Review: ‘Lanterns’ Offers Interesting, If Well-tread, Gameplay In A Gorgeous Package

I played my first game of Lanterns (Foxtrot Games) with a friend and his daughter, a smart and curious 13-year-old, on a bright New Year’s Eve afternoon.

None of us had played it before, but we were all impressed by what greeted us as we unpacked the box and began setting it up. The cards have a soothing color scheme and graceful illustrations, plus nifty wooden coins. The tiles, which would end up growing into a festive tableau, were equally appealing.

Learning the game was a snap. Initially, the game bore a resemblance to “Splendor,” one of my favorite lighter strategy games, and that made things a bit easier (more on that later). Each player has three actions they can take: Pay two wooden coins to trade lantern cards for a color of their choice, then trade a set of lantern cards for points. Each of these moves is optional.

The Lanterns rule book, like the rest of its components, is handsome and classy.

Then, that player must play a tile onto the tableau with at least one side facing another tile. If the abutting side(s) match, the active player receives those lantern cards. If there are “platforms” (special icons) on those matching tiles, the active player receives favor tokens (the nifty wooden coins). Then, each player receives a lantern card of the color facing them on the tile just played.

We began to notice right away the tactical play of the lake tiles. You might orient a tile a certain way to make sure your opponent doesn’t get a color they’re obviously looking for. Or, you can freeze them out of that phase entirely if that color is out of stock.

The lake tiles, which create a colorful tableau.

But these moves never really amounted to what I would consider hard-nosed gameplay, because the point tiles don’t call for specific colors, just specific sets. So if you’re missing just one card from set, it’s often easy to have another color work for you.

The point tiles are weighted by the difficulty in completing the set and decrease in value, which tends to reward speed. Being the first to get one lantern card of each color, for example, will net you 10 points, while being the second will get you nine points. Being the first to get three sets of two lantern cards will get you nine points.

The lantern cards. Great design and use of color.

I like this point system, but the balance on them could be tweaked a bit. It’s pretty easy to freeze people out of the seven-tile combos by denying them a single color. The other sets are pretty easy to build toward, making their point totals seem a little high. Your own house rule or variant would likely suffice, if you agree.

The gameplay itself, as I mentioned above, reminds me of “Splendor,” which made “Lanterns” feel a bit like a retread as I was playing it. The tempo, tactics and rewards are roughly similar. It’s not enough to make me to dislike “Lanterns,” though. The tile-laying portion of the game feels fresh and simple, and fits well with the game’s overall feel of building a tableau along with my fellow players.

The favor tokens–wooden!–and the starting player token, also wooden.

That tableau, by the way, is the game’s most striking characteristic. The beautiful artwork, which works seamlessly with the theme, sets this game apart. That it all works together gives this game a good chance of getting to the table more often than not.

I lost that game I played with my friend and his daughter, by the way. But I had a lovely time losing.

Details:

  • Published by Foxtrot Games, a small independent publisher with just three titles on its website.
  • Designed by Christopher Chung. There’s a nice interview with him on Boardgamegeek.
  • Audience: This game is suitable for ages 8 and up, for 2-4 players. The mechanics are easy to pick up, even if finer strategy points aren’t. This game probably would qualify as “filler” for more serious strategy gamers.
  • Play time: About 30 – 45 mins. Playing best out of three rounds would be a great way to start a Saturday morning.
  • Artwork/Theme/Components: All of the components were of decent quality. I was especially surprised by the wooden favor tokens, which are a nice touch. The artwork is among the best I’ve seen in a game, with vibrant colors and spare design.