It’s 8th century China, the Tang dynasty, and Emperor Xuanzong wants a garden building where he can live with his concubine. Players take on the roles of garden designers, placing tiles in the garden to create areas of enchanting terrain and placing down beautiful decorations and landscapes to please the eye. At the end of the game, each player will be judged by how much the visitors they bring to the garden enjoy what they see.
Another Kickstarter success story, Tang Garden comes from designer Gonzalo Aguirre Bisi and Thundergryph Games (Iwari, Pot de Vin, Overseers) and garnered nearly €1,000,000 in backing when it launched in 2018. In the Kickstarter campaign, Tang Garden was described as a Zen-like game and the first thing that will strike you about it is how beautiful it is. The components and artwork are all grade-A, with wonderful design on a par with recent masterfully designed games such as Wingspan.
The experience of playing Tang Garden is actually quite calming. This is a competitive game, for sure, and there is only one winner but, for me at least, the process of playing is almost entirely stress free. Some players will, no doubt, focus on achieving maximum points and building the best engine but it is absolutely possible, and easy, to play as a pleasing design experience. Most of my playtime with the game has been spent trying to build a satisfying, visually pleasing garden and not eking out the most points from every situation. This is not to imply there is anything wrong with playing Tang Garden in a traditional, competitive manner; the mechanics of the game are absolutely good enough to support that kind of experience. It is to the game’s credit though that it lends itself so well to a stress-free, gentle, pleasing encounter.
The rules of the game are fairly simple. The garden itself is made up of a series of tiles laid out in a grid on the board. Around the edge of the board are four piles of tiles with the top tile face-up. These tiles consist of one or more of the game’s three key terrain elements; earth, water and forest. They may also have paths or walls along the edges. On their turn, one of the two actions available is to take one of the face-up garden tiles around the edge and place it into the garden (of note, the next tile is not immediately turned face-up after this action, this is a key gameplay element). Tiles must be placed orthogonally adjacent to one or more tiles already on the board and the tile borders must match the tiles they’re being placed next to. In practice this means aligning the tiles so that earth edges are touching earth edges, paths next to paths, water next to water and so on. Walls are the exception as they can be placed adjacent to any other type of tile edge.
Every player has a card in front of them with trackers for earth, water and forest. When a player places a tile, they score points in each of those areas for each edge of that type they have matched, as well as an additional point if that tile completes one area of terrain. For example, if a player places a tile matching a water edge to a water edge already on the board they would move their token up the water track one space. If that tile also completes a body of water (i.e. there are no longer any exposed water tile edges for that body of water) they would move their token up one additional space.
This may sound a little hard to describe but in practice it is very intuitive and easy to grasp. The art on the tiles is also extremely well-designed so any piece fits with any other piece in a way that is both clear for mechanical purposes and evocative from a design perspective. One of the core gameplay elements is optimising tile placements to gain the most terrain points (or coins, which are gained from matching paths to each other). This is because there are goalposts marked on the terrain tracks. Some of these award the player coins (which are worth victory points) but others will allow the player to place a visitor in the garden, more on that later.
The other action that a player can take is to place a decoration in the garden. There is a separate deck of decoration cards that come with the game and if a player takes this action they draw a number of these cards equal to two plus the number of stacks of garden tiles that do not have a face-up tile on top. This means that players are presented with an interesting see-saw of options. The more face-up garden tiles there are, the fewer options for decoration the player will have. As garden tiles get taken, however, the player can draw more decoration tiles. Deciding whether to place a tile in the garden or to place a decoration is a fundamental strategic choice that comes every turn. Adding to this decision is the fact that, if a player chooses to decorate, any face-down tiles on the top of garden tile stacks are turned face-up. This means that the next player will have a full choice of garden tiles to choose from (although, conversely, fewer options for decoration).
Each card refers to one of the different decoration types in the game; pavilions, bridges, fish, birds, peonies, lillies and trees. Each of these different types of decoration has different rules about where they can be placed (e.g. trees can only be placed in forests, lillies in water, bridges and pavilions in specifically marked spots). In gameplay terms, these decorations are worth victory points at the end of the game under different circumstances. Fish and bird (and lilies and peonies) are worth points for each pair you have, bridges are just worth points for each one, pavilions give big points to the person with the most, some points to the person with second most and no points to anyone else. There are five different types of trees in the game and the more different types a player has planted, the more victory points they are worth.
The last element that will make up the garden in Tang Garden is landscapes. These are vistas placed at each of the four sides of the game board to represent what can be seen in the distance by people looking in that direction. There are smaller, foreground landscapes and larger, background landscapes. These are not placed by taking a game action but, rather, there are tokens on empty spaces in the garden at the start of the game. When a garden tile is placed on one of these tokens, whoever placed the tile also gets to take one of the available landscapes and put it on the board. Each of the landscapes has different symbols on it to indicate what it contains (for example, villages, temples, waterfalls or even dragons). This comes into play for end-game scoring based on what your visitors can see.
This is as good a time as any to talk about these visitors. Above, I mentioned that when your terrain tracks get above a certain point you can place visitors into the garden. These are one of the main components of end-game scoring (along with decorations). There is a deck of character cards for these visitors and each has different end-game scoring rules that will trigger based on what they can see in the garden. In reality, how this works is that a player will place a visitor into the garden on one of the designated spaces, looking in a specific direction. That visitor can see every garden tile in a line in the direction they are looking, as well as every landscape in the side of the board they are looking at.
Visitors in your garden each care about different things. One character may score points for the number of waterfalls in the landscapes that they can see, another about the number of water tiles in their line of sight. There is a good variety in these scoring mechanics. One of my personal favourites is the Empress. Given that, in real life, the Emperor lived in this garden with his concubine (both of whom are also visitors) the Empress gives a ton of points, provided she can’t see either of those other visitors. Funnily enough, if she sees the Emperor’s concubine wandering about the garden she gets a bit miffed.
All of these visitors are represented in the game by detailed and characterful miniatures, another element of Tang Garden’s stellar design. If it wasn’t clear enough from everything I’ve said up to this point, Tang Garden really is a visually, stunning game and this alone makes it a delight to play. The mechanics that underlie it are not the most innovative or deep that can be found in modern game design but they are rich enough to satisfy all but the most hardcore of gamers and, crucially, are easy to pick up for those less used to tabletop games.
For me, Tang Garden is a game that will see a lot of play in my household and come out frequently, both for its accessibility and just how much of a joy the experience of playing the game is. For players in the mood for a big, strategic, tense encounter this will not scratch that itch but I can think of very few games that offer the same kind of pleasing, satisfying, calming game experience.
Tang Garden can be pre-ordered through Kickstarter.