Before I begin, I was provided with a review copy of this game in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid review. If you would rather watch a video of this review you can check it out below. You can get your own copy here.
A game about creating a garden, and your goal is to place characters in the garden in a place where they will have the most attractive view. Hmm. Tell me more? It will mostly involve tile laying, and have a bunch of 3-d scenery.
Now usually, I would probably tap out here. On the surface it sounds like a superfluous theme, with a mechanic that is not particularly my favorite in tile laying. HOWEVER, a few months back I review another tile laying garden creation game The One Hundred Torii, and I really enjoyed that, and it was gorgeous. My wife also enjoyed it, so when the time came, I thought, well let’s see if these tile laying garden games can go 2 for 2.
The game itself is relatively simple. Each round you will either add a tile to the garden, which makes it bigger and gives you spaces to place decorations, or you place a decoration. These decorations will result in points at the end of the game based on the combinations of decorations that you place into the garden. For example, if you get one of each type of tree, you get 25 points, get the most pagodas, you get 12 points, pairs of fish and birds earn you 6. In addition to that you will occasionally get to select a new character, or use one of your special actions, which give you bonuses for that turn.
The other method for scoring comes from characters. As you play you will get the opportunity to place various characters into the garden. Each character has a preference of what they want to see, whether it be animals or buildings, or dragons, or the sun and the moon. As you place tiles you will occasionally get to place a landscape piece as well. These pieces get slotted into the side of the board, and these will determine scoring per character at the end of the game.
So what do I think?
The game promised to be beautiful on the table. It is. Everything about the art is absolutely gorgeous. The way the 3-d scenery fills out the board is stunning, the landscapes that go up around the edges are stunning, even the way they created all the landscapes so they do not have odd looking connections is wonderful.
The game also is very streamlined when it comes to its rules. There truly is nothing hard about the game as far as how to play. Place a tile, get a bonus, or place a decoration. That is about it. I also found that for a tile laying game there is actually not much analysis paralysis, because as you start to reach the late game, there are simply not many places you can place the tiles that are available, so there is not a ton of time to ponder what to do. You can truly play a game in an hour. This makes me happy.
It is also really enjoyable building the garden. There is something very satisfying about placing the 3-d decorations, and then placing the characters out in the garden to look at the beautiful scenery that you wish you could look at yourself.
When it comes to end game scoring they have done so much to make it as easy as possible. The landscapes are double sided so you can see them no matter where you sit, they have even outlined the icons in the color of the character that needs to look at them. However, the smaller landscapes that go in front of the larger ones, still get blocked. This does mean that at the end of the game there is often one set of tiles that are a slight challenge to see. Not a huge deal, but for a game that does the rest of it so well, this stands out a little. I also notice that it can be a little challenging to see what direction a character is facing if they are not painted. Again, its not hard, but noticeable.
The game gives you a blurb that during the Tang Dynasty the first great gardens were built in China. Cool. However, I wish that it included more. I think there is a missed opportunity to give us some of the history, some of the cultural significance of the various decorations, and imagery that is included on the landscapes.
I also am have a feeling that there is a little bit of a path to victory in the game. It seems that if you pursue getting all the of the trees you will be at a huge advantage in the endgame. This means that everyone will have to make a point to grab trees as well, in order to stop one player from getting that huge bonus. I have not found that any of the other decorations feel nearly as important as the trees do. I will note that I have only played the game a few times, so this might just be an odd coincidence in the all the times that I have played. This is not a HUGE deal, but possibly it is part of a best strategy, and something to watch for.
Bringing it all together
Tang Garden is an absolutely gorgeous game with stunning table presence. The rules are almost perfectly streamlined to make for a fast game, that even overcomes usual bane of tile laying games, analysis paralysis. There are a couple of minor issues of seeing things to score them at the end of the game, and I do wonder if pursuing the trees will almost always be a winning strategy. I also think that a huge opportunity to include historical information about the Tang Dynasty, and the cultural significance of the decorations is missed. If you are looking for a light tile laying game, there are few that I enjoy more than this one.
This review would be more aesthetically pleasing with less words
* Stunning looking game on the table. One of the most attractive I have
* Very tight ruleset, not a lot of wasted time
* Missed opportunity to share more about the theme, and the cultural significance of the art assets in the game
* Extremely satisfying to build out the garden, and place characters in it
* A very delightful light tile laying game