Yamataï is the latest title from Days of Wonder, and when DoW puts its name on a title you can expect a few facets right from the start: beautiful artwork, high-quality pieces, and a box that’s perfectly designed to hold everything. Ticket to Ride and SmallWorld remain the imprint’s two bestsellers, although they had a minor hit with 2015’s Five Tribes after redoing some controversial art in that game, but Yamataï hasn’t quite found its audience, at least not yet. That’s a shame, as I think it’s one of the best games of the year thanks to a quirky mechanic that allows you to profit off of other players’ moves.
Yamataï was designed by Bruno Cathala—who just won the Spiel des Jahres for his game Kingdomino and has also designed critical favorites 7 Wonders Duel, Mission: Red Planet and the aforementioned Five Tribes—along with first-time designer Marc Paquien. With a feudal Japanese theme, Yamataï brings gorgeous colors to the board, representing an archipelago of islands connected by routes on which players can place boats, and to the various fleet and “specialist” (kind of like samurai) tiles players will acquire over the course of play. The game also manages to fold in several different mechanical quirks while keeping play relatively compact and giving players enough time to execute a strategy over the course of several turns.
In Yamataï, each player tries to rack up victory points by placing buildings on open islands, by adding specialists, by placing buildings in certain spots for bonus points, and by acquiring more coins, which are converted to points (five coins for 1 point) at game-end. On a turn, a player takes one of five available fleet tokens, each of which grants the player one to three free boats from the supply of five colors, with most fleet tokens also allowing a special move like removing two boats from the board or discounting a building’s cost. The player then may buy or sell one boat—different colors bear different prices—and then places as many boats as s/he wishes on to the board, threading a path between the various islands.
After placing boats, the player may take a “culture” token from each adjacent island, one per boat, or may build one building on an empty island adjacent to the boats. The culture tokens are used to purchase specialists, warrior characters who can be worth 0 to 4 victory points at game end, but who also give the player some extremely useful powers for the remainder of the game. One specialist doubles the value of all one-point bonus tokens. Another allows the player two purchases and/or sales of boats per turn. Another changes the coins/points ratio for game-end scoring from 5:1 to 3:1. If you get the right specialist early in the game, you can tailor your strategy to suit it and focus on specific actions that garner you more points.
Buildings constitute the main avenue for racking up points in Yamataï, but building them isn’t about collecting wood (pretty sure we’ve got that covered in other games) or paying coins. Players can build on an island if the boats around that island match the pattern on one of the individual building tiles on the market—five at a time. Some of these are regular buildings and some are red prestige buildings. Regular buildings come from your supply, which varies by player count (ten apiece for two players, eight for three, six for four) while also generating income when you add to a chain of your own buildings. The first one doesn’t pay out, but after that, every one of your buildings that you place into a contiguous group of your own generates one coin per building in the group. You also score a bonus point for building on one of the mountain islands, and a bonus point if your building is next to a prestige building.
Those prestige buildings are harder to build because the boats they require are rarer than those needed for regular buildings, but prestige buildings are typically worth 5 points to build, more than regular buildings garner. There’s also a specialist that lets you build a prestige building but take rewards as if it were one of your personal buildings instead, increasing the potential returns from these buildings.
As the game progresses, building where you want becomes more difficult, as the board becomes crowded (more so with three or four players than two) and boat lanes are filled (you can only build if you placed a boat next to that island on that same turn). The last few rounds reward cleverness, like taking the right fleet token to remove two boats from the board so you can place even one boat there and slip in a building where others couldn’t build, or using another fleet card to drop a “sacred ground” piece on an island and block an opponent from extending a chain. You can set up possibilities for late-game moves, but you can never guarantee they’ll still be available, and the game doesn’t give you opportunities for huge point totals on turns near the end, which keeps the scores relatively close and balanced throughout.
Yamataï’s playing time estimate of twenty minutes per player is about right, although we did notice playing times shrank quickly once everyone knew the mechanics of a turn—the five parts of your turn are laid out on your personal player board, but I don’t find the icons used to be all that intuitive. Suggested for ages 13+, it posed no problem for my 11-year-old daughter or her friend of the same age, and both loved the game’s look and feel (although the friend said the boats looked more like hats, which is true). The game’s rules aren’t quite as elegant as Days of Wonder’s two big hits, but the mechanics here aren’t complex, just diverse, and the game itself is so different from other Days or Cathala titles—especially Five Tribes—that it deserves to find its own niche on gamers’ shelves.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.