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The light, colorful boardgame Lanterns: The Harvest Festival came out in 2015 but somehow never hit my radar until the app version came out at the end of 2016, which sold me on the game quickly with great graphics and a strong tutorial. The game itself has simple mechanics, but a clever twist has you giving your opponent something of value every time you do something to help yourself, a quirk that helps keep scores close till the very end.
Lanterns is a set-collection game at heart. There are seven colors of Lanterns, and players try to collect Lantern cards of each color so they can turn them back in for points – either a set of one of each color (so seven total), three pairs, or four of a kind. To gain these cards, on your turn you place one square lantern tile from your hand of three, with a color on each side. You get a card for the color of the side facing you – and then each of your opponents gets a card for the side facing him/her. If you managed to match any of the four sides with the color of the piece it’s now touching, you get a card of that color too. Usually, you’ll place a tile and get two colors, although a three-card move comes along every now and then.
There are also wildcard “favor” tokens available, which you get with special lantern tiles that have platform symbols in the middle of the four colors. When you get the chance at the start of a turn to exchange Lantern cards for points, you can spend two favor tokens to swap one Lantern card for a card of a different color. The supply of Lantern cards in any color is limited, however, so it’s possible you won’t be able to complete such a swap, or even that you won’t get a card you’ve earned via tile placement – and sometimes you’ll want to avoid trading back a card into the supply if that color is currently exhausted.
The point values of those sets declines over the course of the game as players turn in more sets of each type. The first seven-color set turned in is worth 10 points, the first three-pair set is worth 9 points, and the first four-of-a-kind set is worth 8 points. When a player turns in a set of any type, s/he takes a “dedication token” showing the point value of that set from that type’s stack, and the token underneath might have a value of one point less than the one just taken. (In a two-player game, this is always true, but with more players set values might go down every other token instead.)
Once the supply of square tiles is finished, each player gets one more turn in which to exchange a set of Lantern cards for points; after this, the cards and leftover favor tokens have no value at all. Players just add up the points from their dedication tokens to determine the final scores. Games take maybe 30 minutes, and the only downtime for anyone comes as each player scans the open spaces for possible moves to find the most advantageous one. Cacao is a similar tile-laying game, but those decisions take longer.
The app is stunning – the game’s beautiful artwork looks even better on the iPad screen, with fun animations of the lanterns, and the AI is good, maybe not quite tough enough on the hardest setting, but fine for casual play. I usually beat AI opponents but I’m never routing them, which is a testament to the game’s built-in damper on runaway scoring. The publisher has an Android version as well but I haven’t tried it. I highly recommend the iOS version, though, for solo or pass-and-play use.