Dale Yu: Review of Yamatai



  • Designers: Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien
  • Publisher: Days of Wonder
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Days of Wonder


I look forward to my annual trip to the Gathering of Friends for a number of reasons.  The topmost reason is getting a chance to see some longtime friends – many of which I only get to see at this time of the year.  The next reason is getting a chance to play lots of new games.  For me, this event marks the first chance I get to see many of the new games released at Nuremberg.  There are a few companies who make it to the show regularly, and I know that I’ll get to play their games: REPOS, Days of Wonder, CGE, etc.

I loved the Days of Wonder game from early 2016, Quadropolis, so I had high hopes for Yamatai at this year’s Gathering. As soon as the games arrived on Saturday, I made sure that I was getting taught how to play it.

In this game, players are builders who are trying to help make the capital of Yamatai as grand as possible.  The colorful board depicts an archipelago of islands which comprise the capital.  On each, a culture token is randomly placed.  Each player is given his own player reference, ten coins and some wooden buildings in his color.  A deck of specialist tiles is shuffled and the top 5 are placed at the top of the board.  Five building tiles are placed near the board.  Finally, the 10 fleet tiles are shuffled and the top 5 are dealt onto the Fleet track at the bottom of the board.  The other five are left face down on the spaces to the right of this.

On each turn, a player goes through the five phases of his turn and then the next player gets to go.  The initial start player is randomly chosen, afterwards is it determined by fleet tile choice.  As I mentioned earlier, there are ten fleet tiles, each is numbered between 1 and 10.  The first action in any turn is to choose from the available fleet tiles.  The number on the tile determines your turn order for the next turn (lower goes first). Each fleet tile also has a special action which can be used during this turn.  They usually involve getting ships from the supply – but not always.

Fleet Tiles


The next phase is a possible trade – you can either buy one ship or sell one ship following the chart on your player mat.  Next, you can choose to place boats on the board.  When you place boats – the first boat you place must either be on a designated starting space or adjacent to a boat of the same color.  Once the first boat is legally placed, you then must place all following boats to form an uninterrupted chain.  The color of the boats does not need to match.

Once boats are placed, you can then EITHER build a building tile or collect culture tokens (though it may be possible that you cannot do so).  To build a building, you must choose a building from the row next to the board.  Each tile there has a building cost of different colored boats.  If you have build next to an unoccupied island on the board AND that island has the appropriate matching colored boats surrounding it (whether you played them or not), then you can build the building tile there.  If there is a red building icon on the tile, place a matching red wooden building from the supply; if there is not, use one of your personal wooden buildings.  Keep the building tile in your area.  Score VPs equal to the number on your tile.  You can also score bonus VPs if you built a wooden building of your own color if it is next to other buildings or on a mountain space. If you choose not or can not build a building, you then collect culture tokens if possible.  Each boat that you have placed allows you to take a culture token from an island adjacent to that boat.

Next, you place any unused boats on your player mat.  You are only allowed to keep one boat in dock to be used next turn.  All other excess boats are moved to the graveyard area – and you will take a 1VP penalty for every two boats in here at the end of the game.  These boats placed here are permanently out of the game.

Finally, you can choose to recruit a specialist.  There are 5 specialist tiles available at the top of the board in each round.  You can take a specialist for the cost of any 3 Culture tokens or any pair of matching tokens.  Each Specialist tile has a VP value, and many of them offer ongoing special benefits which you can use for the rest of the game.

Once all players have taken their turn, there is a bit of setup for the next round.  The player order meeples are placed on the track based on the numbers from the fleet tiles just chosen.  The unchosen fleet tiles are moved to the left and then new fleet tiles are revealed from the deck until there are 5 face up.  The remaining fleet tiles are then shuffled.  2 coins are placed on all unchosen specialists, and then the building tiles and specialist tiles are replenished.  If either cannot be done, the game ends.

The game ends at the end of any round when  something runs out: a player runs out of buildings of his own color, any of the five colors of ships in the Supply is out, the Specialist deck of tiles is out or the Building deck of tiles is out.  The game then moved into final scoring.  You score points for your buildings and specialist tiles, 1 VP per 5 coins left, 1 VP per unused prestige token.  Then you take penalties for boats left on your mat and any reserved building tiles (an ability granted by a fleet tile).  The player with the most VPs wins. Ties go to earlier in turn order in the final turn.

My thoughts on the game

Yamatai is another solid strategy game from Days of Wonder.  In the days of old, I used to think of DoW as a company that made Ticket to Ride and then a bunch of pleasant family games.  I think that this generalization has shifted a bit.  DoW still makes Ticket to Ride games, but their non-TtR offerings now lean on the heavier/chewier side.  For me, this is a nice spot – a quality design of a complicated game, but still something that usually fits into the 60-90 minute range.  Quadropolis and Five Tribes are recent examples of games in this class, and Yamatai deserves mention along these other solid games.

After my initial plays of the game, there really isn’t any mechanism that strikes me as novel – but the designers have woven together the different parts into a coherent whole.  Much of the game comes down to the accumulation of little actions – sometimes spanning multiple turns.

Let me try to explain it… In order to build one of the more valuable VP buildings, you’ll need to have 5 ships surrounding an island on the board, and they have to match the colors on the building tile.  The main way to get ships is thru your fleet tile choice; and the most you can get from a tile is 3 ships!  So, you’ll be reliant upon ships played by other players in addition to the ones that you get from your tile or via trading.  Furthermore, you may have to keep an eye on turn order because you can’t let someone beat you to the opportunity!  There are some specialists who have powerful special abilities – so you might try to get one or two of those to help you on the way.

So, when your turn comes up, you’ll need to decide which fleet tile you want – keeping in mind both the immediate rewards of ships/special abilities for this turn as well as the effect it will have on player order in the next turn. Then, if you get ships, you have to choose where to play them, and how many to play.  If you will be  unable to build a building, then you’ll be using the ships to hopefully gain Culture tokens (which can then be used to gain specialists).  However, you don’t want to play too many extra ships – they can be used by other players to build buildings!  Of course, this is balanced out by the fact that you don’t want to hold on to too many ships as the penalty points can add up quickly.

Sometimes, your plan might take two turns – you’ll need one turn to place some specific ships on the board – or maybe pick up a specific Specialist whose action you’ll then use in the next turn to build one of the large buildings.  If this is so, you might need to consider what your relative turn order will be in the second turn to make sure that your opponents don’t beat you to the punch.

As you can see, there are plenty of little things that affect each decision – which makes you have to plan each move carefully.  Does it cause Analysis Paralysis?  Sure, I think if you were prone to AP – this could be problematic.  However, with my usual circle of gamers, we tend to play more by feel – and there are a few “takebacks” in the middle of moves, but not too many… the games that I’ve been in were never over the 90 minute mark, and most of those have been prolonged by the fact that there has always been at least one player new to the game each time.

Will this be a Kennerspiel des Jahres candidate?  I think it has an outside chance because it’s definitely not as complex as Mombasa which IMHO is the most complex recommended game in awhile (probably since Ora and Labora).  The high production qualities will certainly not hurt in this regard either.  The artwork is well done, definitely evoking an Oriental theme/feel.   Time will tell whether this has the legs to become a classic, but I like what I’ve seen so far.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Greg S:  Eh.  Another game that, for me, falls into the “decent” category, but there is nothing about it that sets it apart from a myriad of other “good” games.  I tend to enjoy Bruno Cathala’s designs, but this one seems to be nothing special.  I’d play it if asked, but feel no compulsion to play or own it.


Alan How: All the systems work and it’s a decent package. The presentation is standard DoW which means really good, but there was no soul to the game, so I’m with Greg S. I think the AP is limited as it’s a middleweight game and there are not so many options to consider. So it’s decent and I’d play again but it’s not exciting so it’s not one I’ll seek to play in preference to the wide choice we have today.


Brian L (1 play): I’ll admit I was hoping to like this game, but found my first play disappointing. I think this may be a good tactical game, but just not for me. I will level the same complaint against it that I have about Five Tribes. The player before you often changed the board state enough that I am either feeling like I’m spending too long in analysis paralysis re-evaluating moves, or playing quickly and poorly and do missing clever opportunities. Because of this, it was hard for me to distinguish (as an example) the value of choosing a lower or higher number for next turn move order relative to color(s) of boats provided. I only have one play in, so I’m calling this neutral for now, but I’m suspicious it will turn out to be not for me.


Craig M. (1 play): It is hard to get a true feel after just one play, but I did enjoy myself. It felt more tactical than I was expecting. I’ll definitely seek out the chance for a few more plays. My initial thought was while I did like it, I wanted to follow up by playing Five Tribes.


Larry (2 plays):  I’m not sure what to think about this one.  I played the prototype for this last year and really enjoyed it.  But this year, when I played the finished version (which seemed pretty much the same), it fell kind of flat.  I still enjoyed it, but I was hoping it would be a major highlight for me and now I’m not so sure it will turn out that way.  Still, I plan to play this some more and I hope I’ll be able to bring back that lovin’ feeling from last year.


Mary P. (1 play): The game looks really pretty, very colorful, and the components are high quality but the gameplay was just OK.


Dan Blum (2 plays): It’s interesting but I didn’t end up enjoying it that much. My biggest problem with it is related to the issue Brian mentions. In Five Tribes there is definitely the potential for AP because players change the board between your turns, but with a bit of experience you can see what good moves are available and therefore what other players are likely to do, and can also see which moves would benefit other players more than you. Yamatai isn’t as complicated but makes it much more difficult to avoid setting up other players; it’s far too easy to make a play which seems decent but then flip over a building tile for next round which you have perfectly set up for the first player. Possibly you could avoid this by playing a very defensive strategy where you always sell the rarer boats instead of playing them, but that doesn’t seem like a lot of fun.


Chris Wray (1 Play, 4 Players):  Like the others, I agree that this is a solid game, but for me, Yamatai is nothing special, and I’m already looking to trade this away.  As other players have noted, this can inspire AP, but I’ll go further than others and say it is just as bad — if not worse — than Five Tribes.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Larry, Craig M.
  • Neutral. Greg S., Alan, Brian L. , Mary P., Dan Blum, Chris Wray
  • Not for me….


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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