Off with Your Head
The latest trend in puzzle games is to tinker with communication. More properly, limitations on communication. The Mind, The Shipwreck Arcana, Codenames — the last few years have offered plenty of supernal examples. Have the player identify an island in a sea of noise, give them a way to provide limited glimpses of that island to their fellows, and then tell them to shut up. There you go. Puzzle game.
Ben Goldman’s Paint the Roses works in that same space, but according to a rhythm that feels more naturalistic and less constrained than its peers. Behind its pleasing Alice in Wonderland veneer, it just might be one of the finest limited communication games I’ve played.
As is always the case with puzzle games, explaining Paint the Roses requires some rules talk. Apologies in advance.
Imagine with me a hex grid filled with topiaries. Or look at the image above if you suffer from aphantasia (hi, Brock!). Each topiary has two distinguishing characteristics: the color of its roses and the suit of its shape. For now, these are the only details that matter. Color and suit.
Your boss, the Queen of Hearts, tends toward the demanding. Beside you are three decks, each featuring a different difficulty of “whim” that the Queen insists must be painted or trimmed into her rose garden. The easy deck is all about color: yellow to yellow, red to pink, that sort of thing. Medium whims depict either paired colors or paired shapes. And hard may be either of the former or can cross the gap between color and shape — yellow to spade, for example.
Every turn, you place a single tile into the rose garden. Then everybody at the table places clues on that tile to indicate whether it and the adjacent topiaries match the whim they’re holding. The more clues, the more matches there are. Sometimes this leads to obvious situations. If somebody puts three clues on a tile that was placed next to three red roses, well, that’s the tile solved. Halfway solved, anyway. More often, clues spill gradually onto the table. One here, another there. And all the while, you’re allowed to discuss any clues and whims but your own.
Most limited communication puzzles require either total silence or the silence of the current player. By allowing everyone to talk, to be both investigator and the investigated simultaneously, Paint the Roses is downright freeform. Every placed tile might result in clues, no matter who placed it. Anybody’s whim can be guessed on any turn.
This keeps individual players in the limelight over longer periods of time, rather than requiring them to reveal information only within the span of a single turn. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to learn the crucial tidbit about a difficult whim on a player’s off-turn, when the right combination of topiaries happened to reveal itself or thanks to the process of elimination. The best clues are often negations, those that arise when a tile lends no positive information about a player’s whim. These are the sort of clues that get everybody recalling data from three turns ago: “He’s either pink or heart, and that one tile showed he was matched with purple, pink, spade, or diamond, but he didn’t place a clue on this latest tile, so we know he’s pink or heart paired with a diamond or a spade.”
These conundrums grow even more interesting with the addition of extra players and their accompanying noise. More clues, more insights, more minds stitching together leads… even the additional missteps that can arise as everybody works through the game’s logical processes. Paint the Roses softens this emergent complexity by encouraging players to carefully balance which decks of whims they draw from. The whole thing is pitched as a race, your hapless gardeners sweating to stay one step ahead of the Queen of Hearts’ axe. Harder whims move your gardeners extra spaces along the score track, but they take longer to solve. Even tougher, you’re required to guess one whim every turn or risk the Queen briefly doubling her speed. The solution is to take a mix of whims. At any given moment, you’ll likely be solving an easy puzzle, a pair of mediums, and striving to break the code on something extra tricky. Which, it turns out, does fantastic things for the game’s pacing, offering both brain-burners and refreshments alongside one another.
The result is one of those rare puzzles that occasionally winks your mind out, like the sudden blinding of an inner eye, only to have it blink open a moment later with greater understanding. Clarity from myopia. Patterns in the static. Matches where previously all you saw was a garden of jumbled rose bushes. Losing your head to keep it.
The hitch is that Paint the Roses grows samey after a few plays. The solution is a series of modules — included in the deluxe edition or frustratingly parceled into the Escape the Castle expansion — for giving the game a much-needed tumbling. You’re still solving whims, but each module requires you to earn five keys to escape the rose garden. How you obtain those keys depends on the module’s objective. Even trickier, the Queen of Hearts now has a deck of powers that shifts during play. Maybe she takes two extra steps along the score track whenever you place a topiary without a clue. Maybe she penalizes you for placing spades. Maybe she locks one of the greenhouse’s tiles entirely, limiting you to an offer of three topiaries per turn.
These are largely a good thing, although not all modules are created equal. The worst of the bunch is a timed scenario, which benights the gentle tempo with a franticness that doesn’t suit Paint the Roses in the slightest — and I’m saying this as someone who adores the panic-stricken segments of Space Alert, Millennium Blades, and Sidereal Confluence. Another module, the Cheshire Cat, sees players making straight lines of pink roses, spade topiaries, and so forth. I don’t know whether my group is terrible at it or it’s impossible, but in either case may it be consigned to the bottom of the moat along with the Queen’s previously beheaded horticulturists.
Fortunately, the other modules build confidently on the game’s foundation. Tweedledum & Tweedledee provide a handful of random objectives, such as solving two whims in a single turn and requiring that both of them be hard. The Jabberwocky gradually wrecks portions of the garden — I presume this is a positive occurrence, given the Queen’s tyranny — but only when you properly align a cluster of topiaries. My absolute favorite is the Mad Hatter, who places special tea party tiles according to frustratingly inflexible rules. In each case, these characters also provide their own bonuses and perks to help you counteract the Queen. The effect is transformative, forcing players to balance the Queen’s whims and their long-term objectives, often to sublime and infuriating effect.
Above all, though, Paint the Roses is at its best in those moments when everyone pauses, one flub away from losing their heads, and whittles away at the unknown until they’re left with a supremely possible but still testy route to survival. It’s in these moments that Goldman’s approach to limited communication rises to the fore: everybody talking, information commingling, wires crossing, but the gist of multiple solutions still somehow connecting like severed wires sparking an engine to life. There are no dead zones or tedious moments, as with so many other limited communication games, where everybody is engaged but the player who just flung their clue onto the table. In Paint the Roses, there’s always another layer to peel back, always another riddle to begin pecking at. Not an infinite wonder, but wondrous in spurts all the same.
A complimentary copy was provided.