Since camels and board games apparently go together like computer programmers and soda, I bring to you the latest review of camel-themed board gaming — it even has camel-shaped wooden pieces — with Yspahan.
In Yspahan, you take on the role of a merchant, and you try to score the most points by trading goods. To start each round, the first player takes all of the dice (optionally buying extra dice that only he can use) and rolls them. After this, he groups them by number and puts them on the “tower board” from bottom to top. These dice determine which actions are available that round and how effective those actions are. Next, each player selects a group of dice and performs one of three actions. (We got this wrong the first time that I played.) You may perform the dice action, move the supervisor equal to the number of pips on the dice (allowing you to send goods to his caravan) or draw a card. The dice action depends on where the dice are on the tower board, but they consist of collecting camels or money or placing goods on various parts of the board. In each turn, you also have the option of buying a building. Play continues like this for seven turns (a “week”), and then players score points based on goods that they have placed on the board and they have shipped to the caravan. The board then clears, and you keep playing. After three weeks, whoever has the most points wins!
The first thing that I love about Yspahan is the tower board. I really enjoy how the tower board works, and the player who most efficiently takes advantage of the opportunities on it will probably win the game. It provides a nice, random element to the game, but it does so without giving the feeling of luck to the game. The first player rolls the dice, and then everyone selects from those choices. Yes, there is some luck involved. For example, if the first player really needs camels and happens to roll a lot of 1’s (the lowest number goes on the camel spot), then this will work to their advantage. Overall, it provides more of a feel of variance than luck. I think that it is a wonderful use of dice, and I haven’t seen any other games that use dice in quite this way.
The second pro that I have for Yspahan is that the player to win is probably the player who most effectively balances their strategy. I am familiar with the phrase “multiple paths to victory” in games, and I enjoy when players can take completely different strategies and still have a chance of winning. In my opinion, Yspahan isn’t quite like that. Instead, there are different ways of scoring points. However, if you specialize in only one area, I think that you will lose to a player that does very well at scoring in every area of the game. There are divergent strategic options, such as when to focus on the different areas, but ultimately, you need to score in every area to achieve the highest possible score. I like that the game forces you to pay attention to everything instead of being able to completely neglect certain elements.
My third pro for Yspahan is that it forces you to make tough choices. You can’t do everything that you want to do each turn, and in order to win, you have to skip an opportunity to make a “good” move in order to make a “better” one. (As an aside, we missed the rule that you get to do one of the three actions each turn the first time that we tried this game. We were doing all three. Every turn. The game is really horrible, long and broken if you do this. Just so you know…) For example, drawing a card is really useful; it might allow you to purchase a building, among other things. You could also move the supervisor, gaining extra points from the caravan. Ultimately, the right choice might be to place a few cubes on the board to complete an extra neighborhood. Yspahan just has a brilliant balance between different strategic choices and simplicity of game play.
My only real con for Yspahan has to do with the cards. Whereas the dice add an element of randomness without adding luck, I feel the opposite about card drawing. Getting a “lucky” draw can really help you in Yspahan. While drawing poorly won’t directly cost you the game, it can feel like a wasted turn. Drawing a card early that allows you to build a building without paying half of its cost is wonderful. Drawing a second copy of a scoring card that allows you to trade your coins or camels in for victory points is fairly useless, especially early. To be fair, a card is never “worthless” because you can choose to discard a card when you collect dice to add an additional die to the number you draw. Either way, there is a definite luck element in which cards you draw and when you draw them.
Overall, I think that Yspahan is a brilliant gaming experience that flows smoothly and only takes about an hour. All around, it’s a great experience, and I’d recommend that almost everybody try it if they have the opportunity.