Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is one of the most purely relaxing games I have played in a long while. If first time designer Christopher Chung was shooting for “sitting on a small dinghy in the middle of a quiet glassy lake while surrounded by colored glowing paper lanterns”, he really couldn’t have hit more of a bullseye. I only mention this because it’s one thing for the name of the game to be “Lanterns: The Harvest Festival” and there to be pictures of colored glowing paper lanterns on tiles and cards, but quite another thing altogether to convey that sense of tranquility within the mechanisms of the game itself. Chung impressively has everything working together in this game – the pacing of the game, the open information of each player’s cards, the relaxed tile-laying rules, as well as a clever mechanism to swap cards to get what you need. It sounds oddly horrifying to say this, but this game is an almost uncanny combination of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Catan (i.e. Settlers of Catan), mixing some of the most beloved elements of those classics into something new and enjoyable.
Lanterns is a set collection game in which players accumulate color cards by means of laying down “lake” tiles, then trade in specific sets of those color cards for scoring tiles. The rules are refreshingly simple – the kind of rules it seems you already know before even reading them. Maybe I’m getting old and crotchety, but when I saw that the rulebook kindly directs you online where you can learn the rules via video, I sort of shook my head. Honestly, you’d probably be done reading by the time you got to the computer and clicked the play icon. “In my day…!!!” But I digress.
Players hold three tiles in their hand and each turn, a player adds one of those tiles to the center tableau. Tiles can be placed anywhere within the tableau and can be adjacent to any tile. “You mean I can just put the tile anywhere I think it looks nice? What a fine idea!” If you play a tile such that adjacent tiles have matching color sides, you receive a corresponding color card. Then, you and all your fellow players receive a color card matching whatever side of the tile is facing your seat at the table. Color cards are dual sided so are always visible to all players.
Only 3 types of sets count for points in the game: four of a kind, 3 pairs and 1 of all 7 different colors. Once cards start accumulating, it’s difficult if not impossible to prevent your opponents from securing at least one of these sets. Instead, the game strategy is more centered around which of those three sets you will steer yourself towards and your opponents away from. Each set of a type scores successively fewer points, so if a lot of 3 pairs have been played, you will want your opponents to continue with those, while you concentrate on higher value tiles. Color cards are both plentiful and scarce in this way and the game does an excellent job of setting up an implicit economy for these resources.
I enjoy games that successful sustain the engagement of all players on every turn and I’d suspect I’m not alone in this. I’d argue one of the reasons for the enduring success of Catan (i.e. Settlers of Catan) is the constant engagement of players throughout the game. Quick, straightforward turns to limit downtime and, perhaps more importantly, the prospect of getting stuff on another player’s turn are both time-tested ways that game designers have used to keep players’ attention. Lanterns is a fairly simple game, so no surprise that turns are quick and straightforward. However, the greatest similarity to Catan (i.e. I give up), and perhaps the most difficult to pull off effectively, is the “getting stuff on a another player’s turn” part.
Lanterns implements a fresh take on this resource distribution mechanism that does a wonderful job of driving the game, creating decision points and underpinning the theme. Every turn, when a player lays a tile, each other player takes the color card that corresponds to the color on the tile facing them. The implications of this mechanism are subtle. Since the tile can be rotated in any orientation, the tile layer will decide what colors each player will take. Players often need to weigh the benefit of securing bonus cards for themselves against giving their opponents exactly what they need. Since there is a limited quantity of cards, if there are none left of any color when a player goes to take it, they get nothing. Setting aside the chance of getting nothing, the general rule of one card on each turn does supports the theme of the game – the slow, steady pacing feels like ripples on a quiet lake. This isn’t a boom or bust game with big rolls and power moves, but a contest of leveraging small advantages.
I don’t want to oversell the strategy of this game but it’s enough to say that it is there and the game is deeper than it appears at first. Strategy and Depth are nice and yes they are both here (“Hi Strategy! Hi Depth!”) but that’s not really what this game is here to do (“Ok, Strategy and Depth…you can sit down now”). The primary role of this game is as a relaxation or a meditation of sorts. This is a quiet, pleasant game that is at its best when quiet and pleasant. Lanterns plays all player counts equally well – I was actually surprised at how well it worked as a two player game – and is of a reliable length. Once you have a few plays under your belt, you’d probably be able to set a watch by your playtime. Lanterns is easy, predictable and extremely accessible for new gamers and children alike, perfect for small family groups. Seeing as it plays so well with two players, I could see this as a staple in many couples’ game collections. In my mind, there’s a place for a game like this in any collection and Lanterns is as good a candidate to fill that need as any.
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival
Designed By: Christopher Chung
Art By: Jason D. Kingsley, Christina Major, Tyler Segel and Beth Sobel
Published By: Foxtrot Games
Ages: 8 and up
Time: 30 Minutes
Mechanics: Tile laying, set collection