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In remote times, King Gradlon had the magnificent city of Ys erected for his daughter Dahut. Gargantuan sea-walls protected the city from the violent waves. Dahut decided to make Ys the most powerful place in Brittany. Thus, she dispatched dragons to seize merchant ships loaded with jewels which sailed on the open sea...
The players embody merchant-princes of Ys. By skillfully using their network of brokers, they speculate on the purchase of precious stones, thus amassing gold (represented by victory points). At the end of the game, the winner is the player who has accumulated the most gold.
If you are anything like me, you are predisposed to just expect good games from companies like Uberplay or Days of Wonder. But smaller publishers? I admit, I’m just a little wary. After all, if the game was any good at all, why wouldn’t it be picked up by a bigger publisher? But every once in a while a smaller publisher delivers a real treat to us, and I suspect that most of you will find yourselves agreeing that Ystari Games has done just that.
If you’ve heard anything at all about this game, you’ve probably heard it compared to Aladdin’s Dragons, the Hans im Gluck/Rio Grande production from a few years back. Not a bad comparison at all, in my book. But if you thought Aladdin’s Dragons was just a little too light and random, then Ys may be the game you are looking for.
The game is quite a lavish piece of production and will impress: A big bag full of chunky wooden cylinders in four colors; another medium sized bag full of “gems”; a good sized gameboard (that is well presented and highly functional); 4 flimsy cardboard screen; and a bundle of cards. The illustrations on the cards are a little on the boring side (no pictures of fat, jolly bartenders, or stern, priggish mayors) but all cards are highly functional. (Interestingly, this idea of choosing functionality over theme is, in itself, a theme of Ys!)
The game itself is very easy to learn how to play despite a little bit of confusion in the rulebook. The gameboard has three main areas: the city, the brokers’ area, and the value table. Players place their own pawns either into the city or into the brokers’ area, two pawns at a time – one face-up for everyone to see, and one hidden. Each player does this 4 times, and that concludes the round. Simple, right? Ah, my friends, but this game is tricky, intricate, and like an onion! (Smelly? Stinky? No! Layers! Onions have layers!)
When placing pawns into the city, players must first decide which quarter they want to go into. Each quarter is identical to the others, containing 3 sections. The outside section awards a black gem to the winner (black gems are for end-game bonus points); the middle section awards 3 victory points; the inside section awards a face-up action card that can be used in subsequent rounds. To win the prize, you need to have the highest sum in that section. But wait! That’s not all! Once each section has been awarded, the entire quarter is summed up, and then gems are awarded to the top 3 sums in the quarter. Each quarter has a face-up gem card; the player with the highest sum in that quarter gets to choose 2 gems, then second highest gets one of the remaining gems, with the third highest sum getting the leftover gem. In my playings, gems have been worth close to half the points, so this part of the game is quite important.
Sound interesting so far? We still have a lot of ground to cover! You see, you can also put your pawns into the brokers area. At the beginning of the round, 3 gems are placed at the beginnings of 3 rows in the brokers’ area, and there are four spaces in each row. By placing a broker in this area, you receive 1 VP. And at the end of the round, the player with the highest sum in a row, gets the corresponding gem. But wait! That’s not all! You see, below the brokers’ area is the gem evaluation area: this displays the value of each color gem. The four colors are represented in four columns located below, and in line with the brokers’ area. The sums of the pawns in the rows dictate who gets free gems, and the sums of those same pawns in the columns dictate movement in the value of gems. The column with the highest sum moves up two positions, second goes up one position, third goes down one, fourth goes down two. The end game bonus points for colored gems (again, worth about half the score) are based on this table; so you don’t just want leads in gem colors, you also want to make sure that the colors you are doing well in are the ones that are going to worth the bigger points!
I’m still not finished! At the beginning of the round, players bid two of their pawns for turn order (going last is fairly useful). Then during the round, players use 8 more of their pawns to go onto the board. The leftover pawn is then brought forward and added to the first two pawns: this sum determines tie-breakers. Given that their can be a lot of ties in the game, this is very significant.
I’m not even going to try and list all the action cards. Suffice it to say that they are varied, useful, and well-balanced. They add a little bit of spice to the game, and since they are always face-up, players are aware of which players acquire which cards, and can prepare themselves accordingly. I would have liked illustrations of the character the cards are supposed to represent, but instead, the card functions are illustrated on the cards. Not as colorful, but certainly more useful.
Do you get the sense that this game is a balancing act? If nothing else, it is that. Those chunky wooden pieces can do so many different things in this game, and players need to make each one count. Trying to get key gem colors you need, while staying in the fight to manipulate gem prices, while trying to squeeze out bonus gems, while trying to get good tie- break numbers – well, let’s just say it’s no mean feat! To compare Ys to Aladdin’s Dragons is somewhat useful, but Ys is Aladdin’s Dragons on steroids. I think “AD” is tense, but Ys is much more so – very much aimed at gamers. Aladdin’s Dragons is more colorful, literally and figuratively, and tried to provide a good thematic ambience. Ys is trying to do something different: highly functional, delicately balanced. This emphasis is found throughout the game, sacrificing “color” for trickiness and balance. So which will you prefer? I’m a theme freak, no doubt about it, and when it comes right down to it, I’d probably take Aladdin’s Dragons myself. But if you want a bigger, grander game with a lot more tactical punch, and don’t mind a bit more abstraction, I must say to you that Ys feels like a finely tuned racing engine. And gamers should take Ys out for a spin.
There were a lot of games released in the Essen fair of 2004, many of them quite excellent and many of them receiving quite a bit of press before the fair. A few games, came in with little fanfare but were discovered to be quite excellent games. Ys was one of the surprise hits of Essen, wowing critics and gamers with its mechanics. The first game of a new French company - the name alone caused a great deal of conversation amongst my gaming groups (exactly how do you pronounce it, anyway?). [Editor's note: According to the designer, it is pronounced something like 'Hiss']
I’ve seen many on the internet compare the game to Aladdin’s Dragons by Richard Breese; and indeed, there are several similarities. However, I believe that Ys is a tremendous semi-blind bidding game with various options yet simplistic game play. The components are top notch, and I’ve found that the game works well both with casual gamers and with “hard-core” board gamers.
The theme of the game is that of players attempting to get as many jewels as they can - especially those that are valuable. Players are sending out merchants both to procure gems, as well as to speculate in the market, affecting the prices and values of the jewels. A board is placed in the middle of the table with two major play sections. One of the sections is the City of Ys. This city is broken up into four neighborhoods, each divided into three areas: a port area, commercial area, and palace area. The other section is the market. This market has four tracks for four different colored jewels (red, yellow, green, and blue), showing the current quoted value of each jewel. One jewel of each color is placed on the middle of the matching track - the starting value of the gems. Above the tracks is a grid (the grid is four by four, but only the bottom three rows are used in a four player game) - this is the market area where players affect the prices of the gems.
Each player takes eleven “brokers” (tokens with a number showing on one end) in their color, with values: “0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, and 4,” placing them behind their screen. A matching token of each player’s color is placed on a scoring track, which wraps around the board; and a neutral token is placed on a track numbered from one to four to denote the four rounds of the game. A pile of ship cards are shuffled and placed in the middle of the city. A deck of special cards is shuffled, and three are placed on top of a wild jewel special card in each neighborhood. Four “order” cards are shuffled with one dealt face up to each player. The first round of the game is ready to begin.
Each round has four phases:
- Setup Phase: Five ship cards are flipped over. One of them is placed in each of the four neighborhoods, showing the gems available there (two of the larger colored gem, and one each of the two smaller gems); and the fifth is used to show what jewels go in the market. Three gems, the same color as the gems on the card, are placed next to each of the three rows in the marketplace. The top card of each character deck is flipped over, showing the available characters in each neighborhood.
- Turn Order Phase: Each player chooses two of their eleven brokers secretly and reveals them simultaneously, placing them in front of their screens. The player whose total is the highest (with ties broken by whoever has the lowest numbered order card) determines his turn order for that round, taking the matching card; with all other players following suit.
- Placing Phase: In turn order, each player places two of their brokers on the board - one face up and one face down. The player may place the broker in one of the twelve areas in the city (unlimited brokers may be placed in each area) or in one of the twelve market grid spaces (one broker per space). If the player places a broker in the market, they immediately gain one point for speculating in the market. After all players have placed eight of their brokers on the board, they place their remaining broker in front of their screen, joining the two brokers they used to bid for turn order.
- Counting Phase: Starting with neighborhood one, each neighborhood is scored. All hidden brokers are revealed, and each player totals the sum of all their brokers’ values. The player with the highest sum takes two gems of their choice from those available in that neighborhood (a player who takes a white gem instead chooses a gem color of their choice). The player with the second highest sum takes one of the remaining two gems, and the player with the third highest sum receives the remaining gem. Each area in the neighborhood is then scored. The player with the highest sum in the port area receives one black gem (this is the ONLY way to get them); the player with the highest sum in the commercial area receives three victory points; and the player with the highest sum in the palace area receives the special card to use on a future turn. The market is then scored, with all hidden brokers revealed. The player who has the highest sum in each row wins the gem next to that row. Any ties in the above contests are broken by the player who has a higher sum on their three brokers in front of the screen; further ties are broken by the order cards. All gems won are placed in front of the screens. In each column in the market, the sum of ALL brokers is figured. The gem whose column has the highest sum goes up two spaces in value; the gem whose column has the second highest sum goes up one space; the next gem goes down one space; and the gem with the lowest sum goes down two spaces. Ties are broken by whatever column has more brokers in it, then by the tie process mentioned above. The player with the highest sum of all their brokers in the market may then move the quote of one of the stones up or down one space. In all of the above scorings, “0” valued brokers are basically treated as if they are worth “.5”, as they are actually greater than “0” but less than “1”. All brokers, after scoring, are placed behind the screens; and the next round begins.
During the game, players may play the special cards they have won (called character cards). These provide a variety of effects, such as allowing a player to peek at face down brokers of opponents, getting free gems, gaining instant victory points, or other effects. The last character card in each neighborhood is always one white gem, allowing the player to take a gem of their choice.
At the end of the game, players score all their gems. Black gems score differently for how many a player has (one black gem = 1 point, while 5 black gems = 16 points). Players also score points for the other four colored gems, depending on two factors - how many they have, and how valuable the gems are in the market. For example, the player who has the most gems of the most valuable type scores 24 points, while the player who has the least gems of the third most valuable type scores 4 points. Each player will receive a score for each color, as long as they have at least one gem of that color. The player with the most points then wins the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The bits for the game are top-notch, starting from the sturdy box to the absolutely stunning board. Everything is very crisp and clear, from the artwork to the spaces on the board. The gems are small square plastic pieces, with ridges in one side and a bit of gloss, giving them a nice jewel-like look. The brokers are tall wooden cylinders with stickered numbers placed on one side. I really enjoyed using them rather than simple counters, as they were easier to move and see on the board. The screens for the players, on the other hand, were a simple cardboard piece that folds in half to stand up. I would have preferred, on the cards or on the board, that there be some sort of reference sheet, denoting the values of the jewels, etc. - but there is none. You can download one from the official web page, www.ystari.com/ys, which is helpful; but one should have been included in the box. Also, the special cards have no text, which allows the game to be multilingual, but causes one to have to look each one up the first time they are used. These are minor concerns, mostly about how smooth first playings are; and overall the game looks tremendous on the table, a very beautiful game.
2.) Rules: The rulebook comes in three languages: French, German, and English, each on six full-colored pages. The rules are formatted very well, with a full-blown play example included. I found them very easy to teach, and the only thing that hindered me a little was the lack of player aid. Once I print that out, I expect that the game will be even simpler to teach. (Note to all game designers: ALWAYS include a player aid!)
3.) Number of Players: The game is designed for four players, but three players can easily be accommodated by only using three of the neighborhoods. Rules for two players and five players are going to hit the internet soon, and spaces were even left in the game for a fifth player (although I have no idea how that will work, since no fifth color is left in the box). The game seems to work well with three players, but I much prefer it with four.
4.) Variant: There are two variants in the rulebook: the Ys express (which allows the game to be played faster, and I see no reason for this), and The King’s Favor. This variant allows a player to place one of their brokers in front of their screens in a special box on the board - the king’s “throne room”. They then take one extra “2” broker from the box and add it to their stock. (Three extra “2” brokers are included in the game for each color). At the end of the game, the players score points (12, 7, 3, 0) according to how large the sum of all their brokers in the throne room is. This is an excellent variant, as it adds a good choice to the game; and I see no reason why not to just include it in the basic game.
5.) Strategy: The game is full of strategy, especially when using the King’s Favor variant. Each player always has twelve choices of where to put each broker; and with half of the brokers hiding there is the opportunity to use a lot of bluffing. At first the “0” brokers seem rather useless; but they break a lot of ties and can be used for bluffing, allowing a player to greatly affect the market value of certain gems. The market was the most fascinating part of the game for me, watching how the players tried to drive up the prices of certain jewels, while at the same time trying to get as many gems as possible. Each turn is always a slight agony, trying to figure out which brokers to place and where to place them; but the game flows smoothly regardless. I found the auctioning mechanic unbelievably interesting, as players can bid low so that they have more power in the placement phase; but they then lose all ties, which can be very devastating. And the black jewels are yet another wild card. There is just so much to think about, and yet it’s remarkably simple!
6.) Aladdin’s Dragons: I’ve seen many people compare the game to Aladdin’s Dragons; and that is a fair comparison, as the placement of the brokers is similar to the placing of thieves in the Mr. Breese’s game. However, the games play out very differently. After multiple playings, I really think that the marketplace alone makes the games very different, as all the treasures in Aladdin’s Dragons are the same value. The special cards are different, and the themes are different - I think both games are excellent, and you should own them both. But if you only want one game of each type, then my suggestion is to flip a coin. Both accomplish the goal of being a fun, theme-filled, excellent mechanic game - just in different ways. The only determining factor would be blind-bidding. If you love blind-bidding, get Aladdin’s Dragons; otherwise, pick up Ys, since the bidding is much more controlled.
7.) Fun Factor: As you can tell, I really enjoyed playing the game. It was easy to teach and learn, and the theme fit the game enough to make it a snap to play. The game play lasts just about an hour, and it’s certainly an engaging hour. There’s a lot of interaction between players, but not enough that it feels too “mean-spirited.”
When I first heard the title of the game, Ys, I didn’t think much of it. But after my first playing, I knew I had a winner on my hands; and subsequent playings have brought that out. The blind-bidding system is superb with partial knowledge helping the players make more informed decisions. The game itself is beautiful and simple to play. It’s a very impressive start for Ystari Games, and I’m looking forward to any of their future games; this is an exceptional one - I highly recommend it!
“Real men play board games.”