up. The first player must play a card that matches the family of the face-up card, or a card that uses the same part of the plant. So while Celery is part of the Apiaceae family, you can still play it on top of a Dandelion card because people eat the stems of both plants. If you don’t have a card you can play, you draw the top card of the deck. If it’s playable, you can play it, otherwise you lose your turn. Also, if you have two identical cards (two tomatoes, or two cabbages, for example), you can play them both at once.
Like Uno, though, there are also some special cards. A Blight can be played on any suit, and it forces the next player to draw 2 cards and miss a turn. Pests are cards with two “suits” (representing two families of produce that they attack) that skip the next player’s turn. There are also “Companions.” These are the wild cards, representing plants that are often grown to balance the mineral content of the soil and stave off pests (like Marigolds, or Nasturtiums). These cards serve two purposes. You can play them as a wild, like an 8 in Crazy Eights, to select the family that the next player must match. But Companions are also protection against Pests. If someone plays a Pest, the next player can play a Companion reverse the turn order, skip the player who played the Pests card, and also select the new family for the new next player to match.
The game ends when a player is out of cards. When someone gets down to 1 card left, they must say “Oregano.” If another player says “Oregano” first, then you have to draw two more cards and the game continues. Any hardcore gamers reading this might be thinking “wait, if I have a pair of tomatoes as my last two cards, I could just play both at once and avoid the ‘oregano’ penalty!” And you’d be correct, that’s a valid tactic explicitly mentioned in the rules.
Yes, this game is very similar to Uno, but it’s also quite fun and educational in a kid-friendly way. No, most six-year-olds aren’t going to come away from this game knowing the specific biological elements that define a member of the solanaceae family. But they will learn that tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and deadly nightshade are all part of the same family of plant, and therefore share some common traits. And that’s a good start for helping kids become curious to learn more about plants.
And there’s a reason that Uno is such a good game to use as the basis for a new kid’s game: the rules are simple, people of just about any age can play, and the game’s high variance guarantees that every player has a chance of winning. Sure, there’s room for some minor strategy, but there’s no earth-shattering epiphany that will dramatically transform you into an Uno master. It’s an excellent foundation to build a fun and educational experience for kids.
Unfortunately, Oregano is not perfect, and the biggest problem is the rulebook. In the interest of keeping the game simple and accessible, the rules for the game are condensed to a single page folded up to fit in the box. Actually, the rules sheet is pretty clear and concise, but it has two glaring errors. First, in the section that explains the special card effects, the first ones listed are the “Companions.” These are the most complicated cards in the game and arguably represent the largest divergence from Uno. They have two different effects depending on if they’re played normally or after someone has played Pests. I would have re-ordered the explanations so that the simpler Pests come first, and then the more complicated Companions. But that’s a nitpick.
The real issue is a type of special card I didn’t even mention in my rules explanation above. Here’s a quote from the rules sheet: “Reverse: One (1) Card in each Family has the “Reverse” symbol; this effect applies only with 3 or more players.” In theory, this is fine. It clearly states that some cards are slightly different and that they offer extra functionality in larger games. Except, the rules don’t have a picture of the “Reverse” symbol. And there is no section of the rules that explains what the reverse symbol means. Now, to be fair, the Reverse symbol also appears on Companion cards. So, it is possible to read the rules of the Companion card, figure out what the reverse symbol means, and apply it to the other specialty card. But it would be much clearer if the symbols were defined in one section so they could be easily referenced in the rulebook.
And that would be somewhat forgivable, except there’s more to this issue. The rules state that “One (1) card in each family has the reverse symbol.” And that’s not true. While going through my copy of the game, I found that both Tomato cards in the deck have the reverse symbol. In other words, two cards in each family, both depicting the same plant, have the reverse symbol. And to make matters worse, while going through the Solanaceae family to find this example, I noticed that the Deadly Nightshade cards both have the “Skip” symbol. And those cards aren’t referenced in the rules at all. Through context, I can safely assume that they function like the Pests, except they don’t force the next player to draw 2 cards, and that they only function in games with 3 or more players. But assuming rules is never a good idea, especially when you’re playing with kids of a certain age. They’ll demand proof, and if you can’t show them where it says that in the rulebook, well . . . expect some shouting and hurt feelings.
My last criticism of the game stems from its “educational” label. While the game does a good job of introducing kids to taxonomical family names and the relationships between different plants, I think there’s room for a little more information. A short description of the families, or of each plant, or of how companions, pests, and blight affect plants in real life would be a welcome addition. Sure, we live in an age where knowledge is just a quick Google search away, but it would be nice to have some extra info on the back of the rules sheet for parents to look at when kids inevitably ask questions during a game. Or maybe I should just pull it up on my phone.
I hate to be so critical of this game since it succeeds many other ways. The card art is pretty and the graphic design is clean and clear, thanks to artist Abby Murdock's excellent work. The game is quite accessible for people of all ages, since members of the same family are color-coded. Even if a kid can’t quite read “cucurbitaceae” just yet, they can recognize the color yellow. And the color palette avoids shades that are challenging for those with color-blindness, which is an important touch. And by not shying away from long, challenging words, kids can challenge themselves to learn to say them, and feel proud for knowing how to pronounce a six-syllable word!
This game was designed and developed by a small team, funded by a modestly successful Kickstarter, and produced with the goal of providing kids with a fun and educational experience. By the standards of games for children, Oregano stands head and shoulders above the competition. And in one of my favorite moves, the designer gave kickstarter backers the option to pay a few extra dollars to have a copy of the game donated to classrooms in local public schools. I think it’s important to have games in schools for kids to play when, for example, it’s raining and they can’t go outside for recess. My only complaint is that the rules sheet could have used a couple more editorial passes. But when that’s the worst part of the game, you’ve got a good thing going. Heck, I love Fantasy Flight’s games and they all have terrible rulebooks, so clearly that doesn’t stop me!
I also want to draw some extra attention to the Companion cards. I think these are a really cool piece of game design. In Uno, two players can play a sequence of reverses to nearly empty their hands without letting anyone else get a turn. The Companions reverse and then skip, meaning that the player who played the initial pests card doesn’t get immediately rewarded with a second turn. It makes the Companion cards both offensive and defensive, and I think it keeps the fairly balanced for the entire group of players. It’s a subtle change, but it’s enough to make me more inclined to play this game more.
Oregano: The Veggie Card Game is a great game for kids. I know from the Kickstarter entries that kids played a critical role in playtesting this game, and it shows. Everything from the art to the gameplay to the cards themselves pays great attention to what kids want and need from a fun and educational game. The rules sheet could have done with a few more revisions before publication, and hopefully that can be corrected in future designs. If you’re an adult looking to have fun with your friends, you can do better than this game. But if you’re looking for a good game to play with younger children, or something you can leave with a group of kids to play, this is a fantastic choice. You should play this game with kids.
This week's review was chosen by. . . me. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Later this week, I'll be holding a poll on Twitter to select which I game I review next. Follow me @OrNotToPlay to share your voice!