Last month, I confessed to not having watched an Alien movie when wrapping up my thoughts on Legendary Encounters. This month, I have yet another confession to make: I didn't play At the Gates of Loyang nearly as much as I intended to. Having a game of the month means exploring the undiscovered nooks and crannies, considering the unconsidered. It means digging beneath the surface of a game to sample its many layers. But what happens when you don't like what's on the surface? What happens when you just aren't having fun?
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
"What is the Bottom Shelf?" This is a question that I've been constantly asking myself as I write for this site. It's the question that keeps me on my toes. It's the question that's brought me to the game of the month format. It was great when I was playing and writing about a great game (Legendary Encounters), but it proved to be a little different when the game is not so great. After a few plays of At the Gates of Loyang, I just wasn't having enough fun to keep me playing. In some ways, the game of the month format was meant to combat this feeling, providing incentive to play a game beyond the initial few plays. But I guess sometimes that incentive just isn't enough.
While I'm in the confessing mood, I might as well confess something else: I don't like playing bad games. Shocker, I know. What this means in a practical sense is that the games I choose as the game of the month are games that I think I'll like. They are games that appeal to my sensibilities and that I'm looking forward to exploring. At the Gates of Loyang looks great at first glance. The vegetables are bright and colorful. The unique T-shaped player boards are intriguing yet functional. The score tracker is a simple, but elegant wooden pawn. Even the money has square cutouts, a wholly unnecessary, but thematic touch. Some may have quibbles with the art style, but I find it has character and the little details found throughout are endearing (notice the bottle floating in the river). Taken all together, there is no denying At the Gates of Loyang's visual artistry. It's not extravagant by any means, but it's tasteful and expertly crafted.
But beyond its visual delight, At the Gates of Loyang comes from a good pedigree and explores a novel theme. I was genuinely excited to play!
Don't let my ominous tone convince you that the game is all doom and gloom. Quite the contrary in fact. There are elements of the game that I enjoy quite a bit and after my first couple of plays, I was generally happy with my time spent with At the Gates of Loyang, though I did have some reservations.
The basic premise of growing your vegetables and selling them in the big city is compelling enough, but no game lives on premise alone. Execution is paramount. And At the Gates of Loyang executes some things very well. Each round is broken up into two distinct parts. The card draft phase and the action phase.
The draft is easily my favorite part of the game. The fact that you must choose one card from your hand and one card from the common courtyard allows for some clever bluffing and serves as the main vector for player interaction. Requiring players to add cards to the courtyard means your constantly monitoring everyone's positions to make sure you aren't inadvertently helping them with the card you choose to put in the courtyard. It's a twisted game of chicken, where you are holding out for the best possible cards to show themselves, but the longer you hold out the higher your chances for helping your opponents becomes. Good stuff!
I only wished it lasted longer. The cards you pick up during this phase have long term ramifications and will define everything you do in the future. And yet you spend a relatively short amount of time gathering them. The game also slows down a bit due to many of the helper cards having lots of text on them. It's alleviated somewhat with the familiarity bred though repeated plays and the fact that you can go over the text as a group.
So you emerge from a tense battle of the minds with your cards, play them to your board and then proceed to ignore everyone at the table for 5-10 minutes. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The action phase that proceeds the card phase can accurately be described as a puzzle. You have an arsenal of available actions and it's up to you to figure out how and in what order to use them in order to best meet your needs. It is enjoyable, to an extent. Working your your supply chain in order in to make deliveries and balancing the immediate benefits of casual customers and the longer term benefits of regular customers is definitely a worthy challenge. And rising up to the challenge can certainly imbue a sense of satisfaction, but it's just so ... lonely.
Your actions are of so little consequence to the plans of others that I would actually advise everyone take their turns at the same time. The only meaningful interaction comes by way of certain helper cards and when they are in play, I actually find them an annoyance because now you have to wait for a player's entire turn to play out before you start. All this loneliness in the action phase is especially egregious coming off the heels of a card phase that manages to incorporate meaningful decisions with clever player interaction.
All of your efforts in At the Gates of Loyang are ostensibly to make lots of money. It's a goal that's been used in many games and for good reason. It's clear and definable. And it quickly orients players in the right direction during the game. At the Gates of Loyang employs a novel way to track your wealth through the 'Path of Prosperity.' I'm not sure I've come across anything else like it and I think there might be a reason for it. The idea of paying increasing amounts of currency to move higher on the scoring track creates real moments of tension that I do enjoy, but overall I find the scoring track a detriment to the whole experience.
One of the things I enjoy most in board games, and that I feel board games do incredibly well, is create a visual representation of all that I accomplished throughout the game. Whether it's a sprawling network of railways or a bustling metropolis, it's incredibly satisfying to look at the board at the end of a game and just soak it all in, to see the culmination of the gaming narrative that just transpired. It's a fleeting moment that only lives in the time between the end of the game and sliding the game pieces into the box, but it provides the time for reflection and discussion that solidifies the memory of the game in my mind. If At the Gates of Loyang is played well, you will have very few customers left in your play area, very few vegetables and fields. The better you do, the less there is leftover that tells your story. All you have have is a single pawn on a scoring track. A single pawn to represent your blood, sweat and tears. A single pawn that signifies your life's work as vegetable farmer.
So be it. I'm willing to take a game on its own terms. If you want to condense the entire life of my fictional farmer into a single number, At the Gates of Loyang, I'll go along with it, to a point. 16 points to be exact. You might notice that the score track only goes to 20. And from what I can tell, reaching that plateau is nigh impossible. Expect scores in the 16-18 range ... every single game. This proved to be my breaking point. I just couldn't push myself to play again when I knew I was just going to get the same score again, give or take 1 point. So not only have I been deprived of the visual story or my work, now I have to be content with getting to the same score over and over again. You might say it's the journey that's most important and that I'm focused too squarely on the destination. And perhaps your right. I suppose I'm just shallow that way.
I had high hopes coming into this month. I thought I would stumble into an overlooked gem by one of my favorite board game designers. Instead I mostly just stumbled. My initial plays revealed potential and my initial optimism latched onto it, convincing myself that this was a game I would enjoy. But it proved not to be the case. Not that there aren't some truly enjoyable elements to be found, just that they weren't good enough to overcome my issues with the game. I wonder if more plays would have alleviated some of my qualms, I wonder if more plays would have revealed a greater strategy instead of the frantic scrambling I found myself often doing. I wonder for just a moment and then I remember all the other games are enjoy so much more.