Board games

Yamatai – Board Game Review

Designer: Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien

Player Count: 2 – 4

Play Time:  40 – 80 Minutes

I am a sucker for great art.  As such, 99% of my impulse game purchases are caused by a pretty box or nicely framed photos of Instagram.  That being said, I knew very little about Yamatai when I first picked it up, only that it looked gorgeous on a table.  Days of Wonder has a pretty great reputation when it comes to puzzly family games and Yamatai adds to this collection, bringing in some new concepts while heavily borrowing from other games.  So the real question is whether or not Yamatai is worthy of joining the elite levels of Five Tribes (One of my all time favorites) and Ticket to Ride.  So come with me to the land of Yamatai as we try to build palaces, torii and a few of our own buildings in order to gain favor of the Queen and win more prestige points than any other builder in the land.

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How Does it Play?

Yamatai is a competitive strategy game.  Much like many of Days of Wonder’s games, you’ll be relying heavily on symbology on your player mat and nearly every other token and board in the game to tell you what each item does and how it might benefit you.  The main goal of the game, however, is to gain prestige points, and you do this by placing buildings, trading culture tokens for specialists and gaining coins.  To do all of this requires setting out from the Western most end of the board on boats full of resources in hopes of building across the many islands of the land.

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On your turn, you’ll first take a fleet tile, seen above on the bottom of the main board.  You must take one and it provides you with boats of different colors as well as a special ability.  Some of these might have you moving boats around, swapping boat placement or even blocking other players from building on a specific island.  You’ll then start to create a route through the waters of the land.  Once your boats are placed, you can choose to purchase or sell an additional boat, and then you can either build a structure or pick up culture tokens from islands adjacent to your boats.  You can’t build unless the island has already been depleted of its culture (Just like real life?) so the game quickly becomes a thing of timing.  Taking culture, might mean you can trade them for that specialist you wanted, but it also opens up that island for a competitor to build on.  This is just one of the many, MANY choices you’ll be making throughout the course of the game.

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To build is even more tricky though, because each building has requirements of which colored boats need to be around the island in order to build on it, and as long as you place a single boat near that island, any boats already there count for your requirements to build as well.  Even your competitors’.  This means that every great play you make, creates an opportunity for someone else to make an even better one.  And while there is no battle mechanism in this game, you’ll find plenty of passive aggressive ways to mess up your opponents’ strategy.  This is aided by the fact that there are no secrets in Yamatai.  Everything that everyone can do is out in the open so blocking and interrupting players by taking away ships already on the board, moving culture tiles or even just doing what they wanted to do before they could do it becomes very common.

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As the game progresses, the fleets will spread across the board, which is visually stunning.  You’ll also be gaining new specialists which then give you new ways to play and new strategies.  For example, one specialist makes it possible to enter the board from any bordering space, not just those to the West.  Another makes it so that prestige points gained from placing buildings next to palaces and torii and atop mountains are doubled.  Once gained, these greatly change the way each player tries to conquer Yamatai.

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By the end of the game, the board will be covered and you’ll be adding up your points from specialists, buildings and you’ll also gain a point for every 5 coins you managed to save.  But once you have a good system going, money begins pouring in so this can actually make or break your score.

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What Makes Yamatai So Great?

Yamatai feels like one big puzzle.  How do I get the most points this turn?  How do I do what I want without giving my opponent an advantage?  What do I need to build there?  Do I want to get culture tokens or build this turn?  Its rules are simple enough, but the options of what you can do and where you can do it become very vast as the game progresses.  In this way, it reminds me A LOT of Five Tribes, because there are long stretches of just staring at the board, trying to figure out the best possible move before you ever even take your actual turn.

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And granted, for some this is going to be amazing.  Those of us who love the puzzly aspect of strategy games can get absorbed and really make every move count.  For others, all the options can seem daunting and at least one person in your group will undoubtedly go into analysis paralysis, while another will yell at them to “JUST DO SOMETHING!”  It’s a style of game that won’t be for everyone, and while it is light for a strategy game, there is plenty here for hardcore gamers to dig into as well.

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Beyond all the very smart but simple mechanics is a game that is absolutely gorgeous.  From the art to the components to the way it literally evolves before you as you play, this game is stunning.  I love games that tell a story in how they change visually throughout the game and this one does that perfectly.  From a starting board that is completely empty, to an ending board filled with multi colored boats, palaces, torii and buildings, this game is just as fun to watch grow on the table as it is to play.

What Could Make Yamatai even better?

Because of all the symbols, we found ourselves referencing the rulebook very often on our first playthroughs in order to figure out every specialist and fleet token.  That is something that will surely be less throughout time.  However, we did find the rulebook to be somewhat lacking as it often gave very vague descriptions and in some cases seemed to leave out small details entirely.  Fortunately, Days of Wonder has a fantastic How to Play video online which summed up everything nicely and got us on our way without a hitch!

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The big point of this game that is going to make it or break it for a lot of people is the amount of time a turn can take towards the end, and there’s not much that can be done to change that.  There are just so many options that inevitably, someone is going to get stuck overthinking and this can really drag the end of the game down.  If anything, I suggest a timer on the table.  Give everyone 5 minutes at most to take their turn and your life will be better for it.

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Final Thoughts

Yamatai is a beautiful, easy to learn, difficult to master strategy game.  It practically pops up from the table with vibrant colors and fantastic artwork and you’ll be thinking about it long after as you break down that last few moves that either won or lost you the game.  It’s a game full of symbology, which can be daunting at first but makes sense after some time with the game, allowing for less reading of cards and more planning of turns.  Folks prone to over analyzing might be warned to stay away from this one, but if you’re looking to get your family or friends into your love of strategy board games, this is a great place to start!  While it doesn’t diverge from Five Tribes or Ticket to Ride enough to be considered ground breaking, it is certainly a fun game, worthy of sitting next to those that came before it on the shelf.

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