Days of Wonder are kings of the Gateway Game. They brought you Ticket to Ride, a game which introduced thousands to the world of Board Gaming in general, and Train-games in particular. Memoir 44 offers about the most accessible entry-point to the world of Hex-based Wargames, and Shadows Over Camelot is one of the most family-friendly hidden-traitor games I’ve played.
You’d be forgiven then, for thinking that Yamatai, their latest offering, would be another light, accessible game, this time offering an entry-point into the world of worker placement for all the family.
Well, no. It turns out that Yamatai is a surprisingly deep, surprisingly complex game, with a lot going on. Is it still family-friendly? and is it worth playing at all? Let’s find out.
Yamatai – what’s in the box
Before we get too far into the game itself, I want to take a moment to look at the components: whatever else Yamatai may be, it is absolutely gorgeous. The game is played on a large board, which depicts an archipelago of islands, and there are loads and loads of other bits and pieces, all of them well-made: wooden buildings, meeples and ship tokens, cardboard fleets, characters and building tiles, along with little tokens for Money, Victory Points and “Culture.”
The real highlight for me were the “Specialists” – large tiles with pictures of characters. There is something about the art-style which marks Yamatai out as a Days of Wonder game, and the colour-palette used on the specialists particularly struck me: the vivid tones really evoke the more-or-less-historical-but-slightly-fantastic Japanese theme that the game seems to centre around.
So how does it play?
As beautiful as Yamatai is, it’s important not to be fooled by the pretty exterior. The game itself presents a fairly complex set of interactions, as players chase after the always nebulous quantity that is “Victory Points.”
Each round is divided into 5 phases, where you 1.) Take control of a fleet, 2.) buy or sell ships, 3.) claim culture tokens OR build buildings, 4.) return unused ships, and 5.) Recruit specialists.
If that looks a bit confusing, that’s because it is – there is A LOT to get your head round in your first game or so of Yamatai, and confusion seems inevitable. During our first game, I heard the following from my fellow-players.
P1: “I think I’m starting to get the hang of this”
P2: “I’m not!”
P3: “It looks very pretty”
Part of the problem with introducing someone to Yamatai is that it doesn’t have a central, driving aim, beyond “getting Victory Points.” I think that this was probably a deliberate design decision, in order to allow multiple playstyles and routes to victory: focus on buildings, focus on claiming culture to get all the specialists, or just get a couple of specialists with a really tight synergy that will allow you to build / claim points faster than everyone else. Generally, I’m in favour of this kind of variety, but here I found it left the game a bit unfocused, and telling people “you can do any of these three things, or all of them, but it’s up to you which to focus on” led to more confusion than any sense of freedom.
Let me try to break things down for you…
Bring me the boats!
Having provided that rough overview, hopefully I can explain Yamatai a bit better by looking in detail at exactly what you do on your turn. Firstly, you take control of a fleet – There are 10 fleets in Yamatai, and each round 5 of them are displayed face up, and each player gets to take one. Taking a fleet will get you a boat or 2, along with a special power.
With only 10 fleets to choose from in Yamatai, you will eventually remember what the different special powers are, and how they work. However, we found that our early games involved lots of time having to check back in the rulebook, as the iconography on the fleet tiles themselves simply isn’t all that intuitive – in this respect Yamatai reminded me quite a bit of Smallworld, where the little pictures are useful to jog your memory if you already know what the powers are, but are fairly useless if you’re trying to work them out from scratch. I don’t particularly like it in games when I’m constantly having to check back to the rulebook, and felt that Yamatai really needed a bit of extra smoothness and immersion that this constant rule-checking interrupted.
It’s also worth mentioning that alongside the boats and special abilities they give you, each fleet in Yamatai also comes with a number, which will determine turn-order for the next round: sometimes you will want to put up with only a single Green boat (the most common type) and no special ability, just to guarantee going first next-time round, whilst other times you might go very late in the next round, in order to secure that power.
Boats have different values, depending on their rarity – Gold is so scarce it can’t be traded at all
Once you have taken your ships, and triggered the fleet’s power (or not), you have the option to buy or sell 1 boat – sometimes in Yamatai you might take a fleet for a power and not need the boat, other times there won’t be enough boats available directly from fleets, and you need to cough up cash for the missing link in your plan. Mechanically this is one of the simplest steps, but you’ll need to understand the full structure of the game to know why you might want to do it.
Once you’re satisfied with your collection of boats, it’s time to place them on the map. The Yamatai game-board is, as already mentioned, a map of a big archipelago of islands, with lots of dots scattered between them. Each dot marks a place where you can (theoretically) place a boat. You place you first boat in Yamatai at the left-most edge of the map, on one of five starting symbols, then connect any others you are placing that turn in a little chain. On future turns, you can start at the edge (if there are still spaces), or you can place your first boat next to a previously-placed boat of the same colour, extending that chain.
At this point in Yamatai, you probably still haven’t done anything that gives you a tangible reward for all your activities: you’ve laid groundwork, but for who?
Finally, in stage 4 of your turn in Yamatai, you get to do something that has lasting benefit, when you either take culture, or build buildings. Taking culture is one of the most abstract bits of Yamatai – where you can pick up some of the coloured tokens that cover the map at the start of the board: for each new boat you’ve placed this round, you can take one token from an adjacent island. This is an important action for two reasons – firstly, you can spend the tokens to recruit specialists later, and secondly you need to clear islands before you can build on them. Despite that though, I never really felt like I knew what this was supposed to represent – there are several different colours/patterns of “culture” tokens, but unlike the boats which are colour-coded to indicate their cargo, there is never any real suggestion that they stand for anything in particular.
If you don’t take culture tokens, then the other thing you can do is to build on an island – Buildings in Yamatai come from a randomised deck, which is re-filled each round to show 5 available structures. Each building will have a series of pictures of ships down the side, showing the resources needed to build it- if there is an empty island with the right configuration of boats around it, then you can place one of your buildings, and take the tile, earning its points at the end of the game.
Getting to build something in Yamatai is generally dependent upon a mixture of hard work, blind luck, and how much patience your opponent has. Whilst taking culture allows you to recruit Specialists (see below), doing it early in a round frees up a space for your opponents to build – making pretty patterns with ships is all very well but, unless you have a clever plan, it’s probably not worth creating such an opportunity for your opponent. That means that building in Yamatai is always conditional on someone having made a space and not used it up.
This calls for a specialist!
After a brief bit of clean-up in which you get rid of unused boats, you move to the final phase of the round, when you can recruit Specialists. At the start of a game of Yamatai, 5 specialists are dealt out at random, and players can spend culture tokens – 3 different ones, or 2 the same – to recruit one of the specialists on display: at the end of the round, any gaps are re-filled, and any specialist who wasn’t chosen that round has 2 coins added to it, to sweeten the appeal.
Specialists are worth prestige points at the end of the game and, as already described are one of the most visually appealing bits of the game, but they also have special powers that allow you subvert the rules of the game.
Normally, players can buy OR sell 1 boat per round at the rates shown on their player-board. These specialists alter what is available, how much you pay, and how many things you can do.
Specialists can double the value of victory-point tokens, give you extra culture, manipulate the boat economy, or allow you to build in completely different places, so using them carefully can have a major impact on how a game of Yamatai plays out.
Like the fleets, Specialists in Yamatai have icons and symbols, which are supposed to remind you what their power is, but it again, the iconography isn’t always obvious, and again, we spent a lot of time going back and forth to the rulebook (the specialists were actually worse than the Fleets, as there are more of them, and the power-reminder-symbol is shown on the tiles, but not the rulebook, making it harder to look up the power of a specialist). Once again, I found Yamatai reminding me here of Small World – the basic rule for what happens at any given point in time is fairly simple, but there are so many exceptions through various powers that you have to spend all your time looking at the reference sheet.
Yamatai Sounds Exhausting – it is!
Our first game of this took 2 hours, which is more than double the advertised time on the box. Some of that was because people were getting things figured out, but it didn’t go away with subsequent games, and even once we felt we had the rules and special abilities more-or-less sussed, this felt like a long, hard grind.
Yamatai clearly has a lot of strategy to it, and I’m sure players who can master that strategy will enjoy this game a lot. For us though, it was just hard work. There is a lot of downtime, as you can’t do anything when it isn’t your turn, and there’s only a limited amount of planning ahead you can do, as another player’s turn can completely transform your options.
For something so beautiful, coming from Days of Wonder, I was hoping for a fun game, but instead I got something that felt like it had more similarities to Terra Mystica than to a typical gateway game.
For some people, this will be the sort of puzzle they love, but for us, the undoubted visual appeal wasn’t enough to overcome sluggish mechanics and a theme that never really shines through. 5/10.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.