Published in 2017
Created by Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien
Published by Days of Wonder
No. of Players: 2 – 4
Playtime: 60 minutes
Normally, when any of my friends or I buy board games, we typically do extensive research on it before making the purchase. We will shop around local stores and take a look at games for ideas. We will look at Board Game Geek and use their rating systems to see if the game is a worthwhile acquisition (although based on some of the critical people on the site, I’m totally okay if the game has a 6.5 or higher). We use the internet to see various prices and find the best one, watch videos on Youtube to see how it’s played, see what’s being developed currently on Kickstarter, or read articles on Flipboard. In addition, I’m probably the only one in my group of friends to listen to Podcasts about gaming and see what’s available (if I’m not the only one, please comment so I don’t feel alone). Generally speaking, we will put in the work just to get the best deal because we’re essentially investing time and money into a game that hopefully brings joy not only to us, but to the people we play with.
That being said, my friend Mike, who just like me will do considerable research on games, bought a board game based solely because, and I quote, “it looks pretty”. That’s not like him because he will put in the effort just to see if a game is worth his time. At a games night he brought his new item called Yamatai, still unopened, and we performed the highly satisfying unboxing at my house. After playing that night, I can say that there is definitely depth behind how beautiful Yamatai is.
Yamatai is an area control game created by Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien and is produced by Days of Wonder. Bruno is recognized for his work with Five Tribes of Naqala and 7 Wonders Duel. In this game, you act as a builder and have been hired by Queen Himiko to develop a city known as Yamatai on an archipelago by using resources found on ship fleets and seeking the aid of specialists. Points are earned when you get the help of specialists, construct buildings and earn money and the player with the most points will be declared the greatest builder of Yamatai and earn Queen Himiko’s smile.(Really? That’s what we’re playing for in this game?)
Setup is a bit lengthy. After placing the board in the center, shuffle both the fleet and specialist tiles and place them on the board with the five specialist tiles and the first five fleet tiles face up. Shuffle also the building tiles and reveal five of them face up. The culture tokens are shuffled face down and each token is placed on each of the islands. Then flip every token face up. Some of these tokens will have the same picture as the back of tile. These are removed from the game. One of these tokens will have a mountain on them, and this token is replaced with a mountain tile. Mountains are also placed under tokens with a black border around them. Put the toriis, palaces and boats to the side. Give each player a player mat, their own building tokens, and their character token. Finally, randomly put the character tokens on the turn order track to determine the turn order.
In Yamatai, players are trying to earn prestige points by either gaining money, constructing buildings, or hiring specialists. There are five phases for each player on their turn:
- Choosing a Fleet Tile – Players will choose one of the five face-up fleet tiles. Each tile has a number from 1 – 10 and will allow players to hire fleets that have certain resources, represented by the colour of the boats. Some of these fleets will also have special abilities such as moving boats or culture tokens around, reserving buildings to build in the future, or even blocking players from going into certain islands.
- Trading – This is an optional phase where boats can be exchanged for money or vice versa. Generally speaking, the rarer the boat, the more money you will get.
- Collecting Culture Tokens or Building – Players will now interact with the board by placing boats on the board and either collect the tokens found on the islands or construct a building on an empty island. When collecting tokens, players can only take the same number of adjacent tokens as boats placed on the board. When building, players are to use the resources that are adjacent to the island, and one of the resources must be from a boat that was placed in the first phase of the player’s turn. Based on the purchase and placement of a building, a player can also get bonus prestige points.
- Place Remaining Boats on the Player Mat – Any unused boats will be placed back onto the player mat. One boat is allowed to go on the harbour location, and can be used for future turns. However, any extra boats will be put aside and that player will lose one point for every two boats that were put in that fashion.
- Recruit a Specialist – By spending two identical culture tokens or three unique culture tokens, players can recruit a specialist, which will give them special abilities throughout the game.
When the round ends, the unselected specialists will get a two coin bonus placed on top of them. Then both building tiles and specialist tiles are replenished back up to five. The fleet tiles every player drew will also determine the turn order for the next round. This is indicated by placing the corresponding meeples on the matching fleet number on the turn order track. The face down fleet tiles will now replenish the fleet track, while the selected fleets are reshuffled and put at the back of the line. The game ends when a player can’t draw new buildings or specialists, when a player builds their last standard building, or there is no boat of one colour remaining when setting up a new round. When this happens, players will now count up their points. They will get one point for every five coins, one point for every prestige token they earn, and a number of points for their constructed buildings and purchased specialists. Players will also lose points for reserved buildings and unused boats. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
I mentioned before that Bruno Cathala made Five Tribes. Yamatai has a lot of elements that are very similar to the Five Tribes game. The specialists pretty much are the same as as the djinns, but specialists are seeded with money in subsequent rounds in order to tempt players in utilizing their services. Both Five Tribes and Yamatai have a player controlled turn-order system, but Five Tribes had a bidding mechanic using money while Yamatai has a balancing system where the further down you move in turn order, the higher the benefits you receive. Finally, I find both games similar in creating strategies. You are trying to develop your own path for the points, whether it be earning money, buying expensive buildings, or increasing bonuses dependent on where buildings are placed, but at the same token, prevent others from doing what they need to do.
Both Five Tribes and Yamatai are outstanding games. That being said if I am comparing Yamatai to Five Tribes, Yamatai is just slightly better than Five Tribes. Given the Five Tribes’ gameplay, I’ve always felt that there’s a bit of analysis paralysis with it just because you always get this feeling that you’re missing something important. I remember playing Five Tribes a couple times and my opponents would always see something and bid fairly high, and I would look at the board and ask, “what the heck do they see that I don’t?”. Five Tribes also has this feeling of having many different decisions at the beginning of the game, just because of how many meeples and pieces are initially on the board, and you hope that the pathway you create by placing the meeples doesn’t set something up for your opponent on a later turn. Near the endgame, Five Tribes has less choices you can make just because at that point, there are less meeples on the board, and the djinns and cards you collected would solidify what strategy you’re using to win the game. Yamatai is sort of the opposite to this. The choice you make is really one of five or less and from there you branch out and make your moves accordingly. At the beginning of the game, there are not very many choices you can make, but as the game progresses, tons of decisions do arise only because you’re trying to maximize what’s been placed on the board. Near the end of the game, the number of choices once again goes down just because most of the culture tokens are taken and the specialists selected would determine the strategy you would use for victory.
As I mentioned before, the reason why my friend bought the game was due to its prettiness. The production value of Yamatai is stellar. All of the Asian-esque artwork on this game is bright, colourful, and beautiful, and component quality is phenomenal. A minor criticism is in regards to the culture tokens. The orange and light brown tokens are so similar in colour that it was hard to distinguish between the two. I also want to mention the symbology of Yamatai. Since there are eighteen different specialists and ten different fleet tiles, it does take a bit of time to get comfortable with iconography. Anytime a specialist came up that we did not see before, we would have to read the rules just to figure out what those symbols meant. It got easier to understand as we played on, but if this your first time playing Yamatai, understanding how each fleet tile and specialist works will definitely add more to your playtime. I would suggest watching a Youtube video and following step-by-step with it in order to understand the rules.
The theme of Yamatai is something I’ve been reflecting on and is hard to review. I can’t really pinpoint what’s going on except by saying that it’s weak. The high level of component quality and artwork is expected since it was being produced by Days of Wonder. I feel it is these elements that definitely build and add to the engagement of playing Yamatai, and does add a bit to the theme. However, even though the game is gorgeous, I really want to say that there’s a theme or storyline, but I didn’t feel that at all. Reading the rule book it says that “you will be remembered as the greatest builder of Yamatai”, but I find there’s a disjoint of being a great builder and getting points when the methods to earn points are both using specialists and getting money. Also, the developers did stretch a bit when relating mechanics to theme, and it made me question some things. For example, how is there a relationship between culture tokens and specialists, or how does constructing buildings adjacent to each other mean you get more money. This is one of those games where theme is sacrificed in order to get some strong mechanics.
Theme aside, Yamatai is a game that is highly strategic and is backed by stunning visuals, robust components and interesting player interactions. Most importantly, this game is hella fun. Players are consistently adapting to a constantly changing board in order to earn points. There’s also this nice balance between focusing on your own goals and slowing down other players. Yamatai is a sweet game for the gamer’s palette, and it’s definitely one to try.
- Beautiful game made by Days of Wonder with amazing artwork and components.
- Highly tactical. Definitely a thinker of a game.
- Great player interactions especially with the turn order mechanic.
- Appropriate playtime. Will take 1 to 2 hours to complete.
- Setup is somewhat extensive.
- Potential for AP.
- Symbology is complicated, especially in your first few plays of the game.
- Theme is weak.