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Yamatai Review – Beauty and the Boats

Bruno Cathala makes some incredible games. As an individual, he is well known in the board game industry, and can easily be called one of the greatest board game designers of all time. Amongst games he has designed (or co-designed) are titles such as Cyclades, 7 Wonders Duel, Kingdomino, Hand of the King, Mr Jack, Jamaica, Kanagawa, and so, so many more.

With a ludography like that (ludography being the term for a bibliography of games) who can blame us when we saw Yamatai, another Cathala game – this time co-designed by Marc Paquien – at the UK Games Expo this year for £15. I love you Chaos Cards.

We’ve played it a few times over the past few weeks, and so today we are going to take a bit of a closer look at the glory that is Yamatai – a game that is fundamentally so simple, but so so good.

Yamatai Review - The Board

The whole Yamatai board…sort of sideways

What is Yamatai?

Yamatai is a board game designed by Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien, in which you play a Japanese aristocrat wanting to raise as much glory or prestige as possible for Queen Himiko, the queen of Yamatai. To do so, you need to use ships and trading routes to build as grand a city as possible across the archipelago.

Yamatai is a game for 2-4 players and takes about 1hr to 1hr 30 mins to play. It is relatively easy to learn and suitable for players aged 12+.

Yamatai Review - The Pieces

Such a beautiful game.

How do you play Yamatai?

So, how is Yamatai played? Well, each player starts with a player sheet, 10 coins, and a set of standard buildings. In a two player game this is 10 buildings each, going down to 6 buildings in a 4 player game.

The board is set up as an archipelago, with 34 islands on it. The islands are set up, each one with a different coloured culture token, and some of the culture tokens also denote that the island is a mountainous region. What this means is they get a mountain tile placed on them as well.

Around the islands are a series of spaces – these will form the basis of the shipping routes throughout the game.

At the top of the board a deck of specialist tiles is placed and five are put at the top of a board forming the specialist market place.

10 fleet tiles are shuffled, and five are placed face up, with five being placed face down. These comprise of a number, relating to turn order for the next round, and a reward. That reward can be 1, 2, or 3 ships. It can also be a special ability such as removing ships from the board or switching culture tokens around.

Finally, a building stack of five buildings is laid out. Each building has a series of boats printed on it, as well as victory points. They come in two flavours – standard (relating to your own standard buildings) or Prestige buildings. Prestige buildings are either Torii or Palaces.

There are five types of boat –

  • Green – Bamboo
  • Brown – Wood
  • Black – Stone
  • Red – Clay
  • Yellow – Gold

Finally, at the beginning of the game, all players have a meeple randomly shuffled and dealt onto a turn track. In a two player game, each player goes twice, having two meeples.

And that is set up.

Yamatai Review - The Player Actions

The player actions mat and hired specialists.

The progression of a turn in Yamatai

So, Yamatai has a really simple turn structure, and one that can easily be explained.

In turn order (where the player is on the turn track), players take it in turns doing up to five actions.

First, they take a fleet tile, and they take the benefit of that tile.

Secondly, they can trade by buying or selling boats. This is at one boat per round initially; however, it can increase with a specialist. Different boats can be bought and sold at different amounts. Gold boats can never be bought or sold, unless a specialist action enables you to do so.

Thirdly, the player places boats on the board. Now there are restrictions for this. Boats must be placed in a consecutive line, and the first boat placed each round must either be the same colour as the boat it is next to or start on an empty entry point on the map.

Fourthly, players can either take one culture token per boat off any island that boat is next to (so three boats can equal three culture tokens), or players can choose to build a building. To build a building, the cost in boats must be around the island. What does this mean? Well, let’s say you want to build a building that costs three bamboo boats. The island you want to build it on must have three green boats around it. It can’t have a culture token on it, so the culture token must have already been taken by this point.

Placing buildings gets bonuses. For instance, if you place next to a Prestige building you gain an additional prestige/victory point. If you build on a mountain you get an additional point, and if you build in a collective group you get 1 coin for every building you own in that group.

Fifthly, players can spend culture tokens to hire a specialist. To buy a specialist players must either spend two culture tokens that are the same, or spend three culture tokens that are different.

Then it is the next player’s turn.

At the end of the round, the face down fleet tiles slide along and get revealed, and the old fleet tiles get reshuffled and placed face down. Game then continues.

The game ends when either the specialists cannot be refreshed, the building tiles cannot be refreshed, or one player runs out of buildings. Then everyone counts up their points – for which it is points printed on building tiles first, then coins (1 point per 5 coins), and the final way is through specialists. Finally, you count any additional glory that you earned through the game.

That is the game. As I said before, simple to learn – really difficult to master.

Yamatai Board Game Review

All the colours!

What is it like playing Yamatai?

Bruno Cathala has done it again. Yamatai is a game that is just up my street. It is simple to learn, but difficult to master. It is easy to enjoy and has as much strategy as you want to put into it. There are several different strategies that can be employed and enjoyed. It isn’t too heavy, it isn’t too light. It’s in that Goldilocks zone of gaming, and it is fantastic to play.

Yeah. Review done.

Okay, that definitely doesn’t constitute a review – however, I have been disappointed by a few games recently and it is so refreshing to have a game where it not only lives up to expectations but surpasses them.

There is something both beautifully simple and complex about Yamatai. As a board game it has a lot going on. There are buildings and specialists and these fleets that you collectively own – but ultimately, it all comes down to moving fluidly with the game to work with it and create this city on the sea.

That sounds a bit arty and pretentious, even I have to admit that, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. Yamatai is a fluid game, and a game where since you are all working with the same pieces on the same board, it is a game where it is very difficult to mess up. Your opponent, for instance, may find a way of building a Palace, and that is all well and good, but you can use it to gain points yourself. Your opponent may find a way of building a Green/Green/Green building, but wait…that sets you up nicely for your Green/Green/Brown that you would like to build.

What this means is that every action remains open. It is always moving with the board to create streams of boats that anyone can further optimise to help complete their goals.

The fleet tiles are a fantastic way of providing a series of resources for players to choose from each turn; however, one of the real places the game shines is with the specialist tiles. The specialists are varied and add a huge amount to the game – whether it is the ability to trade coins, or the ability to treat special buildings as standard buildings for bonuses, or the ability to get a point per three coins at the end of the game – each has a fantastic ability. You also never look at one and think “nah, that’s rubbish”, because they are all pretty decent.

Yamatai Review - Awashima

One of the specialists – Awashima – up close.

My favourite was one that allowed for you to pick up a culture token from anywhere on the board whenever you pick up a culture token. It opened random islands up, as well as made it easier to get specialists – really neat!

All in all, the mechanics work really nicely together. The game is stunning to look at (hands down, one of the best looking games we own) and it has several different ways of gaining points for victory.

You know what – Yamatai has been a really nice change of pace recently. We’ve played so many crunchy games, and so many games of Seafall, that Yamatai kind of acts as a reminder as to what gaming is really about. Yes, gaming is about the challenge and crunching the numbers at times, but it is also about just having fun. YES, you can drink a hoppy craft beer or a fine bottle of Merlot and appreciate it for being high class and sexy, but sometimes all you want is a fruity Tequila Sunrise.

Yamatai is a Tequila Sunrise. Tasty, colourful, sweet, and the more you have of it the happier you get.

In order to make this a balanced review, I am trying to think of negatives about the game, but to be honest I am happy to say that Yamatai is fast approaching our favourite games list.

I suppose, if I wanted to pick holes, it is possible for one player to hog the first turn by choosing the lowest number first, and this can be a fairly tough strategy to play against in a two player game – but you could just argue that it is a good strategy.

No – instead Yamatai happily sits in a comfortable zone. It is challenging but not too crunchy. It is difficult but not too difficult. It has strategy but it won’t melt your brain. All in all, a very balanced game.

Yamatai Review - A Collection of Buildings

A collection of buildings.

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Tequila Sunrise

So now we are going to look at the good, bad, and neutral points about Yamatai. I’m going to try to come up with something negative to balance it out again, but may struggle because it’s a great game.

The Good:

  • Yamatai is stunning. The pieces are beautiful and brightly coloured. The artwork is fantastic (Jérémie Fleury) and brings the game to life.
  • The mechanics are really fluid and it is hard to make a mistake. Both your go and your opponent’s go benefits the board as a whole.
  • Yamatai is as strategic as you want to make it. There are several different ways of scoring points, and that allows for several different strategies throughout the game.
  • The specialists are a brilliant edition to the game. They are all interesting, and there isn’t a single one that is redundant.
  • If you want to understand how balanced a game can be then Yamatai would be a great example. It is incredibly well balanced, and well made. Basically, everything about this game is superbly well done.

The Neutral:

  • It is possible for someone to hog position one in a two player game by simply going for the lowest number. This comes with its own pros and cons, but it can be irritating.

The Bad:

  • Okay, I did actually think of something and it is aesthetic. In a two player game you can only play with Orange and Blue. This is because, for some reason, there are only two player colours that come with 10 buildings each.
Yamatai Review - The Beautiful Board

The beautiful board filling up.

Conclusion: Yamatai Review

Okay, so here we go – summarising Yamatai. Yamatai is an incredibly good game. It is well balanced, fluid (there is that word again), and a smooth gaming experience. It is the gaming equivalent to a fine whisky or coffee. It goes down just right, and we have to love it for that. It is a great Eurogame and one I can already see us breaking out time after time after time. Kudos Bruno Cathala and Marc Paquien – it’s awesome.

And there we have it – a Yamatai review. What are your thoughts? Do you enjoy the game? Have you played it? Do you want to play it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. It’s a beautiful game. I’ve got it, but sadly it’s on my shelf of shame. I got it right after playing a bunch of Five Tribes from the Bruno and Days of Wonder combo. My wife doesn’t like the heavier games, so I was a little worried she might not like Yamatai. I know it’s one I’ll like though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really worth playing so I would recommend you crack it out 😁 it’s also not that heavy. Once you know the rules it’s really smooth to play so I am sure you’ll enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had never heard the word ludography before. Love it.
    The artwork and board look beautiful. I love how ‘crowded’ it looks – like the rivers are full of life. I haven’t played this one before but I might have to check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like yamatai but I could never imagine playing it with more than 2. Turns take waaaaay too long, a lot because of how fluid it is. So while this works in 2 player. You’ll double your non playing time in 3 player, and triple it in 4 player. Either of which would suck all the fun out of the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree it is probably best with a low player count. It works so well with two players. Down time does increase with more due to you taking fewer turns each round. That’s really interesting though that you say that. How do you think that could be improved upon?


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