Ah, homeownership. I’m in California so I’m fairly certain I won’t know what that’s like for another ten years but at least I can experience the frustration of keeping up with the growing piles of leaves in various areas of my home in Upkeep!
It’s an environmental puzzle game for 1-4 players that takes about an hour to play. The best experience is with 2 players to speed up gameplay as it can run unnecessarily long for new players.
In Upkeep, the player’s goal is to clear all leaves from their entire yard while working through the impact of various weather patterns or other setbacks. The game can be set to whatever difficulty level or game mode you wish, and the rulebook has specific instructions on how to create the Weather Draw pile to make it happen.
There are 5 phases in a game round: Check Weather, Roll Dice, Draw/Place Leaves, Redeem/Upgrade, and Clean Yard. During Check Weather, the next weather card is turned over and it will either be calm weather or some kind of storm card. This will determine any impacts to the yard for the game round and where leaves will start to be placed.
After dice are rolled, players will take the designated number of leaves from the bag and randomly place each leaf in one of the four areas of the yard until all leaves have been placed. If the player has any sunshine tokens from a previous round, they can redeem those tokens for upgrading their toolboxes, hiring helpers, hiring professionals, or performing extra actions. Finally, during the Clean Yard phase, players have a specific number of moves per area of their yard based on upgrades (or lack thereof) of each of their four toolboxes. These moves will be used to combine individual leaf tokens into a stack of 3 leaves to be recycled or sent to scratch later.
If more than one player clears their yard in the same round or if the weather draw pile is empty without someone winning, scores are determined by the number of remaining sunshine tokens, upgrades, unlocked toolboxes, each area of the yard clear of all leaves, the entire yard being clear of leaf type(s) and finally penalty points for each bin with a stack of leaves and each occupied square in the yard. The player with the most points wins.
I was initially attracted to this game because of the meta movement and spatial puzzle but I’ll be honest, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with how I’m playing this game if the scoring system is indeed balanced (which I’m starting to doubt). I can barely make it into the positive numbers for scoring, even when setting the weather deck at the easy difficulty level. Our first game we got negative scores because of leaving too many leaves on the yard, as each occupied square is a 5 point penalty. Big points can be made up by focusing on getting a specific type of leaf eliminated from the yard (a 50 point gain) but we never found it easy to manage the incoming leaves to that level since there are definitely more than 10 squares on the yard.
Setup is not intuitive even on a second play, and the rulebook does not make it clear to fill in gaps in memory because it is relatively bloated and disorganized. Once you do get around to playing you will find that there are several scenarios or exceptions, sometimes out of desperation, that are not clearly covered in the rulebook. Consequently, it will be frustrating if you’re trying to get creative about cleaning the yard and making the most out of available movement if your toolboxes aren’t upgraded.
During gameplay, recycle bin capacity is also not intuitive because the bin is so big and the stacks are small, so it takes a little practice to get used to the 1-stack limit. You can experience the brief excitement of having several stacks of leaves to get rid of from your yard but those stacks will have to be cleared one at a time in later rounds. Patience and planning are key, and neither comes easily in this game.
Since incoming leaves are based on rolls, it can just be several rounds of bad luck and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to get ahead of that level of disaster. The rolls are made even worse if you have a garden instead of a pool (or vice versa) as the player boards are all variable in layout, so you’ll have leaves you want to place but no idea where to place them because of varying iconography. On top of this, Stormy weather can create situations where you are unable to clean up specific areas of your yard, creating a snowball effect of leaf doom. I’ve never yelled so many profanities at a household chore in my life.
If this wasn’t enough game in the box for you, it does come with several variants and modules to play around with, some of which are missions that can provide further direction in gameplay. I haven’t had a chance to dig into those add-ons simply because I’m still trying to grasp the base game. Speaking of which, if you have played this game and find it is too easy, you absolutely need to let me know what the strategy is because I can barely play the normal game. Who knew cleaning up leaves would be so difficult?
This game is for anyone with big brain puzzle energy and a penchant for mundane household chores. If you find that you thrive best in chaotic environments but in a theme that is wholesome, this is absolutely the game for you. However, if you’re a control freak and need to be able to take a moment to breathe or think, Upkeep is going to be a big learning curve for you even at the base game level. I will say that puzzle games can become monotonous so on a positive note this game is a breath of fresh air in that it is most definitely challenging and not something that will be immediately intuitive even if you have been playing these types of games for a long time.
Final Score: 2.5 Stars – Take advantage of the calm weather out in the yard and get into the Autumn vibes with the never-ending puzzle of falling leaves in Upkeep
• Weather cards keeps things exciting
• Stacking leaves is endearing yet challenging
• Variations and add-ons refresh gameplay
• End game penalty points are harsh
• Bloated rulebook makes actions unclear
• Variable yard iconography is confusing