Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: At the Gates of Loyang

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. However, I'm not really a fan of most vegetables, even though now that I have a three year old, I have to pretend I enjoy eating them to model good behavior.


The Overview:


The box is the standard Agricola / Le Havre sized box. 



Box contents, including oodles of wooden vegetable markers. 



At the Gates of Loyang is a war game that tells the story of the tyrannical Chancellor Zhuo's attack and siege of China's capital city of Loyang in AD 189... Ah, wait a minute.

At the Gates of Loyang is a farming and market game with an epic wargame title. Players take the role of famers who take their harvests to the marketplace set up in front of the gates of Loyang and manipulate the markets to trade for the resources that they need to fill the orders of their regular customers while at the same time trying to make profit from any casual customers that are available in the market. At the end of each turn, the money that the players made can be spent to move along the victory point track, which determines the final score and the winner of the game.

The game is for 1-4 players and takes from about 60-120 minutes to play. The solo game can be in less time, taking about 30-40 minutes for a player who knows how to play. Surprisingly, however, the three player game is the longest, taking the closest to the full two hours, while the two and four player games are both around 60-90 minutes. This is because of the set up of the four player game, but I'll get into that later.

Each player gets their own score track (the "Path of Prosperity") that also sets up the layout of their cards and houses their personal shop from which they can buy and sell vegetables. Each player begins with 10 Cash and one large field to plant their vegetables in. Other than the 9-spaced Home Field, each player has a total of 8 more fields (2 fields each of 3 spaces, 4 spaces, 5 spaces and 6 spaces) which are shuffled and placed face down. Each player purchases one of the vegetables in their shop and plants it in their home field, filling the rest of the spaces on the field with the same vegetable. Once that is completed, the players begin the game.

There are a total of 9 Rounds in the game and each Round consists of 3 Phases.

During the Harvest Phase a player turns over their next field face up. That field is now ready to be planted on. Each field that has vegetables on it, harvests 1 vegetable which goes into the player's supply. If you remove the last vegetable from a field, that field is discarded.

At the start of the Card Phase all of the discards are shuffled into the deck and four cards are dealt to each player. Players need to play exactly two cards into their play area. One comes from their hand and the other comes from a card drafting pool. Each player takes a turn, placing one of their four cards face-up into a common drafting area called the "Courtyard". The next player must either place one card in the Courtyard or take one of the cards in the Courtyard and play it along with one card from their hand. If they take and play cards, the remaining cards in their hand move to the draft pool. This continues until everyone has taken a card from the pool and played a card from their hand. The last player left to choose may not place cards in the Courtyard, but must instead immediately take one from the pool and play one from their hand. This mechanic creates some strategy, since if you have two cards in your hand, you have to decide which to lay out in the pool and hope that no one else takes it before it comes back to you. If you wait too long, other players can take their cards, leaving you with both cards that you want in your hand, but you can only play one of them and have to take another from the pool. The last player to play cards in this Phase becomes the starting player. Going first gives you a small advantage in the next phase, but it means you got last choice of cards.

Cards that you take go immediately to your play area. There are four kinds of cards. Regular Customer cards show what combination of vegetables they require and must be given to over four rounds. Each round that you fulfill the customer's needs, you receive the amount of coins lists. Casual Customer cards usually pay more than the regular customers, but they are one and done. You will make more money satisfying a Regular Customer over 4 rounds, but Casual Customers pay well for one round. Market cards let you trade one vegetable for another type of vegetable. Helper cards are cards that allow special actions and also allow you to interact with the other players. They are the only way that you can interact with the other players in the game.

The final phase is the Action Phase and a player can take as many actions as they want, as many times as they want, in any order that they want. It is here that they can plant vegetables in their fields, buy or sell vegetables from their shop, trade vegetables at a Market, play or discard a Helper, deliver to a Regular Customer, deliver to a casual customer or buy a two-pack. Buying a two-pack is the only action that can only be taken once per turn. A two-pack consists of two action cards that are taken from the draw pile. The player can keep none, one or both of the cards. If both cards are taken, one is placed on top of the other and the bottom card cannot be used until the top card is completed or resolved.

Regular customers who do not get their vegetables become dissatisfied. If you fail to deliver to a regular customer who is already dissatisfied, then you lose 2 Cash. Casual customers do not penalize you for not completing their order in a Round. Helper cards give special actions, including actions that let you interact with other player's areas. Some of them will let you use another player's Market, satisfy another player's customer or something along that line.

Afterwards, players store their vegetables that were not used that round. Depending on the size of their store house, they lose any extra vegetables.

And finally, players can move their marker along their Path of Prosperity (score track). The track runs from 1-20. The first step at the end of each Phase costs 1 coin. Then you can take as many steps as you like, but each subsequent step costs whatever the number shown on the step is; so to move to the 14 point step costs 14 coins.



The Theme:

At the Gates of Loyang isn't really about theme. That isn't exactly a bad thing. I mean, do you really want to feel completely immersed and come out of the game saying, "Wow, that really felt like I was growing turnips!" However, for creating a strategic planning experience, the game succeeds a bit better. There are decisions to be made and planning that needs to be done in order to maximize your earning potential each round and satisfy your customers.

Markets remain in play in front of you and casual customers hang around turn after turn until they get what they need. Despite all of the other markets and customers that are out in front of the other players, you need specific cards to use them. With that in mind, I don't think that the game really simulates a busy market in front of the Chinese capital city. The bustling marketplace doesn't matter as you really only focus on the portion of it right in front of you.

There are also some places where limitations from the mechanics bleed into the game play itself, however. In the start of the game, no more than 2 players may plant the same type of vegetable. This is not for any strategic reason or for creating a diverse market. That rule is simply in place because there are not enough vegetable tokens to accommodate more than two players starting with one vegetable type. And in a four-player game, players pick partners and two pairs of players take their turns simultaneously, where each player is only allow to interact with one other player with their Helper cards. This isn't to simulate anything, but rather just to reduce lengthy playtime.



Learning the Game:

The rules are fairly simply to learn. It is much easier to grasp from first play than Agricola. If you've played Agricola you can see some similarities in some of the mechanics concepts. This was actually developed before Agricola, but published after it. I think that puts it more in context and where it learned from some of the shortcomings in this game's design. The game was also inspired by Antiquity, but I have not played that to make a comparison.

Strategy comes with a few plays and it is an intuitive learning curve. Since the only interaction is through Helper cards, and going out of your way to simply hurt another player's game usually hurts you just as much, there is no reason why experienced players cannot coach new players during their turn. The interaction is sporadic and for the most part, your score ends up being based almost wholly on how you played, not by how much your opponent was able to stop you.

There are some differences in the solo play than the regular play, but they are easy enough to adapt to and learn as well.



The Components:



The game actually comes with Vegemeeples... What are the third party distributors going to produce to sell for this game? 


Card artwork is on par with Agricola. A little sidenote: All of the males of a card type are posed the same way and all of the females of a card type are posed the same way. 




Game in progress. 



The Path of Prosperity. Apparently to move further and further among the Path of Prosperity, it costs boatloads of money. That's not very Zen.




The artwork on the cards is on par with the artwork with Agricola and is fitting. The card stock is the sturdy and fine for shuffling and wear. The cardboard components are sturdy and useful, and the coins are rather nice and fitting. Best of all, the vegetables are shaped wooden components instead of cubes. This means that we don't have to go through a craze of everyone trying to get shaped vegemeeples to replace their cubes!

The components are useful and very practical and durable. The T-shaped scoreboard works for me, since it also sets up the frame of your play area. Some people think that the game would be better suited with a universal scoreboard so that people can compare scores more easily, but I like the personal ones. There is minimal blocking and only sporadic interaction, so really it feels right that my score should be in front of me. Despite the large markets at Loyang, the board is my world and I only rarely venture out of it to find other markets and customers.



Playing the Game:

Game play is easy and intuitive and there is a lot of contemplation on how to maximize the Cash you will receive each turn. There is downtime in the game, but in a two-player game it isn't that bad. The three-player game suffers the most lag from downtime. I usually don't mind this too much, since our core group is a chatty bunch, but a player taking his turn usually is concentrating on what is in front of him so at least you have one other person to talk to while someone is taking their turn.

I enjoy the Path of Prosperity and the means of advancing along it. It's cheaper to move early in the game, but much more costly at the end. This rewards those who can make a few quick deals in the early game, but also rewards those who can set up consistent engines to produce money through the mid and late game. Some people complain that the scores seem rather tight, but with coins as the tie-breaker and the mark of how you advance, they really are a part of the final score and tell a fuller story. For example, my wife's last three games have all been 18 point games. However, there is a huge difference between the game where she ended with 18 points and 2 coins and the game that she ended with 18 points and 16 coins. Similarly, a game where she and I tied at 16 points, I had 0 coins left and she had 14 coins left, wasn't nearly as close as it might seem. So, for those worried about the tight scores, include the cash in your scores at the end. It really separates the scores and shows a better picture.

And as much as I don't want to get into the whole debate about multiplayer solitaire, I think it is necessary to mention it here. The interaction is minimal. It can make an impact, but really I cannot go out of my way to block another player without really hurting myself, unless it just happens to be something that I need. That being said, I don't mind it. In its own way, it sort of works for this game. At the end of my wife's first 18 point game, when I mentioned that she won, she said, "Well, you let me win." I blinked and said, "How could I let you win?" And it really made realize that your score is a merit of your own game and not really by anyone else's play.



Scalability:

The game plays best as a 2 player and a solo game. Three player increases the potential of interaction, but really increases the down time and turns it into a two-hour game. For the limited amount of interaction and effect that a third player gives me in the game, I don't know if it is worth adding one to the game. I would rather play it as a two-player game.

Four player is just a little clumsy with the execution and trying to decrease the downtime. It still works, but at the same time that you are increasing players, you are limiting interaction.



Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. My wife loved this game at first, but has slowed on her enthusiasm after more plays. She still enjoys it, but it is not a go-to two-player game as I thought it would have been. Still, it is not as brain-burning as Agricola and if I am in the mood for that and she does not want something that deep, this would probably be the compromise game.

Another thing I have to note is that even though my wife's enthusiasm has slowed on this, she is incredibly good at it. She routinely beats me and holds our two highest scores.



The Pros:

*Pretty game with solid components.
*Score is based on individual play since there is limited interaction and blocking.
*Lighter than Agricola, but with a similar kind of feel.
*Not difficult to learn, but offers a range of strategy.
*Game play requires you to be constantly thinking multiple turns ahead.
*Interesting means of gaining victory points.
*A good solo game play.


The Cons:

*Titles sounds a lot more epic than the actual theme is.
*Limited interaction will turn off some players.
*Mechanics take over theme and change game to make it playable (starting vegetables and 4 player partners).
*A bit too light for the time investment.
*Cards can make or break a Round with a really good or bad draw.
*Downtime is a factor.



Overall:

At the Gates of Loyang is a production and market game that has a lot of planning and strategy in it, but ultimately still feels a bit light. There is not a lot of interaction or blocking, but that does not necessarily hurt the game as long as you go into it with that in mind. There are some interesting mechanics in the game, the planning of the fields and the managing customers to get just enough money to move you one step further along the Path of Prosperity are rather interesting. However, for the amount of time invested in the game, I feel that it is too light. For the same amount of time that I put into a two or three player game of At the Gates of Loyang, I could have played a two or three player game of Agricola and still played my own game, but with more interaction. It will find its way to my table, but not as often as it would if it were shorter, or the same length but with more depth.


7/10

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