This is a review of Yamataï designed by Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien. It plays 2 – 4 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 90 minutes.
Yamatai is probably best described as a route-building game with elements of upgradeable, variable player powers. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this any sort of “engine-builder”, the upgrades simply grant small bonuses or augment a player’s capabilities. Each player is working to amass short-term resources, allowing them to build ships, settle on islands, hire specialists, and ultimately finish with the most victory points (known in Yamatai as Prestige Points). I should note, setup of the game is entirely random – there are blank islands in the archipelago, but you begin by laying Culture Tokens out randomly, some of which will dictate the placement of mountains (which score you bonus points).
Your initial source of ships will come from the tile that players are first required to take. This tile has two or three functions depending on which you chose. First, the tile will dictate where you fall in turn order for the following round, and this is a fairly good compass for conceptualizing the other benefits of the tile. Turn order manipulation is something that Bruno Cathala implements in a few of his games (Five Tribes, Kingdomino) and this one is no exception. Predictably, the farther behind in turn order you will be, the weaker the benefit of the tile you took. Each tile will dictate which ships and how many of those ships you’ll take for placement this turn and a potential special action that you will get to take at any point during this turn.
This aspect of the game works so well and provides a lot of guidance for your game. You will quickly see what a detriment it is to be last, but you will potentially set yourself up for a subsequent turn if you use the actions to your advantage.
After selecting your initial tile you have the option to buy or sell exactly one ship before moving on to the placement phase, where you will be building a route through the archipelago. settling buildings on the small islands or collecting culture tokens to hire specialists.
The route building and subsequent actions are by far the meatiest part of your turn and where most of your actions will take place and pay off. Route building works as you would probably expect, as you lay down ships to complete passages from one side of the board to the other. There is one particularly interesting rule here: to continue a route, you must start with the same color ship that the route previously ended with. This makes route building a bit more intricate, as certain colors are rarer than others. From there, players have two options – either clear an island of culture tokens (your currency when buying Specialists) or construct buildings on a previously emptied tile (paying out Prestige Points and/or money). You can only do one of these on a turn so predictably, clearing an island sets up your opponents to construct buildings on subsequent turns.
Before we get much further, I think it’s fair to say that people will inevitably compare this game to Five Tribes, Cathala’s previous Days of Wonder big box. There are in inarguable similarities here, but situations like this make for divergent enough play that I don’t think a full comparison is accurate. In Five Tribes, you definitely have situations where you’ve setup your opponents to have a great turn. The problem, though, is that you sometimes don’t see it. Five Tribes is a heady brain burner of a game, and while Yamatai definitely has this element, it requires far less tactical analysis. You will rarely be surprised with what your opponents are doing and I can see that mitigating the feeling of helplessness or ignorance inherent in a game of Five Tribes.
After the route is built, you have the option to store a single ship in your harbor (on your player mat) for later use, but be careful! You will be penalized for excess, unused ships, so understand that being wasteful when you acquire ships earlier in the turn will cost you points at the end of the game. Minus one point for every two unused ships. Though, this was not an issue in any of our games (no players lost points this way), it does prevent players from snatching everything they want in a single turn. It stalls the market in a very necessary way.
Finally, the player has the option to cash in acquired culture tokens for Specialists, which grant you persistent benefits for the remainder of the game. This will obviously be the next big comparison to Five Tribes – the Specialists are more or less rethemed Djinns. Similarly to the Djinns in Five Tribes, these specialists will grant you benefits such as more money when certain actions are taken, the ability to store more ships in your harbor, extra culture tokens, and so on. There are a few differences, though, between Yamatai’s Specialists and the Djinns of Five Tribes. Djinns become more valuable towards the end of the game, as you snatch up benefits that suit what you may have already accomplished. Specialists, by contrast, serve more to dictate your path in the game ahead, as their benefits are less valuable as the game goes on. You also get no benefit for excess culture tokens, so you have no reason to not buy Specialists. This, contrasted to Djinns, where you often have to pay to even use the benefit of the Djinn. Really, the only similarity is that they are extra benefits that you can hire, and they grant VPs at game’s end. Strategically, they serve a different purpose from one another.
Sailing peacefully through the waterways of the Yamatai archipelago, players are working to establish extravagant settlements, deliver a variety of goods, expose themselves to culture, and learn the trades of specialists. At game’s end, Queen Himiko will reward the player that has raised the finest capital by naming him or her the winner. Or, whatever…
The theme makes sense enough in that route building just seems to work well with boats. Sure, structures are built on vacant land. And why not – ships do dock in harbors. The theme is tenuously applied to the game and some players may be disappointed at how clumsily the theme ties into the actual gameplay. As far as immersion goes, you don’t feel like a sailor, you don’t give a hoot about the Queen, and you may not even be quite sure why you’re doing much of anything, thematically speaking.
An important distinction, though, is that good art does not equal a theme. This is something I harped on when Scythe (a fine game) won Golden Geek’s “Best Thematic” award. In both cases, the game is beautiful but the mechanics do not thematically bind me to my character or any of my actions.
“Alright, tough guy, tell us why the art is different than the theme!”
That said, the art is beautiful! Days of Wonder has a long reputation of crafting a beautiful looking game and theme or not, it looks and feels good to play such an aesthetically satisfying title. The colors are gorgeous, the components are carefully detailed, every aspect of this game was looked at with a wonderful eye for design. I disagree that art equals theme, but for a lot of people, this is an absolutely fine tradeoff.
In addition to the exquisite detail of the game, the components are super satisfying. All the wooden bits are big and chunky, the tiles are uniquely cut, and the insert houses everything perfectly. Days of Wonder has always gotten this right, though, so you really come to expect it.
The game is packed with iconography that makes the actions easy to read with a bit of experience. The tiles and abilities are completely devoid of text and there is, thankfully, an appendix, but the iconography is thoughtful and you’ll pick it up fairly quickly.
I want to draw you attention back to Five Tribes again, as I think the pacing is what sets Yamatai drastically apart from Five Tribes. On a turn, there is quite a bit of analysis, but it will never destroy your brain as Five Tribes can. Your options are fairly clear and you are rarely surprised by what opponents do and this brings me to one of my most prominent criticisms of the game. Yamatai is more complex than it is actually all that fun. The same sort of brain burning analysis is present, but in Five Tribes, there is a definite payoff when you execute an absolutely monstrous move. In Yamatai, you rarely have the opportunity to flex your tactical prowess and laugh in the faces of your opponents. Disappointingly, you and your opponents are simply plodding along. Downtime is present, but it won’t be long and all players can easily be assessing the state of the board when it is not their turn.
In terms of what you’re physically getting here, Days of Wonder games are always works of art. As mentioned, the component quality, artwork, and overall attention to detail is top notch. And this makes the game feel very good – no denying that.
You may be wondering, “alright, so should I own both Yamatai and Five Tribes?” and I would say yes, surely. Yamatai is equally influenced by Five Tribes as it is by Ticket to Ride, but it is far enough removed from both of those titles that it stands alone. And, full disclosure, I hate Ticket to Ride.
Yamatai is easy to teach and made even easier by thoughtfully constructed player mats, guiding each player through their turn. The balance between culture tokens, buildings, and hiring specialists means that you generally always have a good option on your turn and rarely feel like it was all for naught. This serves to keep players engaged at every step. Scores remain tight and you won’t find many players feeling left out of the action or confused about what they should be doing.
The limited options make this game more accessible than, say, Five Tribes, but largely because the tactical decisions work in the reverse of Five Tribes. In Yamatai, the options become more complex as the game moves forward, whereas, in Five Tribes, your options are actually most overwhelming on your first few turns. That said, your first game will still feel overwhelming, but trust me, this feeling will subside. There’s a few things happening here but you’re much better equipped to pull it apart on your subsequent plays.
The variable setup ensures that the game stays fresh, and there are a variety of end game conditions that it will take you a couple of plays to even see all the Specialists in the game. Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a clearly superior strategy, so the game is extremely well balanced in that you can choose a strategy from the onset (helped by Specialists) and follow its course.
For those who love this game, there is absolutely enough variety to make it last.
I think people will be in two main camps on this game – “I love it!” and “Meh.” and honestly, I’m in the latter group. I appreciate how well made this game is, how beautiful it looks, how good it feels, and how varied and accessible it is. However, I can’t seem to really enjoy it all that much. It lacks those tactical epiphanies that I love so dearly in Five Tribes and for those among us that simply find this game “okay”, you will not be eager to play again and you will tire of it quickly.