China, during the Han Dynasty: Loyang has become a booming capital city. Farmers gather at the gates to sell vegetables, competing for customers and seeking assistance from various helpers. The goal? To move the farthest along the Path of Prosperity, while striking the right balance in investing money in the farm.
At the Gates of Loyang is the third board game in Uwe Rosenberg’s “Harvest Trilogy,” and it’s a treat to play (and not bad on the eyes, either). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Harvest Trilogy, Agricola debuted in 2007 and almost immediately shot up to the top of BoardGameGeek’s best-rated games (though it has since settled back to #2), and the follow-up, Le Havre, is currently sitting at #6. I’m a fan of the first two games in the set, so when I heard that Loyang had been released I was excited to try it out. (And perhaps later I’ll go back to review the others.) Loyang is actually a predecessor to Agricola—it was designed earlier but published later. Although it’s not ranked as high as the others (yet?), I did enjoy playing it and it has some interesting differences from the others.
Loyang is for one to four players, ages ten and up, and takes an hour or two to play, depending on number of players and how prone they are to analysis paralysis. It’s published by Z-Man Games, and retails for $60. There are four T-shaped game boards, cardboard tokens, cards, and a pile of colorful wooden vegetable pieces. The components are nicely designed—the illustrations are reminiscent of Agricola but with a Chinese theme, and the wooden vegetables are a big improvement over the wooden discs and cubes that some games use for counters. The cardboard “Cash” coins are round with square holes, just like old Chinese coins, but you’ll have to punch them all out yourself. The game takes place over the course of nine rounds, in which everyone harvests their vegetables, play cards in their game board areas, and then attempt to sell to their customers to earn money. Despite the small size of the board, you’ll need a lot of table space to play.
Each player starts with a home field with nine spaces, a storehouse/cart card, and a board with a vegetable store. At the beginning, each player buys a vegetable from their store and plants it in their field (which then fills the field with that type of vegetable). At the beginning of each round, players harvest one vegetable from each field, and then turn over another private field card which has anywhere from three to six spaces on it. Only one type of vegetable can be planted per field; higher-value vegetables like beans and leeks can only be planted in smaller fields, whereas wheat and pumpkins can be planted almost anywhere.
After the harvest comes the card phase, which will bring customers, market stalls, and helpers to your game board. There’s an interesting mechanic which requires you to play cards into a common courtyard area first, and then you play two cards—one from the courtyard and one from your hand—into your own board area. What this means is that if you have two really great cards you want, you have to put one of them into the courtyard first and hope that nobody snatches it up before it’s your turn again.
On the right side of your game board are two types of customers: regular and casual. Regular customers want a combination of two vegetables, and they’ll purchase the same combo for the next four rounds, earning you a little more money each time. However, if you fail to satisfy a regular customer, it can end up costing you cash. Casual customers want a three-vegetable combo and tend to pay a bit more; however, you get a bonus for having more regular than casual customers, and pay a penalty for having more casual than regular customers.
On the left side of the game board come the market stalls and helpers. Market stalls allow you to trade vegetables—but each slot can only be used once, and in some market stalls you’ll need to trade in two vegetables for one bean or leek, the most costly types. There are twenty different types of helpers which give you different sorts of advantages, from trading at another player’s market stall to getting you a lower price on vegetables from your store.
After the card phase, each player has a turn to plant vegetables in empty fields, buy and sell vegetables from their store, satisfy customers, and trade at their market stalls. At the end, they can spend cash to move along the Path of Prosperity—but the cost of moving up a space increases as you go. Moving to the third spot costs three cash, but moving from nine to ten costs you ten cash. And if you want to move more than one space, you have to pay the sum total.
After nine rounds, the winner is the player furthest along their path.
As opposed to the other two games in the Harvest Trilogy, Loyang‘s scoring system is pretty simple, so it’s fairly easy to tell at a glance how well you’re doing at any point in the game. However, there can still be some surprises depending on the luck of the draw, and how well you’ve planned in advance for future customers. There’s a little less head-to-head interaction than the other games, where one player’s actions can block another player’s plans. Some of the helpers do allow you to affect other players, and the courtyard during the card phase forces you to share your cards with the other players. However, during the main action phase of your turn, it’s mostly just you—so it can feel like there’s more downtime while you’re waiting for a player to finish.
The theme is done pretty well, and I think fits the gameplay fairly well. (Agricola is one of my favorites as far as how the theme and gameplay match up, and Le Havre is a little more abstracted. Loyang falls somewhere in the middle.) The first time you play it’ll take some time to explain all the rules, but once you get going it plays fairly quickly (again, depending on your players). The solitaire version has slightly different rules (and set goals to shoot for) but I haven’t tried that yet.
Overall, I really enjoyed Loyang and so did my fellow gamers. I think as far as how well the theme matches the mechanics, Loyang falls between Agricola and Le Havre. If you want more direct interaction and competition you might want to look elsewhere. Loyang is a thoughtful, easy-paced game which requires planning ahead and a bit of luck.
Pick up a copy of At the Gates of Loyang at your local board games store or from Amazon.
Wired: A board game about farming in ancient China, with excellent graphics and strategic (though not intense) gameplay.
Tired: Not a lot of direct interaction; slower players can really drag the game out.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of the game.