Board Game Reviews

YAMATAÏ Review by Days of Wonder (with comments by Bruno Cathala)

Theme and What is it?

Late second century AD. Queen Himiko is the dearly beloved sovereign of the kingdom of Yamataï and she is looking for the greatest architects around to assign them a noble mission: building the capital of her realm and make it the most beautiful city Ancient Japan has ever seen.

Players will have to explore the archipelago of Yamataï to find the best isles were they can build their prestigious buildings. Choosing each turn the most advantageous fleet to travel around the kingdom, they will trade resources, recruit Specialists, make money and gain prestige points with the only aim of satisfying the queen’s request and become the greatest builders of all times!

Yamataï is both a strategic and tactical game for 2 to 4 players. Players will need to define an overall strategy of how they want to expand and which fleets and resources they need to use to reach their goal, but then they will have to be ready to change and adjust their moves according to the actions of their opponents. Flexibility is definitely the core characteristic of this wonderful exotic game.

Bruno Cathala, one of the two authors, was happy to answer a few questions on the world of Yamataï for the most curious gamers. I asked him where the idea of a Japanese theme came from. “When Marc Paquien, my co-author for Yamataï, had his first idea of the project, he was thinking about setting the game at a funfair. I know, it’s a completely different thing from what we ended up with. However, when we started working on the game at a deeper level, we decided to set it in the Ancient Egypt. The players were architects whose goal was to build the city of Heliopolis and who were at the head of camel caravans carrying around all kinds of building resources in different construction sites. After we signed the contract with our publisher, we were asked to think about other possible settings for our game, because Days of Wonder had already published a game set in the Egyptian universe a few years before and was looking for other themes. We had to find an interesting setting where we could use the same game mechanics we had already tested. Surfing the web in search of legendary and lost cities, we ran into the beautiful story of the kingdom of Yamataï and we immediately fell in love with it.”

Are you ready to sail off for a wonderful trip in this faraway magical land?

Gameplay Mechanics

Yamataï plays over rounds, and each round consists of 5 phases summarized on the player mats. Every player performs phases 1 through 5 before passing his turn.

·      Phase 1 is mandatory: The player chooses one of the fleets available on the board and receives the corresponding boats. There are five types of boats in five different colors according to the resource they carry: bamboo (green), wood (brown), stone (black), clay (red) and gold (yellow). The player can then use the special power represented on the fleet tile.

·      Phase 2 is optional: The player can perform one commercial transaction per turn (buying OR selling one boat) according to the strategy he will be using in the next phases.

·      Phase 3 is optional, but if performed it has two compulsory consequences: Each player can place one or more of his boats on the board following a few placement rules. If he does, he will then have to choose one of these two possible actions: collecting culture tokens OR constructing standard or prestige buildings on the islands adjacent to the route of the boats. He will then immediately receive money and/or prestige points, if applicable.

·      Phase 4 is mandatory: The player must place any unused boats on the harbor section of the mat. He can keep only one boat; all other boats will be worth negative points at the end of the game.

·      Phase 5 is optional: Before passing his turn, the player can choose to recruit a Specialist spending culture tokens. Building the capital of a realm is tough and luckily you don’t need to do everything by yourself. Specialists help the players in many different ways and each of them has a special and unique ability. Mr. Izanagi will allow you to perform one extra commercial transaction per turn, for example; Miss Riu will expand your harbor; Mr. Raijin will allow you to obtain gold boats, otherwise unbuyable. So, choose your assistants wisely, because they can change the course of the game and lead you to victory more easily!

Once all players have played their turn, after updating the board a new round begins. There is no preset number of rounds to be played. The game is over when one of four conditions is fulfilled. Players will then calculate their score adding the prestige points obtained during the game to those printed on buildings and Specialists tiles and to their money. The player with the most points is the winner and will receive a truly priceless gift: Queen Himiko’s smile!

The main engine of Yamataï is undoubtedly the Route Building mechanic, which follows a Pattern Building rule (the boats placed on the board must correspond to the ships represented on a building tile if the player in turn wants to construct that building). Other secondary mechanics such as Area Control (constructing near your buildings gives you more money), Set Collection (choosing which culture tokens to collect to hire the Specialists) and Variable Player Powers (given by the Specialists) come into play in this game for a really thorough experience.

Initial Impressions

I have to admit I initially got interested in Yamataï because e I’m a big fan of both Bruno Cathala as game designer and Days of Wonder as publisher. Then, once I looked at the superb colored board and materials, I just couldn’t wait to have it. Even though the Japanese theme is not that strong, I can say it fits perfectly with the overall mood of the game.

After a few plays, I thought that the strategies of hiring the Specialists and constructing prestige buildings were more powerful than simply making money or erecting standard buildings. So, I asked Bruno Cathala if he believed there was a predominant strategy towards victory. “No,” he said “the game is thought to be well-balanced. Victory can be achieved in many different ways; maybe the best strategy is actually doing a little bit of everything. This is how I play. Not having a single strategy allows me to adjust to new situations that might arise on the board and seize every opportunity I see.”

Many people think that Yamataï is too similar to its big brother Five Tribes. I don’t agree with them at all. Besides the fact they are two highly tactical AND strategic games, I can personally spot only two similarities. One is the general graphic impact. Both games stand out for their vivid colors and both boards full of meeples and other tokens are just too beautiful to look at. Second one is represented by the Specialists. Just like the Djinns in Five Tribes, in Yamataï they help the players to pull off a greater victory against their opponents. But can we say that two games are alike because they share these traits? Many modern games feature helpers of one sort or another. Here is the opinion of the author about this issue. “Yamataï and Five Tribes should not be compared at all!” said Bruno. “The two games are extremely different if we analyze them deeply. In Five Tribes we start with a full board and we proceed to empty it almost completely. The game offers a great range of possibilities in the first turns and these possibilities decrease progressively. Moreover, the choices we make in the first rounds are not so crucial. In Yamataï we start with an empty board and we proceed to add stuff to it. At the beginning the game offers limited possibilities and these possibilities increase gradually. More than ever it’s necessary to make the best choices starting from the options we have and these choices are crucial since round one. Yamataï and Five Tribes provide very different game experiences. I’m sure that without my name and Days of Wonder brand on the box, nobody would have compared them.”

Game Build Quality

Yamataï is definitely characterized by first quality materials.

The first thing we see when we open the box is the rulebook: short, clear, full of pictures and examples and complete. There are two appendices in the last pages summarizing all the fleets’ special powers and the Specialists’ abilities. This is absolutely a plus.

The board is big, thick and super colored. You see all those islands and you just want to add your boats as soon as possible. All wood tokens are great: boats, big meeples and buildings (both standard and prestige buildings) provide one of the most wonderful tactile experiences I have gotten out of a board game. Paper tokens and money are thick and strong. I love the fact that the coins are shaped differently in the center according to their value.

The box contains a pre-shaped plastic insert to store all game materials perfectly.

If I wanted to be picky, I would say the only thing that is missing is a little scoreboard.

Artistic Direction

Jérémie Fleury and Cyrille Daujean really did a great job with the artwork of this game. The images on the rulebook, box cover, player mats, board, fleet tiles and building tiles are simply beautiful and they allow the players to dive into the exotic atmosphere of Yamataï.

The pictures on the Specialists tiles are truly something exceptional. All different, super colored and extremely detailed, they are a pleasure for the eye. They are undoubtedly my favorite part of the game.

Fun Factor

As a strongly strategic game, the fun factor of Yamataï resides in the possibility to make the best combos and steal the best moves from under the nose of your opponents.

Bruno Cathala agreed: “The most satisfying aspect of the game is noticing on the board a particular combination of boats that nobody has seen, and then being able to combine the choice of the boats with the special effect of the fleet and build a highly profitable building in terms of money or prestige points. Making a powerful combo is worth the entire game. Some Specialists are also very fun to use.” I think of Miss Izanami, for example; she allows you to take half of the coins placed on a Specialist tile when one of your opponents recruits that Specialist. Your friend won’t surely be happy about that!

I believe that when playing in 4 players, downtime could be a little problem. It might happen that we play first in this round and last in the next one, meaning that an incredible number of things could happen on the board in the 6 turns we are forced to just wait and watch our opponents playing. I suggest to capitalize on this seemingly useless time trying to consider different moves, hoping that when it’s our turn one of them will still be available. Or we can also try to play twice in a row and combo our actions.

Age Range & Weight

The age range for Yamataï is 13+ and I think it is quite accurate. Although rules are straightforward and easy to learn, Yamataï is a game for habitual gamers who are used to adjust their strategy quickly to new situations, thus limiting downtime. Newbies will get stuck in the sea of possibilities if they have never played a game where making combos of different actions is the most powerful mechanic at play. Younger kids would undoubtedly appreciate the colorful materials, but I believe they won’t have as much fun as adults, because Yamataï requires a lot of deep thinking, patience and flexibility. Nevertheless, I can’t say it’s a heavy game, because once you understand how things work on the board, the gameplay is rather smooth.

Average game time is 40 to 80 minutes according to the number of players. I played several 2-, 3- and 4-player games and I can say that 40 minutes is an accurate estimate if the two players already know the rules and are used to this type of games. On the other hand, if a deep thinker is sitting at the table, the game can become a bit slow.

Conclusions

Yamataï is one of my Top 10 games since day one. Maybe it’s simply because I’m an incurable romantic and I love the story of the legendary kingdom of Yamataï and its beautiful queen. Japan-themed games are my favorite because of the artwork; they are all very colorful and iconic and Yamataï is no exception.

Days of Wonder is usually synonym of great materials and this is one of the strongest aspect of the game. You just can’t wait to take it off the shelf to have a thorough visual and tactile game experience.

The mechanics are nothing new, but they blend perfectly. The interaction is quite strong. Once on the board, the boats don’t belong to anybody and can be used by all players; this means that without even knowing it, we might end up providing our opponents with exactly the boats they needed to construct that profitable building or activate that powerful Specialist. Moreover, playing first is really important in Yamataï, because you have a wider choice of fleets, buildings and Specialists in front of you.

Replay value is high. No two games can be alike, thanks to the good number of combinations of fleets, buildings and Specialists. Moreover, culture tokens are always placed randomly on the board. The core of the game doesn’t change of course, but adjusting successfully to new situations arising in the archipelago and making the best use of what you are left with provide a fun game experience.

Before falling in the trap of labeling this game as just a copy of something you have already seen, try it. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

A huge Thank You to Bruno Cathala for his collaboration and precious insights.

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Val Carcaiso

Val Carcaiso

“Cogito, Ergo Ludo.”
Board game addict. Curious traveler. Avid reader. Country music lover.
Val Carcaiso

“Cogito, Ergo Ludo.” Board game addict. Curious traveler. Avid reader. Country music lover.

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