Yamatai: For Queen Himiko’s Smile
Designed by Bruno Cathala & Marc Paquien
Published by Days of Wonder - 2017
2 - 4 players ~ 60 - 90 Minutes
Oh, how our expectations can betray us. Back at the beginning of 2017, I listed Yamatai among my most anticipated games of the year. Early previews showcased beautiful art, an evocative theme, great looking components, and above all, a fascinating design team bound to make a sleek, clever game. And crazily enough, like Seuss-ean elephants, they managed to deliver on each of those promises. Yamatai is skillfully crafted and gorgeously realized, like a beautiful mechanical watch, if a mechanical watch also had samurai and boats.
The problem is that in all that I hoped that Yamatai would be, not once did I think to wish the game would also be fun…
How to Make Queen Himiko Smile:
In the Yamatai Archipelago, fans reign supreme. No, not avid followers of pop culture icons, I’m talking about the kind of fans that a courtesan might whip out upon accusations of dishonor. The game end is triggered by a player running out of buildings, running out of boats in the supply, or like 4 other things running out, but boats and buildings are most likely why the game will end, at which point the player with the most fans wins.
Over the course of the game, players are going to build trade routes represented by ships of all types of colors, surrounding islands in order to build their holdings. While each player has a personal supply of buildings, the boats (both on the board and in the supply) are communally owned, meaning you care not only about how the boats you place help you, but also what opportunities you present for others.
Every turn flows basically the same, each player collects one or more boats, can buy or sell a boat, places boats on the board, chooses to either build a building or take culture tokens from islands you built boats next to, then you discard down to one boat. Did I say this game is all about fans? I meant boats. This game is all about boats.
There are two things that can make your turn considerably different, and both are by far the coolest things in Yamatai. First, those culture tokens? They can buy Specialists, who grant you permanent ongoing effects ranging from increasing fans from various actions to changing how many boats you can purchase / sell / keep at the end of your turn. While some of these are nice bonuses, others will have a monumental effect on how you proceed with the game.
The other thing, and the most clever aspect of the design, is the fleet selection. At the start of each round, five of ten fleets will be face up, and, in turn order, each player selects one and resolves their turn. These determine:
The boats you collect at the start of your turn.
Some special boon, like reducing the cost of buildings or moving boats in ways you couldn’t otherwise. (this will largely shape what you do on your turn)
Future turn order, with more powerful abilities making you go later next round.
How much you hate other players. (Damnit, Jeffrey! Why’d you have to take THAT one?)
The main puzzle to solve is that buildings (your main source of fans) can only be built when you place boats next to an island, and that island now has the quantity and colors of boats surrounding it, corresponding to a building cards in the display.
The other nut to crack is that, when placing boats, you must either start from an entry point (all on the left hand side of the board) or your first boat must match the last boat in a chain you are continuing. Got it? Yes, this is just as nebulous as it sounds, but you needed something to agonize over as you selected your fleet token, didn’t you? In truth, it becomes more intuitive after a few rounds, but never to the point where it felt instinctive or natural.
Speaking of Feelings...
Look, I really want to emphasize that this game is really well balanced, clever, and presents you with plenty of choices. But for all it’s efforts, it never really gave me a reason to care about what I was doing.
It’s hard to plan on future turns, since the available fleet tokens, buildings on display, routes to build off of, and specialists rapidly change. The boats, which are tactically oh-so-important at the beginning of a turn, are rendered meaningless by the end, since your ownership ceases once they’re in play. Even the buildings, your only piece of distinct ownership, communicate little more than “Hey bub, you can’t build here”. There are some minor bonuses depending on where you build, and certain specialists can make building placement more important, but largely they feel like derelict silos, devoid of meaning and purpose. So while you may have some choices that will have immediate ramifications, It’s hard to feel like you are ever invested in the game.
But for all the mechanical dissonance, the biggest problem I had connecting with Yamatai was the theme. While illustrated magnificently, the theme constantly butts heads with the mechanisms in the game. Why do ships only start on the left side of the board? Why does this specialist get me more points for money at the end of the game? Why can I only buy one boat per turn? This isn’t an issue of being an abstract game or having a “pasted on” theme, it’s that having an apparent emphasis on theme makes the completely abstract elements feel all that much more counter intuitive, breaking the narrative boundaries of the game.
Fit and Finish like a Cherry Blossom Grove:
Aesthetically though, this game is amazing. The bits are high quality, it is profoundly colorful, and is completely stunning on the table. I also have an affinity for the Days of Wonder house style artwork, which as per their usual standards is top-notch here. Even the insert is superbly designed to keep components in check,(though for me it'll be sadly wasted in the trade pile).
That said, there are two things about the components that most likely don’t apply to you, but feel worth mentioning. First off, this game will be completely unplayable for many colorblind players. From the buildings to the boats which act as both a component and sort of currency in the game, vital information is primarily communicated via color. The second is that there are only two character/color choices that have enough components for a 2-player game. I totally understand manufacturing limitations, but it feels frustrating that a company as family friendly as DoW couldn’t come up with accessibility options or splurge for a few more chunks of wood.
I really wanted to like Yamatai. I think Paquien is a fascinating up-and-comer in the designer world, and many of Cathala’s previous efforts, including Five Tribes (the spiritual ancestor to Yamatai), are among my favorite games of all time. Refusing to accept the facts, I was convinced that the problem was with me. So I played again and again, which only served to further cement my thorough ambivalence toward Queen Himiko’s mood.
That's not to say that that there aren’t cool aspects of Yamatai. It features many original ideas, feeling unlike almost anything else on the market. The way fleet tokens and turn order are selected are an especially great system. But for all it’s clever mechanisms, fantastic visuals, and crunchy decisions, it felt hamstrung by counter-intuitive design and lack of player investment. In the end, Yamatai turned out to be a great puzzle, but for me, never managed to be a fun game.