Lanterns: The Harvest Festival
A gracious game of tile laying and set collecting
Originally published on Board Game Geek.
Most tile games are binary: every open space is either a legal or a forbidden location depending on the type of tile. Lanterns doesn't dictate anything other than new tiles must touch the side of an existing tile. In addition, every tile played sends a lantern to each player. What better way to share the happiness of the occasion? So it takes no time at all to collect enough lanterns to dedicate in order to score points.
Which isn't to say everyone is equally successful in Lanterns. When you place your tile, you can match sides to gain bonus lanterns and give yourself specific colors. If you match a side of a platform tile (some lake tiles have an image in the center that represents a platform), you are granted favors that can be used to exchange one lantern for another of a different color. And the reward to making dedications decreases as they are claimed, which give the advantage to claiming them earlier.
That's about all there is to the rules. Other than some edge cases to prevent hording, the game is that simple. Now the components look more complicated than that. It's an interesting contrast to Wingspan. In my review, I mentioned the components suggested the game was more complicated than it turns out to be. I have a little of this problem with Lanterns too. When I open the box, I see favor and dedication tokens that look complex. Skimming the rules (or just consulting the player aid card) clears up my (momentary) confusion. Every bit of Lanterns earns its place in the box.
Favor tokens look complicated mostly because I can't read Chinese. Red seals on wooden coins enhances the theme, but any other object would work mechanically. Earning favors (by matching platforms) and spending them speed up the game by giving players flexibility just before making a set. It's probably the most complicated part of the game to remember, but it serves its purpose well.
Dedication tokens cleverly solve two problems at once. First they are collected to track scoring. It's far too common in my house for someone to knock the table and move everyone's marker on the standard scoring track system. Nothing kills momentum faster than having to recreate the entire game in order to reset the score. Grabbing your score instead of marking it solves this problem.
Probably the most delightful element of Lanterns is the other purpose of using scoring tokens: it rewards making sets earlier than other players. If I score the set of one lantern of each color, I take the top dedication token which is worth 10 points. The next time someone makes that set, they get the next token which is worth 9 points. Not only does taking the token automatically keep track of the next payout, it also allows the game to have different payout rates for 2, 3 and 4 player games. (There are little red dots on the dedication tokens to remove for fewer players.) Nothing to memorize or track; the game takes care of it for you.
Because everyone collects lanterns when anyone else plays, everyone will be scoring most turns. The result is games tend to be very close. (Our last game ended with the winner scoring 45 and the low score of 42. I should note my 7-year-old son came from behind. Also we allowed multiple dedications per turn because we forgot that rule.) It also means everyone has some interest in what color lanterns they'll receive. Other than waiting for other players to make their decisions, there's very little down time.
Player interaction is somewhat limited: taking dedication cards before someone else and orienting lake tiles to give other players certain lantern colors. I haven't played head-to-head, where I suspect these interactions have the most effect. With four players, the best strategy seems to be focusing on your own goals. It might be possible to disrupt the player to the left since you can see their collection of lanterns and they won't have time to claim more after your turn. But given the different ways to score and favor tokens, they'll still have options.
By the way, this game works just fine with multiple people playing one position. If you have 5 or more people who want to play, two people can work together as a team because the decisions are relatively straightforward. The box says it's for ages 8 and up. I find younger players do just fine even when on their own.
Lanterns is an ideal game to play if you have a spare half hour or so. It's not a taxing game and just the right amount of competitive for a casual setting. Plus every play is a puzzle to determine the maximum benefit given your resources in hand. All around a well-crafted experience.