Tang Garden : Meditative and Artistic
Make time to observe the Tang garden.
This pandemic influenced year has brought the world to a screeching halt. We all went from constantly being on the run to suddenly having nothing to do. From hustle to halt, we’ve now been forced to slow down, relax, and be much more introspective. Enter Tang Garden, perhaps the most poignant board game analogue to our present lives we could possibly imagine.
How to Play Tang Garden
Place the board in the center of the table with the large center tile in the middle. The contrast is striking; the board is monochromatic while the center tile is richly colored with the green, red, blue, and browns that make up the garden tiles. Stack the four different sets of tiles in the corners of the board and flip the top tile of each. Set one small landscape tile in place in the center front slot on all four sides. Set the landscape tokens on the board in the pattern designated in the handbook depending on player count.
Give each player a starting board, three track markers, and lantern tokens. Each player takes a random card from the starting character cards (and its matching mini).
Put out the landscape tiles in two piles according to size and place the top tile next to each stack.
Shuffle the starting character cards into the character deck and lay two cards face up next to the deck.
Finally, put out the decoration card deck. Given the amount of pieces in Tang Garden, we left the decorations in the box until we needed them.
Each turn your decision is simple: either place a garden tile from one of the face up tiles on the four stacks, or place a decoration.
Place a Tile
There are two tile placement rules you must follow when placing a tile. First, the tile you place must share an edge with another tile. Second, all sides must match terrain already laid.
If you match greenery, water, or rock terrain, you can move your tracker cube on that track forward one for each match. If placing this tile closes off that terrain, you get to move that tracker one more step forward. Take a coin for each side with matching footpaths.
If you cover a landscape token with your tile, remove that token and place a landscape tile of the appropriate size in any slot along the four sides of the garden.
If after placing a tile, one (or none) of the stacks have a face up tile, flip all of the top tiles face up.
Most of the tiles you will place will provide icons for placing greenery, water, or rock based decorations. You need these to:
Place a Decoration
To place a decoration, draw decoration cards (2 + the number of face-down tile stacks). Choose one, and place the corresponding decoration on an appropriate tile on the board. These decorations are varied, from bridges to trees, fish to pavilions.
Keep the card you played. Each of the decoration types provide a different kind of set collection, from quantity (pavilions) to variety (trees) to simple count (bridges). Some character abilities provide you with extra perks for building decorations.
When your track cubes pass certain thresholds, you can influence characters. This means selecting a new character from the face up cards (or the top of the face down deck). You may place this character directly on the board, or put it in your tableau and place your current active character onto the board.
This placement is critical for scoring points at the end of the game. Each character has a sight preference, unique to the character. Most want to see certain icons in the five landscape tiles in their line of sight, but some want to see a certain type of terrain tiles, or something else.
Using a Lantern Token
The four lantern tokens you begin the game with allow you to do one-time special actions, like placing two tiles, or using two decorations on your turn. You may refresh these by discarding three identical landscape tokens.
Ending the Game
End Tang Garden when either there are three or fewer landscape tokens or one of the terrain tile stacks is empty. Finish the round so each player gets the same number of points, and calculate your total.
Tally your coins, special points from what your characters can see, and your points from any decoration sets you may have. Whoever has the most points wins!
Tang Garden is visually stunning. There’s no other way to put it. The decorations add an impressive three-dimensional element to the game. Admittedly, as reviewers we are always judging a game for its artistic merit and snapping shots when convenient, but Tang Garden lends itself very well to this – you may find yourself wanting to pause during the game to admire the lush garden filling your tabletop.
The contrast between the white starting board and what it becomes is an adventure in and of itself and the saturated artwork on the terrain and landscape tiles screams out against the unassuming beginning board. The landscape tiles are filled with gorgeous, evocative, fantastical Chinese nature scenes. It is a delight to look at.
The artistic beauty of Tang Garden doesn’t end with your observation as players. Even the end goal pushes you to make the most beautiful garden possible from the perspective of your characters. Throughout the game, you are working towards having the best “view” for each of your characters on the board. That means you are always incentivized to make the garden better and more expansive – at least in certain directions.
Though the mechanics of the game are simple enough, we were bogged down by the iconography. There’s just so much going on in this game it was impossible to remember everything, even after five plays. The cheat sheet for the characters (who suffered most from this issue) helped, but there was only one, and the rulebook was constantly passed across the table. This is fine for a heavy game with intense, dedicated players, but it did impact our family fun. Full page player aids would have helped a lot.
There’s also not a significant difference in setup between the player counts, and it feels like a lot of setup for a two player game. If you like to play at two, and you’re looking for a quick setup and breakdown, Tang Garden won’t fit that bill.
Nonetheless, Tang Garden is a treat. It’s unique in its position as a board game that offers more than just a board game. In the same way games like Myst, Braid, or Journey transcended video games to become something greater, Tang Garden feels like a game that holds a similarly unique position.
While your goal is still to win, there has never before been a game where I’ve enjoyed the process quite like this one. Games like Tokaido have approached this exploration of the journey before, but never in quite the same way. In a world where we are always in a rush to get the new, hot thing, Tang Garden stands alone in its particular corner of the board game market. Like a quiet Chinese garden, it waits in picturesque solitude, patient, waiting for you to rebuild anew.
The Family Gamers were provided a promotional copy of Tang Garden for this review.
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Age Range: 14+ (we say 10+)
Number of Players: 1-4
Playtime: 45 minutes