One day I was browsing through my local Barnes & Noble when something on the shelf caught my eye: a copy of Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. I felt an unexpected rush of surprise and excitement and pride.
Some time earlier, I’d backed the game’s Kickstarter, got my copy, played it, and fallen in love with its beauty and simplicity. I don’t have kids so I don’t know exactly how that makes you feel—and I can only account for, at most, 1/1213th of Lanterns‘ commercial success—but seeing it at an actual store… I think that’s a small measure of how you must feel when your kid gets an A+ on their report card or hits a home run. You knew all along that they had it in them. It goes without saying that most games from Kickstarter don’t hit the big time and make it onto the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but Lanterns is that good.
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a game for two to four players about dedicating lanterns by placing them on a lake, more or less based around the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival and Ghost Festival. The goal is to accumulate sets of lantern cards (three pair, four of a kind, or seven different) and trade those in for points. The winner is the person with the most points.
Each turn, you place one tile. After you place the tile, each player gets a lantern card in the color of the side of the tile that’s facing them.
As a result, every move you make gives a lantern not only to yourself, but also to the other players.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “If everyone gets a lantern every turn, how does anyone get ahead?”
There are a couple of ways. First, the supply of lanterns is finite, which allows you to try to orient tiles so your opponents qualify to pick up a color that is temporarily unavailable. Second, if you place a tile so it matches the color of an existing tile, you get an extra lantern in that color (plus, if one of those tiles has a platform, you get a coin; two coins can be spent to swap one color of lantern for another).
Consequently, the game is all about placing your lantern tiles to maximize the number of sets you can form while preventing the other players from benefiting off of your placement. Adding an extra twist, the number of points that you get for each set changes and decreases over the course of the game as you remove point tiles from a stack, so you need to keep an eye on which sets are currently the most valuable.
Lanterns builds an absorbing, puzzle-like atmosphere where figuring out your best next move is difficult, but not-quite-impossible.
On top of that, it’s gorgeous. The lake seems to ripple. The lanterns seem to gleam. It’s as if the haunting beauty of a harvest moon shimmering across the water is captured and boxed on your board game shelf.
The quality is impeccable, too. The tiles are durable. The cards are linen-finished. The coins are wooden and lovely. The first player token is a reasonable, proportionate size—not one of those ginormous ones that’s 10 times bigger than anything else in the game.
By all accounts, Lanterns has been a massive hit. So much so that Foxtrot and Renegade recently published an expansion: Lanterns: The Emperor’s Gifts. Because of all the hipster joy I take in saying that I backed Lanterns before it was cool, I was a bit disappointed that they published the expansion without a Kickstarter campaign.
Still, under any typical circumstances, I would rush out to buy any expansion for any game I love. But Lanterns is something else entirely…
Lanterns isn’t just good, it’s so good that it has me wondering whether an expansion could possibly improve it. It just seems so fully-formed and complete the way it is. It’s like if you heard about an expansion for chess. Sure, it could work—but is it going to make it better?
For me, there’s just the right amount to think about in Lanterns. You can’t play in a rush, and yet, you don’t want to either. The look of the game is so tranquil, it invites you to slow down and relax and spend some time pondering each move.
Who knows. Someday I will probably try the expansion. For now, I’m convinced the game is perfection.