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(Worth 3,999 Funagain Points!)
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1598. Yspahan the Fair becomes the capital of the Persian Empire. Thus, being placed at the center of the world, the city enjoys a period of cultural and economic blossoming. The cities and villages of the region intend to take advantage of this expansion. Caravans loaded with goods and jewels set out for the desert, bearing the promises of a radiant future.
The players embody merchants trading with Yspahan. Meaning to take advantage of the coming of the Shah's Supervisor, they score points by placing their goods in the right shops, by sending them to the Caravan, and by constructing buildings. At the end of the game, the player with the highest score is the winner.
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NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine
Ystari Games is batting “1,000” with me. I have thoroughly enjoyed every game in their line, and so had high hopes for their latest release, Yspahan, which is designed by newcomer Sebastien Pauchon. I was not disappointed.
The Persian city of Yspahan has become the empire’s capital, and is enjoying a cultural and economic boom. Players are merchants attempting to monopolize bazaars in the various neighborhoods, and send their goods to the far reaches of the empire via the camel caravans.
The main board depicts the center of Yspahan, which is divided into four neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is further subdivided into various souks, delineated by the color of their shops. Souks will contain from 1 – 6 shops, and merchants will attempt to gain control of all of the shops in a particular souk.
There are to additional boards: one for the caravan, which depicts twelve camels in a serpentine pattern, and the other upon which dice will be placed and actions determined (the “tower” board). Players also each have a building mat, which depicts the five buildings each player can construct. Buildings grant players special powers and possibly victory points. Players begin with a handful of cubes and two gold coins.
Each turn, the active player rolls the nine dice and arranges them on the tower board, from lowest to highest. He may increase his chances of getting desired numbers by paying up to three additional gold to roll three additional dice. Like numbers are grouped together, so all “1s” will be placed on the bottom rung of the tower board, followed by all “2s”, and so on. All dice depicting the highest number rolled – no matter the value – are placed on the tower’s top rung. Beginning with the active player, each player selects one group of dice, removes them from the board, and executes one of the three actions associated with that rung.
Two of the three possible actions are the same for all rungs: move the supervisor or take a card. Each rung does have one unique action. One of the rungs allows the player to take camels, and another one gold. The other four rungs allow the player to place cubes in the neighborhood depicted. The number of camels or gold taken, or cubes placed is equal to the NUMBER of dice on that rung, not the value.
When placing cubes, a player must place them in the neighborhood depicted, but he may split them amongst the souks in that neighborhood as he sees fit. However, once a player has placed a cube in a particular souk, no other player may claim shops in that souk. A player will only earn points at the end of a week for a particular souk if he occupies ALL shops in a souk, with more points being earned for the larger souks. Since a week (turn) consists of seven days (rounds), a player will have seven possible opportunities to finish occupying shops in a souk. Of course, depending upon the dice taken by opponents each day, the player may not have many opportunities to occupy those shops, so tough choices must be made when placing cubes.
Choosing the option of moving the supervisor allows the player to move the supervisor token a number of spaces equal to the VALUE of the dice selected, not the number of dice. A player may move the supervisor more or less spaces, but must spend one gold for each space added or subtracted. If the supervisor ends his movement beside a shop containing a cube, that cube is sent to the camel caravan. A player can prevent his cube being removed, however, by discarding a camel and placing one of the cubes from their supply onto the caravan. A wise player will try to retain a camel or two in his supply for just this occasion.
When a cube is placed on the caravan, it immediately earns its owner 0 - 2 victory points, depending upon its location on the caravan. However, significantly more points can be earned on the caravan at the end of the week. Players score a number of points equal to the number of cubes they have on the caravan multiplied by the highest level occupied by at least one of their cubes – either 1, 2 or 3. So, if a player has four cubes on the caravan and their highest cube is on level two, the player will earn 8 points (4 x 2 = 8). Cubes remain on the caravan until all twelve caravan slots are filled, at which point all cubes are returned to their owners. As a result, a player may often earn these end-of-week points two or perhaps even three times. Pursuing a caravan strategy can be potentially lucrative!
The final option a player may choose is selecting a card. Cards provide a variety of benefits, including swapping camels for cash (and vice versa), placing extra cubes, earning extra gold, building without expending either camels or coins, etc. Cards can also be used to give the player an extra die when selecting dice from the tower. So, no card is useless.
After executing their action, a player concludes his turn by having the option to construct a special building. There are six possible buildings, each of which grants a special power. For example, the paddock gives the player an extra camel whenever he chooses to acquire camels, while the bazaar grants two extra victory points for each souk that the player completes by the end of a week. Buildings cost camels and/or gold to construct, ranging from 2 – 4 of each. Players also earn five victory points each time they construct a building beyond their second one, with ten points being earned for the construction of their sixth building. The powers that are granted by the buildings can be quite significant, and their construction cannot be overlooked.
At the completion of a week (7 rounds), a scoring is conducted. Players earn points for each souk they have completely occupied, as well as points for the caravan as described above. The main board is then emptied, with cubes being returned to their owners. A total of three weeks are played, with victory going to the player with the most cumulative points.
I find Yspahan refreshingly different. There are a variety of mechanisms present, but they blend together nicely. The sight of the abundance of dice may be off- putting to some, but in reality the luck aspect here isn’t dominant. Players have numerous choices to make each turn, and there are a variety of strategic paths to pursue. There doesn’t appear to be one dominant strategy, and there is enough to investigate to keep me coming back for more.
Yspahan is an ingeniously well-designed game that takes a bit of time to grow on you. In the current board game market, it can easily be passed over because it doesn't grab you at first.
In fact, the packaging is a bit confusing with its bedouin merchant riding an out-of-proportion camel out of what I can only assume is the village of Yspahan, although the minarets in the background seem to indicate an abundance of mosques in the town rather than souks and trading markets. The back of the box reveals even less about the actual game and doesn't really entice gamers to buy the product. The almost unpronounceable name is a bit of a downer as well. And this is a shame because the game has some nice mechanics and well-thought-out game play.
Since I am more of a casual gamer, more often playing with family and friends who need a bit of coaxing to play most European board games, this game had a bad start for us. After a brief introduction of the rules (which the instructions condense and explain quite well), our four-person game was reduced to a three- person game when my 12-year-old son announced that he did not wish to play because it already sounded confusing. Even when we were done, all of us felt that the game plays better the further you get into it, but doesn't seem to initially grab your attention. I find the same thing is true of Australia. Games like these replay much better than the instruction-learning first game.
With that said, I must say that the use of dice to control the different tasks players must accomplish to become the most profitable Persian trader is quite unique. The dice are placed on a "tower" board in ascending order and the players choose the category they wish to control (acquisition of camels, gold, or a variety of markets for goods) and try to balance their caravans and souks to gain the most points in the span of three, seven- day (turns) weeks. The game is a carefully crafted mixture of timing (should I hold my cards and use them later or collect points now?), strategy (am I better off building souks or caravans or should I keep my opponent from scoring?) and random luck of the dice (why do the really good numbers come up when I am NOT the one with the first-player advantage?).
I especially appreciate that the highest-valued souk is also in the most statistically challenging district of Yspahan to gain access to, making it quite hard to gain the 12 points it offers. It is also insightful to add the supervisor token which players can move around to send themselves or others to the caravans. The different cards additionally add another elements of strategy that can make or break a win. At first it can all seem a bit overwhleming, but the more you play, the more it makes sense.
The three, seven-day weeks of play also give the game three distinctive divisions.
In week one, players are amassing their fortunes and just beginning to show their greed/strategy.
Week two has intensity and can be a real turning point for players if they play their cards right.
And, finally, week three is when you can finally afford to really expand. This week is the highest grossing and even the most nerve-wracking if the scores are close together.
All in all, it has all the elements that should make it work, but first impressions can kill the uniqueness of the game. It also doesn't help that the playing pieces as well as the board itself are so tiny. The pieces are just the right size to get knocked off the table and come up missing and as the game progresses, you will find you need every piece.
In the final analysis, I like the game a lot (as did the novice gamers I played with), but the first impressions the game leaves are not as enticing as most games I play. I know it will replay much smoother, but I also wonder how forgiving players will be. How sad if Yspahan ends up gathering dust on the shelf because no one can quite recall the rich details.