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YS

Reviewed by Mark Delano

(Ystari Games, 3-4 players, ages 12 and up, about 90 minutes; about $50)

 

Sometimes new games are eagerly anticipated months before their release. Others, like Ystari Game’s Ys, seem to appear out of nowhere. Created by otherwise unknown designer Cyril Demaegd, it became one of the more popular new games at Essen this October. What interested me was not the theme, merchant-princes collecting gems, but the mechanisms involved in collecting the gems

The production values for the game are quite impressive for a small print run from a single game publisher. The gems are the prettiest component, consisting of plastic squares with a textured surface. The gems come in six colors, four regular colors, one special black set, and one additional wild white gem. Each player receives 11 “brokers”, wooden cylinders with a number from 0 to 4, that allow the merchant-princes to exercise their influence. The distribution of numbers on the brokers is weighted toward the 1 and 3. Each player also has a screen to hide their unplayed brokers. There are three sets of cards. Order cards show who goes first on each round and also serve as a final tiebreak. Character cards are special powers that can be utilized on future game turns. Ship cards determine what gems appear where, with each card depicting three gems.Ys

The board is the least attractive element of the game. Although the colors are bright, the heavy use of brown and orange gives the board a murky feel. The score track around the edge is marked off at 5 and 10 point increments, a pet peeve of mine is when score tracks fail to provide this. The center of the board is called the City. It is divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant containing three areas. On one side of the board is a grid called the Market, where the relative values of gems can be manipulated. Underneath that is a track for recording those changes.

Each turn consists of four phases. The first phase is setup, which consists of Ship cards being drawn to determine where gems are placed on the board, one for each quadrant. One additional Ship card is flipped up to pick three gems for the market. One Character card is also placed in each quadrant. The second phase is turn order. Each player secretly picks two brokers to use as their bid for turn order. Going from high bid to low, players pick the Order card for the position that they want to play. Generally it is advantageous to go last.

Phase three is the heart of each turn. During this phase each player picks two of their brokers to place on the board. One broker is placed face up, the other face down. Play continues around until all players have only one broker left. Each area on the board can hold as many brokers as players desire to place there, except for the Market which allows only one broker per grid location.

Each quadrant in the City has three items up for grabs. The first is the Character card, the second 3 victory points, the third a single black gem. Another element to consider is that whoever plays the most points in each quadrant gets to select an extra gem from the associated Ship card, and gets to pick their gems first. Playing a piece in the Market does three things. It can potentially change the relative value of the gem color in the column that it is played. It could give the player the gem in the row that it is played. It also provides one victory point.

The final phase consists of resolving all of the previous broker play. The last broker of each player is placed in front of their screen and joins the two they previously placed for turn order. This total serves to break any ties that occur on the board.

Each quadrant is resolved in turn, flipping up any face down brokers and calculating the winners in each area and quadrant. If a player gets a white gem,they immediately exchange it for one of the other non-black gems. The Market resolves last, and the relative gem values are adjusted immediately after the Market is finished.Ysbig

After four turns of this, the game is done. Final scoring consists of checking which gem is worth the most and the quantities of each player. The most victory points are awarded for having the most gems in the highest valued gem, with lesser ranked gems and lesser ranked quantities reducing the reward. Ties resolve at the lowest value. For instance if there is a tie for second and third both players get the points for third. Black gems are special, with victory points given for quantity regardless of the holdings of the other players.

The key to the game seems to be maximizing the utility of each broker you play. Bluffing with a face down 0 broker can be key in a turn. Early on, when gem values are fluid, it is probably best to grab what you can. Later, it can pay off to specialize in one or two gem colors, and black gems are always worth picking up. Some of the most difficult decisions come from deciding when to play in the Market, and which gems to try and improve. The interaction of your choices, as every broker placement effects multiple things, makes for an entertaining experience.

Although I enjoy the game, there are several issues that will keep me from considering it a classic. The board is poorly designed for reminding players which areas provide which rewards. The Character cards have a similar problem, using symbols that have to be looked up the first few games. Amongst inexperienced players this can make the game drag unnecessarily. Early plays saw games well over two hours on actual play time that shouldn’t take much more than an hour. Losing on a tie-break, particularly for turn order, is inordinately painful. Speaking of ties, the difference in ownership of one gem at the end can result in a 36 point swing. This is a huge variance when final scores are in the 90 to 100 point range. There is an alternate rule called the King’s Favor which I found to add nothing to the game despite praise from other players. At the end of each turn, players take one of the three tie-break brokers and places it face down in the Throne Room. They receive a 2 broker as a replacement. At the end of the game players acquire victory points for having more broker points than other players in the Throne Room. The problem is that during the counting phase of each turn all of a player’s pieces end up revealed at one point or another. You can figure out exactly what each player put in the Throne Room on the previous turn!

I don’t mean to sound overly critical of the game. There are enough nagging problems that it feels more like a near miss than a clean winner. However, I think there are many great ideas and the first few plays will have you puzzling over appropriate strategies. I enjoyed the time spent. For those willing to spend the money on a small print game with an eye to support future releases, it is well worth the price. – – – – – – Mark Delano


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