Hello Dear Reader!
I hope today finds you well and that you are excited to hear about a new (well actually an old) boardgame! Today I want to discuss At the Gates of Loyang by Tasty Minstrel Games, designed by Uwe Rosenberg.
If you’re anything like me you may have experienced a situation like this in your life before. You see an actor who absolutely blows you away with a stellar performance in a movie, or hear a song from a musician that you swear is the best song you’ve ever heard. You then immediately begin searching for anything that person has ever made or been a part of. You begin to experience the joy of discovering that person’s back catalog of work.
I am relatively new to the board gaming hobby. I truly discovered the hobby in late 2014 early 2015. Since that time my collection has grown to almost 200 games. I’m absolutely loving exploring the games that have made waves in the industry. One thing I learned fairly quickly is that the name Uwe Rosenberg holds a place of reverence within the hobby.
When looking at the top games of all time on BoardGameGeek I saw quite a few games from the same designer. Games like Caverna, Agricola and Le Havre were regarded as some of the best games ever made. Due to the play time, cost, and depth of many of Mr Rosenberg’s games, I had a hard time getting his classics to the table.
My first true exposure to his design was with the two player game Patchwork. I loved that game and continued to explore his work from there. So when I recently heard that there was a game that preceded Agricola but was in the same vein I was very interested. I saw the pictures and the components on BGG and was even more excited! Then I found out that Tasty Minstrel Games was planning to reprint this classic! The fates aligned and I was able to purchase a copy at BGG Con. I learned the game and found out that I loved the play experience.
Now I don’t want to just say “I loved the game” and leave it at that. I want to tell you what attracted me to the game and what hooked me for the long haul. So stay with me as I unpack a bit because if you’re anything like me, you’ll end up loving this game too. What are you doing in this game?
You and up to three other players are farmers growing crops and selling those crops to customers at the Loyang Gates to increase your standing on the path to prosperity. The player who is furthest on the track to prosperity wins! This game shares some similarities in mechanics to Agricola. There is a planting and harvesting mechanic similar to Agricola, and there are special use cards that will give you one time abilities. Other than these similarities the games veer away from one another. The thing that I really enjoy about At the Gates of Loyang is that it creates some tension and urgency through certain customers that demand quite a bit from the player, but the tension never feels overwhelming.
At the Gates of Loyang scores a complexity rating on BGG of 3.14 out of 5 which I think is a bit misleading. Don’t get me wrong there is definitely depth to the strategy of this game. At the heart however At the Gates of Loyang is fairly straightforward. You play nine rounds, and your primary goal is to move as far as you can along a “Path to Prosperity” that goes to twenty. Each round you will harvest vegetables that you have planted, then draft two cards to play, then take actions. Now there are absolutely some intricacies to the rounds that have to be learned but At the Gates of Loyang doesn’t feel like a chore to learn, it feels like a privilege and an adventure.
There are a few mechanics that I really enjoy and want to highlight. The first thing I love is the way that you draft cards and the options that the cards provide. The way a drafting round goes is a bit different than most games. Each player will take four cards in hand. Then the start player will play a card in the middle of the table to start a “courtyard” that is used by everyone. The next player in turn order then has the option to continue to add cards to the courtyard and grow the pool of available cards, or keep two cards for the round. The requirement for the draft is that each player has to keep one card from their hand, and take one card from the middle. This creates a really interesting game of cat and mouse from time to time where you may draw two cards that you really love and want to keep, but you have to play at least one. This creates tension because you need to play a card so that you can potentially keep it, but you have to hope that someone else doesn’t snatch it first.
The cards themselves also make the game very interesting. You will see five different types of cards available:
- Regular Customers: these cards require a bit of engine building to fulfill. Each regular customer shows two types of vegetables that they want each round for the next four rounds. If you don’t deliver the required vegetables starting on the round you play the card, the customers will start to become angry and eventually they will penalize you in money. These customers can be a steady source of income but they require some planning and strategy to satisfy.
- Casual Customers: these cards represent customers that are just casually passing by and don’t have a four round commitment. Casual customers will ask for three types of vegetables once and then they are discarded. They will not penalize you if you can’t sell to them right away, they can hang out for a few rounds. So casual customers can be quite useful to serve but the game takes away some profits from casual customers if you only focus on them and don’t serve any regular customers. Balance is required with this strategy!
- Helpers: there are twenty different helpers that you can select in the game. Each of these helper cards will provide a one time bonus that can potentially be very beneficial. It depends on the strategy that you employ but just as with Agricola these cards can really make the gameplay interesting.
- Market Stalls: these cards can give you quite a bit of flexibility as they allow you to trade any one or two types of vegetables for different vegetables that you may need more. So for instance if you are producing loads of grain but don’t really need grain at the moment, you can go to a market stall and trade your grain for the pumpkin that you so desperately need to serve your casual customer. The goods at these market stalls are gone when they’re gone though so careful timing of how you trade and use these goods is paramount.
- Common Fields: the last type of card that you will see is a common field. These cards can be very useful because each player will have a minimum of nine fields come into play for them from their starting deck, but these common fields can be purchased and added to a player’s tableau to increase the vegetables produced and create more flexibility for the player.
After selecting the two cards that players want for the round, the remaining cards are discarded and players will place their selections face up in their tableau area. There is a designated spot on the player board for each type of card.
After the card phase each player will have the opportunity to take part in an action phase. This is where the meat of the game happens. During the action phase you can plant crops, buy and sell vegetables, deliver to customers, utilize market stalls and helpers, and once per round players can buy what the game calls a two pack. Now I don’t want to go too in-depth with all of the actions because many of them are straightforward and can be seen in my how to play video at the bottom of this review, but I do want to briefly touch on the two pack action because I think it is an interesting mechanic that Mr. Rosenberg included in the game.
When buying a two pack, you first have to look at the left side of your player board where your helpers and market stall cards are played. You have to look at the greater of the two lines and pay that many coins to the bank to draw a two pack. So for instance if you had three helpers in play and two market stalls, you would pay three coins (the greater of the two lines) and draw two cards from the deck. Essentially a two pack is a way to draw and play more cards than the standard two per round and as such is a powerful action, that is why players are only allowed to do it once per round. Once the cards are drawn the player can select all of the cards, none of the cards or just one of the cards to keep and play face up. One other interesting decision players have to make is which card to play as the active card. When playing a two pack if you decide to keep both cards you have to place one on top of the other. The top card is then placed in the play area where it would normally go. After the first card is activated the bottom card instantly comes into play. This interaction can create more tension and interesting decisions to make sure that the timing of cards coming into play is manageable by the player.
There is also a shop for each player that will be a kind of ever changing economy throughout the game that players have to manage. Each spot in a player’s shop has a set number of spots for each vegetable. In general players cannot buy vegetables from the shop unless one is there to buy, and players cannot sell vegetables from their shop unless there is a space open to sell to. This creates a very interesting balance of buying and selling vegetables to and from your shop in a way that must keep your needs met throughout the game. The shop’s requirements can also make market stalls very valuable from time to time so this is another little mini game in At the Gates of Loyang that I really enjoy.
After all players have taken actions and passed each player has the opportunity move further along the path to prosperity. This is done by paying coins to move further along the track. So just in case you are wondering the whole point of the game is to select cards and take actions to provide money to the player. Players then spend money to move on a victory point track to try and become the most prosperous player. At the end of each round you can move one space on the path for one coin. Any following spaces you want to move past you will have to pay the number listed in coins. So for instance if you were on space seven, you could pay one coin to move to space eight, and then a combined nineteen coins to move to spaces nine and ten respectively.
Players will continue to take the three phases of the game until nine rounds have passed and the most prosperous player will be declared the victor. So now that we’ve talked about the nitty gritty mechanisms, let me throw some opinions around. I like this game quite a bit. I like it for a number of reasons but a few things stand out as really great aspects of this game. One nice thing about the game is that there are helpers that give you some special abilities. This was a nice aspect of Agricola as well but in this game there are only twenty unique helpers. This means that there are still plenty of options for interesting interactions but the options aren’t quite as overwhelming as the large number of cards available in Agricola. This smaller sampling still provides a deep pool of strategies but the possibilities are manageable.
The other thing that I really love about this game is the fact that there are real, strategic decisions to be made with every round and being as efficient as possible is of utmost importance. You only get to select two cards so you really have to make your picks count. This is made more difficult because you also have to try and work around what other players are going for and that can be a fun back and forth. There are ways to work around getting outplayed in the card phase as well so all hope isn’t lost if you don’t get all the cards you want.
At the Gates of Loyang shares some bones with its bigger sibling Agricola. There is still a very heavy “plant crops, harvest crops, grow fields” feel to the experience that I personally love. There is something so satisfying about planting a field and harvesting veggies and building an engine to supply customers with goods. I find the play experience deeply rewarding but also relaxing in a way. At the Gates of Loyang gives me the same satisfaction as developing a thriving farm in Minecraft and other sandbox style games but allows me to enjoy the experience with other friends face to face.
If there’s one thing I can say about Mr. Rosenberg’s games it’s that he does farming really well. I know this comes as no shocker to most people familiar with the hobby but At the Gates of Loyang is a wonderfully streamlined farming and engine building game that I don’t think gets nearly enough press. Now this may just be because I’m new to the hobby and haven’t heard about the game because of all the new hotness, but I’m hoping that with the new reprint more excitement will be generated and new players like myself will continue to discover this gem. The game officially releases on December 7th and will retail for $60. For this price I feel like you will get your money’s worth and then some. This is a game that I have fallen in love with and will enjoy for years to come. I’ve included a how to play video at the bottom of this article so you can get a better feel for how the game plays and looks on the table. If you have any questions or want to interact with us you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or listen to our Dicey Review Podcast on iTunes, Sticher and TuneIn. Thanks and until next time I’ll see you at the table!