Yunnan

Design by Aaron Haag
Published by Argentum Verlag
2 – 5 Players, 90 minutes – 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

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Ever since I was a child I heard variations of the phrase, “I wouldn’t do that for all of the tea in China!”  As a child, I didn’t realize that China produced a lot of tea, so assumed the phrase meant that you wouldn’t do that something for just about any price.  Only later as an adult did I come to realize that China was a large producer of tea, a fact that no doubt influenced Aaron Haag’s game Yunnan, which deals with tea production in the provinces of China.

Apparently the most desirable tea was Pu’er, which was primarily grown in a difficult-to-reach region.  The path through the provinces was difficult and the journey arduous, but the profits were worth the effort.  The road actually existed until the 1960s, until it was finally supplanted by a safer, more efficient one.  Yunnan attempts to recreate this tea trade, as players must travel to these remote areas to harvest the tea and ship it back to the market in Pu’er for sale.  To do this, however, they must plan properly, insuring they have the proper number of horses, border passes, traders, influence and, of course, money.

Yunnan uses an auction mechanism that is similar to one pioneered in Philippe Keyaerts’ Evo.  It also includes movement and construction aspects.  All action occurs on the one main board, which depicts sections of the city of Pu’er and its surrounding provinces.  There are also helpful charts and a score track depicted, but the board is uncluttered and easy to decipher.  Each player begins the game with three traders, a handful of coins and one horse.  They will be able to acquire up to four more traders during the course of the game, as well as construct bridges, trading posts and tea houses.

Each turn is divided into two phases:  Auction and Travel.

Auction Phase.  During the auction phase, players alternate placing traders on the five “Progress” buildings, the market or the bank.  There are five spaces on each Progress yunnanboardbuilding, with values ranging from 5 – 15.  This is the amount the player is committing to pay for the right to take that action.  If a trader is on the 5 or 7 spaces–which he can occupy only if he has bid more than any other player–that trader can be bumped if an opponent places a trader on a higher space.  The player retrieves the bumped trader and may place him elsewhere when it is once again his turn.  Bidding low may get you a good deal on an action, but it may also get you bumped.  If all of the three high-valued spaces on that building are occupied by the time your turn returns, you won’t be able to take that action.

It is important to note that traders in the three highest spaces–9, 12 and 15–are not bumped.  Each of these players will get to execute the action provided by the Progress building.  So, if you want to guaranty you will be able to use a specific building, you’ll have to pay for this right!

Placing a trader in the market–which can hold an unlimited number of traders–is dedicating that trader to travel during the next phase.  Placing a trader on one of the two bank spaces forces the player to remove any traders he previously placed on the Progress buildings, moving them instead to the market.  The player will only receive money this turn, but in a game where money is tight early, this is often a wise decision.

Once all traders are placed, the buildings are resolved, beginning with the bank.  Players must pay the amount they bid, then take the corresponding action.  Traders placed on the bank or Progress buildings will not be available for use in the Travel phase, so players must plan accordingly.

Each building warrants a detailed look.

Bank.  The amount of money bid at the Progress buildings is totaled and this amount is found on the victory point track.  The two players with traders at the bank will receive an amount of money as indicated on the track, which is divided into segments.  For example, if 28 coins were spent at the Progress buildings, the player with the first trader at the bank will receive 10 coins, while the second trader at the bank will receive 7 coins.  The more money spent at the Progress buildings, the greater the financial rewards for the players who visited the bank.

Trading School.  The player receives a new trader, which is placed in the market and is available for use during the Travel phase.  As with most worker placement games, the more workers (traders), the better.

Customs Office.  The player moves his marker up one space on the corresponding track.  This will allow the player to cross more provincial borders during the Travel phase.

Horse Trader.  The player moves his horse marker into the next province.  The horse marks the furthest province the player may reach during the Travel phase.  Distant provinces are more valuable, so moving one’s horse into these provinces is vital.

Dragon  House.  The player moves his marker one space along this track.  This increases the influence of the player, which is extremely important during the travel phase.  Fall behind on this track and you will suffer throughout the game.

Construction Yard.  The player chooses one of the three available building types:  bridge, tea house or trading post.  He may construct this building during the Travel phase or on a future turn.  Building are quite valuable, so getting several constructed will be quite beneficial.

Travel Phase.  This phase is conducted in the reverse order of that used during the Auction phase.  Each player completely makes his movements and constructions before the next player takes his turn.  This is quite important, particularly when influence is taken into account.

Traders may move from province to province in either direction, but must use a border pass each time they cross a border.  Thus, if a player has not progressed very far on Customs House track, this will limit his movement options.  Further, a trader may not move beyond the province in which his horse is located.  So, to reach the more distant, more valuable provinces, a player must continue to visit the Horse Trader during the Auction phase.

Any number of traders may occupy a province, but a player’s influence plays a significant role.  Each time a trader ends his movement, it may displace another trader located there if that trader’s influence is less.  This occurs each time a trader is moved, so those players with less influence can find themselves steadily bumped back along the tea road.  This can be extremely frustrating and detrimental.  Thus, a player should make sure he does not fall behind on the influence track.

During this phase, a player may also construct any buildings he has previously acquired.  Trading posts serve as connections when tracing a route back to Pu’er and also earn the player income.  Tea houses protect the player from the inspector (more on this in a bit) and also earn the player 12 victory points at game’s end.  There can only be one tea house per province, so it is wise to build these early. Bridges create shortcuts between provinces, making movement easier and  routes linking back to Pu’er easier to maintain.

After all movement is complete, the pesky inspector pays a visit to the province that will yield the most income, which is based on the number of traders and trading posts present.  The inspector will banish a trader of the player with the highest influence who does not have an influence of four (the highest on the track) or a tea house present.  That trader is sent all the way back to Pu’er.  Nasty fellow, that inspector.

Each province contains a number of presents that are then distributed in influence order to the traders.  Presents are worth 3 victory points apiece, so one can amass a tidy sum if they reach provinces early and have a decent influence.

Finally, players receive income.  Each province awards income per trader and trading post, with more income being earned from the more distant provinces.  For example, the province of Yunna, which is closest to Pu’er, awards 6 income per trader and 1 per trading house.  Qinghai, which is the most distant province, awards 18 income per trader and 15 per trading house.  To receive this full income, however, a player must be able to trace a connected route consisting of traders and/or trading posts all the way back to Pu’er.  Failure to do so will cost him income.

When receiving this income, each player must make a choice as to how much they will take as money and how much they will take as victory points.  They can split their total income in any fashion they desire.  In the early turns, most players will take all income as cash.  However, the game does reach a tipping point when one or more players will opt to take the majority or all of the income as victory points. This can be a huge swing, and if a player is late in pulling this trigger, he is pretty much out of the game.  Turn order plays a critical role here, as this choice is made in player order based on income.

Each turn is conducted in the same fashion, with the game ending when one or more players exceed 80 victory points (which can happen suddenly) or when all of the presents from all provinces have been distributed.  Players earn additional points for presents, coins, influence. border passes and tea houses.  These final points must be kept in mind, as passing 80 points does not necessarily guaranty victory.

What do I enjoy about Yunnan?  While I am not a huge fan of the traditional auction mechanism, I’ve always enjoyed the bidding mechanism that was pioneered in Evo and Amun-Re, as I find it tense, yet quick.  It is used to similar effect here.  Choosing between the various Progress Buildings can be tough, as you always need to perform multiple actions but rarely have enough traders.  The manner in which income is determined via visiting the bank is also clever, as it is based on the total amount bid by one’s opponents.  All of these are plusses.

Sadly, there are some minuses.  The major one, for me, is the effects of influence.  Having just one influence lower than an opponent could cause several of your traders to be bumped back a province.  Having influence below multiple players can cause a chain reaction that can prove quite detrimental.  Having the most influence, however, places you at the mercy of the inspector.  This effect isn’t as harmful as having too little influence, but it is still aggravating.  The manner in which players can decide between income and victory points was used brilliantly in Wolfgang Kramer’s Princes of Florence, but here the swing can be too big.  It is not uncommon for a player to have income of 30 – 40 on a turn.  Choosing all of that in victory points can be half of the total needed to end the game and can easily cause the game to end abruptly.  Misjudging or simply not having enough traders in a high-valued province on this pivotal turn will likely be fatal.

This mixed bag of plusses and minuses results in a game that is good, but not great.  It has some neat elements that make moments tense, while other aspects fail to generate much, if any excitement.  The game does not seem to offer a lot of variety, and there was a certain “sameness” to each game I played.  I believe it is fine for a few plays, but likely won’t have much staying power with many groups.  There is a variant wherein players can bid more money than they possess (an early form of deficit spending), which can increase the auction phase, but doesn’t appreciably alter the flow or feel of the game.  I would compare Yunnan to the high school dating scene in that it is like that girl you were happy to date a few times, but then moved on to someone more exciting!

Opinions of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Tom Rosen (5 plays): I love this game!  I’ve talked about it before in my Essen First Impressions and my Essen Second Impressions pieces where I explained that this way one of my top three games from Essen 2013.  It moved up the charts the more I played it, which is always a good sign.  It’s not for everyone though and I definitely would not bring it out with any group.  It is nasty, brutish, and short.  As Greg said, you bump each other a lot and the game can end abruptly.  The bumping can make some people feel bad or frustrated so you need to pick your audience selectively.  But with the right crowd that doesn’t mind an interactive, cutthroat game, this is wonderful.  Like Hansa Teutonica from 2009, this is another game that looks like a traditional, dry German-style game, but is actually very far from the multiplayer solitaire cube-pushing that you might mistakenly expect.  This is coming from someone that loves plenty of traditional, dry, solitaire-feeling games.  But I also like variety and Yunnan gives you that in a tense, short, compelling package.  I think the speed is actually a big virtue because if you feel you got arbitrarily bumped and blocked out of needed income, it’ll be over before you know it and you can move on with your life.  This game is not a main course, but rather a warm-up appetizer or “super filler” as the case may be.

Ratings:

4 (Love it!): Tom Rosen
3 (Like it):
2 (Neutral):  Greg J. Schloesser
1 (Not for me):

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About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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2 Responses to Yunnan

  1. Well-written, as always. But wow, I’m surprised Greg didn’t like this more. To me the points called out as negatives aren’t negative at all. The issue of of influence being bad both when you have the most, and when others have more than you makes it a challenge to figure out what the right amount is. There are also interesting aspects that develop from it, such as trying to avoid being where the inspector ends up if you have the most influence, or making sure you have a tea house there.

    FWIW, I would not consider the option of paying more than you have a variant. I consider it required. It totally solves the problem of players trying to figure out what others CAN pay for, and thus bid exactly that. The descending penalty as the game progressing for overbidding works great.

    This has been one of the more popular games in my group of late. But you can’t please them all!

  2. shigadeyo says:

    I would put myself in the “Not for me” category. As a loose leaf tea enthusiast, I was hoping that the theme would come through more, but it didn’t. This game isn’t really about producing tea at all. It’s really a route-building game. I can get past that, but I really didn’t like the form of direct confrontation in the game. Players can really screw each other over with their moves. Also, there is a lot of math necessary while playing the game. This can make for some long turns when trying to optimize. I was disappointed with this game overall.

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