At the Gates of Loyang
English language edition of Vor den Toren von Loyang
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China, 2000 years ago. Loyang has risen to become the capital of the Han Dynasty and one of the four main capitals of ancient China. In the booming economic climate, the people of this flourishing city require an improved supply of basic foodstuffs. These are supplied by local farmers who grow wheat, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, beans and leeks in their fields.
After each harvest, the farmers regularly meet at the gates of Loyang to trade their produce. They make deliveries to their regular customers and sell vegetables to casual customers for lucrative profit. But vegetables can also be bartered at market stalls or used as seed to plant new fields. If the farmers need vegetables which they don't have on hand, they can buy them at their shop.
Twenty different kinds of helpers, each with different skills, are available to assist them. These helpers allow players to employ a wide range of strategies and tactics.
The most successful farmer will be the one who makes the most progress on the Path of Prosperity within the given timeframe. Each step along the path costs money -- less to begin with, increasingly higher amounts later on. But money is also needed for investments -- so it is crucial to strike the right balance.
Although easy to learn, At the Gates of Loyang is a challenging economic game for 1 to 4 players.
Uwe Rosenberg has developed an admirable reputation as an extremely creative designer. Nearly all of his designs have contained highly original mechanisms and/or quirks. Bohnanza, a game with the unusual theme of bean farming, was perhaps his first creation that captured the imagination of the gaming world. Other quirky designs soon followed, including Schnäppchen Jagd, Mamma Mia!, Klunker, Bali and Babel. Rosenberg rocked the gaming world again with Agricola, a deep strategy game that earned the International Gamers Award and ultimately displaced Puerto Rico as the top-rated game on the Boardgame Geek website. This was followed by Le Havre, which also won the IGA. His third deep strategy game in a row is At the Gates of Loyang, which again offers another creative mechanism and different feel.
At the Gates of Loyang takes players back two thousand years to the time when the Han Dynasty ruled China. Loyang has become a great capital of the dynasty, but it has a food distribution problem. The game casts players in the roles of farmers who not only grow the crops, but also sell them at stalls at the local markets. The challenge is to establish an efficient system to grow crops in order to satisfy the needs of demanding customers, thereby increasing one's prosperity.
Each player receives a T-shaped board containing their shop and a score track known as the "Path of Prosperity". The shop has space for six different types of vegetables, with two spaces for each except wheat, which can hold three. Players begin with a home field, which they will completely seed with a vegetable purchased from their shop, placing one matching vegetable in each of the nine available spaces. Each player also receives eight private fields which will come into play during the course of the game. These fields can accommodate from three-to-six vegetables, with greater capacity being more desirable. Armed with an initial account of ten coins and a storehouse / cart card, players begin the challenge.
The game is played over the course of nine turns, divided into distinct phases:
Harvest Phase. Each player reveals a new private field, and harvests one vegetable from each of his existing fields, placing the vegetables into his cart. If the final vegetable in a field has been harvested, the field is discarded.
Card Phase. This is where Rosenberg's creativity really shines. Each player receives four action cards. Cards depict market stalls, customers, fields or helpers.
•Players may visit market stalls to trade vegetables in order to receive the veggies available at that stall. Once three trades have been conducted, the merchant closes shop and the card is discarded.
• Customers demand specific vegetables in order to be satisfied. Regular customers will hang around for four rounds, but their demand for two specific vegetables must be met each round. Otherwise, they get upset. Failure to satisfy their demands when they are unhappy will cost the player two coins.
Casual customers also desire specific vegetables, but they aren't so fickle. They are quite patient and won’t get upset if their demand isn’t immediately met.
Whether the customer is a regular or a casual shopper, meeting their demand will result in income for the player: the more difficult the demand, the greater the profit. Further, regular customers pay an increasing amount each time they receive their requested vegetables.
• Fields give the player another field wherein vegetables can be planted. This will provide the player with more vegetables, which is always desirable. However, it does cost 2 coins to put a new field into play.
• There is a wide assortment of Helpers, each of which provides the player with a special power or ability. These add considerable spice and variety to the proceedings, and allow players to use them in various combinations to execute some very clever moves.
The really interesting mechanism is that players do not get to keep the four cards they are dealt. Rather, they are distributed in a very unusual and original manner. In turn order, a player must either place one of his cards face-up to the courtyard (the center of the table) OR take one card from the courtyard and one card from his hand. If he chooses the latter option, he places the cards on the appropriate locations on his board. There are locations for each type of card, and a player can have multiple cards of each type. However, with the exception of helpers, he cannot discard any played cards until they are fully used. His remaining two cards in hand are placed into the courtyard.
If a player chooses option one, he remains in the round of play and will have the same options available when it is once again his turn.
There is considerable angst during this phase. Deciding whether to take a card from the courtyard or wait for a better card is a tough – often very tough – decision. Often a player will desire two cards in his hand, but the only way to keep both is to place one into the courtyard and hope that it is still available when it is once again his turn. If the card is that valuable, it is usually scooped quickly by an opponent.
The phase ends once everyone has selected a card from the courtyard and coupled it with one from their hand. The last player to choose a card from the courtyard becomes the start player, while the second-to-last player becomes the second player. The start player selects one of the other players (not the second player) to be his partner for the turn, while the remaining player is teamed with the second player. Partners generally do not work together for their collective mutual benefit. Rather, any cards that affect an opponent can only be played against one's partner for that turn. This does prevent a "gang up on the leader" bandwagon affect, and forces players to carefully assess the benefits of selecting a particular partner.
Action Phase. Players may perform as many actions as they desire and can afford. All but one action (the “two-pack”) can be performed multiple times. This allows players wide creative latitude, but can also cause the game to drag as a player contemplates the multitude of options. The options include:
• Sow an empty field by taking a vegetable from one's cart and placing it onto a field. All other spaces of the field are then filled with the same vegetable.
• A player may purchase or sell vegetables for the stated price from his shop. Purchased vegetables are placed onto the player's cart, while sold vegetables are placed into his shop. There must be space in the shop in order to sell a specific veggie.
• A player may trade at a market stall that he has on his board. One helper allows the player to trade at an opponent's stall, which can be a particularly nasty action as it can steal a veggie that player was planning on using.
• A player can discard or use the ability of a helper, after which that helper is discarded. A complete description of the wide variety of helpers would be too lengthy. Suffice to say, they provide a vast array of special abilities and powers which allow players to be quite creative in the execution of their plans or to interfere with their opponents' plans. They add quite a bit of spice and variety to the proceedings.
• A player may meet the demands of a regular and/or casual customer. A regular customer demands two specific vegetables and pays the specified amount. As mentioned, his demands must be met each turn or he will become unhappy, which could cost a player two coins. Casual customers demand three goods, but are quite patient. Their demand can be met at any time. Satisfying customers is the primary source of income, so a regular flow of customers into one’s shop is desirable.
• Buy a two-pack. No, beer is not part of the game. Rather, this action allows the player to draw two action cards, keeping one, two or none of the cards. The cost is equivalent to the number of helpers or market stalls a player has on his board. If a player keeps both cards, one is placed atop the other, and they are placed onto his board. The second card does not come into play until the first card is completed and discarded.
After a player has completed all of the actions he desires, a player may store one vegetable remaining in his cart. If he upgrades his storehouse for two coins, he may keep up to four veggies. Excess veggies can be sold to his store or discarded.
Now, the player decides how much money he desires to spend to advance along the path of prosperity. The first advance of each turn costs one coin, but each additional space costs a number of coins equal to the number of the space. So, if a player is currently on space 5, he must pay one coin to advance to space 6 and an additional seven coins to advance to space seven. A player may advance as far as he desires, as long as he has enough coins to pay the escalating cost. Be careful, however, as coins will be needed on the next turn in order to execute various actions. One must balance the desire to advance on the prosperity track versus the need to conserve money for the subsequent turn. Since money is tight, this can be a tough decision. Loans are available, but cannot be repaid and will cost victory points at game's end.
The game continues in this fashion for nine rounds. This is easily tracked as the last veggie will be removed from each player's home field at the beginning of the final round. Players must go back one space on the prosperity track for each loan they have in their possession. The player furthest along the path of prosperity becomes the most renowned farmer in Loyang and wins the game.
First, confessions are in order. While I admire the design of Agricola, I've never been a fan. I find the game continually frustrating, and that is not a good feeling to experience with regularity during a game. Le Havre was much more to my liking, as even when an opponent scooped the primary action I was hoping to take, there were still numerous other beneficial actions. I wasn't sure where At the Gates of Loyang would settle, as there really wasn't much early buzz about the game. I was a bit wary, but I find it difficult to resist a Rosenberg design.
I must say I have been very pleased with Loyang. There are constant decisions to be made, and most of them are tough. There seem to be a multitude of options and strategies to pursue, and none of them seem to be foolproof or formidable. For the most part, players can execute their plans and strategies without an abundance of interference from their opponents. There are some helpers that do allow some tampering with an opponent's markets or cards, and while these are usually troublesome, they aren't devastating. Further, as mentioned earlier, cards which affect an opponent only affect one's "partner". While some have complained that this gives the game a Solitaire feel, I disagree. There is enough interaction not only by the use of these cards, but also in the card selection process. I feel there is just enough to keep matters interesting, but not intrusive.
The most significant problem I have with the game is its length. Each game I've played has lasted three hours or more. I've mentioned many times previously that I don't mind longer games, but Loyang seems to drag a bit in the middle rounds. The game would seem to maintain more if its excitement if it could be played in two hours or so. Some groups might be able to accomplish this, but we have not come close to that mark. However, the somewhat excessive duration has not been enough to force me to abandon the game. Every game I have played has been tense and exciting, with one even being decided via a tie-breaker (most cash). There is a growing sense of anxiety as the game progresses as you try to pull your plan together and squeeze out a few more coins to advance just one more space on the prosperity track. Loyang continues to intrigue, which keeps me going back in time for yet another rich experience at the gates of this ancient city.