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YSPAHAN

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Ystari Games/Rio Grande Games, 3-4 players, ages 8 and up, 45-60 minutes; $49.95)

 

Every game company believes in their line. On some level, the powers that be within the company need to believe that every game is a winner. Unfortunately, as we all know, while hope may spring eternal, hope does not always translate into reality and far too often, companies produce clinkers along with their better offerings. But one company seems to be on a winning streak. Ystari Games, to my mind, has, to date, only produced winners, from its initial release Ys (Winter 2005 GA REPORT) followed by Caylus (Winter 2006 GA REPORT) to Mykerinos (Summer 2006 GA REPORT). In Yspahan, their fourth and newest release, players find themselves immersed in the center of the Persian Empire in 1598 and, as merchants, compete to sell goods to caravans, place goods in the most advantageous shops and construct buildings. Does Yspahan preserve this streak?

Yspahan, a Sébastien Pauchon, design, comes in a bookshelf box containing a bunch of playing boards (depicting the city, the town and caravans as well as individual player boards), 18 cards, camel and coin pieces, 9 white dice and 3 yellow dice, wooden cubes and pawns.yspahan

The City board depicts the city of Yspahan divided into four neighborhoods. In each neighborhood are color-coded “sets” of shops (called “souks”). Dividing the city, from east to west and north to south is a road that the “Supervisor” will travel during the course of the game.

The Tower board will determine, in concert with the outcome of the dice, which actions are available in a turn. Individual player boards show the various buildings that a player may construct (using gold and camels) to gain certain advantages as well as extra Victory Points. The final board, the Caravan, can also generate VPs as a player’s cubes populate the caravan track as it is scored immediately if filled but scored regardless at the end of each “week” of game play.

Players begin with a set of cubes in their chosen color and 2 gold coins. Each turn consists of two phases: supplying and actions.

Supply involves taking the 9 white dice and rolling them. (Up to three additional dice may be rolled – the yellow ones – at the cost of 1 gold per die.) But if you assume that dice are used in the standard way in Yspahan, you would be very wrong.

It is not the number rolled, per se, that affects choices; it is the number of the numbers rolled that counts. ALL of the lowest rolled dice (say three 1s) are placed on the first row of the town board (indicating camels) while ALL of the HIGHEST rolled dice (say one 6) is placed on the highest row (indicating gold). Remaining dice are placed, with all identical numbers placed together, in ascending order, on the rows representing the four neighborhoods. Now, beginning with the start player, ALL players get a chance to choose one group of dice from the town board.

The number of dice in a row on the town board indicates how many of a particular action can be taken. In the example above, with three dice on the camel row, the player may choose that row and take 3 camels from the supply. Another player may then decide to take the one die in the gold row and receive 1 gold piece. Another player may opt to take dice from one of the occupied neighborhood rows and place a number of cubes equal to the number of dice on that space in that particular neighborhood. (It should be noted that any yellow dice present only work for the player who paid for them. Once that player has chosen his action the yellow dice are removed from the board.)

When placing cubes in neighborhoods, a player may claim any set of unoccupied buildings. Once any player has placed a cube in any of the colored sets of buildings, that set is off-limits to other players. Another restriction is that if you cannot start a new souk if you already have an unfinished one in that neighborhood. If you don’t like the choices remaining when it comes to make your pick, every space offers you two additional possibilities: you can move the Supervisor or take a card.

At the beginning of the game, the white pawn (the “Supervisor”) is placed at the crossroads of the neighborhoods. A player may move the Supervisor in one direction (north or south, east or west) a number of spaces equal to the number on the dice in the row picked. Movement can be reduced or extended by paying 1 gold per additional space. Should the Supervisor find himself opposite a shop occupied by a cube, that cube is removed from the building and placed on the first available space on the Caravan board. But here is where those camels can make a difference. Rather than losing that cube to the caravan track, a player may use one of his camels and place a cube from his reserve onto the track, maintaining his presence in that building!

The final alternative is to take ONE card (no matter how many dice are on the row). ALL cards in the deck are good so the last option is not the least. Their positives ranged from awarding you more camels or gold, converting camels (or gold) directly into Victory Points, placing cubes in buildings or on the caravan track and make constructing special buildings easier. Multiple cards may be played on your turn and there is no hand limit.

Each turn, players have the option of constructing one or more of the six special buildings displayed on their individual board. They may be built in any order, construction requiring varying amounts of camels and gold, but all offer certain advantages, increasing camel or gold production, increasing the Supervisor’s movement at no extra cost, earning extra bonus cards and more. Although building the first two buildings are their own reward, the next three built give you 5 Victory Points each and, if you’re able to construct the sixth building, you get 10 more VPs!

Each round of play is considered at day. At the end of the seventh turn (one week), points are tallied. Each completed souk in each neighborhood scores the specified number of points (plus two more VPs if the player has built the special Bazaar building). In addition, the caravan is scored. Players receive VPs equal to the number of cubes in the caravan track multiplied by the highest line (1, 2 or 3) that at least one of their cube occupies. Now the Supervisor returns to his center position, the next week begins and play resumes. At the end of the third week, the player with the most accumulated VPs wins!

The unique use of dice make Yspahan stand out as something fresh and different. The clever arrangement of the dice forces you to make choices as to where to place your cubes to maximize your return on your investment. Investing in neighborhoods 1 and 2 is easier than in areas 3 or 4 as the chances for multiple actions in the latter areas is a much more infrequent occurrence. On the other hand, payoffs for more accessible areas is less, in some cases, much less. Another resource to use wisely is those camels. Their multiple abilities – in caravans, in building, in allowing cubes from your reserve to occupy caravan spaces without losing your presence in a neighborhood – are ALL valuable so the “proper” way of using them is largely based on your approach in generating Victory Points. By incorporating so many different scoring threads, Yspahan creates a tapestry of seamless design resulting in engaging and satisfying play. After several plays, we have yet to discover a definitive path to victory indicating a well conceived design masterfully executed.

At the beginning of this review, we wondered if Yspahan continued Ystari’s streak of quality games. Fortunately for game players, the answer is a resounding YES! . – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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