Yamatai Review – It’s So Pretty!

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Designed by: Bruno Cathala, Marc Paquien
Published by: Days of Wonder
Players: 2-4
Playtime: 60-90 Minutes

Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games

In Yamatai Queen Himiko has tasked you with building the capital of Yamatai, making it the jewel of the archipelago. You’re going to be doing this by creating supply lines of boats carrying various resources, constructing buildings and hiring specialists to help you out. Despite having a mere 8-page rulebook there’s a lot going on in this brightly colored mess, and like so many other games the ultimate goal is simple; be the person with the most prestige points by the end.

Before we get into the gameplay mechanics I just have to mention how wonderfully beautiful Yamatai is. It’s practically drowning in a sea of color, and might just be the most vibrant board game I’ve played to date. This attack on the eyes is enhanced by the chunky wooden buildings that give the game a big presence on the table, plus the tiles are made of thick card stock. Everything feels like it was made with quality in mind. By the end of a game of Yamatai it looks like someone ate a whole load of Skittles and chunks of wood, and then barfed it all up over a board. It’s bright, it’s messy, and it’s a slightly disgusting assault on the senses, yet it’s strangely beautiful….and now you’ve got that image stuck in your head.

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Age of Wonder have always been good at creating proper inserts to house their games and Yamatai is no exception. Everything has a place to be neatly slotted in which makes setting everything up a breeze. Take note FFG because your box for Runewars (reviewing coming soon) is utterly atrocious.

Right, now we can leap into the actual mechanics at play. Placing boats to create supply lines around the dozens of islands dotted across the board is what takes up most of your time in Yamatai. The very first thing you do in a turn is choose from one of the five faceup fleet tiles at the bottom of the board, a supply which gets refreshed at the end of each round. On these tiles different colors of boat are depicted, each one representing a different resource; bamboo, wood, clay, stone and gold. When it comes to placing your boats there is one very simple rule; unless starting on one of the entry points on the left side of the board you must add to an existing line of boats, and the first one you place must match the color of the adjacent boat. After that, though, you can use whatever color you like.

To boost your boat count you can purchase or even sell a single boat per turn, with bamboo being the cheapest at a single coin and clay being the most expensive at four coins. Gold can’t be bought or sold normally and only two fleet tiles give you a gold ship, so it’s the rarest resource in the game. This rarity system brings an opportunity for tactical play as you deliberately attempt to make it harder for other players to connect to paths.

You can keep a single boat that you don’t use for future turns, if you like, but any others that you don’t place are removed from the game, for every two of these boats you lost a point during final scoring.

Once you’ve placed boats around the many islands on the board you have two choices; either construct something on a nearby empty island, or clear out the adjacent islands by grabbing the randomly distributed culture tokens. You can snag one token for every ship you placed, and at the end of your turn two of a kind or three different ones can be traded in to hire one of the five currently available specialists. These sizable tiles represent powerful characters who are worth points in of themselves in many cases, but who also reward you with bonus abilities that can help define your playstyle.

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To build something you first need to consider the five available tiles at the edge of the board. On their left side they show what color boats must currently be floating around the island on which you want to build something. These boats don’t get spent, though, and ALL boats count, including those put down by other players. Assuming you have the colors needed and the island is adjacent to at least one boat you placed grab the tile, which are all worth prestige points, and then plop down the appropriate building. Standard buildings come from your own personal supply of chunky wooden blocks and do nothing by themselves. However, when placed atop a mountain or next to a special building they earn you a prestige point, a cumulative effect that an opportunistic player can take full advantage of. The other thing is that when placed next to another standard building of your color a group is begun which nets you one coin for every building within the group or chain, thus a row of three buildings would earn you four coins when you place a new one. Considering every five coins is worth a bonus prestige point at the end of the game managing to group your houses together can be worth the effort. There’s even a special marketplace building which when placed earns you double the amount you’d normally get.

Made of even chunkier wood the other two buildings types are palaces and torii, both of which have the same effect of granting a player who builds a standard building next to them a prestige point. These two buildings are typically much harder to build,  often requiring lots of gold boats, but do grant quite a few prestige points. The downside is that anyone can take advantage of their ability. Nothing in Yamatai is more frustrating than building a palace only for another player to take advantage of it.

It’s this decision whether to build or to clear islands that forms the core of Yamatai. Since you can only do one of the two actions on your turn there’s the very real possibility that if you opt to hoover up a few culture tokens other players will swoop in and build on the now empty islands that you just spent an entire turn clearing. Likewise opting to plonk down a building means forgoing a potentially useful specialist. This does mean that long-term planning in Yamatai is incredibly difficult because the board changes so much, so if you’re looking for something heavily strategic where you can really consider your plans a dozen moves ahead this isn’t going to be for you. However, if you love reactive tactics then this is perfect. You need to embrace the fact that Yamatai is quite a chaotic game, especially when you’ve got the full four players sitting around the table, and just play on a turn-by-turn basis.

So, you can’t really make much in the way of concrete plans in Yamatai, but you can forge a general idea of what you want to be doing thanks to those specialists that we chatted about earlier. For example, one specialist reduces the amount of coins required for a prestige point at the end of the game from five to three, while another lets you sell certain boats for double their regular value. Combine them and you’ve got something to aim for, especially if you take advantage of the fact that at the end of every round remaining specialist get two coins placed on them as extra incentive to consider grabbing them next time.

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BUT WAIT! There’s more. Do you remember those fleet tiles that I mentioned at the start of the game? Well, they have special powers to take into consideration. One of them may let you destroy any two boats on the board, for example, a hugely powerful ability that can suddenly allow you to build somewhere that seemed impossible before. Ah, but just like all good things in life there’s a catch; the fleet tile you take also determines the turn order for the next round, thus the tiles that offer more boats or impressive abilities also mean that you’ll likely end up having to take your next turn later in the round, and in Yamatai being first can be very important.

With that said a potential problem the game faces is the length of player turns. Despite the rulebook being just a few pages long there’s a lot to consider when looking at the chaotic board, and since it’s difficult to plan ahead when others are taking their turns due to how quickly everything will change it can lead to players needing a while to figure out what they want to do. This gets worse if the turn order results in you going first in one round and the last in the next, forcing you to potentially wait for six turns before you get to do something else.

Player count can be a tricky thing, too. With two players sitting around the board there’s a lot more room to spread out and avoid bumping in to each other which takes away a lot of the fun, while on the other hand having four people plonking down boats and buildings can become overly chaotic. The two-player variant also alters the status quo by giving each player two turns per round, which with clever use of the turn-order system means players make some really powerful moves. Three players feels like the best combination in my view, offering up just enough space for a player to attempt to sneak off whilst retaining that sense of busyness.

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Incredibly vibrant and with a surprising amount to think about even though it’s relatively simple to learn I ended up enjoying Yamatai a fair bit. It does have a slightly messy feeling like everything was thrown at it, but I found myself caught up in examining the board for the best possible moves while weighing up whether it might be worth doing a little less this turn in order to go first in the next round. There’s a few really clever mechanics in here that I love, such as the turn order and how building a special palace or xii can really backfire on you. With that said I don’t think Yamatai will be everyone, it’s lack of long-term strategy and chaotic nature probably putting off quite a few players.

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