Monday 22 March 2010

At the Gates of Loyang

At the Gates of Loyang is commonly considered the 3rd game in Uwe Rosenberg's harvest trilogy, the first two games being Agricola and Le Havre. I like both of these earlier published games, so naturally this latest game interested me. I have read complaints about downtime. However I decided to give it a shot anyway, because the rules seemed interesting, and most people seem to agree it is good with 2 players. I'm always interested in good games that I can play with my wife.

The Game

The game is about planting various types of vegetables and then selling them to make money. You get fields of various sizes during the game, and when you plant something, the mechanism is very similar to Agricola (and Antiquity, I read). You need to use one unit of that type of vegetable as seed, and put it in one slot of the field. Then you fill the remaining slots with the same type of vegetable from the supply. After that, every time you harvest, you take one vegetable from the field.

In the game you get regular customers and casual customers. Regular customers are a steady source of income, but you are committed to serve them, and you are penalised if you are unable to supply them as promised. Casual customers are one-time affairs, and don't ever get angry with you. They are slightly harder to serve (needing 3 vegetables and not 2), but it's only a one-time transaction. Customers are the main way you earn money. You have market stalls. These are places where you can swap one type of vegetable for another. They are basically a tool to help you serve your customers. Then you have helpers. These are another type of tool to help you. There is a big variety of helpers, some allowing you to impact other players.

My play are in Round 3 of my first game. The T-shaped board are two things - a Shop where you can buy (expensively) and sell (cheaply) vegetables, and the path of prosperity, a.k.a. score track. At the top are my fields, where I had planted cabbages (white), pumpkins (orange) and turnips (red). I had 2 regular customers (blue background) and one helper (biege background).

Close-up of regular customers. You are contractually bound to serve each four times. The first time you miss a delivery, they get upset (i.e. token flipped to the red side, just like in this photo). After you have upset them, every time you miss a delivery, you are fined $2.

Artsy-fartsy shot.

Overview of the game table. Michelle was too absorbed in the game to both looking at the camera. We were in the card phase, so there was a row of cards in the centre for her to choose from. Those plastic containers on the right are my children's toys. They do not come with the game.

At the Gates of Loyang is a card game. Regular customers, casual customers, fields, market stalls and helpers are all cards. The game has an unusual way of getting cards. During the card phase of each round, players start with 4 cards in hand. On your turn, you either add one card from your hand to the central pool, or claim exactly one card from the central pool and exactly one card from your hand, and release the other cards in your hand into the central pool, where they become available to other players. This is one part of the game where you have player interaction, because you need to be mindful of what your opponents need and make sure you don't give them good cards.

The other phase of the game is the action phase, where you can do various things like sowing, serving customers, using helpers, trading vegetables etc. A player does all the actions he wants, in any order and any number of times, until he is satisfied, before the next player takes his turn.

At the end of every round, you get to progress up a path of prosperity by paying money. The first step always costs $1 (which means you should almost always make sure you have $1 in hand), and additional steps in the same round cost an amount equal to the number on the steps. This means it gets more and more expensive to progress. Positions on this path of prosperity determine victory. Tiebreakers are cash, then number of vegetables. I wouldn't be surprise if the game is often won by the first tiebreaker.

The Play

So far I have played 6 games of At the Gates of Loyang, all being 2P games with my wife. We played the first game using the beginner's variant, i.e. we each had a regular customer card in hand, which we could play at any time. We also make one big mistake of allowing fields to be re-sowed (a habit from Agricola). Fields should be discarded after you harvest the last vegetable. So the first game was a little distorted. But after the 3rd game, I think I have more a less a good feel about the game.

We made a big mistake in our first game. Fields which have been fully harvested should have been discarded and opposed to still being kept around available to be re-sowed. No wonder we did so well in our first game. We both eventually scored 18pts.

Another minor mistake - when trading vegetables with Market Stalls (top row), you need not place the vegetables you are giving onto the card. I wonder whether anyone else made this silly mistake. Well, at least it doesn't affect the game.

Helpers with a red lantern on the top left corner are those which can affect other players.

The game is very much about logistics and planning. It is about managing your supply of vegetables and the demands of your customers. Customers are crucial for earning money, and you need to make sure you have a constant "supply" of customers too. You need to maintain a healthy cash inflow so that you can keep progressing on the path of prosperity. You are restricted by the cards made available to you each round, and you have to identify the best opportunities for your business. Managing a vegetable business is tricky. There are various cards (market stalls and helpers) that help you, and they are useful under different situations.

The decision to take a loan is tough. So far we tend to take just one loan, sometimes none. You get $5 per loan, and you can never repay it. At game end you take one step back on the path of prosperity per loan. One step on the path can mean winning and losing, so we always try to avoid taking loans.

End of another game. You can tell the game has ended because the home field (field with 9 spaces) is completely empty.

In this game I had planed all 6 types of vegetables, but at this moment had not been very lucky in getting the right customers.

Later in the same game, and doing much better in the regular customer section.

Michelle's vegetable business. She had an equal number of regular (blue background) and casual (red background) customers.

The Thoughts

I find that the game is a single-path-to-victory game. You should almost always try to plant as much vegetables as possible, to give yourself a constant and big supply. Even if you can't use all the harvested vegetables for serving regular customers, you can try using them to serve casual customers, probably by using market stalls to change the vegetables to the right types. It's always good to have some vegetables in hand, because buying vegetables from the Shop is expensive. At least with market stalls you are bartering for another vegetable type and not spending your hard earned money.

You also should almost always maintain as many regular customers as you can, and serve an occasional casual customer. Regular customers give you a dependable and growing cashflow, because they gradually pay you more and more over multiple rounds. I find that casual customers are only worth the trouble if they pay at least the normal price to you. If you have more casual customers than regular customers, they pay you a discounted price. It a game design (as opposed to theme-tied) penalty for taking the easy way out. Although casual customers pay more, they need 3 instead of 2 vegetables.

Since you are almost always trying to plant as many vegetables as possible and serve as many regular customers as possible, the game becomes mostly about how you choose the cards to help you do these. That is still interesting and challenging. Just don't expect many different strategies to pursue here. I think the decisions in the game are mostly tactical, as in "let's see what I can do with what fate deals me".

The alternative side of the player board. I told Michelle that this side is to be used during Chinese New Year (red is a lucky colour for the Chinese). She almost believed me.

Bountiful harvest.

I use a glass bead as the score marker and not the small Chinese farmer piece that comes with the game. This bead is flatter and less likely to get knocked over.

The first thing that comes to mind after my first game was "multiplayer solitaire". I normally dislike how people use this term, but I couldn't help thinking of it. Indeed the player interaction level is low in this game. You are mostly absorbed with managing your little vegetable business. During the card phase, you do need to watch out so that you don't accidently release a card that is too useful to your opponents. During the action phase, there are helpers which can affect other players. However I think the player interaction is rather sporadic, and sometimes even a little forced. Not that "multiplayer solitaire" is a problem in itself. You just need to decide whether you like this kind of game. If you don't like Princes of Florence or Race for the Galaxy because you think they are "multiplayer solitaire", then you probably won't like Loyang. I like these two other games very much, but the shortage of player interaction in Loyang bothers me a little. Not too much, but there is a little nagging feeling.

Be prepared for downtime, especially in your first game. A player performs all his actions before passing the turn to the next player, and sometimes you need to really think through and plan the order of your actions. You should think of what you want to do while waiting for the previous player to complete his move. But you need to take note of his Helpers which may impact your plan. When Michelle and I played, we mostly did our actions together, and we just took note of each other's Helpers. Sometimes we had to undo, but mostly it was unnecessary. Playing in parallel helps speed up and helps keep us busy.

Compared to Agricola and Le Havre, I enjoyed Loyang less. I hope I'm not biased by high expectations. I do like it, but I'm definitely more keen to play its older siblings. One good thing about Loyang is Michelle likes it a lot. She likes it just as much as its siblings, which is good, because that means I can more easily get her to play a game with me. Like Agricola, as soon as we started playing Loyang, we kept coming back for more. It has already reached the 5-plays-in-first-year-of-purchase goal within the first week. That's how things should be with games. Every boardgame purchased should be played more than a handful of times, until you are reasonably good at it and can fully appreciate, and thus enjoy, it.


Robert said...

My wife and I first played this at the Board Game Geek con last year. Agricola and Le Havre are my #1 and #2 games, so I was excited to try out Gates of Loyang.

I played it three times and in the end I decided I didn't like it very much at all. Mainly I felt that it was the same game over and over. Sure the cards that come up are in a different order each game, but there is a small variety of cards and after 1 or 2 games you've seen everything.

Funny enough, my wife actually likes it a lot more than I do. Funny that.

Thanks for the great review, pictures always makes posts so much more pleasurable to read :)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Must be something about women and colourful vegetables... :-D

Unknown said...

Keep an eye out for our video review coming soon on Board to Death TV! Feel free to Embed our videos into your blog if you want!

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have played a lot lately. Often we got the same score but tie break on coins

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I think it is quite normal to tie on scores and to need the money tiebreaker. Other than the first 1VP every round, each VP is hard to earn.