Gaming Unplugged: Yspahan’s a game abou-zzz…

July 29, 2011

Yspahan is a great example of a solid game with a completely uninteresting theme — unless you happen to be into merchant expansion of the Persian empire at the turn of the 17th century. Sébastien Pauchon’s 2006 design (published in the US by Rio Grande/Ystari) uses dice rolling and a wide variety of choices to ensure that skill overcomes simple luck.

Each player (either three to four, with official two-player rules available) receives a board with six buildings on it, two gold pieces, and a supply of wooden cubes. The main board features four districts of shops and two tracks for the supervisor pawn as well as scoring and round indicators. Two additional boards represent the tower and caravan. Eighteen cards are placed to the side along with the supply of camel tokens and gold coins.

The first player of each round rolls the nine white dice; (s)he can optionally spend up to three gold coins to roll that many of the yellow dice as well. The lowest-valued dice are placed on the bottom level of the tower board, and the highest-valued on the top, regardless of their actual values; the rest are placed by value starting from the second-lowest tier, so only a roll resulting in all six values will fill up all of the tiers, while a roll of, say, only threes and fives will only occupy the top and bottom tiers.

Each player then selects one of the tiers of dice as their action for the round; however, it is the number of dice that determines the strength of the action, not the actual values showing (with one exception). Yellow dice can only be claimed by the start player (who payed for them) and are removed from the tower as soon as (s)he has selected an action. The middle four tiers allow players to place that many cubes in the corresponding district. Each district contains from three to four neighborhoods, and once a player has started placing in a neighborhood (s)he must complete that neighborhood before placing in another; no other player may place cubes in a partially-filled neighborhood. The upper and lower tiers instead award the player who chooses them a number of gold coins or camels, respectively. The main use for these are to construct buildings; each building costs a number of camels and coins and bestows a benefit, and every building constructed beyond the second also earns additional points. Players can build only one building per turn.

There are two other optional actions available as well. Any claimed tier can instead be used to draw a card, which have two uses: 1) they can be played at any time for their effect, which are explained on the back of the instruction manual for easy reference; or 2) they can be traded in when claiming a subsequent tier to earn an additional camel, coin, or cube. Drawing a card is also the only action a player can take if there are no tiers remaining when (s)he must select one. Finally, a player can instead choose to move the supervisor a number of spaces as indicated by the value of the dice on the selected tier; the player may pay gold to either add or subtract one space per coin. The supervisor can move in any direction on the tracks, but can’t backtrack in a given move. Any cube adjacent to the supervisor when he stops moving is sent to the caravan unless the player who owns it sacrifices a camel token, in which case the cube sent to the caravan comes from his supply instead of the board. Claiming a tier for one of these actions can be used to prevent an opponent from filling up a key district as well as for their own benefits, and the supervisor can also prevent an unprepared player from completing a key neighborhood.

A game of Yspahan consists of twenty-one rounds, broken up into three “weeks” of seven “days”. At the end of each round, the start player passes to the left — except for the final round of a four-player game, in which the player in last place receives the honor, and the normal turn order is ignored in favor of last-to-first place (with ties broken by their turn order in the 20th round). The end of each week is when neighborhoods and the caravan are scored. Each neighborhood is worth an indicated number of points only if complete, with the rarer districts (third and fourth tiers) containing more valuable neighborhoods than the lower two. The caravan scores a number of points for each player equal to the number of cubes they have on it, multiplied by one, two, or three depending on where their most recent cube is placed. Cubes in neighborhoods are reclaimed at the end of each week, but cubes in the caravan remain there for the entire game. Whoever has the highest score at the end of the third week is the winner; there is no official way to break ties, but my group has used leftover camels and coins in the rare occasions when this is relevant.

Yspahan can be completed in an hour or less, and should be playable by anyone eight or older although there is no reading required as long as someone can explain what the buildings and cards do. In addition to being quick-playing, Yspahan is also fairly close-scoring as long as strategic decisions are made; poor decisions can result in one player lagging behind (or another pulling away, depending) and there is not much of a catch-up mechanism other than being able to score the high-valued neighborhoods via fortunate rolls. Other than that aspect, however, there is very little luck involved despite the reliance on dice. Yspahan retails for around $40.