At the Gates of Loyang
A game by Uwe Rosenberg
Growing vegetables and selling vegetables were two quite different things, and his parents had never let him forget it. As a boy, he not only helped his father with the harvest—an easier process, in his opinion—but had also accompanied his mother at their makeshift vegetable stand at the Luoyang gates, watching her receive the largesse, or ire, of their patrons. “And you gave that casual customer my leeks?” the regular customers would grumble, and his mother would murmur an apology and pay them two coins for their trouble.
Nonetheless he knew his family was still making the smallest of profits and assiduously saving the money, in accordance to what Confucius had said: “When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.” But Confucius was long gone, and so were his parents, and the work of growing and selling vegetables was now solely his responsibility.
I never thought I’d be so enamored of a game about vegetables, but this game is just superb. Beat-your-own-score engine builders are slowly chipping away at my preference for narrative games.
In the game In the Gates of Loyang you are a farmer trying to advance up the path of prosperity by growing and selling vegetables. (I can’t imagine this is historically accurate—though you have at your disposal an awful lot of untilled land—but I digress.) You also have a particularly finicky set of customers who actually demand money from you if you can’t satisfy their demands, so you commit to a customer very carefully. Some form of polyculture farming is key.
You don’t just choose any kind of vegetable to grow, however. This is dependent on the kind of field you draw from a pile of cards. For instance, wheat is more common and can be grown anywhere, but leeks, which are more difficult to acquire and therefore more expensive, can only be grown on specific fields with fewer plots. The act of growing crops is highly tactical because it’s dependent on a second factor: fulfilling the requirements of casual and regular customers that you can choose from an always-changing tableau of cards. Do you pick up the regular customer that requires the more expensive combination of a leek and a radish every round? Or do you settle for a customer that’s easier to please with more common crops you have at hand, but with less financial rewards? The game is extremely tight, and you find yourself trying to squeeze out coins with maximum efficiency, ensuring you have enough coins to purchase helpers or customers from the tableau in the next round, but most important, to advance up the Path of Prosperity.
This latter progression is such a neatly intuitive process. It becomes more expensive to level up in later turns, so… do you try to advance early, or use your coins to buy that pricey turnip and sow a field for harvesting in the next turn?
Since it’s an Uwe Rosenberg game it shares some of the same genetic features with Agricola, like a harvest every turn (this time at the beginning), that same grain token, and the principle of maximum economic efficiency. But you have a wider variety of actions this time, as the result of cards you can purchase from the tableau. Unlike in Agricola, where your actions are limited to the number of workers you have, it’s possible to create a sequence of actions where you can do the following actions, all in one hypothetical turn:
- Harvest crops
- Fulfill a regular customer’s request
- Use the funds earned to buy a seed in your own market
- Sow a field with that seed
- Exchange one seed in a market stall for another
- Fulfill a casual customer’s request
- Use the proceeds to advance up the Path of Prosperity
I do need to get a criticism out of the way. The main reason I wasn’t very interested in this game in the first place was the art. Hey, I’ve seen much much worse—no buck teeth, thank goodness—but that font still screams, as my daughter would put it, “Szechuan Garden.” Call me a little sensitive, but look at the cover art for Ghost Stories and tell me that doesn’t kick ass. (Of course, At the Gates of Loyang is about… vegetable farmers, and the other has demon-slaying Taoist priests going toe to toe with the Lord of the Nine Hells.)
But this game is smooooooooooth. And by “smooooooooooth” (hardly a technical phrase, I know) I refer specifically to the game’s rules and mechanics that flowed so effortlessly—so intuitive that they seemed deceptively simple—but nonetheless provided an interesting challenge. I watched a playthrough, read through the rulebook, and jumped right in, the training wheels coming off very quickly. “Elegant” is an overused adjective (like “vile” in black metal album reviews), but I do not hesitate to use it here because it’s an apt term for that mechanical fluidity. Like some perfectly engineered precision timepiece, but with turnips.