Designing the perfect zen garden to impress a bevy of noble visitors is no easy task, especially when it involves taking your visitors’ preferred decorations and scenery into account as you lay out your designs. Thankfully said task is an unbridled joy in Tang Garden, thanks to a hefty helping of charm and beauty.
This has such a phenomenal table presence. Populating your garden over the course of a game is an absolute delight. Pavilions and trees make for the most attractive components, but throw everything in the box together and Tang Garden really shines. Landscapes, peonies, birds and bridges: all make for a veritable visual feast. But does this style have substance?
Tang Garden Gameplay
With each turn, a player can either place a terrain tile or a decoration. This might sound like too little depth, but this minimal pool of available actions prevents any analysis paralysis. And, despite appearances, it still offers up a wealth of strategic choices and opportunities. This is achieved with twelve distinct characters to choose from, each with personal desires that alternate during the game. Infinitely variable terrain placements, landscapes and decorations also complement this. Players are subtly challenged (but not forced) to switch up and vary their play style to gain success. For these reasons, the game encourages creativity and challenges players to vary their play style.
The game length is just about right; playtime comes in at somewhere between an hour and two (including setup). The game shines brighter with three or four, but the two-player version is still a very robust and enjoyable experience. A solo variant is also explained in the rulebook, but with the exclusion of most of the gorgeous components I doubt I will explore it.
Garden Terrain Tiles
Clear artwork effectively communicates placement restrictions of the terrain and the separations between paths, forests, lakes and rockery. The first tile on each stack starts the game facing up and new tiles only become available when there is only a single tile face up tile available to choose.
When you place matching terrain and edges, the relevant track on your player board increases. If you complete the boundary of an area, you obtain a further +1 benefit to your terrain track. This eventually offers you the ability to influence one new character, placing it as best you can on the board to give them their preferred scenery and line of sight. The other character can stay with your player board and make bonuses available when performing certain actions.
Covering landscape tokens when placing terrain tiles allows a player to add new scenery backdrops. These tiles are slotted around the perimeter of the player board. This adds another dimension to your Tang Garden and, if you can match the types of tiles to the ones your character prefers, you earn bonus coins at the end of the game.
Instead of placing a terrain, you can place a decoration. You take two cards from a small deck of beautifully illustrated cards. You take a further card for each terrain not available. You then get to place the gorgeous 3D trees, pavilions, bridges, flowers and birds out into the garden. However, they have to be placed in terrain that supports them (for example, lotus or fish can only be placed in water). Collecting sets of decoration cards gives players coin bonuses at game end. Sets of different trees give players coin bonuses. This means that players lavishing the play area with an array of colourful trees becomes much more likely.
Take your Lan-Turn
I almost forgot to mention the lanterns! There are four lantern tokens to choose from and they offer new abilities to strengthen the player’s turn. They allow the player to place extra terrain or decoration, change a character’s location or orientation, or influence a completely new character. Used lanterns can be reset by collecting scenery tokens and cashing three in to obtain the ability once more.
Coin denominations are difficult to distinguish, as the different colours are very thin lines around the outside of each coin. The insert is very good, although the trees need to be taken apart to fit everything back in the box which isn’t great. Also, the box itself is very thin cardboard; with the high production of all the components, I would have liked the box to be a bit more heavy-duty. When you get towards the end of the game, the components can obscure the view of the board, which makes seeing all available options difficult at times.
Simple final scoring converts all your collections and line of sight bonuses into coins. The player with the most wins!
Clever design makes it difficult for a single player to calculate and control to gain a huge victory or be an oppressive presence to others, while still also having good player interaction. Your turns feel impactful and positive which keeps engagement high on both your own and your opponents turns.
Playthroughs so far have seemed to be fairly well balanced on the whole and everyone I have played with has wanted to setup and play again straight away, under the illusion they can solve the infinite equation Tang Garden presents them with.
This is definitely a top ten game for me. It has an inclusive theme that has already earned it a lot of table time.
The theme and art are similar to a very popular game called Tokaido, although the mechanics and gameplay mean that comparison of the two is not directly possible. But I have both and I’m going to do it anyway…Tang Garden is better.