Tuesday 30 May 2017

Cardboard - Yamatai board game review

If you take a look at my game shelf there's a notable trend towards picking up every game I see with a Japanese theme. From Tokaido to Takenoko, Mottainai or Hanabi, I think I have a small obsession - but it hasn't let me down yet! Let's start by going down the list of reasons for me to be excited about this game:
  • Colourful shiny box: check
  • Days of Wonder: check
  • Japan: check
  • Lost, ancient, mysterious kingdom setting: check
  • Smile-based reward system: wait, what?
Yamatai box art - Random Nerdery board game review

Yamatai is the latest offering from Days of Wonder, designed by Bruno Cathala (Five Tribes, Dice Town, Shadows Over Camelot) and Marc Paquien (...Yamatai). With the prospect of a rewarding smile from Queen Himiko at stake, 2-4 players strive to become the most prestigious builder as the capital of Yamatai takes shape on an archipelago in ancient Japan.

Yamatai game setup

Over 40-80 minutes you'll be working to get more Prestige Points (PP) than everyone else, placing resource fleets, recruiting specialists and constructing buildings to make sure you are the deserving recipient of that all-important smile. Which had better be good, by the way...

Aspiring builders have a pool of buildings available each turn which have certain resource requirements. To get these resources, players have to lay down supply lines in the form of tiny colourful wooden boats which snake their way through the archipelago as the game progresses. Match the available boats around an island to the requirements on one of the building tiles, and you're good to go! The problem is that every boat is available to any island adjacent to it, so everything you do has a very high chance of being super-helpful to someone else. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

Choose a Fleet Tile

Building supplies arrive at the archipelago in the aforementioned tiny boats. The goods all have a rarity and corresponding price, with bamboo (green), wood (brown), stone (black), clay (red) and gold (yellow) available to help build your amazing smile-worthy buildings.

Yamatai Fleet Tile track

At the start of your turn you'll choose which fleet you'd like to control, take the corresponding Fleet Tile and receive the boat (or boats) depicted on it. Each Fleet Tile (numbered from 1 to 10) also has a special power which you have the option to use during your turn. These can be anything from taking extra boats to moving boats or even destroying them.

Yamatai Fleet Tiles

The number on your Fleet Tile is also your turn order number for the next round, and you'll find that the cooler special powers come at a price. Taking fleet number 10 will get you three additional boats, but it also lands you in last place for next round. Fleet number 1 will guarantee you the first move next round, but has no special power at all!

Yamatai turn order track


Each turn you can buy or sell a boat's worth of goods for the coin value shown on your player mat. Very handy for picking up that one missing boat for your grand master-plan.

Yamatai coins

Place boats

Next it's time to lay down some supply lines. You can place as many of your boats around the islands as you want/are able to, with the following placement rules:

  • The first boat must be placed on an empty entry spot or
  • The first boat must be placed on an empty spot connected to a boat of the same colour.
  • Subsequent boats are then placed on an empty spot connected to the previous boat (even if they aren't the same colour).

Yamatai sacred ground token

Collect Culture Tokens or Build

After placing your boats you'll need to decide between clearing islands of Culture Tokens, or building on previously cleared islands. The rules sort of give up on theme for this point; I'm not sure why we have to sweep away the culture on an island before building over it, but the mechanism and choices are cool so we might have to gloss over that for now...

Yamatai culture tokens

If you decide to go with culture-sweeping, for every boat you placed this round you can take a Culture Token on an island adjacent to that boat. These tokens can be used to recruit Specialists later on in the turn; these are rule-breaking helpers who can also be worth Prestige Points at the end of the game (more on them later). However, whilst you're happily counting your new Culture Tokens, you've also left a nice new patch of clear land for your opponents to build on. This dilemma has you weighing up the benefits of taking tokens against (gasp/grinding of teeth) actually helping out another player, adding another interesting dimension to the puzzle.

Yamatai torii Prestige building

Instead of collecting tokens you might choose to build on a previously cleared island (adjacent to one of the boats you just placed). To do this, the arrangement of coloured boats around the island has to include those depicted on one of the available building tiles. If you have the right boats, you take the tile and place the corresponding building on the island.

Yamatai building tileYamatai boat placement for building

There are two types of buildings: Standard Buildings or big red shiny Prestige Buildings. When you place a Standard Building adjacent to another of your own colour, you gain coins equivalent to the size of the new group. This gives you another thing to think about as you try to get all your buildings in a continuous chain, or break up your competitors' groups to stop them cashing in. Placing Standard Buildings adjacent to Prestige Buildings or on top of a mountain also gets you extra PP in the form of cute little fan tokens; clearly a good view is important!

Yamatai Prestige Tokens

Store a boat

If you didn't use up all your boats, you can keep one unused boat from your turn on the harbour space of your player mat for use in future turns. Invariably I forget I've left a boat here and it gets flipped onto the floor when I pack away at the end of the game, but more sensible people will find this handy for planning their next move.

If you have more than one unused boat, however, the extra ones get put aside and are worth negative points at the end of the game (-1PP per two boats).

Recruit a Specialist

You can recruit a Specialist from the track at the top of the board using Culture Tokens (again I'm not sure on the theme - the rules refer to them as 'gifts').

Yamatai specialist track

All Specialists have the same cost: three different coloured tokens, or two matching ones. These Specialists have all sorts of useful rule-changing powers, such as allowing you to store extra boats or to score extra PP for certain things at the end of the game. Some of them are also worth some PP in their own right.

Yamatai specialists

After this phase, the round ends and you replenish the Specialist Track and Building Row. Players place their turn order meeples according to their Fleet Tile numbers from last turn and a new set of Fleet Tiles are drawn.

The game ends when you can't replenish the Building Row or Specialist Track, when a player places their last Standard Building, or when one colour of boat runs out. Scores are added up, totaling the points for Building Tiles, Specialists, coins and Prestige Point Token fans. The player with the most PP is declared the greatest builder of Yamatai (in a small ceremony of your own devising) and wins the favour of Queen Himiko.

So what did we think? Our house hasn't been so divided by a game since we completely messed up the rules for 7 Wonders: Duel last year...

Yamatai in play

Let's get the obvious bit out of the way first; the game is absolutely gorgeous. From the big, colourful box to the tiniest of coin tokens, the artwork and design throughout is stunning. The iconography is, for the most part, clear and self explanatory, which really helps in a game where there are 10 fleet powers and 18 specialist powers to get to grips with. You don't want to spend the whole game checking the rulebook each time a new token comes out!

Days of Wonder have set a high bar for quality in the past and Yamatai definitely doesn't disappoint in this regard. All the components are colourful wood or chunky punchboard, apart from the thinner player mats which I think I'm actually starting to prefer now - it feels like they don't slide about the table so much. It does take up a huge amount of table space, so make sure to clear some room first!

Yamatai player mat

Quality aside, I'm pleased to say that under all the pretty, polished production there is a puzzle game that I really love, packed with decisions that interlock in so many different ways - choosing Specialists that will give you the most beneficial combinations, balancing your turn order with getting the powers you need and bearing in mind the Fleet Tiles that will come up next round, figuring out how to best cash in on your opponents moves (and how to make sure they won't cash in on yours), building or clearing Culture Tokens - this list goes on.

However, there is a downside to all this decision making, and for some people this could be a dealbreaker. Constantly feeling on the edge of that perfect, magical combo can lead to some mega Analysis Paralysis if you're that way inclined. A little like Bruno Cathala's other Days of Wonder offering Five Tribes, you can find yourself just staring at a colourful board while your brain grinds away, willing the tiny boats to tell you what your best move should be while the other players silently tear their hair out waiting you to make up your mind. (Come on, guys, the death stare doesn't help me think faster!)

Yamatai palace

Personally I don't think this has to be too big a problem once everyone's familiar with the Fleet Tile powers and what all the Specialists do, but I can understand how this could put people off. It's also a little heavier than Days of Wonder's usual fayre, giving you a bit more to explain to new players at the outset (but greatly helped by an accessible and clear rulebook).

I think I have a lot more to get out of Yamatai and it'll definitely be sticking around in my collection for a long time to come. Thanks so much to Esdevium games for sending me a copy to try out.

Yamatai box insert


Designer: Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Players: 2-4
Age: 13+
Cost: RRP £49.99 [Find your friendly local brick-and-mortar retailer in Europe]

Thanks to Esdevium for sending me a copy to take a look at. If you enjoyed this post perhaps you could take a look at my Facebook page and leave a like or come and say hello on my Twitter or Instagram feeds!