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One of the things I mulled over when pulling things off my board game wishlist this month was how few interesting themes there were for many potentially excellent games. It’s gotten to the point that I look at a title and think ‘yeah, okay, but I already have half a dozen games where that’s my theme. What else is new?’. Theme is not the sole factor I use to triage purchases, but it’s a non-trivial factor. I’ve got Concordia, I’m set for Mediterranean trading. City building? Thanks, but I’ve got Suburbia. Dungeon crawling? I can see Descent right there. It’s put me off buying games I’m sure I would like, just because they scratch an itch that I no longer have. I quite fancy Trajan. I like the look of Quadropolis. I love the setting of Castle Ravenloft. They’re way, way down my list of games to buy though. If I need a bit more variety for those themes, I’ll get expansions for the games I already have first.
It’s nice then to find a game like Lanterns, which absolutely does not duplicate any theme I currently have represented on my shelves. We play the role of celebrants during the mid-autumn harvest festivals of China and Vietnam, laying down streams of beautifully coloured lanterns to celebrate harmony and unity amidst the warming, loving company of our families and friends. Almost exactly like a traditional games might, although with fewer sincere threats to kill each other at the end.
Lanterns is a tile-laying game with heavy Carcassonne influences. It has an interesting and evocative theme, and a neat core game hook that makes it a surprisingly deep game given how simple the mechanics are. Positionality is important for scoring in Carcassonne, but in Lanterns it’s part of a common, shared alteration of collective game state.
In Lanterns, the game begins with a single tile being placed in the centre of the table. Each of the sides of that tile shows a number of coloured floating lanterns. The tile is oriented so that the red lanterns are facing the first player, and everyone gets a coloured card that matches the lanterns pointing towards them.
Each player also begins with hand of three lake tiles they can choose to play. The lake tiles show various combinations of coloured lanterns and represent the key way in which we influence both our own scoring opportunities and the communal construction of the game state.
Tiles can be placed anywhere adjacent to an existing tile, they don’t have to match colours. When you place a tile though, you get a bonus card for each colour you matched on each adjacent tile. Colour matching isn’t necessary then, but it is hugely useful.
Then, and this is the heart of Lanterns, everyone gets a coloured card that matches the lanterns facing them on the tile you just played! It’s a lovely mechanic that elevates Lanterns from a comparatively workaday tile-laying system into something with an almost palpable intensity. In Lanterns, you cannot make a move without providing a benefit to everyone at the table. The best you can do is try to make sure the benefit isn’t too significant. Sometimes you need to abandon colour synchronicity just because the lantern that would end up facing another player would yield them too great an advantage. It’s collaborative collegiality at its most hilariously passive aggressive.
If you play a tile that has a platform, or match the colour of an adjacent tile with a platform, you also get a favour token:
These favour tokens are a currency you can spend, two at a time, to exchange a card of one colour for a card of any other colour. You can do this once per round.
But why would you want to do that? What’s the point of the whole thing?
Well, the colour cards drive the scoring engine in Lanterns. Lanterns bolts a Ticket to Ride card-collection system on to its good-natured Carcassonne tile-laying core. By cashing in sets of cards, referred to in game terms as buying a dedication, you can gain honour tokens:
There are three stacks of these, and they diminish in value with each purchase. This facilitates an interesting diversity of strategy as well as an agreeable restriction of supply. You can cash in one card of every colour, four cards of the same colour, or three pairs of two colours. In doing so, you collect the highest unclaimed value tile in the appropriate stack, depriving everyone else of honour as you simultaneously devalue their cards.
After a tile is placed, the player draws from the communal stack of tiles that was shuffled and created at the start of the game. If there are any tiles left, of course. When the last tile is placed from the last player’s hand, there’s one final round of favour exchanges and dedications, and then the game is over. The player with the largest accumulated honour total is the winner. They are the most harmonious, and the most united, and everyone else can totally suck it.
And that’s it. That’s literally it. Seriously, there is nothing more. That’s your lot.
There’s no hiding the fact that Lanterns is an elegant game. There is not an ounce of fat on its mechanics. There are no unnecessary rules – every single rule plays a critical role in the game. The favour tokens permit you to compensate for sub-optimal tile draws. Dedication permits you to score. Tile laying permits you to dedicate. It all seamlessly converges into a design that is simple and yet as deep as the waters in which we float our lanterns.
It’s visually striking too, with a wonderful palette and understated art design. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s beautiful – it’s a little too simple for that – but it is certainly deeply, and effectively, evocative.
The simplicity of the rules lend themselves to intuitive play, but not effortless play. In later turns you are trying to maximise the return on your tiles in such a way as to claim the most lucrative remaining dedications whilst minimising the benefit to your opponents. This becomes an almost painful exercise in thoughtful optimisation. There are rarely optimal places for your tiles to go, because every single placement involves a balancing act. You need to consider what you’re getting from your play, but also what everybody else is going to get. You need to eye up the availability of the coloured cards, assess which dedications everyone is going to go for, and which cards you need in light of all that. There is a strict order to play – you exchange favour tokens, you make a dedication, you play a tile, you draw a tile. It’s going to take a full circuit of the table before you get to make the dedication your new cards permit, so you need to be thinking ahead.
That said, while I think it’s a lovely game, it’s a game that I believe doesn’t have a great deal of repeat play value. Unlike Carcassonne its possibility space is not particularly large. With Carcassonne, the map will look radically different each time you play, and your winning strategies will be profoundly affected by the draw of the tiles. Counter-intuitively, Lanterns restricts its meaningful possibility space in part through the additional flexibility of choice.
Lanterns provides a broader range of tiles to play, and a more flexible draw from which to play them. This allows for players to optimise in a way that Carcassonne explicitly prohibits. Lanterns ends up incentivising a strategy that encourages the matching of colours, and gives you the tools needed to defer play until you can do that. It’s the only way to make sure that the tile you play benefits you more than your opponents. There are times when you might want to sacrifice a matching bonus to play a tile sub-optimally, but usually you’re looking to get the largest number of cards from each tile play. The different systems of scoring dedications exacerbate this – going too deep into the stack of a particular kind of dedication has considerable diminishing returns. You want to have a blend of all three kinds of dedications to maximise return on your investment, which means that basically you want as many cards as you can of as many different colours. There’s a hand limit, sure, but it’s impossible to reach without having enough in hand to cash in colours for a dedication.
The result is that games of lantern become repetitive before you’ve got too many sessions under your belt. It’s completely symmetrical in its gameplay, and its design means that everyone will be playing approximately the same way each time. The exact values that each of the dedications have will change, but the fundamental strategy you adopt each time will be well within ‘normal operating parameters’.
While an extremely elegant design, It’s not a flawless design – the favour tokens accumulate too rapidly to be a meaningful brake on gameplay. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what card you got in the previous round, because unless the supply has dried up of a colour you can exchange for the one you really wanted in the next. We never found ourselves remotely at a shortage of favour tokens, meaning that the value of strategic play was significantly reduced. Beyond their use as a currency of exchange, they have no game value other than breaking a tie. You’d have pretty much the same game if you could exchange a card as a free action every turn. I’d advise house-ruling that each token counts towards the end of game scoring, to make it worth paying attention.
That’s Lanterns – a game so compact that even I can review it in comfortably under 2000 words. I may be coming down with something.
It’s very simple, surprisingly deep, visually striking, and a masterpiece of elegant design. However, in accomplishing that quadfecta I suspect it has become too samey to become a timeless, enduring classic in the same way that Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride have managed, You won’t regret the time you spend playing it, but I wouldn’t expect it to become a regular fixture in your gaming schedule. At a nicely brisk 20-30 minutes playing time though it’s a nice filler, and something you could easily use to introduce tabletop gaming to your more hesitant friends.
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