Grail Tales: The Gardens and I

From right to left: Sydney City, The Opera House, the Gardens, and boats!

Speaking generally, most Sydneysiders love the outdoors. When people ask me why we don’t have many board game shops, or any notable game cafes or even a gaming convention of any size here, my go-to answer is, “It’s hard to sell board gaming when everyone’s down at the beach.” Of course, there’s more humour in that response than known fact, but it is true that most Sydneysiders are outdoorsy people.

It’s probably because our town was built on the ocean. And we love being in or near the water whenever we can. Heck, even our traditional foods at Christmas are mostly all seafood. And even before the foundation of Sydney – for at least 30,000 years – the people of the Eora nation have lived, played, laughed and died here – in and around the beautiful ocean that laps against our shoreline.

For me, however, the greatest place to be in Sydney isn’t sitting on the golden sands of one of its 100+ beaches, but sitting on the green grass of its Royal Botanic Garden. The Gardens stretch from Sydney harbour, around Farm Cove to Mrs Macquarie’s Point and then south to Woolloomooloo. They include a whopping 51 hectares (when you include the neighbouring Domain) of prime real estate. The Gardens is big enough to hold Government House, the Conservatorium of Music and the NSW Art Gallery… but most of the time, all you see are plants, trees, and the harbour itself. AND WATCH OUT FOR THAT BIN CHICKEN IT’LL GRAB YER LUNCH!

A bin chicken wanders around the city looking for its next victim…

The Gardens are easy to find. Take a walk northwards through the city and you’ll end up at Circular Quay (formally known as Sydney Cove, and formerly known as Warrane), the main hub for Sydney’s water-based public transport and home to the best views of the empowering Sydney Harbour Bridge and the inspiring Sydney Opera House. Follow the path along the foreshore (stepping on the metal indicators under your feet showing where the shoreline actually was in 1788) and you will come to the white sails of the Opera House on Bennelong Point. Before turning right to enter the Botanic Gardens, you must look left across the bright blue harbour to the bridge once more, before following a number of paths through the iron and sandstone gates into the expansive, meditative green spaces of The Gardens.

The Gardens at the north of the CBD (the green bit)

And I wish I could go there every day. I, like many who live here, have an attachment to The Gardens. I visited many times as a child for picnics or walks, and since joining up with my wife, we have seen concerts, wandered aimlessly, and even gotten engaged within its borders.

The Gardens don’t really feel like a park, nor like a natural wilderness… more like something in between. It is manicured but also feels natural. Probably this is due to the fact that the Botanic Gardens are actually a collection of smaller gardens. There’s the Rose Garden, the Herb Garden, the Succulent Garden, the Fernery, the “First” Garden, and between all these are paddocks of grass and countless enormous native fig trees.

Go to The Gardens to see the flying foxes or the lorikeets, but mostly, go there because within its borders the city’s steel buildings and its busy streets can be seen but cannot be heard. Go there for a piece of Aussie paradise. 

Just leave the busy city behind…

When I talk to First Nations friends I am often aware of their closeness to “Country.” They are connected to Country in a way I have not been gifted with. I was born in my country but not of it. I am always envious of their cultural connections to Place. I get a glimpse of what it’s like to be “in Country” when I go to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. There I feel, quiet, centred, home. Partly through nostalgia, partly because the place gives me a sense of a greater history, and partly because it’s just so pretty. Not only that, it’s a place where you can just go walkabout. Countless nooks and crannies exist throughout its spaces. Walk around a corner or past a tree and you’re likely to see a statue you’ve never seen before, a bench with a beautiful view you hadn’t noticed previously, or a couple having a picnic AND YOU’VE JUST WALKED THROUGH THEIR FISH AND CHIPS, YOU JERK!

Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House can just be seen behind the trees.

At Gen Con in 2019, designer Matthew Dunstan (also originally from Sydney) pitched me a game about walking through an English garden that he had co-designed with Brett Gilbert. It was the second time that convention that I gave myself enough time to play through an entire game (rare in a face-to-face pitch) because I was just so enthralled. It was simple and clean in its rules but enjoyable and nicely tactical to play. By the end I saw I had had an almost zen-like experience as I watched my garden grow and physically walked back and forth through it many times during the game (in the form of meeples). It gave me the same feelings that walking through a nice park should and do give me. I was sold. Funnily enough, from memory this was not the main game Matt had wanted to show me that day. I could have been imagining it but I felt he was a little surprised that this drafting and tableau building game about making a park was the one I most fell in love with. But now you all know me a little bit, you probably see it was no surprise 🙂

We went our separate ways and over the next few months we came up with ideas to add variety to the game so each session would feel a little different. The guys also came up with the idea of adding specific locations, or monuments, that players could earn when they laid cards in certain places, adding a layer of depth to the gameplay.

And then it hit me – if we put this game in a specific, actual, factual park, then the plants, statues and landmarks that we add into the game are decided for us. We also would find both boundaries and inspiration in the design space because choosing one park would help determine what could and couldn’t be in the game. I think you know which park we chose 🙂 Now this super fun design had a real sense of place.

The box cover!

I simply cannot wait for this game to come out. This game has become my passion project – not just because I instantly fell in love with the gameplay, but because the setting of the game is so dear to my heart. When Kerri Aitken (who has never been to Sydney) started turning in art pieces for the game I became very emotional. This place – the place where I had spent countless hours with my wife and family, and even got engaged – was going to be in a game for the world to see! Kerri just captured the feel of the place perfectly – even the lighting – and I can see myself laying down a picnic rug or taking photos, or pointing out something to my kids when I go through the cards she has illustrated. I’m just so proud of this game, and I thank Kerri, Matt and Brett for giving me this opportunity.

Australia is almost nowhere to be seen in pop culture – few movies, TV shows, or board games have put us on the world map. To have your home represented fondly in a game is a really special and empowering thing. I mean, when I “see” the Opera House or Fort Denison in this game, I remember the times I went there as a kid – or since – and smile. When I look at the Arthur Phillip fountain I do consider the fact that he was the lead of the enforced occupation of this land by the British, but I also remember the time my boys and I ran around the huge edifice and pointed at all the statues upon it. The game makes me smile because it shows a piece of me to the world.

I hope you may come along and visit The Gardens with me in our new game. It’s coming to Kickstarter at the end of August, 2021. It will then release at retail as soon as we can after that (assuming we fund)! We have some great treats in store during the campaign, but more than that, what excites me most about The Gardens is its core, clear gameplay that is totally accessible but also gives players plenty to think about. We have plans for future expansions as well, so hopefully this ride will be a successful one. Then we can all keep visiting The Gardens – even if it’s only on our tabletops 🙂

Box cover and what a player’s board may look like at the end of the game.

The Gardens – designed by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J Gilbert and illustrated by Kerri Aitken – is for 2-4 players and takes no more than 45 minutes to play. It is a card drafting game where players take turns to select cards to add to their player board, building a portion of Sydney’s Royal Botanic gardens as they go. After placing a card, a visitor pawn in the card’s row must walk to the new card, but everything they see or do along the way will earn the player points. Landmarks and variable scoring conditions add extra layers of thought to the game.

– David Harding
Grail Games

Photographs in this blog post are from Wikipedia and available to use under the CC license. Please check out,_Sydney for more info.