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Subject: Final Thoughts from the Bottom Shelf rss

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Alex Singh
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This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.

Last month, I confessed to not having watched an Alien movie when wrapping up my thoughts on Legendary Encounters. This month, I have yet another confession to make: I didn't play At the Gates of Loyang nearly as much as I intended to. Having a game of the month means exploring the undiscovered nooks and crannies, considering the unconsidered. It means digging beneath the surface of a game to sample its many layers. But what happens when you don't like what's on the surface? What happens when you just aren't having fun?


Design: Uwe Rosenberg Art: Klemens Franz Publishing: Z-Man Games

"What is the Bottom Shelf?" This is a question that I've been constantly asking myself as I write for this site. It's the question that keeps me on my toes. It's the question that's brought me to the game of the month format. It was great when I was playing and writing about a great game (Legendary Encounters), but it proved to be a little different when the game is not so great. After a few plays of At the Gates of Loyang, I just wasn't having enough fun to keep me playing. In some ways, the game of the month format was meant to combat this feeling, providing incentive to play a game beyond the initial few plays. But I guess sometimes that incentive just isn't enough.


A beautiful game, no doubt about it

THE APPEAL

While I'm in the confessing mood, I might as well confess something else: I don't like playing bad games. Shocker, I know. What this means in a practical sense is that the games I choose as the game of the month are games that I think I'll like. They are games that appeal to my sensibilities and that I'm looking forward to exploring. At the Gates of Loyang looks great at first glance. The vegetables are bright and colorful. The unique T-shaped player boards are intriguing yet functional. The score tracker is a simple, but elegant wooden pawn. Even the money has square cutouts, a wholly unnecessary, but thematic touch. Some may have quibbles with the art style, but I find it has character and the little details found throughout are endearing (notice the bottle floating in the river). Taken all together, there is no denying At the Gates of Loyang's visual artistry. It's not extravagant by any means, but it's tasteful and expertly crafted.

But beyond its visual delight, At the Gates of Loyang comes from a good pedigree and explores a novel theme. I was genuinely excited to play!



THE GLIMMER

Don't let my ominous tone convince you that the game is all doom and gloom. Quite the contrary in fact. There are elements of the game that I enjoy quite a bit and after my first couple of plays, I was generally happy with my time spent with At the Gates of Loyang, though I did have some reservations.

The basic premise of growing your vegetables and selling them in the big city is compelling enough, but no game lives on premise alone. Execution is paramount. And At the Gates of Loyang executes some things very well. Each round is broken up into two distinct parts. The card draft phase and the action phase.

The draft is easily my favorite part of the game. The fact that you must choose one card from your hand and one card from the common courtyard allows for some clever bluffing and serves as the main vector for player interaction. Requiring players to add cards to the courtyard means your constantly monitoring everyone's positions to make sure you aren't inadvertently helping them with the card you choose to put in the courtyard. It's a twisted game of chicken, where you are holding out for the best possible cards to show themselves, but the longer you hold out the higher your chances for helping your opponents becomes. Good stuff!

I only wished it lasted longer. The cards you pick up during this phase have long term ramifications and will define everything you do in the future. And yet you spend a relatively short amount of time gathering them. The game also slows down a bit due to many of the helper cards having lots of text on them. It's alleviated somewhat with the familiarity bred though repeated plays and the fact that you can go over the text as a group.



THE SOLO

So you emerge from a tense battle of the minds with your cards, play them to your board and then proceed to ignore everyone at the table for 5-10 minutes. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The action phase that proceeds the card phase can accurately be described as a puzzle. You have an arsenal of available actions and it's up to you to figure out how and in what order to use them in order to best meet your needs. It is enjoyable, to an extent. Working your your supply chain in order in to make deliveries and balancing the immediate benefits of casual customers and the longer term benefits of regular customers is definitely a worthy challenge. And rising up to the challenge can certainly imbue a sense of satisfaction, but it's just so ... lonely.

Your actions are of so little consequence to the plans of others that I would actually advise everyone take their turns at the same time. The only meaningful interaction comes by way of certain helper cards and when they are in play, I actually find them an annoyance because now you have to wait for a player's entire turn to play out before you start. All this loneliness in the action phase is especially egregious coming off the heels of a card phase that manages to incorporate meaningful decisions with clever player interaction.


The Path to Prosperity is a surprisingly lonely road.

THE PATH

All of your efforts in At the Gates of Loyang are ostensibly to make lots of money. It's a goal that's been used in many games and for good reason. It's clear and definable. And it quickly orients players in the right direction during the game. At the Gates of Loyang employs a novel way to track your wealth through the 'Path of Prosperity.' I'm not sure I've come across anything else like it and I think there might be a reason for it. The idea of paying increasing amounts of currency to move higher on the scoring track creates real moments of tension that I do enjoy, but overall I find the scoring track a detriment to the whole experience.

One of the things I enjoy most in board games, and that I feel board games do incredibly well, is create a visual representation of all that I accomplished throughout the game. Whether it's a sprawling network of railways or a bustling metropolis, it's incredibly satisfying to look at the board at the end of a game and just soak it all in, to see the culmination of the gaming narrative that just transpired. It's a fleeting moment that only lives in the time between the end of the game and sliding the game pieces into the box, but it provides the time for reflection and discussion that solidifies the memory of the game in my mind. If At the Gates of Loyang is played well, you will have very few customers left in your play area, very few vegetables and fields. The better you do, the less there is leftover that tells your story. All you have have is a single pawn on a scoring track. A single pawn to represent your blood, sweat and tears. A single pawn that signifies your life's work as vegetable farmer.

So be it. I'm willing to take a game on its own terms. If you want to condense the entire life of my fictional farmer into a single number, At the Gates of Loyang, I'll go along with it, to a point. 16 points to be exact. You might notice that the score track only goes to 20. And from what I can tell, reaching that plateau is nigh impossible. Expect scores in the 16-18 range ... every single game. This proved to be my breaking point. I just couldn't push myself to play again when I knew I was just going to get the same score again, give or take 1 point. So not only have I been deprived of the visual story or my work, now I have to be content with getting to the same score over and over again. You might say it's the journey that's most important and that I'm focused too squarely on the destination. And perhaps your right. I suppose I'm just shallow that way.


THE CONCLUSION

I had high hopes coming into this month. I thought I would stumble into an overlooked gem by one of my favorite board game designers. Instead I mostly just stumbled. My initial plays revealed potential and my initial optimism latched onto it, convincing myself that this was a game I would enjoy. But it proved not to be the case. Not that there aren't some truly enjoyable elements to be found, just that they weren't good enough to overcome my issues with the game. I wonder if more plays would have alleviated some of my qualms, I wonder if more plays would have revealed a greater strategy instead of the frantic scrambling I found myself often doing. I wonder for just a moment and then I remember all the other games are enjoy so much more.

---

You can view this and other board game reviews at www.bottomshelfboardgames.com
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David Boeren
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I find the push to improve to be worth the play. You say that your score will be the same plus or minus 1, but two extra points in Loyang is a huge amount!

And push is the operative word, eking out one extra coin can take all your effort, hoping that over the course of the game a tiny push here and there may eventually add up to a full additional point. The tale is told not just by the final score which as you noted is on a large scale, but by how close you were to reaching one more point, which turns you fell just barely short, and so on. The journey is at least as significant as the destination.
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Alex Singh
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dboeren wrote:
I find the push to improve to be worth the play. You say that your score will be the same plus or minus 1, but two extra points in Loyang is a huge amount!

And push is the operative word, eking out one extra coin can take all your effort, hoping that over the course of the game a tiny push here and there may eventually add up to a full additional point. The tale is told not just by the final score which as you noted is on a large scale, but by how close you were to reaching one more point, which turns you fell just barely short, and so on. The journey is at least as significant as the destination.


I'm replying on my phone so I apologize for any typos in advance. I'm glad that you seem to enjoy the game more than I do. I really, really wanted to like it.

You talk about eeking out a few coins in order to move up a spot (or even two!) on the scoring track and the destruction you get from that. I can totally understand that. Board games have to find a balance between effort put in and reward gained. If you're constantly being rewarded for every little thing you do, no matter how easy, it can devalue your actions. It cheapens the experience. On the other hand, if a game provides you very little reward for your efforts it can be disheartening. You might think, "What's the pint?" There is a middle ground that both gives your reward in line with your effort and the satisfaction that comes with "hats work." That sweet spot is different for every kind if game and every type of gamer. For my tastes, At the Gates of Loyang misses that sweet spot and provides too little feedback and reward for my efforts.

I also made a small edit to the review in which I freely admit that I might be shallow for not appreciating the journey more and focusing on the destination too much.

Thanks for taking the time to read/watch and especially taking the time to comment.
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I can understand what you're saying if you look at your score only as the number on the track. It's a shame the rulebook referenced coins as a tie-breaker instead of making it part of your final score as well (which it technically is gameplay-wise).

Beating someone by an entire point doesn't tell the full story. If you beat me with 17 points and 0 coins left over, when I had 16 points and 16 coins left over, our game was separated by only a single coin. Whereas if you beat me with 17 points and 16 coins left over, and I had 17 points with 1 coin left over, that is a MASSIVE difference. 15 coins more than me means you were much more efficient and made way more sales than I could.

Using these examples means the game where we "tied" was a world further apart than the game where you beat me by a point. When you take leftover coins into account as part of your final score, you will see that there is a huge range of scores within those 16-18 points. That means there is a lot of room for score variation and improvement that could be made from game to game to further your score.
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David Boeren
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I agree with the turtle. In a group of experienced Loyang players you will very commonly see ties, because a point is really big. It's like saying "we live in the same state, therefore we are neighbors". You're just not measuring with the right granularity. Coins are almost always going to be the deciding factor so they should be considered part of the score and not a tie-breaker. If you're tied in coins and then it uses how many vegetables you have left over, THAT's a tie-breaker, because it's only occasionally going to be relevant to determining a winner.

Think of an athlete. They're practicing their 100 yard dash and saying "I always end up in the same second" or they're doing a long jump and saying "I always end up in the same meter". Hey guys! Do you know that seconds break down into 10ths and 100ths (even 1000ths)? Are you aware that meters subdivide into decimeters, centimeters and so on? Maybe you should take those into account when measuring your progress instead of only going by the largest units?

It's totally OK if you don't like the game, that's a separate issue. The only part I'm really taking issue with is your reason of the score being mostly the same from game to game. Your other reasons are still fine, not every game is for every person after all.
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Grant
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One of the best gaming weekends in Ohio since 2010. Search facebook for "BOGA Weekend Retreat" for more info!
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DoomTurtle wrote:
I can understand what you're saying if you look at your score only as the number on the track. It's a shame the rulebook referenced coins as a tie-breaker instead of making it part of your final score as well (which it technically is gameplay-wise).

Beating someone by an entire point doesn't tell the full story. If you beat me with 17 points and 0 coins left over, when I had 16 points and 16 coins left over, our game was separated by only a single coin. Whereas if you beat me with 17 points and 16 coins left over, and I had 17 points with 1 coin left over, that is a MASSIVE difference. 15 coins more than me means you were much more efficient and made way more sales than I could.

Using these examples means the game where we "tied" was a world further apart than the game where you beat me by a point. When you take leftover coins into account as part of your final score, you will see that there is a huge range of scores within those 16-18 points. That means there is a lot of room for score variation and improvement that could be made from game to game to further your score.

This, 1000x this (and also what dboeren said). Your point score is meaningless without also knowing your remaining coins.

People not understanding the scoring better was a huge detriment to this game for exactly the reasons the OP outlined (and also that people expected the game to have more in common with Agricola).
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Susan F.
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singhalex wrote:
16 points to be exact. You might notice that the score track only goes to 20. And from what I can tell, reaching that plateau is nigh impossible. Expect scores in the 16-18 range ... every single game.


If you are regularly scoring 16-17 points, you are missing something about the strategy of the game (or you have opponents who are *really* good at denying you opportunities). Which may also be why you don't like it that much. I'm not a top player - but my typical score is 18-19 points (at yucata.de; I've never played "live"). A really bad set of cards over the course of the game will drop me into the upper 17s and a really good set of cards can push me just barely over 20. So, 20 is achievable but requires a lot of luck.

One thing I really like about the game is that the luck is mostly fair. What I mean by that is that because the cards you don't choose go into the courtyard, you will benefit from your opponent having a good hand (and vice versa).
 
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Phil Keil
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I really enjoy this game. I really liked it at first play and now after 10 plays, i love it. I typically get 18 points and sometimes get to 19. I agree that there is luck involved, and i'm usually not into games with luck. I'm not sure why but it just works for me.
 
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Alex Singh
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Sorry for not responding earlier. I don't have an excuse, just forgot. But I do want to respond to a couple of things.

DoomTurtle wrote:
Beating someone by an entire point doesn't tell the full story.


One of my problems with the game as a whole is that I didn't feel it did a good job at telling me the full story. I guess I just need it spelled out more explicitly. I can totally see many people being able to extract the story and finding it for themselves. I'm a little lazy and want it given to me.

dboeren wrote:
Think of an athlete. They're practicing their 100 yard dash and saying "I always end up in the same second" or they're doing a long jump and saying "I always end up in the same meter". Hey guys! Do you know that seconds break down into 10ths and 100ths (even 1000ths)? Are you aware that meters subdivide into decimeters, centimeters and so on? Maybe you should take those into account when measuring your progress instead of only going by the largest units?


I suppose you hit on something here because I really don't like track and field events. I don't find entertainment in watching or participating to eek out a couple more milliseconds or a couple more millimeters. The 100 hundred yard dash is dull to me because I know there's a typical range that runners will hit and all that effort and hard work is for fractions of a second. Some people love that, some don't. I just happen to be one of the people who don't

Rusty567 wrote:
If you are regularly scoring 16-17 points, you are missing something about the strategy of the game...


I never claimed to be good at the game

My later plays had me regularly ending with 17 and more often 18 points. I never hit 19, but it seemed attainable.
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Kendahl Johnson
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Thanks for the review. You summed up my feelings about the game almost exactly as if I'd written it myself. And like you, I don't hate the game, I just have other games I'd rather spend my time with...
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