I’m a sucker for a game with a good table presence. Something like Rampage (aka Terror in Meeple City) with its stacks of buildings or Cthulhu Wars with the massively oversized miniatures are just a joy to play with. Walking by, it’s just hard not to stop and take notice.
That’s what first attracted me to Tang Garden from Thunderglyph Games and Lucky Duck Games. In the game, you are building out a garden during the Tang Dynasty in China. The game looks great.
Tang Garden is played out over several rounds, with each player choosing one of two actions to take on their turn. You can either add a tile to the garden or place a decoration.
When placing a garden tile, you can choose a faceup tile from one of the four stacks. Placing the tile earns you advancement points for matching up like-colored sides (rock, wood, or water) or fully enclosing an area. Moving up the track will either earn you coins (victory points) or characters that give you special powers or ways to score end game points.
Your other option is to decorate the garden. You draw two or more cards and choose one to play. These are usually set collection cards that earn you points in various ways. The crux here is that the card you want to place in the garden must also have a free spot with a matching icon. So, you can’t just spam trees if there is no place to put them. This forces players to balance placing tiles and decorating.
Finally, when placing a tile, you might also collect a landscape token which lets you put a landscape tile on one of the edges of the board. These are tied to the characters and help them earn victory points.
Once the end game triggers (either via collected landscape tokens or tile stacks running out), players total up their end game and collected VPs. The player with the most points is the winner.
Right off the bat, I can say that Tang Garden has an absolutely fantastic table presence. The art is great, and many of the features are 3D. Pavilions, bridges, and trees all stand proudly on the board bringing the garden to life. The landscape tiles all have excellent, thematic artwork that really ties the game well together. If you are looking for a game that stands proud on its production values, Tang Garden is it.
However…, yes there is another side to this beautiful coin, this is one of those rare instances where a game’s excellent production values actually hinder the gameplay. Frankly, Tang Garden is overproduced to a fault. And this is coming from a self-confessed component upgrade addict. Heck, I even started a column about making your game components even better. But when it comes to Tang Garden, it’s just too much.
The first problem is that once you start adding landscape tiles, pavilions, and trees to the board, it’s just too hard to see what’s going on. There may be an empty landscape tile spot on the other side of the board, but you must look through a bunch of 3D features to find it. And when it comes to the landscape tiles, the art takes center stage, which looks nice, but the icons are comically small. This makes end game scoring a chore as you try and figure out which icon your character is looking at.
Honestly, the iconography, in general, isn’t great. Both the characters and decoration cards use icons instead of simple text (with no player aid in sight), making you have to flip back to the rulebook constantly to figure out what’s going on. The publisher would have been much better served to just put the simple text on the cards.
But if you can get past the overproduced nightmare of Tang Garden, the gameplay is actually pretty fun. This is a solid “next step” game that’s a mashup of tile laying and set collection. Think Sushi Go meets Carcassonne. It’s a little more advanced than both of those games, making it an ideal game to play with a new gamer that’s experienced both of those titles.
I also really enjoyed the tile placement mechanic of trying to earn the biggest bonus from your tile played. Matching up the sides and enclosing areas both earn bonuses. And since you only earn characters when all three of your tracks crosses a benchmark, it forces you to play strategically and try and balance your tile plays. And the decorations cards create a nice breather to give players a break from it being just a simple tile laying game. A Yin to its Yang if that isn’t too obvious of a metaphor.
Never before in tabletop gaming have, I bemoaned the overproduced nature of a game. I’m always harping on the lazy wooden cube used in many games and falling asleep over the boring visuals of an 18xx game. Yet in Tang Garden, they went too far to the extreme with the 3D components making it much more difficult to play the game than it needs to be. Compound that with the heavy reliance on iconography and you can have a pretty frustrating gaming experience.
Yet if you can get past all of that. Tang Garden is a great next step game. The tile laying and set collection mash-up really nicely together, creating a smooth flow of the gameplay. It might not be the deepest of games, but the mechanics themselves are pretty fun for a light tile-laying and set collection game.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – Solid mechanics are, on this rare occasion, really held back by the overproduced nature of the game that causes play frustrations.
Credit: Tang Garden Review