Back at Christmas, a real Chinese Lantern Festival came to my city. I’d never seen one before and I really didn’t know that much about the history behind the artwork. At any rate, we went to see it and had a lovely time. Coincidentally, Lanterns: The Harvest Festival was just hitting the market about that time. Being the geek that I am, I thought, “Hey, I need a game to commemorate this experience! And it’s Christmas, so what better time to buy a present.” And that’s how Lanterns came to be in my collection. The question is: Does it deserve to stay, or should I have just stuck to enjoying the real Chinese lanterns?
How It Plays
Lanterns is a set collection and tile laying game that has you competing to build the lantern display that earns the most honor from the palace. At the beginning of the game, the starting lantern tile is placed in the center of the board and each player is given one lantern card in the color that corresponds to the color on the side of the tile he is facing. (Lantern cards are always kept face up in front of the players so that everyone can see them.) Players are also given three lake tiles. The point tiles are stacked by color/type and in descending order and placed beside the board.
On a turn, a player may play up to three actions, one of which is mandatory. The actions are:
- Exchange a lantern card (optional). A player may spend two favor tokens to exchange one lantern card from his hand for a different lantern card from the supply.
- Make a dedication (optional). Lantern cards in certain groupings may be returned to the supply in exchange for points. If a player has four of a kind, he takes the top tile from the red point stack. If he has three pairs, he takes the top tile from the blue point stack. If he has seven cards, one of every color, he takes the top tile from the green stack.
- Place a lake tile (mandatory). Players must place one lake tile from their hand so that at least one side is adjacent to any other already placed tile. If the tile is placed so that its side matches the side of the existing tile, the player receives one bonus lantern card of that color. If any of the matching tiles also have platforms on them, the player receives one favor token for each platform. Finally, every player, including the active player, receives one lantern card corresponding to the color on the side of the newly placed lake tile he is facing. (If there are no cards left in the supply of a given color, that player receives nothing.)
After completing all of his actions, the active player draws his lake tile hand back up to three and play continues in player order. The game ends when all lake tiles have been drawn and placed. After the last lake tile is placed, each player gets one additional turn in which they may make a dedication or exchange lantern cards as normal. After everyone has had their final turn, players add up the points from their point tiles. The player with the most points (honor) wins the game.
A Light in the Darkness or a Dim Bulb?
Before I talk about the pros and cons of Lanterns, I just want to say that playing this game can be a very zen-like experience. Yes, there are limited ways to mess with your opponents, but nothing is too cutthroat or mean. Add in the lovely art and you have a peaceful, pretty game that’s relaxing to play.
It reminds me a lot of Tokaido in that respect. You can play all hardcore, trying to eke out every point and mess with your opponents, or you can just go along for the ride, play your tiles, and have fun. And either way you play, you’ll probably be in with a chance to win at the end.
Now, this will bother people who are all about the winning. People who don’t like games where you can play sub-optimally and still win should stay away. That’s not to say Lanterns doesn’t reward good play because it does. However, it’s not the kind of game that’s going to punish you on the first turn and make it impossible for you to win if you don’t make the best possible move.
In many respects, simply playing for the fun of it is the best way to play Lanterns. The game can bog down at four players if everyone is trying to make the best possible move. As it gets later in the game and there are more options for tile placement, those who must think through every move are going to make it an un-fun experience for others. Lanterns shines (see what I did there?) when played at a snappy pace with players shelving their AP. There is some strategy involved, but it’s also a great family game that works best when everyone just settles in for some fun and conversation.
Strategic choices are certainly available in Lanterns, but if you’re burning your brain out, you’re taking this one way too seriously because the choices aren’t that hard. When do you go for a dedication and which one do you go for? Do you cash in your cards quickly, just going for whatever matches you can get and grabbing easy points, or do you try to hang on and build something bigger, all the while hoping that an opponent doesn’t beat you to it and snag the high value points? How do you orient your lake tile when you place it? Will you place it in such a way as to give yourself the maximum reward, or will you place it so that you deny your opponent the card he so badly needs, even if it comes at some expense to yourself? It generates a tension similar to other set collection games like Ticket to Ride.
The coolest part of the game, to me, is dealing with what the other players give you. Each turn you’re going to get a card (unless the supply of a given color is exhausted). First of all, this keeps you engaged until it’s your turn again. Unlike some games where there’s nothing to do when it’s not your turn, here you get a card and you can start plotting what you want to do with it while the next person takes their turn.
More than that, though, this twist adds an interesting layer to the game. Not only do you get something each turn, but you can actively deny things to your opponents. If you see that Fred is just itching to get a green card, you can make sure that you place your tile so that the green points to Sue, who has no use for a green. Of course, it works both ways. You may get something great, or you may get junk. It feels random, like the card gods are just spitting stuff out, but if you’re playing with experienced players, the card you get isn’t random; it was chosen for you for a reason.
Even so, this will probably bother gamers who want total control of their fate. People who don’t like getting stuff that they weren’t expecting or can’t use won’t like Lanterns very much. However, this twist does make it work well in the family setting since it levels the playing field a bit and allows for some slowing down of opponents.
Because there’s no text and the basic play is simple color matching, this is a good game for kids. The box suggests ages eight and up, but I suspect that kids as young as six could grasp it with a little help from the adults, or if you played in teams so that each kid had an adult working with them.
We found two players to be the sweet spot for Lanterns. You avoid the AP problem to a great extent with fewer players, and it’s more strategic. Because you’re only dealing with one other person, it’s very easy to see which cards you should try to deny them and make your moves accordingly. It also feels tenser, as you watch your opponent get that high value point tile and you were just one move away from getting it yourself. With more players, it feels like less is within your control because the state of the board changes so much between your turns and scoring tiles are gobbled up much faster.
No matter how you play, the designers took care to make sure that the game scales well. Some lantern cards, point tokens, and lake tiles are removed for two and 3 player games, keeping things scarce and tense.
Aside from the potential AP problem at higher player counts and the fact that this is a light game, the only other possible negative to Lanterns is, well, it’s not that special. I love it, but then again, tile laying games are among my very favorites. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t have too many, no matter how similar they might be. As long as there’s something cool about it (a neat theme, unique twist, etc.) it will likely stay in my collection until you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
However, a lot of people don’t feel that way. They maybe only need one or two tile laying games in their collection to feel complete. For those people, it may be hard to justify getting or keeping Lanterns. It doesn’t do anything terribly earth shattering and unique to set it apart from similar games. The theme is cool, but if you’re not into the whole lantern thing, you may prefer something else. If you already have a couple of family-level tile-laying games, it may be hard to justify the purchase of Lanterns. And if you do buy it, it might not see much table time if your group has other, similar games that they already love.
For me, it’s a keeper. I love the relaxing feel and the fact that it can be played with a variety of groups and ages. And, hello? It’s tile laying! If you’re seeking a family-weight tile laying game or you’re a tile aficionado, I would heartily recommend Lanterns. However, if you desire a lot of depth in your tile-laying, you’re only going to be playing with gamers, or you feel like you already have too many tile laying games, you may want to look elsewhere.