Yamatai Isn’t Just a Pretty Face

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First off, let’s just state the obvious. Yamatai is strikingly beautiful. It’s the kind of game you would place lovingly on your mantle whilst scowling at the other games on your shelf like they’re bastard step-children. “Why can’t you be more like Yamatai!” You may gasp when you open the box and see the brilliant illustrations for the first time. Oohs and Ahs may very well escape past your lips as you marvel at the well thought out insert that holds all the components snugly just like your favorite aunt embraced you when you were little. That’s right. Yamatai’s production quality will enchant you like you’ve never been enchanted before.

But what happens when you actually sit down to play? Sure it’s a beauty, but what about Yamatai’s personality? Allow us to get you two a little more acquainted.

As with many complex games, this mat saves you from keeping your head buried in the rule book. Though even with this handy little mat, the options can be dizzying to say the least. There are 5 actions that you may do on a turn.

Choose a Fleet Tile

This is when you bust your brain to choose the fleet tile that will set you up for the rest of your turn. It’s an auction mechanic, and as players choose their fleet tile they are determining three things; which boat/s they will acquire for free, which special power they can use and what their turn order will be for the next round. Lots to think about in just one little tile.


Remember how you got some free boats on that last step? Well you might need another to be able to build. Or maybe you want to sell one and get some coinage. Up to you, my friend. But you can only trade or buy ONE ship. So, proceed with caution.

Place Boats on the Board THEN Collect Culture Tokens or Build

Now that you have your boats, you can place them accordingly on the map so long as you’re moving from west to east and placing your boats in a chain. But by god be careful. Because once you put those boats down, any player can reap the benefits of their presence on the board.

After you’ve finished that, you have a pretty big choice. You can collect as many culture tokens as boats that you’ve placed, making it possible for you to recruit the help of a specialist down the line. Or you can construct a building on one of the islands, which grants you prestige points and lots of other opportunities.

Place remaining boats on your mat

Yeah, you can’t save your boats. Well you can save one of them but the queen makes you burn the rest, and at a cost to you. Such a waste. But hey, it’s either that or help your fellow man, so…

Recruit a Specialist

Remember those culture tokens? This is where you can use them to buy an all powerful specialist! These babies can really help you decide what your winning strategy will be since they can bestow some game changing conditions. And there are lots of fun options to choose from. But, don’t be distracted by their beautiful faces. Or be distracted, but hurry up already because your turn is taking for-ev-er.

And there you have it. The rest of the players take their turns, then the round ends and you’re ever so much closer to making Queen Himiko smile and becoming her favorite architect in the world by gaining the most prestige points.

While you were doing all that thinking, the other players were likely checking their phones, tuning in now and then to see if you nabbed the tile they wanted and so on and so forth. The interaction between players doesn’t go too much further than that. Sure there are moments, but mostly it would be cruel to interrupt someone while they’re pouring over the board, gnashing teeth and tearing hair trying to craft a perfect turn. Of course there is much to think about, but another contributing factor to the inevitable analysis paralysis that might seize one of your compadres is that it’s pretty difficult to plan ahead in this game. Setting yourself up for the next turn too well will just ensure that another player will whisk that island away from you. All the cards are literally on the table, so it’s not possible to plot your next move under the radar. That means that during your turn, you not only have to be painfully present with the state of the board, but also cognizant of the trail of boats you’re leaving behind and how they may help or hinder your opponents.

But don’t worry. Even if you make a few missteps here and there, Yamatai brilliantly leaves you little dopamine treats around every corner. Even on a turn where you just didn’t quite get what you wanted, you always have an opportunity to make some kind of a gain whether it’s in boats, culture tokens, buildings or specialists. The game remains somewhat addicting for that reason. Well, for that reason and because it’s super pretty.

While the theme lends to some truly fantastic artwork by illustrator Jérémie Fleury, it’s less prevalent in game play. You’re certainly intent on building palaces and structures to beat out opponents, but one hardly thinks of Queen Himiko. One forgets that the boats carry goods such as coal, wood and gold and refers to them as simply black, brown and yellow. This is somewhat disappointing since the history behind Yamatai is fascinating. It is said that Queen Himiko was a powerful shaman who ruled over her utopic Kingdom with magic. Not unlike the story of Atlantis, Japanese historians argue over the location of Yamatai. The game kind of misses the boat on integrating the rich story into gameplay. But, Kudos for the flare text that makes the theme a treat despite its less than stellar presence. Ultimately, it’s a game with great bones that would work well with many different themes.

All in all, Yamatai is a fun Euro-style game. And by golly did Days of Wonder knock it out of the park with the top notch production quality. Not too social, but also not too heavy. In fact, it is a great game to lure a lighter gamer to the next level of difficulty without being too overwhelming. And if during the game you start to feel a little cross-eyed then it’s perfectly okay to stop and gaze at the artwork for a little brain break.

Have you played Yamatai? Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Image Credits: Christina Aimerito

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