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Review: Yamatai

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Queen Himiko’s smile is the only reward you need to put your skills to work in building the Yamatai archipelago.

…but being named Master Builder under her benevolent rule wouldn’t be bad either. You’ve made your plans. Now everything comes down to the logistics of getting the right boats carrying the right resources to the right places at the right times, before your opportunistic fellow builders can capitalize on your hard work.

Can you outmaneuver your opponents and win the favor of the queen?

How It Works

Yamatai is a pattern recognition/building resource management Euro game for two to four players. Players are builders trying to beautify the Yamatai archipelago and be named Queen Himiko’s chief builder. The player with the most prestige at the end of the game wins.

Yamatai set up for two players.

To begin, each player chooses a color of houses and receives a matching player board and 10 coins. The game board is placed in the center of the table. The turn order for the first round is randomized. Culture tokens are placed face-down on each island on the map, then turned face-up. Gray tokens are removed, and mountains are placed under the tokens indicating them. The specialist tiles are shuffled, and five are placed on the board where indicated. The buildings are shuffled, and five are placed in a line-up by the board. The boat piles are placed within reach of the players.

On a turn, each player performs five steps in sequence:

  1. Choose a fleet tile (mandatory)
  2. Buy or sell one boat
  3. Place boats (optional) and either collect culture tokens or build (mandatory if boats placed and possible)
  4. Save at most one boat for next round
  5. Recruit a specialist

Each fleet tile has three pieces of information on it: what resources (boats) a player gets this round, what special action the player gets to execute, and the position in next round’s turn order. Special powers are things like moving, removing, or exchanging boats on the board, swapping culture tokens, or previewing or reserving building tiles.

The fleet tiles in Yamatai. Five are available to choose from each round, and new ones rotate in to replace tiles that were chosen in the previous round.

Most steps on a turn are optional, including placing boats, but if a player does place boats, then the player must either claim culture tokens (clearing islands for building) or build a building, if able. When placing boats, a player must either place them where noted at the edge of the board or place them in a continuous line anywhere on the board such that the first boat placed matches an adjacent boat color. (Players may save one boat from one round to the next without penalty; each pair of unused boats beyond these is worth -1 point at the end of the game.) To build a building, an island must be cleared of all culture tokens, and the boats matching the building’s requirements must be adjacent to the building site. The building player places one of their own buildings on the island, claims the building tile, and earns 1 fan (point) if built on a mountain and 1 fan for each adjacent prestige building. The player also receives 1 coin for each of their connected buildings (minimum of two). If a player builds a prestige building, the player places one of the prestige building markers on the board and receives no other building benefits.

As the final step on a turn, a player may recruit a specialist by paying culture tokens. Specialists are worth end-game points and provide different ongoing abilities (like getting an extra buy or sell action each round, being able to buy and sell gold boats, and being able to treat built prestige buildings as if they are a player’s own buildings for bonus purposes) and end-game scoring opportunities (like getting extra points for fans and coins).

The meeples indicate turn order for the next round. In a two-player game, each player uses two meeples and takes two turns per round.

Once all players have taken their turn, they place their turn order meeples on the turn order track matching the fleet tile they claimed for the round, and new fleet tiles shift over to fill the empty spots. (The chosen fleet tiles are shuffled and placed in the back of the line.) Unrecruited specialists each receive 2 coins from the bank, and the row is refreshed. The building row is also refreshed. A new round begins

The game ends at the end of the round whenever either any one boat supply is empty, a player’s buildings have all been built, or the specialists or buildings cannot be refreshed at the end of the round. Players count up their points, and whoever has the most points wins.

Note: In a two-player game, each player uses two turn-order meeples, and each round involves four turns.

Yay!-matai, or Ya-meh-tai?

I try not to review games in the shadow of other games–it seems unfair (and a little lazy) to speak of one thing completely in terms of another. But when your previous game is super-mega-hit Five Tribes and the same publishing team is reunited to produce your next game, the comparisons are bound to come.

The question on everyone’s minds is, Is Yamatai the second coming of Five Tribes? And the answer is, No, not even close.

A humble beginning. At the start, boats must enter the board from the lefthand positions.

I really like Five Tribes, and I expected I wouldn’t. The game looks like a recipe for analysis paralysis, the tiles hosting a menu of options that you couldn’t ever hope to parse. Yet in actual gameplay, while it’s almost certainly a more tactical than strategic game, the choices are easy to recognize after a short acclimation period, and most important, they make players feel clever when they discover them. As the game progresses, options diminish, so right when you think, Okay, I think I might be ready to play something else now, the game reaches a satisfying conclusion. It looks great, has great pacing, and the unique player powers (represented and acquired through Djinn cards) truly differentiate each game from another.

Yamatai looks a lot simpler than Five Tribes. The board is nigh empty before the players populate it with boats and their buildings. There are several piles of boats, a line of buildings, and a line of specialist tiles. Nothing fancy. Player boards divide each turn into a series of simple, discrete steps, and there are just icons on the player boards–no text is deemed necessary. And there’s no need for a specialist glossary on the back of the sheet; each player sheet comes preprinted with the titular Queen Himiko, urging you to build the Yamatai archipelago for her honor and smile.

Yet for all this, I find Yamatai the more difficult (and ultimately blander) game, which disappoints me as much as anyone.

To build a building, a cleared island must be surrounded by boats of matching colors.

I’m not sure exactly where Yamatai loses its way, but it starts early. The problem is that after players silently study the board for a while, sorting one option from another and finally choosing one, they realize that none of the options presented to them is very interesting. While the painted wooden boats are nice props, the game is essentially in acquiring and converting resources (boats) to create opportunities to score points without leaving too many opportunities for other players.

I know–it sounds like I’ve just described Euro: The Game, and while I get as excited about resource acquisition and conversion as the next guy, this bolted onto a 90+ minute game with a similar tactical flow to Five Tribes doesn’t do much for me. When I make a good play, I feel like it was left open to me by another player and don’t feel all that clever about it. When I make a bad play, I curse the overwhelming number of options and am uncertain that my ability to weed through these options will improve in the next play. All this to say, I’m not as invested in the outcome as I want to be.

Unrecruited specialists receive a two-coin bonus each round.

Similarly bland are the specialists. I know, I know: I don’t want to compare this to Five Tribes too much, but the Djinns in Five Tribes feel like they have huge and game-changing special abilities. (As such, you usually have to pay for the stronger powers with each use.) They seem awesome even if you rarely score points from them. They force other players to play defense. Maybe they won’t let you get as many viziers if you have Jafaar, and they certainly won’t leave big assassin plays on the board if you have the right Djinns. The specialists in Yamatai are tame by comparison. While it is very important in game terms to have these specialists’ abilities, when what you’re doing isn’t that interesting to begin with, these specialists seem as boring as their name implies. (I have a friend who claims that everything becomes boring if you get deep enough into the subject matter–behold, specialists!)

Yamatai in the midgame. Options abound!

Yamatai offers wide-open gameplay, which some players will love. I’m less thrilled about it. While in Five Tribes, all of the options available to a player are on the board, in Yamatai, the players are captains of their own destiny. It’s the difference between pattern recognition (Five Tribes) and pattern building (Yamatai). However, like going to the grocery store and having to choose between a vast array of ketchup options, Yamatai’s choices can be overwhelming. You have to walk through what buildings are available, what spots on the board are ripe for claiming culture tokens or building, and how to get what you want with the fleet tiles you choose while also not leaving too many opportunities open for opponents.

This may not seem like much, but there are lots of ways to accomplish what you want (through buying boats or using special powers), and the board changes enough between turns that you have to walk through the options each time it’s your turn. Worse, you have to walk through the options you don’t take to make sure you’re not leaving a juicy opportunity for opponents. Yamatai is a major FOMO game–for me, at least, I always feel like I’m missing something that is probably better than what I’m doing. And as in the grocery store, more options is not always a benefit. (Parsing your options does get a little easier the more you play, although I still dislike the time it takes each turn to walk through what I can do, given that it’s difficult to maintain a long-term strategy in the game.)

The final map. Orange edged out blue by a single point. A SINGLE POINT.

So Yamatai isn’t for me, but it’s not necessarily a bad game. In fact, for people who love the kind of game I’ve just described, Yamatai will be a slam dunk. And even I can recognize its virtues to the target audience, even if I don’t consider all of them virtues myself.

First, the game looks simply gorgeous when you put it on the table. As is expected of Days of Wonder’s publications, Yamatai is stunning–so stunning that it can almost trick you into liking it on looks alone. The tiles and coins are well made on thick stock. The board at all stages of the game looks fantastic–it’s populated with colorful culture tokens at the start and with colorful boats at the end. It’s annoying to punch the centers out of the included coins, but it does give them a nice thematic flavor.

The culture tokens. The gray ones are removed before the game starts, so some islands start cleared off. Some (like the blue token) are outlined in gray, signifying that a mountain should be placed on that island.

There are also some interesting aspects to the game. The turn order selection mechanism is great. It’s not completely novel, as some have claimed (it can be seen in Martin Wallace’s Steam, for example), but here it’s used to great effect. And it does differ from Steam in a few key respect. In Steam, the turn order selection gives you a role you can choose that sets your turn order for the next round based on how powerful that role is; in Yamatai, not only does the turn order tile set your special action, but it also determines the resources that you have at your disposal on your turn. This is an interesting tension. It’s also interesting that only five of the possible ten fleet tiles are available each round, meaning you might not get the special power you need when you need it. (Of course, this, too, can thwart forward planning.)

Buildings constructed adjacent to prestige buildings earn extra points. Huzzah for blue!

I also like the tough decision of whether to collect culture tokens–which can recruit specialists–or to build. If you collect culture tokens, you might get specialists, but you also clear islands for other players to be able to get points. Then again, if you build, you might score end-game points but lose out on potential in-game abilities. I like this trade-off in theory, even if in practice I don’t find it as exciting as I want to.

The red and brown boats can be hard to differentiate in low lighting, and especially so in building costs.

The one potentially major problem with Yamatai is usability for colorblind players. I’m not colorblind myself, and none of the players I played the game with were either, but it was hard for me at times to differentiate culture tokens, even though each has a different symbol. I can’t imagine the difficulty involved in scrutinizing red from brown boats, particularly in the cost banner on the buildings. In low lighting, even for non-colorblind players, this game would be a nightmare. I’m not sure how much of a concern this will be for your group, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. I know at least one player that I don’t intend to bring on any future voyage to Yamatai.

Buildings!

I’ve played the game with all player counts. The game was my least favorite with four players, as it wasn’t my turn often enough to feel like I was able to impact the destiny of Yamatai much, it’s boring to watch each player sort through all the options on the board each turn, and there can be potentially six full turns in between one of your turns and the next. (Again, because the game is so tactical, there’s not much benefit to studying the board when someone else is taking their turn.) The two-player game offers more opportunities to set up and capitalize on moves, which is better, but then you have the obligation to do so. (One of my opponents in a two-player game was very deliberate, and our game took two hours…which is about an hour longer than I’d like.) I think I prefer the competition of the three-player game best: you can’t guarantee setting up your moves, and turn order matters more. I also think this game is at its best when it’s played quickly. Some of this will be taken care of once players get used to the game; some of this will require playing with the right players. Because options abound and not much of the game’s tactics can be considered simultaneously, this game is likely to bring out the worst in players who are already prone to analysis paralysis.

Yamatai’s insert is up to Days of Wonder’s high standards. There’s a place for everything, and stuff doesn’t move around even when the box is jostled.

As I’ve said, while I admire some of the trade-offs present in Yamatai, the overall effect of the game leaves me cold, and it’s not one I intend to hold on to in my collection. It’s not a bad game, but despite its inviting look, it’s also not a very exciting game, even if it is in a genre I usually like. It’s a decent enough game that I won’t refuse to play it if someone else really wants to, and it does look fantastic on the table. And judging from early reviews, there’s a big audience for this, and I’m in the minority. But there are so many other games I’d rather play that even Queen Himiko’s smile isn’t enough to draw me back.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing us with a copy of Yamatai for review.

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros:

Gorgeous production
Game offers interesting trade-offs between building or getting culture tokens
Game is tense as players try to avoid setting up moves for other players
Turn order mechanism is very neat

Cons:

The game is likely unplayable as-is for colorblind players
There are lots of decisions that can't be made in advance, which makes individual turns take a while
The individual actions in the game are kind of boring

6.5 Mona Lisa Smile

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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