Toybox reaps what it sows with this engaging take on the gardening game.

Perhaps 2006 is the year of plowing dangerously, but in just a few short months, we’ve seen the release of (not one, but) two gardening themed games. At first glance, Plantasia from PlayFirst and Garden Dreams by Toybox seem very similar. Both feature gardening as an activity that you’re trying to do in order to help someone out. Both have seeds, watering systems, pests and fertilizer/insecticide. But, that’s where the similarities end.

In a nutshell, you’re supposed to help Granny Gertrude continue her legacy of growing prize-winning vegetables for cash. Since Granny has been getting on in years she needs a little help from her friends to maintain her gardens and earn the money she needs to pay her bills. Fortunately, she has you to help her out.

Garden Dreams is a real-time strategy game of managing resources. To succeed, you must produce enough valuable fruits and vegetables to meet the goal for each of the game’s 50 levels.

The game’s basic play system is deceptively simple:

Water plants, Pick the fruit/vegetables, Plant new seeds, Eliminate pests. As the game advances, this simple process gets very challenging. In fact, you can’t get by solely on your green thumb – you must correctly buy tools and other “power ups” to help you advance.

Each level begins with a few plants placed in random locations about the garden. To water a plant, just position the cursor over it and click the mouse. A meter at the bottom of the garden shows the progress towards filling the current water jug; plants may be watered only when the jug is completely full. Continuing to keep each plant hydrated will eventually cause a fruit or vegetable to ripen and roll down to the bottom of the screen. Click on this tasty treat to pick it but remember: the quicker your pick ‘er, the more they’ll pay.

Once enough money has been earned, additional seeds may be purchased to expand the garden and improve its output. Simply click on a seed type to buy it, and then click on an available area to plant it. Each vegetable type carries with it a unique value. Seeds for more valuable vegetables are unlocked by completing certain levels.

Just when you’re really getting into the swing of things, and your garden is humming along…pests! Swarms of invading bugs will attack your perfect garden, and it’s your job to switch from calm “manager” to click-crazed “swatter” as you battle to rid the world of bugs. This occasional change of pace is a welcome and unique addition to this kind of game.

Garden Dreams rewards you when you complete a level with either a gardening tool upgrade, a “friend” that can be used on future levels, or a new type of seed. Tool upgrades include: faster jug-filling-faucets, larger watering jugs, fertilizer that speeds up your growth, and stronger pesticides for those truly nasty critters. Upgrades must be purchased during play of each level, and once earned, become available for purchase in all future levels.

It is the addition of “friends” to the game play, however, that adds depth and replay value to the game by offering you a variety of choices for help with completing each level. Some friends help by picking up produce, while others help protect against pests or dehydration. There are even friends that help to increase to production rate of plants. Your choice of friends becomes increasingly strategic as the game progresses; sometimes you’ll have to restart a level 2, 3, or even 4 times until you get the right combination of friends to advance.

And overall, it’s innovative twists like the addition of “friends”, the complex economy of choosing the right items, and the fast-paced bug swatting levels that make Garden Dreams a standout game. Of course, the cute graphics, fun story, and additional surprises – just wait until you’re making juice with Juice Granny or pie with Pie Granny – keep it interesting and then some. Sure, it doesn’t have a fantasy themed play space with elves, magic and existential mysteries, but sometimes you just want to garden.

Some may say that the game’s twists are a bit inconsistent, and they sometimes make it difficult to play, but those complaints are minor. Garden Dreams is good fun from seed to shining seed.