Previewing: Lanterns

As the season’s final crops are brought in and stored, you can’t help but feel a tinge of excitement. Not for the harvest, no, but for what comes next. Tradition is that after the harvest, the imperial court holds a great celebration for the people. You have been attending them since you were a child, but this year you have been chosen for your skills to help decorate the palace ground. Hopefully, you can live up to the honor that has been given to you. 

Also creepy clowns.

Also devoid of creepy clowns.

And so begins the game of Lanterns, the set collecting, tile-laying game of placing colored lanterns for 2-4 players. It’s bright, brisk, and although it’s based around playing with lights, it’s more entertaining than it first seems.

It’s sort of like a Lite-Brite without the cord. Or overachievers named Suzy.

Lanterns begins, earnestly enough, by beginning at the center of the lake you’re decorating and working outwards. This is signaled by a center Lake tile. Each side of these squared Lake tiles has four sides of various colors, and players will want orient them such a way that each player is lined up with one of those sides. And since like any good artisan you start off ready to work, each player receives three Lake tiles to start. You’ll want to keep these tiles from other players though. Trade secrets and all.

Turns in Lanterns are quick, as you only have three possible steps: Exchanging cards, making Dedications, and playing a Lake tile. The first two of these are optional, and we’ll get to those in a moment, since the entire premise of the game revolves around playing tiles. Each turn you are required to play a Lake tile, and then draw a replacement from a central stack, if able. The game ends when the last Lake tile is played. Tiles like these:

Prototype Shown

Prototype Shown

There are also seven different colored stacks of Lantern cards in the game. The number of Lake tiles and Lantern cards used vary depending on player size, but the rules to the game are otherwise the same. To play a Lake tile for its maximum effect, you simply match up at least one side of it with an existing colored side of a tile already in play. You then get to collect stuff. Anytime two sides share a color, you gain one Lantern card of that kind. Some Lake tiles also come with a Platform symbol on them, and if it’s involved with a color pairing, you also get to claim a Favor token. Then, everyone will draw a Lantern card.

Yes, everyone.

The rightmost card generated a Black Lantern card and a Favor token. Prototype Shown

A Platform tile
Prototype Shown

When a tile is played, each player collects a Lantern card of the color facing you them. This communal reward system is part of what makes Lanterns so engaging, as while you start off harmlessly enough trying to accumulate cards for yourself, it can quickly matter what colors could go to your opponent. This can be as simple as placing the tile in a different orientation, or more deviously, waiting until a particular Lantern pile is low and preventing them from getting any cards at all. (Lantern card stacks are limited, so not only is it possible, it’s probably the right thing to do. It may not be the most honorable, but…eh.)

These Lantern cards are important because they are how you get points – in the form of making Dedications. Before you place a tile each turn, you have the chance to make one of three kinds of Dedications by either trading in four Lantern cards of the same kind, three pairs of Lantern cards, or one Lantern card of each color. When you trade them in, you earn the topmost Dedication token of its respective pile, gaining that much honor. Honor is what player seek most in the game, since the person who has the most at the end wins. However, the degree of honor drops with each successive token claimed, and you will need to adjust accordingly as they are snatched up one by one.

Gotta catch 'em all! Prototype Shown

Gotta catch ’em all!
Prototype Shown

To ensure that players aren’t completely at the behest of random tile draws and the actions of other player, you can help yourself out of a tough bind by using accumulated Favor tokens. On your turn, you may spend two of them to switch a card of one color for another, and yes, you can then immediately turn those in. In fact, you probably will during the final round or so. Favors may seem trivial at first, but they can and will come in handy during the scramble for the final honors bestowed. That said, while Favor tokens serve a nice smoothing mechanic in Lanterns, they are the weak point in an otherwise very solid execution. It’s not that they don’t do their job. Rather, they just don’t seem as flavorful as the rest, and if you never get to use them, they can feel a bit superfluous. This is a minor quibble, however, and doesn’t detract from the game as a whole.

So, the Emperor (long may he reign!) getting impatient. Why is Lanterns worthwhile? Two reasons. The first is how efficient it is in its simplicity. Lanterns is easy to play and even easier to learn. The game bears a lot of quality similarities to Ticket to Ride, from its widespread accessibility to the same simple color-coded gaming atmosphere.

Prototype Shown

Prototype Shown

Only, you know, you’re building a festive decorative scene instead of a cross-country industrial empire.

The second is that it possesses some substance while still offering brevity. Even in its short play time, Lanterns works towards a worthwhile conclusion. While you start off simply slapping down tiles just to get cards, by the end you actually have to mindfully consider your options – lest you give another player the cards they need for valuable points. This interplay makes for a pleasant surprise.

Lanterns also scales particularly well. With a two player game, the game has a very tit-for-tat feel to it, as you both trying to limit which cards you’re going to hand each other. With more players, it has more of a slow roll to it.  As it progresses along, decisions on where to place your tiles becomes much more strategic. Lanterns doesn’t seem at first like you’ll have to make many calculated choices, but as the points go up and the number of available tiles goes down, suddenly those tiles feel a lot heavier.

Lanterns proves to be a charmingly simple Filler Game that has the capabilities to find a home with many different kinds of players. It’s the ideal sort of game to start off your festivities, occupy an intermission between heavier gaming action, or provide the perfect weight for a decent finale when it’s time to bring an evening to an end. Lanterns hits that sweet spot of a short game – quick to grasp on the first playthrough but with enough depth to make you want to play it again. Although the game is based around earning honor for yourself, Lanterns rightfully earns honor on its own merits. If you’d like to participate in the lighting ceremony of this imperial campaign, then be sure to head over to the Kickstarter!

[sc:Preview-Sealer ]