Uwe Rosenberg


No. of Players:
1 - 4



With Uwe Rosenberg winning both the International Gamers Awards 2008 and 2009, I was quite excited to check out his new game Vor den Toren von Loyang. Edited by the newly established publisher HALL GAMES, the game has been expected for quite some time, and as it seems, games focusing on the harvest and conversion of goods seem to be Uwe Rosenberg's special subject. As Agricola and Le Havre have shown in 2007 and 2008, his conversion of agricultural or industrial processes into the scope of a boardgame has found a great fan community. This year he has returned to the time before Agricola, presenting the gamers with a game which he has created in Spring 2005. However, although the new game Vor den Toren von Loyang is published on the new publishing label HALL GAMES, the game nonetheless stands in good tradition with the last two games, since once again the main focus of the game lies on the growth and sale of arable crops.

As the title of the game might suggest, the action takes place in medieval China with the players taking the roles of smallhold farmers. They are taking their crops to the market taking place before the city of Loyang, and here they try to use the different available marketeers to their best profits. Much of the market action is driven by an action card deck which contains regular customers, one-time customers, assistants, market booths and new fields, but before we have a closer look at the marketing of crops let us first have a look at the cultivation of the land and the starting setup of the players.

Each player receives his own T-shaped overview table, featuring a track were the players can record their wealth level and their own shop quarter were they can sell and acquire crops. Six different kinds of crops exist in the game (wheat, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage beans and leek), and one to three units of each of these crops are available at the corresponding shop spaces at the beginning of the game. During the course of the game a player always is free to buy and sell from his own shops, but he is restricted to the spaces available at the shop quarter. So, a unit of crops may only be sold if a corresponding space in the shop quarter is free.

To start his smallhold farm each player receives a home field card showing nine parcels under crop, and he may use a bit of his starting capital to buy a unit of wheat, pumpkin or turnips from his shops for the first sowing. He then places the chosen crop onto one of the parcels of his home field and fills up the remaining parcels of the field with crops of the same kind from the common stockpile. The game will run over a total of nine rounds, and as the players are allowed to harvest one unit of crops from each of their fields at the beginning of each turn, the initial placement on the home field will be sufficient for the whole duration of the game. In addition to the home field each of the players receives a partly mixed deck of 8 fields, featuring field cards with three to six parcels. At the beginning of each round every player receives a new card from his own deck of fields to represent his efforts for the cultivation of the surrounding lands, and from that time on the player also may use these new fields for sowing and harvesting.

However, whereas the process of growing and harvesting crops is rather straightforward, much more detail lies in the acquisition of action cards and the possible courses of actions which are available to the players in the action phase of each round. For the time being it is sufficient to mention that each player gets two action cards in a card distribution phase between the initial harvest and the final action phase of each round. These two action cards are placed in the players' displays next to their overview table, and they now may be used in the following action phase.

The action phase is the core mechanism of the game, and whereas the first one or two rounds usually should see a rather fast progressing of this phase, the complexity of the player's actions will increase with the course of the game. Most of the actions available can be chosen for several times so that players who use the actions in a good order can create interesting windfall gains, but it is of great importance for the players to remember the the fact that they only possess limited storage possibilities at the end of a round. Thus, they should be eager to use the action phase in order to turn their harvested crops into profits and not to throw them away by the end of the round.

The first three possibilities what players can do with crops already have been mentioned, and so a player can buy and sell crops at his shop quarter under the mentioned restrictions, and he also can sow out a crop unit from his stockpile at one of his unused field, filling up all remaining parcels of the same field with the identical kind of crop in order to harvest these crops in the following turns. However, the rest of the actions deals with the action cards available at a player's display, and here let us first have a look at the regular and one-time customers which are the backbone of the players' income.

A one-time customer has a shopping list with three crops, and if a player has these three crops in his stockpile he may return the crops to the common stock and receives the value of the one-time customer in exchange. Regular customers on the other hand are more tricky to deal with, since they demand a combination of two crops which must be delivered to them four times in consecutive rounds. In each round in which the player can meet the demand of a regular customer he receives an income from the sale, but if he cannot meet the demand the regular customer will get unhappy. At the first instance the failure of the player will be ignored, but if the player fails to deliver the demanded crops for more than one round he has to pay a contractual penalty in every round where he cannot meet the demand of his customer. Thus, one-time customers are easier to deal with, but regular customers on the other hand allow for strategic planning and a higher total income. Furthermore, there is a correlation between both kinds of customers in a player's display, so that a player who has more one-time customers will receive less for selling his crops to the one-time customers because he has chosen the easier way. On the contrary, a player who has a majority of regular customers will receive a bonus if he succeeds in meeting the demands of a one-time customer, since it is more difficult to serve the additional demands when a lot of regular customers are present in a display. In addition, both kinds of customers share the common fate that they are discarded once their needs have been satisfied.

However, a player also may make use of small market booths which can be found in the deck of action cards, and if a market booth is acquired three predefined units of crops will be placed from the common stockpile onto the market booth. To prevent a misunderstanding I should make it clear at this point that a market booth is not part of the player's farming operations, but it is placed in a player's display to represent another farmer who wants to trade crops. Thus, a player may return some of his own crops to the common stockpile in exchange for crops from a market booth, and when all three crops from a market booth have been traded in the player will be forced to discard the now empty market booth card. Thus, apart from the shop quarter a player also may use the market booths to acquire new kinds of crops for trading and sowing, and very often the trade with a market booth will turn out to be more profitable because the shop quarter demands high prices for the most valuable crops.

The real spice in the game are the 20 different assistant cards, since they create interaction and pose changing strategic challenges alike. Each assistant offers his own special power which the player can use once before discarding the assistant, and these special powers cover a variety of different aspects of the game. Some of the assistants like the Farm Labourer or the Errand Boy allow the harvesting or selling of additional crops, whereas the Accountant or the Haggler can influence the availability and prices of crops at a player's shop quarter. However, whereas the aforementioned assistants all deal with a player's own display, others like the Trader, the Canvasser, the Delivery Man or the Conman all have a special power which provides access to the action cards present in another player's display. Thus, assistants can be lured away, market booths or one-time customers exchanged or even a delivery can be made to another player's regular customer, and so the players will face quite a few kinds of special actions which they have to take into consideration.

However, there is a danger of instability in games where special actions can be triggered by the play of interactive action cards, but in case of Vor den Toren von Loyang this danger was cleverly reduced by use of a specific card distribution phase. Thus, the action cards are not simply drawn by the players and added to their displays, but instead each player receives a hand of four action cards at the beginning of a card distribution phase. In turn, the players now have to place one of their hand cards into a common "yard" onto the table, and this continues until the player's decide to keep one of their hand cards plus one of the cards available at the common yard. A player who decides to keep immediately places these two cards into his display, but the remaining rest of his hand is placed into the yard for the other players to chose from. And when all players have chosen their two cards, the remaining cards from the yard are discarded and the round proceeds to the action phase. This neat and easy card distribution mechanism gives a player some control over the cards he is going to receive, while at the same time a nice dilemma in regard to a player's remaining hand cards is created. Thus, a player's hopes for getting a good card through a round in the yard in order to take it himself are quite often spoiled, and in other situations a good card in the court cannot be taken because the player would have to add a good hand of cards to the yard at an early point.

In addition, there is a possibility to acquire up to two action cards in the action phase, but whereas these two cards are randomly drawn it is now the way in which the cards are played which gives the players a further strategic angle. Thus, the two acquired cards are placed as a double with one card atop the other. The lower card only comes into play when the top card has been removed, and thus a player has a possibility to time the moment one a card comes into place while at the same time protecting the card from interactive action cards of the others.

Finally, another unusual factor appears solely in the four player game, and here it seems that Uwe Rosenberg has recognised the fact that strategy games sometimes have long phases in which one player is thinking and acting whereas the others are waiting for him finish. To deal with this observation the players in a four player game are divided into two teams of two players each round, and the first and second players of both teams play through the action phase simultaneously! To prevent unwanted side effects the players only are allowed to use interactive action cards against their "partners", but at the same time this rather unusual mechanism greatly speeds up the action phase by leaving the players with a third of the usual waiting time. As I pointed out earlier, the action phase gets longer with each round, and thus this rather ingenious rule greatly helps to keep the game fluent and attractive.

The winner is determined by the players' wealth level which is recorded on the playing sheet of each player. Here money can be invested for stepping forwards, but whereas the first step each round is available for a minimum price consecutive steps are getting increasingly expensive the higher the player gets on the wealth track. Thus, even the recording of wealth leaves the player to make some decisions, since it may possibly pay off to keep the needed money at the beginning of the game in order to catch up later by investing a bit more.

The biggest problem with Vor den Toren von Loyang is the fact that the challenge for the players is not over by the end of the game, but instead the question which of the three Rosenberg games to play next time is an insoluble riddle. Agricola is the game which feels most familiar and tested, but its attractiveness does not wear out but instead is increased by the small expansions and cute playing materials which became available after the initial release of the game. Le Havre on the other hand is a bit more difficult to explain, but it allows a deeper manipulation of production chains and thus gives the players an even greater degree of strategic control while at the same time keeping diversity through the changing constellations of special buildings available in each game. Vor den Toren von Loyang finally seems to be the game which is most easy to access, but this does not mean that the strategic challenge is less interesting than the possibilities offered by the two aforementioned games. Quite the opposite, Vor den Toren von Loyang offers a rather nice action phase, and coupled with the interactive cardplay and the team-play rules the game has a good degree of attractiveness on its own right.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2010 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany