A Review of the Upkeep Board Game (Cooperative Mode Only)

Upkeep is a cute little board game from Kickstarter. It promised delivery in November 2020, but it arrived two days ago (Dec. 20, 2020). Note: A month late for Kickstarter games is AMAZINGLY GOOD! The designer ran a good Kickstarter, always keeping everyone up to speed. Upkeep is about keeping your yard clean! There’s a cooperative, solo, and competitive mode in the game: we will only be discussing the solo and cooperative modes, as this is a cooperative games blog.

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Upkeep is for 1-4 Players, 30-60 minutes (see above); it looks like a lighter game for ages 8 and up.

Components and Unboxing

Upkeep is a fairly heavy box!  There’s a lot of stuff inside!  There’s a rulebook and an adventure guide (for more directed play once you learn the game). See above.

Each player gets a player board (his/her yard to keep clean): they are bright and cheery and easy to read (see above).

Each player gets 3 recycling bins for particular types of leaves (like the one marked with the leaf above) and one trash can for “leaves you can’t recycle”.  You want to fill the recycle bins because you get sunshine tokens (see below) for those! You still need to fill the trash can to get other unwanted leaves off your board, but you just don’t get any bonuses for those.

The little sunshine tokens (yellow markers above) are the bonuses you get for filling a recycling bin. The other tokens are for marking a “type” of your yard.

There are a tons of tokens in the game, and they are all pretty high quality (see above).  To be fair, I did the deluxe version of the game, so all the tokens were just super nice: real wood for some of them!

The little meeples (above) were just fantastic, and probably my favorite piece in the game.  Each player takes of one of these meepes (except for the purple one: that’s the round marker) and uses that meeple to keep track of the current toolbox on their player board.

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The centerpiece of the game is the leaf bag: it contains a bunch of leaves that blow into your yard(s)!  The bag for holding the leaves is nice and big and the leaf components themselves are easy to read and nice wood tokens.  These are just very high quality.

The cards are cute, easy-to-read, consistent, and linen-finished (see above).  These cards are fantastic.

The boards are all easy to read, the insert holds everything well, and even the score sheet (for the competitive game) is really cute!

This game knocks it out of the park for component quality!  It is so good!  Everything looks good, feels good, and is easy to read! 

Rulebook

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The rulebook, like the rest of the game, looks fantastic.  Tons of pictures and tons of examples.

The components page (above) is ok.  I had a little trouble correlating all the pieces (for example: the round marker is the purple meeple guy we saw above, but that’s not clear at all from this page), but in general it wasn’t too bad.  Unfortunately, this was the beginning of my frustrations with the rulebook.

To be clear: this rulebook looks great! It’s fairly well-organized, and it’s easy to find examples.   Here’s the thing: I really struggled with this rulebook.  For what looks like a kid’s game, this game is more complex than you think.   I had to read the rulebook at least 4 times all the way through, and I was still getting it wrong!  This game looks and feels like it should be a simple game, right?  A kids game with simple rules?  No, there’s a lot of subtlety, and the rules and components miss a lot of stuff.

Example: When the bins get emptied, you get some sunshine (which are used to buy upgrades).

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After playing the game four times, I found this rule summary card (see below), which introduces a rule that the RULEBOOK DOES NOT ADDRESS DIRECTLY (see above).  The rule is that if you empty more than 1 bin at time, you get bonus sunshine!  The rule is IN THE EXAMPLE, NOT ACTUALLY COVERED DIRECTLY!  It’s vaguely alluded to!  I skipped by the example (above) until I realized that the card below had the REAL RULE for this:

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The (above) picture above SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE RULEBOOK, not vaguely alluded to (and then sort of discussed in the example).  This rule makes a HUGE difference in play, as your sunshine tokens are key to getting upgrades to have a chance of winning!

There are other problems with the rulebook and components: In order to move leaves from your board into the bins, you have to have three leaves in a tower or stack.  Why don’t the bin cards show something for that?  This is THE MAJOR RULE in the game, and I think I found it in exactly ONE place.  The rulebook talks about a “complete” stack can be moved, but that’s the ONLY place in the rulebook it used the word “complete”.  After grumbling through the rulebook a few times, I “guessed” it meant a stack of 3.  This rule is important enough, so it should have been emphasized it multiple places; the bins should have emphasized it as well (with a label like “Bins can only be filled with a complete stack (3) at a time”).

These are just two examples that represented my frustration with the rulebook.  The rulebook also spent way too much time on “exceptional” activities up front (they list ALL THE BAD NEWS CARDS UP FRONT before the main rules), instead of concentrating on the main gameplay!   The rules puts an up-front cognitive load on the reader which, at best, distracts him, and, at worst, makes the reader skip sections (“Oh, this isn’t important”) which may have rules you need.  Again, the game looks simple, but it’s not.

But that’s only organizational and some labelling issues: I would revisit the rulebook, emphasize WHAT THE PLAYER CAN DO UP FRONT (move the list of BAD NEWS cards to the back), label some cards better and re-emphasize a few points.  Those are forgivable errors that can easily be rectified in a new edition/update.

3-D Issues

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This is a tile-laying game, where the tiles are leaves (and dandelions: see above).  There is a 3-D element to this game: you put tiles on the board and you can move tiles on top of other tiles (stacks) and sometimes when a board fills up with leaves, you have to place leaves on top of others. In fact, it’s essential to put leaves on top of other leaves, as your main goal is to get 3 in a stack so you can put them on your bins.

Here’s the problem: the game DOES NOT address some of the 3-D aspects of the tiles.  For example, when you get 3 tiles in an “L” shape, you can use one move to turn that into a stack.  Does the above (3 maple leafs)  count as an “L”? Do all the elements of the “L” have to be on the same level?  Maybe?  The rules don’t address this.

What about a 3-D “L”?  Two maple leafs on top of each other next to another (that’s a 3-D “L”).  And there’s so many questions about this!  Here’s my list of what I think the rulebook needs to cover.

  1. Can 3-in-a-row cross levels?  Do they all have to be on the same level?  Do the levels have to differ by 0 or 1, but not a combination?  Do you just look at the tops?
  2. Can an “L” be 3-D?  Do we just look at the tops?  Can they cross 3-D levels?
  3. What happens if we have to get a stack of 3 or more? (May happen if you fill the same area too many times)
  4. Are we allowed to move a token OVER a stack of 3? Am I allowed to move through it?
  5. How do I swap in 3-D?  Say I want the middle leaf on top of the stack … there’s no rules to swap IN a stack, only around a stack.  This feels like an oversight.

In every game I have played, I had to make a call, and I don’t know if I made the right call.  There is NO real discussion of 3-D token issues in the rulebook.  I was already getting grumpy when I read the rules, so this lack of rules addressing 3D- issues just put me over the top.

Cooperative and Solo Play

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The rules for solo play and cooperative play are pretty simple.  Clean your yard.  That’s it!  If you have 1 player (solo with one yard) or multiple players, everyone just has to keep their yard clean.  There’s a FEW rules that make the game more cooperative (you can move your garbage bin waste to someone else’s bin: this might help you clean your board sooner), but essentially everyone is playing a solo game to keep their yard clean.

The game is essentially “timed” by the number of rounds until the BAD NEWS deck runs out of cards.  At the end of the BAD NEWS deck, if your yards aren’t clean, everyone loses.  Most of the BAD NEWS cards are calm weather cards, which don’t hurt you, but some of them (depending on the difficulty level) are BAD WEATHER that prevent you from cleaning an area, losing moves, etc.  Here’s the thing: I played on EASY mode (1 or 2 BAD WEATHER cards) expecting to do okay.    I lose miserably every single time I played.  “What am I doing wrong? ” I plowed through the rulebook again and found a rule or two I got wrong (“Ok, my fault”).  I’d play again and lose slightly less miserably.  “Am I still doing something wrong?”  I’d look through the rulebook again.  Maybe another rule I got wrong.  After 4 or 5 times, I feel like I finally got the rules right. And on EASY, I still lost … not even close to clearing my board.

I tried different strategies (getting Professionals quickly), opening up board with more actions, and all sorts of things.  I could not win the game on EASY mode. 

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Part of the issue is that you put on 6-12 leaves PER TURN (see dice above).  The most you can EVER hope to clean up is 12 (maybe more if you have completely unlocked a toolbox AND have extra sunshine), and I don’t thing I ever had all 4 bins full.   And then the ONLY way to get rid of leaves is you HAVE to have stacks of three!  (One of the professionals allowed me to get rid of 1 leaf per turn: he was a godsend)   There’s two elements of randomness against you: HOW many leaves you get and WHICH leaves you get! You can mitigate WHERE the leaves go (which is part of the fun of the game), but you can’t mitigate WHICH leaves you get.  If you get the wrong leaves (“Crap, I don’t have 3 of them”), especially on the last few turns, you can’t dispose of them … and you lose. 

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I am not convinced you can win the solo/cooperative game with the rules written.  (I played on EASY every time and never won).  Maybe I missed a rule, but I don’t think so.   I am so frustrated.

  • There needs to be some way to mitigate WHAT leaves you get (maybe a special power, a special professional, a way to trade leaves between boards during co-op/solo play)
  • There needs to be a remove single/double leaves from the solo/cooperative gameboard (maybe a special power, an incinerator with with no limit) 

 

Conclusion

Oh, the solo/cooperative mode for this game breaks my heart.  This game looks fantastic! The art is cute, consistent, and fun!  The components are really nice and the production is very very good.  Unfortunately, the cooperative and solo modes don’t really work.  If you are just buying this game for this cooperative/solo mode, then I’d give it a pass … or maybe wait for some rules clarifications/updates (especially for 3-D tiles issues) on BoardGameGeek. 

I suspect that Upkeep COULD BE A GREAT COOPERATIVE/SOLO game with some more tweaking! It’s cute!  The production is fantastic!!! There are a lot of fun decisions in the game, as you decide where leaves go and what things to move!!  There’s too many things that need to be fixed (especially related to 3-D tiling issues) currently.   As it is, I suspect this is actually quite a good little competitive game (modulo the 3-D tiles issues)! In the competitive mode, you don’t care as much about completely clearing your yard as much as getting points (whereas clearing your yard is the only goal in the solo/cooperative mode).

If there’s an update or 2nd Edition that revisits the solo/cooperative rules as well as the 3D tile issues/rules, I will be happy to revisit this game.  I really like the idea of Upkeep and the general execution was great, but it just doesn’t work as a solo/cooperative game as written.  I am more than happy to eat crow and update this review If I got something wrong: I really really wanted to like this game.

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