The standard “Gardens strategy” is to grab Gardens, bloat your deck, and simultaneously run out two other piles (one of which is typically Estates) to end the game as fast as possible, before your opponents can begin to buy Provinces or Colonies.
On most boards, this isn’t feasible. It’s just too slow to empty all three piles, and your deck won’t be big enough to make your Gardens worth all that much. But in the presence of certain cards, Gardens are nearly unbeatable.
The easiest and most straightforward way to execute this strategy to open with double Workshop. If you’re unfortunate enough to start with a 5/2, you can still go for a (slightly delayed) Gardens strategy with cards like Festival/Market/Pawn. Otherwise you are probably best off countering your opponents’ Gardens rather than competing for them.
Assuming you opened double Workshop, on your first reshuffle, you want to pick up at least two more Workshops; although this increases the chance that you’ll draw two Workshops in one hand (without an extra +Action to play them), it is much much worse to draw a hand with no Workshops whatsoever.
After that, you should focus on grabbing as many Gardens as you can with your Workshops while spending Coppers on piles that you plan on running out. This typically means Gardens, Estates, and a $2 or $3 Action (possibly Workshops themselves). Great Halls are great for a Gardens pile, since they’re a cheap source of VP that your opponents will help you run out. Villages are also a popular choice, and Haven can keep your Workshops from conflicting with each other. At the very least, you should always buy at least a Copper each turn.
Ironworks can be basically be substituted for Workshop in the above strategy without any significant changes. Woodcutter can as well: although it doesn’t guarantee you the Gardens, it’s close enough, and it lets you grab a Duchy every once in a while. Baron works pretty well, but in practice the cost jump from $3 to $4 is too great for the Gardens player to overcome, and you won’t be able to empty them out as easily as Workshops.
Trade Route or Talisman can also work, but are more dependent on the other cards available, and therefore not as scripted as Workshop/Gardens. Trade Route depends on the fact that as you empty Gardens/Estates, your Trade Route guarantees you at least +$2, and possibly +$3 or +$4 if Great Halls are present, or your opponents panic and start buying Duchies to counter your Gardens. However, because Trade Route forces you to trash a card along with the +Buy, it is a more hybrid Gardens strategy that depends on Duchy assistance. Talisman Gardens strategies have no problem emptying piles, but you need to be emptying Actions (preferably non-terminal) that can get you to Gardens.
(See the comments for an excellent discussion of “hybrid” Gardens strategies.)
If none of these cards are present, Gardens are usually ignored. They can be helpful in the late game when you have $4 to spend and need a Victory card; in most late-game decks, they will be a cheaper Duchy. Alternatively, if you are getting brutalized by Ambassadors and Mountebanks, and a couple piles are already gone (perhaps due to a City player), you can try to rush the Gardens to end the game prematurely.
If you’re fighting another Gardens player in a multiplayer game, you should realize that although both of you are going for the same goal (emptying three piles as quickly as possible), you should let him empty the “third” pile while you go for the Gardens and Estates. In other words, if the two of you are emptying Gardens, Estates, and Villages, it may be in your best interest to spend your $3’s on Estates rather than Villages so that you have an advantage over your co-Gardener.
If you’re going Gardens alone, you usually must do whatever it takes to end the game as quickly as you can. There are many cards that you could buy that would work great with a Gardens strategy (some are listed below), but if your opponent isn’t going for Gardens, you need to end the game before his engine kicks into high gear. Certain strategies can ramp up very quickly (e.g., Tactician), and if your opponent can snag a couple Provinces the game is all but over for you.
Countering a Gardens player is tricky. Don’t bother building elaborate Grand Market chains; instead, look to grab VP as quickly as possible. Remodel your Golds into Provinces as soon as you can, grab some of the Estates so the Gardener can’t get them, and try to establish a VP advantage. Your goal is to get enough points such that the Gardener is forced to slow down and fatten his deck rather than end the game; at this point, you can choose to either rebuild and get the last Provinces, or empty the last piles before the Gardens appreciate in value. Don’t hesitate to take Gardens yourself: the average Garden is worth 3–4VP for your opponent, and maybe 2–3VP for you. Buying the Garden is therefore a 5–7VP swing, which just so happens to be around the neighborhood of a Province buy (assuming your opponent buys no Provinces and you won’t be running them out). So you should definitely grab some Gardens, though not too many since you have a smaller deck than the Gardener. Bishop in particular is a fantastic counter to Gardeners, since you can buy the Gardens and then chew them up for 3VP. If you do plan on splitting the Gardens, then be sure to take a couple of Duchies before the game ends in order to make up the difference in deck size.
Gardens decks are very resistant to attacks. Ambassador is a great card for Gardeners, since they generally welcome the influx of Copper and Estates. Possession is basically useless, and Militia/Goons do virtually nothing, since so much of your deck is Victory cards anyway. Witch and Sea Hag are somewhat offset by the fact that the Curses count for your Gardens, particularly if they push your deck to the next 10-card level. (See, for instance, this Talisman/Great Hall/Trade Route game where I Embargo my last Gardens buy so I can get to 40 cards in my deck.) Probably the most brutal attacks against Gardeners are Ghost Ship and Bureaucrat, by slowing down an already-slow deck.
- Trade Route/Talisman (sample game)
- Baron (somewhat)
- Great Halls
- Opponent’s Curse-giving attacks (somewhat)
- Opponents’ Ambassadors
- There are many cards that work well with Gardens, but you usually can’t afford to buy them and/or they would distract from your goal of ending the game as quickly as possible. Some include: Hoard, Festival, Bureaucrat, Counting House, Outpost, Warehouse, Scout, Remodel, Baron.
- Trashing cards
- Strategies that ramp up very quickly (e.g., Tactician, Treasure Map)
- Opponents’ Bureaucrats and Ghost Ships
- Bishop counters Gardens pretty heavily