November 11, 2011

Board Game Review: Yspahan

Yspahan (Ystari/Sebastien Pauchon, 2006)
3-4 players / 8+ / 45-75 minutes

"Mustafa!  You miserable miscreant!  Get your lazy rear up off the ground.  I didn't hire you to lay around in the sun all day.  You can't get a tan, anyhow!  We have work to do.  Goods to deliver.  Shops to visit.  Gold to earn.  All for me!  How am I to be the wealthiest merchant in all the city with you snoring daylight away?!  Now quit wasting my time and let's get this stuff on your back!"


"Oh, unbelievable...did you really just spit on me?"


"Lousy camel..."

What You Get:

This review is slightly different than my others, as we have only played the online/PC version.  So while I cannot speak to the quality of the components, I can pass along what is included.  First, there is a colorful, pastel city board, wonderfully rendered in the Windows version.  You will also have four player boards to keep track of buildings and a caravan board.  Then there are cubes.  This is a Euro, after all.  Happily, the camels are represented by wonderful little camel meeples, or cameeples, I guess.  They even spit!  Okay, so no, not really.  But they are a nice wee thematic touch in a title otherwise unencumbered by its theme.  Especially when the gold is just yellow, wooden discs.  Yawn.  The dice, at least, appear to be big and chunky and wooden and fun to roll.  There are 18 cards which give certain benefits.  If you have difficulty with the icons on the cards, the rule book provides a lot of deciphering help.

What comes out of the box. Courtesy William Hunt, BGG.
The Quick Rundown:

Yspahan pits you against 2-3 other merchants in 16th century Arabia, vying for gold, camels, and control of various city districts.  Whoever manages these resources best earns renown throughout the land for his vast tracts of...points!  You score these points by claiming colored sets of shops in any of four city districts, or by sending goods onto a separate caravan track, or by building a progression of six unique structures which also give you certain benefits in play.

Each turn represents one day and you have 21 days (or three weeks) to find ways to score points.  The unique twist to this standard Euro title is that 9-12 dice will determine what is available each day.  At the beginning of the day, the first player (which varies each turn) will roll the dice and then group and allocate them to a resource "ladder" in ascending order according to their face values.  Dice on the bottom rung allow you to collect camels, while dice on the top rung allow you to collect gold, and any of the four rungs in between let you place cubes on shops in the designated city districts.  How many of each you get depends on the number of dice on the ladder rung.  For example, if you choose the three 4's on the "Chest District" ladder rung, you are allowed to place a cube on up to three shops in that district.  If you take the one 6 value die on the top rung, you collect one gold.  Once a rung's dice are taken, that resource or action is no longer available to others for the remainder of the day.

If the available resources remaining on the ladder don't float your boat, you have a couple of options.  First you can draw a card.  This is not a bad option as cards are always beneficial.  Two, you can move the supervisor a number of spaces on the city streets equal to the pip value of a single dice on the ladder rung you choose.  You can increase or decrease that number of spaces by paying gold or building a particular structure.  Wherever the supervisor lands, any cube on an adjacent shop gets sent to the caravan waiting outside of town.  This might immediately score points for its owner.  When all the camels on the caravan are filled, it leaves town, scoring more points for everyone based on where their goods are located in line.

A for Adults:
The Windows version game in-progress.

It's kind of funny.  Most of the games we play have a recommended age range older than my kids.  Undeterred we take them head on, conquering any mechanic, rule, cube, or victory point track along the way.  Sure there are bumps in the road and minor blunders (not the least of which are committed by me, the adult!), but my kids will slip comfortably and smoothly into many a title with an age rating fully 5 years older.  There's a lot to be analyzed there in a future blog post; but for now, it mainly causes me to question what in the world that number on the box means or what it is supposed to represent?  And Yspahan only reinforces that sentiment, but from the opposite spectrum.  I'm not really convinced that this title is all that more complicated in its ruleset than either Kingsburg (10+) or Cyclades (13+).  Plus Kingsburg offers far less strategic scope, but has an older recommendation than Yspahan?  In any event, at 8+ Yspahan possesses simple rules that children can certainly learn without trepidation, yet belies a thoroughly strategic depth in game play that is often "above their heads."

I say that because Yspahan's strategic reach is mixed with a heavy dose of tactics in such a way that it feels very chess-like in nature.  You must have a plan and stubbornly work towards it; but you must be able to think and react on the fly, too.  The pressure is on, as well, with the limited number of turns to implement your plans.  That style certainly appeals to a good number of gamers.  It did not click with my kids and I suspect that would be a similar sentiment with most children.  Game play proceeds in a move/counter-move manner whereby you're just as concerned with what other players are doing as with what you want to accomplish yourself.  Apart from the tempered supervisor, it's not that you are directly attacking or hindering your opponents in any large fashion.  However, any move a player makes can potentially affect others in a few ways.

First, once you begin placing cubes on a set of colored shops in a district, that set is off-limits to other players (until the end of a week, when all shops are scored and then cleared for the next 7 turns).  Each set earns its owner fluctuating points based on which district it is located and how many shops are in that set - but only if you own all the shops of that color.  Often times, you can start to be locked out of some prime real estate by Day 2 or 3 because other players have already started hanging their shingles out in various sets and districts.  You could use the supervisor to evict some one, but it's a slow process with, usually, one cube at a time.

Cameeples on the Caravan track.
Courtesy David Cox, BGG.
That supervisor is the second chess-like element, so it's fitting that it is a pawn.  This guy gives you a couple options.  One, you can use him to send your own goods to the caravan and score immediate points.  Plus when a completed caravan is scored, the more cubes you have on it, the more points you'll earn.  Or two, you can use the supervisor as a mild "take-that" mechanic in breaking up monopolies.  While sending your opponent to the caravan may score him some points, it may be worth it if you can break up a set of shops that would otherwise score him even more.  This is an especially frustrating tactic towards the end of the week when he might not have time to reclaim his lost business.

The last, but certainly not least, move/counter-move aspect lies in the dice selection on the resource ladder.  Once a set of dice are taken, that resource is unavailable to the remaining players until the next turn.  If you're trying to complete a set of shops in the "Barrel District," but there are no dice on that ladder rung, then you're just out of luck.  You will often need to alter your plans slightly based on what's available when your turn comes around.  You can always take a card, which may seem like a lame pass, but cards are very good in Yspahan.  Still, turn order is important.  Not only does the first player have first choice of available resources, but she can also pay gold in order to roll up to 3 extra dice which only she can use that turn!

Ironically, the serious Euro gamers that might gravitate towards the strong balance of strategy and tactics that this title offers may be turned off by another mechanic: the dice.  Luck plays an influential role here by determining how much of each resource is available.  It is often the case you are able to grab the resource you need, but not enough of it.  And while the cards are all beneficial, the boost can be anywhere from positive to tremendous, depending on your situation when you draw the card.  Some of this randomness can be mitigated by the six structures you can build, but probability is always lurking its head.  For some hardcore gamers, it will lurk enough to sour their taste for future plays.

The ladder. Couresty Jorg Kuck, BGG.
My kids can handle the luck.  Where the disconnect between them and Yspahan seems to lie is in its theme.  Honestly I share it.  Simply put, I can appreciate, as an adult, this game's uniqueness for what it is.  My kids, however, have little desire to explore it further.  The historic trading motif is not necessarily exciting in and of itself.  But then simply placing and removing cubes from one spot to another only exacerbates the detachment between mechanics and intended setting.  My children tend to enjoy games with an imaginative narrative or ones that create an epic arc.  Yspahan is decidedly more abstract.  So our hang-up with its thematic veneer is not really a criticism of the game - it is designed as it was meant to be.  However, I note the issue as one that will limit its enjoyment in mixed-age groups as probably unappealing to the majority of children and even teenagers.  Hence the 'A' rating.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I give Yspahan a 5 on the Board Game Geek scale (Average game, slightly boring, take it or leave it).  If my enjoyment of a game rested moreso on mechanics, this would be rated higher as it is certainly a solid design and probably many gamers' cup-of-tea.  However, theme is too significant a personal consideration for me to rate Yspahan any higher.  While I enjoy the unique dice allocation mechanic as a refreshing 15-minute diversion on the computer once in a while, the theme and game play has failed to draw my children.  Even amongst gamers that favor lightly themed abstracts, this sneakily thinky Euro is probably best left in their adult peer gaming groups.

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