Review • Yamataï: For Queen Himiko’s Smile

“Boats, boats, boats!”

Queen Himiko herself has commanded the construction of the capitol city of the great Japanese kingdom of Yamataï on the fabled archipelago. You are one of several builders tasked with this project. You will be responsible for maintaining supply lines, hiring specialists, and constructing buildings. But proceed carefully- The Queen will only name one of you as the ‘Greatest Builder!’

Yamataï: For Queen Himiko’s Smile
Designed by Bruno Cathala & Mark Paquien
Art by Jérémie Fleury
Published by Days of Wonder
2-4 Players
80-150 Minutes

To begin with, most of your resources, actions, and turn order in Yamataï will be determined by ten fleet tiles, five of which are available at the start of each round. You will select one tile at the beginning of your turn, complete all actions available to you, and end your turn. Beyond simply proving players with resources, these tiles impact gameplay in a very deep and rooted way- but I’ll need to expand on that at a later point.

Throughout the game you will be constructing buildings on islands. You will do this by assigning supply lines (boats) to spaces adjacent to the island you wish to build on. The interesting quirk here is that these supply lines are shared. If a building requires two clay and one wood, it doesn’t matter who put the boats there- it’s just a question of who builds on that island first. Islands will need to be cleared of culture tokens prior to building, which allow you to hire specialists (a fancy theming for asymmetric powers). There are some other interesting scoring opportunities you’ll find throughout the game, but we’ll leave those as surprises.

I’ve often described Yamataï as “a game of three turns: your big turn, your next turn, and this turn.” Still, this isn’t exactly adequate at communicating how important this thinking is to the gameplay as a whole. Generally, you’ll have a goal planned out in advance- the big turn. To that end, you’ll have to determine your next step towards achieving that goal- your next turn. But frequently you’ll find yourself distracted by something a little more pressing. Maybe the fleet tile you were aiming for was taken. Maybe you can devastate an opponent’s strategy by placing a single building. Maybe you’ve just realized that there are better resources available, but you’ll need to figure out how to use them. Point is, whatever comes along, it will usually have to be dealt with immediately- this turn. Every single turn you’ll have two or three things you’ll want to do, and unfortunately you’ll have to pick just one.

Look, every board game offers you a narrative of choice. “If I do A this turn, then I can do B next turn, and C the turn after that.” Except when your next turn pops up, B isn’t even an option, you’re left with D, E, and F… What will you do? Choice in Yamataï is less a narrative, and more a spiderweb of decisions radiating out towards the end of the game. The fleet tiles keep this in check, leaving most of your choices confined among five and dwindling options. Even when you’re the first player to select a tile in a round, it’s rare that all five tiles will be immediately useful to you. This is the crunch of Yamataï, this is exactly what makes it so perfectly brilliant. Every decision is pretty simple, if not entirely easy; but the long term implications will provide you with ample motivation to think it through. And I have to give one final shout out to one of the best player aids (masquerading as a player board) ever made. If ever the game starts to feel overwhelming, everything is laid out perfectly in front of you.

But.

As much as I love Yamataï; it’s just not for everyone. Many folks struggle with the way strategy and tactics are interwoven through the game. It can feel difficult to learn, thanks mostly in part due to a half-dozen mechanisms moving at you all at once. Worst of all, Yamataï is incredibly unforgiving, especially at higher player counts, when a few sub-optimal decisions will likely cost you any chance at victory. I’ve seen a lot of people walk away from this title frustrated with the experience. As a result, I’ve become reticent to introduce it to new players. All of this is an absolute shame, because Yamataï is just that good.

10/10

To provide some very late context and clarity, Yamataï is my favorite game- it has been since the first time I played it. And despite my admittedly biased approach, I’d still argue that this may be one of the best games ever created- it’s just that compelling. The theme, components, and gameplay show case the literal best of what this hobby has to offer, and the pinnacle of what a board game can be. Yamataï: For Queen Himiko’s Smile is absolutely phenomenal. Hunt this one down.

Two final notes:
(1) Yamataï is out of print; and as a general rule, I won’t review games that aren’t commercially available. That said, it’s still rather easy to find a copy with a little effort, and I’m hoping that Days of Wonder will bring it back.
(2) Yamataï was cooperatively designed by Bruno Cathala, and published by Days of Wonder: two things it shares with another very popular game, Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala. Despite some thematic/design missteps (that some might posit were fixed with the 2nd edition or expansions respectively), I still think Five Tribes is a solid title. These two games are frequently and quite erroneously compared to one another- as if they were similar games, which is just not the case. The only parellel between the two (in terms of gameplay) lies in how players develop asymmetry, using the Djinn/Specialist mechanism. My point is this: don’t let your opinions of Five Tribes affect your view of Yamataï, or vice versa. They’re both good games; just for very different reasons.

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