It’s 28 AD and Luoyang is the newly declared capital of the (Eastern) Han Dynasty and the new focal point of trade in eastern China (and will soon become one of the four great capitals of old China). (In fact, in 40 years time, the White Horse Temple, which will be the first Buddhist temple in China, will be established under the patronage of Emperor Ming.) The economic upturn of the now-flourishing city requires a better supply of basic foodstuffs. These are provided by the local farmers who plant wheat, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, beans, and leeks in their fields.
After each harvest, the farmers assemble at the gates of Loyang to sell and trade their vegetables. They deliver to their regular customers or lucratively sell their vegetables to passing shoppers. Vegetables can also be traded at Market stalls or used for seed and planted in fields. If the farmers need vegetables that they don’t have in stock, they can buy them in the Shop. Twenty different helpers, each with different individual skills, are available to assist them.
The most successful farmer (and the victor) will be the one who moves furthest along the Path of Prosperity within the given timeframe.
Each step costs more and more money, which is also needed for investments. Farmers have to find the right balance. The coins have square holes, so they can be held on strings. They have the Chinese name “Cash”, which is the derivative of the modern term.
At the Gates of Loyang is an economic farming game for 1 to 4 players (that plays best with 2 or 4 players) set in ancient China where success depends on your ability to not only grow vegetables and service your customers, but on your ability to trade for what you don’t have to service new customers when the opportunity arises and on your ability to gain wealth. (In the Han Dynasty, a total assessed taxable wealth of one hundred thousand coins was a prerequisite for holding office, which is why many who needed additional funds for education or political office found farming a decent profession because, while humble, it was not looked down upon by fellow gentrymen. Plus, the Han court upheld a socio-economic ranking system for commoners and nobles that allowed all non-male slave commoners to be promoted in rank to level eight, which entitled the individual to a annual salary of 400 bushels, 8 times that of the level one gentleman commoner. However, the government often sold ranks to collect more revenues for the state. This is the inspiration for the path of prosperity — in Loyang, when you are buying your way along the path of prosperity, you are buying rank.)
In addition, success depends on your ability to choose the right actions at the right time, with limited resources. In particular, many actions require Cash, of which you have a limited amount, and serving customers requires crops, of which you can produce at most one in the first round, three in the second round (if you are fortunate enough to acquire an extra field as you are only guaranteed to acquire one new field each turn), five in the third round, and so on, to a maximum of 13 in the 7th round — but only if you have money for seed – on average, you’ll be lucky to have more than 7 active fields mid-way to late in the game. (But only if you can acquire enough fields to plant, and harvest, more than one crop.)
In Loyang, you start the game with 10 Cash, 1 field, 1 storehouse, 1 cart, and access to a shop with 11 vegetables (consisting of 3 wheat, 2 pumpkins, 2 turnips, 2 cabbages, 2 beans, and 2 leeks) that only you can sell to or buy from (to seed fields or satisfy customers) during the game (unless you play with the nine lantern helpers). While playing the game, you will acquire regular customers (which must be satisfied four times, in four consecutive turns, or you lose favour and possibly even Cash), one-time customers which can be satisfied at a time of your choosing, (one-time) helpers that give you temporary advantages, and access to new market stalls (that only you can trade with, unless another player has access to a special helper). In each turn, you will perform actions in an attempt to maximize your Cash so you can advance further up the path of prosperity than your peers.
Each round of the game has 3 phases:
1. Harvest Phase
a) Each player turns over the top field from his private field stack, which he can use to plant more crops.
b) Each player harvests exactly one vegetable from each planted field that has a vegetable for harvest.
c) Each newly emptied field is remove from the game (to simulate the need for a field to lie fallow on a regular basis).
2. Card Phase
a) Each player receives a hand of 4 Action cards.
b) The distribution round begins.
i) Each player*1, in turn, places one card from her hand into the “Courtyard” until
ii) One player takes exactly one card from the “Courtyard” and one card from her hand for her play area. Then
iii) Each remaining player does the same, placing any remaining cards into the Courtyard until all players have placed two cards, then the remaining cards are discarded.
The cards available will be:
- extra fields (6) which cost 2 Cash to buy but allow you to plant more vegetables
- regular customers (14) which require a delivery each round, or, after you miss one delivery, demand 2 Cash reimbursement for each successive delivery missed
- casual (one-time) customers (14) which have a specific order, but who will wait as long as necessary without penalty
- market stalls (14) that will have three vegetables you can trade one or two of your vegetables for
- helpers (13 non-lantern/22 in total) that will help you (once) with special abilities
3. Action Phase
If the nine (9) lantern helpers, which take actions that affect other players, are not used, then each player may perform her action phase simultaneously. Otherwise, each player will perform her phase sequentially (beginning with the starting player, which is the last player to place two action cards in the previous round). In the action phase, each player performs as many of the following actions as many times as she likes (with the exception of purchasing a “two-pack”) in any order:
- Sow Vegetables (as Seed)
by taking one vegetable from your cart and placing it on an empty field (which will be filled with vegetables of the same type from the global Supply).
- Buy Vegetables (from the shop)
and place them in your cart, by paying the (total) purchase price.
- Sell Vegetables (to the shop)
by taking the vegetables from your cart and adding them to the shop (for the selling price).
- Trade Vegetables at a Market Stall
by trading one or two vegetables from your cart for one vegetable in the stall.
- Play or Discard a Helper
and use the helper’s ability if desired.
- Deliver to a Regular Customer
with vegetables from your cart or storehouse.
- Deliver to a Casual Customer
with vegetables from your cart or storehouse
- Take a Loan
that provides a player with 5 Cash, but that also results in the player moving backwards 1 space along the Path of Prosperity at the end of the game
- Buy a Two-Pack
of action cards using your Cash and keep up to 2 of them for your use.
Then, at the end of the action phase, a player:
- must store any remaining vegetables left in her cart in her storehouse (which can hold one vegetable at the start of the game, or 4 if upgraded for 2 Cash) or, if insufficient room, sell them to the stop or, if insufficient room, discard them
- may pay to move along the path of prosperity; the first space in each round costs 1 Cash, but each successive space costs Cash equivalent to the value of the space (and moving to space 4 costs 4, to space 5 costs 5, etc.)
The economic trade-offs make the game quite challenging, just like a value-add trade negotiation between multiple potential suppliers in the real world. You want to acquire more regular customers (that can provide you with up to 34 Cash over 4 rounds and advance you quickly up the path of prosperity), but, as each regular customer requires two vegetables, each regular customer requires you to acquire and plant additional fields to meet their needs, and this requires up-front Cash. You can always take a loan, but each loan sets you back one step on the path to prosperity. On the other hand, you can take a casual approach and try to satisfy only casual customers with whatever you have, by occasionally trading for what you need, but if your livelihood is dependent upon casual customers, they quickly become aware of this fact and haggle you down (and they become less lucrative as they pay 2 less Cash). (Casual Customers are more lucrative if you have more regular customers as they will pay 2 more Cash in this situation.) You also want to make sure you have exclusive trading access to the right market stalls as it’s unlikely that you’ll always have what your customers want (as you generally can’t produce all six vegetables at one time until late in the game), but for every market stall you acquire access to, you sacrifice a potential customer, helper, or field. Acquiring available helpers (such as the Haggler, who will let you buy a vegetable 2 for 1 or the Harvest helper, who will let you harvest 2 vegetables from each of your fields instead of 1 in a round where you need extra vegetables) can also be very beneficial, but only if you get them at the right time as you are again sacrificing a potential customer, field, or market stall to acquire this helper.
At the Gates of Loyang is a great economic strategy game that will have you donning your thinking cap and wearing out your thinking chair in no time at all. As such, it’s a great way to keep those strategic thinking and planning skills sharp. Even true “Masters” of the game only reach jade stone 19 on the 20 stone path to prosperity! And that is truly a rare occurrence (just like only true Sourcerors beat the best-price model generated by a detailed market-driven optimized should-cost model).
Come back for Part II where we will provide a solo walkthrough of the game in preparation for a more detailed analysis of the game and the trade-offs that one will face in Part III, which will demonstrate why strategic, economic worker-placement/tile-placement/trading games are a great way to keep your strategic analysis skills sharp and maybe even learn how to analyze situations in new ways as we will demonstrate in Part IV that analysis works when we replay the game in Part II with new insights and do better. If soccer is not distracting you, take the time to work through this intense series — we need all the brain training we can get in our field!
I want to plant
I want to trade
I want to walk down the path
That’s covered in jade
I want to go out
And trade the grain
At the Gates of Loyang
*1 In a two-player game, each player may turn over a card from the top of the deck to add to the courtyard to increase the options available.