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YOKOHAMA

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

YOKOHAMA (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; $59.95)

 

I am a history buff, so I appreciate game designs that provide a bit of historical background when incorporating the theme.  Even a smidgen of interesting history gets me more interested in the game.  A smidgen is all that is provided in the introduction to Yokohama by designer Hisashi Hayashi, but fortunately the game itself is so good I can forgive this lack of historical depth.

Yokohama was once a sleepy Japanese fishing village that became a major trading hub with the advent of foreign trade.  Players take part in this booming economy by producing resources, fulfilling contracts and establishing influence in the powerful Church and Customs House.  Technological improvements are necessary to stay a step ahead of one’s competitors, and garnering the favor of foreign agents is also sure to be beneficial.  The player who best excels at these tasks will become a powerful figure, not only in Yokohama, but all of Japan.

The “board” is comprised of two dozen tiles and placards representing various districts and institutions in the city.  Each of these districts will generate resources or allow the player to take specific actions.  Their effect(s) is triggered when a player moves his “president” token to that district.  To move, however, the player must have assistants in not only the target district, but each district through which the president travels on his journey.

Each player receives an assortment of assistants, shops, trading houses and one president.  Most of these items begin in the player’s warehouse and are therefore inaccessible until the player is able to unlock them by executing specific actions.  This is similar to the mechanism used in the classic game of El Grande, and it forces players to make sure they regularly move items from their warehouse into their ready supply. Players also begin with a few coins and one “order” card, which they can fulfill by gathering the appropriate resources pictured thereupon.

A player’s turn opens by placing assistants into the districts, either two into one district, or one into three different districts.  Placing assistants is usually free, but costs one coin if a foreign president is present.  These placements not only help facilitate the movement of one’s president, but also increases the strength the player has in those districts.  Strength is derived from one’s assistants and shops, as well as a trading post and president present in a district.  The greater the strength, the more benefit one will derive.  For example, having a strength of five in the Silk Mill will allow the player to take four bales of silk (and construct a shop or trading post), while a strength of two only gives the player one bale and does not allow the player to construct a building.  It is wise to have as great a strength as possible in a district so as to receive the greatest benefit. This, of course, takes proper planning and execution.

After placing assistants, the player must either move, remove or place his president.  Moving is by far the most common of these choices as it is rare for a player to remove his president from the board which immediately ends his turn.  A president may move as far as desired, but a friendly assistant must be present in each district through with the president moves.  Further, if the president moves through an area containing a foreign president, he must pay that player a coin.  It is wise to have a supply of coins on hand as this can happen regularly.  Note that a president cannot end his movement in a district containing a foreign president which is a very frustrating rule.  Many times the desired district is occupied by an opponent and sometimes it may take several turns before that district is available.

The player may now enjoy the benefits of the district to which he moved his president. These benefits vary widely, and may include gaining resources (silk, tea, fish or copper), money or imports, gaining order or technology cards, gaining influence in the Church or Customs House; exchanging resources, unlocking assistants and/or buildings from his warehouse etc.  As mentioned, the greater a player’s strength in the district, the greater the benefit he will receive.  Further, if a player’s strength is four or five,  he is allowed to construct a shop or trading post. These increase a player’s strength in an area, earn benefits depending upon the space upon which they are constructed, and may also help fulfill the requirements of a public “Achievement” card, which will earn the player victory points.  If a player possesses the sole trading house allowed in a district, he receives a coin every time that district’s power is activated.

Note that when constructing, the buildings must be in a player’s ready supply and not still present on his warehouse.  There a few ways in which to move buildings and assistants from one’s warehouse, the most common being the Employment Agency district.  This is usually a highly coveted location, so wise players will jump on it whenever it is  available.  However, make sure you have a supply of coins, as while there in no cost to unlock assistants,  shops and trading posts cost money.

After executing a district’s ability, the player must remove all of his assistants present in the area (but not buildings).  Thus, the player’s strength in the area is usually significantly decreased, forcing the player to once again place assistants in that area if he desires to use its ability again in the future.  Fortunately, assistants return to the player’s ready supply and not the warehouse.

Both at the beginning and end of a player’s turn, he may take “additional” actions, which usually involve fulfilling orders and/or achievements and using a foreign agent.  A player must already possess an order card to complete it and must pay the indicated number and type of resources.  Order cards will reward the player with victory points and, sometimes, additional  benefits.  New order cards can be obtained by visiting the Dock or Port locations.  Order cards also have an additional benefit as they are related to a specific foreign country as indicated on the card.  Collecting sets of different nationalities will reward points at the end of the game (0 – 12 points, depending upon the size  of the set), and if a player collects two cards of the same nationality, he acquires the matching foreign agent.  Foreign agents can be used during the game to activate an additional district, thereby gaining its benefits, or saved for a victory point apiece.

Technology cards give the player immediate or ongoing benefits.  These can be acquired by visiting the Laboratory or Research Center.  These cards are also affiliated with a specific nationality and are matched with Order cards for victory point and foreign agent purposes.   The powers given by Technology cards are varied and can be quite beneficial so they should not be ignored.  Trust me, as I speak from experience!

There are numerous ways in which the game can end, including a player placing all of his shops or trading houses, the deck of Order or Technology cards expiring, or the specified number of assistants being placed on the Church or Customs House boards.  Players get one more round, after which victory points are tallied.  Bonuses are scored for majority and secondary presence on the aforementioned Church and Customs House boards, possessing the most or second most value of Technology cards, sets of nationalities as depicted on the Order and Technology  cards, and a few points for leftover money, resources, agents and imports.  Final scores will usually be in the 100s or more.

Yokohama is a fascinating game that gives players an abundance of choices and strategic paths to pursue.  There is a lot to consider and ponder, which can cause a bit of downtime but generally the game moves along at a fairly swift pace.  Although the box suggests a 90-120 minutes playing time, in our experience, a typical game can usually be played in two to three hours.  Players can get creative in how they use the various powers granted by the districts, construction spaces and Technology cards.  It is truly a challenge to combine and manipulate the numerous aspects and powers and play well.

There doesn’t appear to be a dominant strategy and a mixed approach seems just as reasonable as concentrating on one feature.  In one game that I won, I concentrated on fulfilling Order cards and completely ignored Technology cards.  A similar  approach in a future game, however, failed spectacularly as an opponent who concentrated on acquiring Technology cards stomped us.

Yokohama does take a while to teach and initially seems overwhelming to new players.  However, it is really not all that difficult to understand and, after a turn or two, most new players grasp the concept and can play with few additional questions or confusion.  Developing a winning strategy, of course, is considerably more challenging!

For me, Yokohama has just about everything I seek in a deeper strategy game:  abundant choices, clever and original mechanisms, opportunity for creative moves, numerous strategic paths  to pursue and explore and a theme that fits reasonably well.  I also appreciate that the game is not rules-heavy and doesn’t feel like work.  Having all of these features present in a game is a rarity and Yokohama is one of those rare gems.  So far, for me, it is the best game of the year. – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


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