June 8, 2017 /
Designers: Bruno Cathala, Marc Paquien
Artist: Jérémie Fleury
Publisher: Days of Wonder / Asmodee
Price: $60 MSRP
Bruno Cathala has been a well-known name in game design for a long time, but 2014 was the year that really propelled him to the forefront, in no small part due to Five Tribes from Days of Wonder. It was Days of Wonder’s first heavier, thinky Eurogame, but they did an excellent job with it and the game continues to sell well. So, it’s no surprise that Days of Wonder is back with another heavy Eurogame from Bruno Cathala, Yamataï, this time co-designed with newcomer Marc Paquien. It’s hard not to see the game as a spiritual successor to Five Tribes, even having temporarily been given the same Arabian Nights theme. But this game is actually quite different, starting from one of Marc’s designs. Of course, the last time someone enlisted Bruno Cathala to help with a design, he and Antoine Bauza won many accolades for 7 Wonders: Duel, and it became Bruno’s best-selling game! Can lightning strike twice? Let’s find out!
Players simply placing ships on the board and building buildings with them. However, there are Specialist tiles with characters, and one female character has her (bare) back turned to the player. There has also been discussing about whether it is appropriate for the artwork to blend Japanese and Chinese culture and turn the game from a historical setting to a fantastical one. The artist responds in this thread.
Over the years, I’ve played a lot of Eurogames, and I’ve discovered they’re not my first genre. They’re typically ugly and require far too much brainpower for far too long. However, when they’re beautiful, under 90 minutes, and simple to play but difficult to master, I’m far more likely to have a positive reaction. And Yamataï ticks those boxes.
Let’s start with the components. Days of Wonder is known for excellent component quality, and this game is no exception. The game is bright and colorful—strikingly so—and the card stock is hefty and thick, particularly for the Specialist tiles. There are some corners cut from past Days of Wonder releases (basic insert, not all colors can be used at all player counts) and yet what’s provided is still a step ahead of most of the industry. Even though they were a pain to punch out, I really like the holes in the middle of the currency as well. The graphic design is also crystal clear as to what’s happening on the board with one huge exception: colorblindness. The first issue, which isn’t a problem for normal eyesight, are the colors of the ships (red, green, brown, black, gold). The bigger offense, even for someone with perfect eyesight like myself, are two peach-ish colors of culture tokens. They are extremely hard to distinguish at first, though I got used to it after a while. They have different patterns to help, but even those patterns look too similar! Overall, though, the game looks really, really sharp on the table.
Next, let’s talk about the gameplay. The main point of the game is to place ships on the board, either to collect culture tokens (which let you buy Specialists that grant special abilities), or to place buildings on the board (for victory points, although Specialists also grant some).The entire crux of the game is not on the nuances, but on one simple rule of play: everything you do helps your opponents in some way. When you collect tokens, you free up spaces to be built. Furthermore, building requires certain ships around islands, but you don’t have to place them there! Ships stay on the board each round, making more and more lucrative islands. All of this is tied together with an excellent turn order mechanism, where choosing a lower place in turn order grants you better actions, and vice versa. These connections make for a game with serious interaction, and my absolute favorite kind of interaction. It’s that passive-aggressive vying for board space and for small gains without actually attacking each other, but instead cleverly piggybacking off of each other’s moves, paying careful attention to each player’s pace towards the endgame.
Regarding the endgame, I did find it a little weird at times. There are four ways to end the game, but one seems nearly impossible (too many Specialists bought), and one seems very unlikely (too many buildings placed from the stack). So the game usually comes down to the green (cheap) ships disappearing, or one player placing all of their buildings. In some of our first games, the various end goals seemed to juuuust waver on the edge for far too long, and the game outstayed its welcome. However, after repeated plays, we began to see the endgame trigger as part of trying to outpace your opponents and end it while ahead, and our games got considerably faster. It’s also noteworthy that the 2-player game is great, fast, and works far better than games with similar 2-pawns-each variants, like Five Tribes.
Speaking of Five Tribes, how do the games compare in the end? Well, they don’t, really. Other than being beautiful, big-but-short Eurogames from Days of Wonder and Bruno Cathala, the gameplay is quite different—except for the same basic principle. Every turn is a fight between something good for you and setting up good moves for your opponents. That “spirit” of the game is identical in both releases. Yet, I have to give the edge to Five Tribes (a game I consider nearly a perfect ten), because of re-playability. Yamataï makes a dangerous move in that it lays it all out on the table. In each game, the whole board feels like its depths have been plumbed. Nearly all of the Specialists are bought each game. Ships and buildings are everywhere. Sometimes it feels like the end game is a bit of a drag rather than a nerve-wracking, ticking clock for things you can’t finish. On the other hand, Five Tribes ends with an array of things you’d still like to do, even though all of the legal moves are gone—good cards needed, Djinns never bought, one more yellow meeple needed, and so on.
Despite my concerns about re-playability, Yamataï is an excellent game. Its rules are concise and clear (we consulted the rulebook a few times mid-game, but could always sort it out), yet the game is full of clever and strategic moves to make. It’s beautiful, and it only occasionally outstays its welcome. I’m looking forward to Yamataï’s inevitable expansion, and whatever Bruno Cathala and Days of Wonder (and Marc Paquien!) cook up next.
Thank you to Asmodee for providing a review copy of Yamataï.
The Bottom Line