I’m actually going to quote something on the first page of the rule book:
“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…”
Hah! Except for the word ‘jewels’, this game as nothing to do with the above preview. Spoiler alert: there are no dragons, no King Gradlon, no Dahut. Ys is a game for 1 to 4 players that is a mash-up of styles; area control, bluffing, and market manipulation. Keep reading to see how the game plays and whether or not I think it’s worth your time!
The Board and Components
There is, of course, the board. It may not be terribly pretty, but it gets the job done. They could have at least had some unique artwork in the four quadrants of the city. My only practical complaint is that the numbers on the scoring track can be difficult to see.
Each player is given 14 pawns (brokers) ranging in value from zero to four. Three '2' brokers are excluded if not using the variant. They’ll place the brokers behind their screen. There is also a score marker for each player and the round marker.
Additionally, there are the gems. There are 30 gems each of red, yellow, blue and green, 20 black, and 5 white.
There are 19 character cards, 24 ship cards, and 6 order cards.
The full board is used with four players. The game is playable with two or three players, but an appropriate number of city quadrants and market rows are unavailable in this case. Four character cards are stacked in the appropriate area near each quadrant (the bottom of which is always a white gem card). A gem of each color is placed on its respective track in the market at the starting value. The game is comprised of four nearly identical rounds. First, five ships cards are flipped – one for each quadrant and one for the market. The gems depicted on the cards are placed in the port of each quadrant. These are the gems that can be won in that area.
Players will be using 11 of the 14 brokers they started the game with (excluding three ‘2’ brokers which are only used in a variant). Two of the 11 brokers are bid for the selection of turn order. Then, each player places eight brokers, two at a time, until each player has one broker left. The final broker is added to the initial two brokers, and that total is the tie breaker for the resolution phase (which is VERY important!). Sounds okay, right? Well, here’s the catch: during each turn, the players must place one broker face up (number showing) and one broker face down.
There are two areas that pawns can be placed:
1. The city
2. The marketplace
Each quadrant acts the same, except the available gems and character cards are different. At the end of the round, the player who has the highest broker value in each section of each quadrant gains a bonus. There are three areas in each quadrant:
1. Port: the winning player gains a black gem.
2. Commercial area: the winning player gains three points
3. Palace: the winning player gains the available character card.
Once the three sections of a quadrant are tallied (starting with quadrant one), the player with the highest broker value in the entire quadrant gains two of the four available gems placed in the port via the ship card during setup. The second place finisher will gain his or her choice of the remaining two gems, and the third place player will get the final gem. Which quadrant you fight for depends largely on the gems and character cards available.
Certain gems will be more valuable than other gems. Why is that? Because players can affect the value of each gem by placing brokers in the marketplace. The marketplace is resolved after the totals are counted and gems collected in the city each round. Each broker placed directly above one of the colored quotation tracks on the right hand side of the board can help that color gem increase in value. At the end of the round, the total value in each column will be summed, and the highest total will move that gem color up two spaces on the quotation track. The second highest will go up one space, third highest down one, and lowest down two. There will be a lot of movement during the game. The player with the highest broker total in each row of the marketplace will gain the gem placed there with a ship card during setup. Each player also gains a point each time they place a broker in the marketplace.
In the city and in the marketplace, white gems must immediately be exchanged for a gem of the player’s choice. It can be beneficial to fight for the most valuable color, but there’s also value in trying to win the lesser colors, as it often won’t take as much effort to win those categories.
The game is over after the conclusion of the fourth round. Points are gained throughout the game by using the marketplace and by winning commercial areas. At the end of the game, points are awarded for gems. Black gems are scored for each player. One black gem is one point, whereas seven is 24 points. So, if you choose to go this route, you’ll probably want to collect more than a couple because they increase in value.
Then, the most valuable gem, according to the quotation tracks, is scored. The player who has the most scores 24 points, down to six points for the fewest. This continues for each color gem. The least valuable gem scores only 12 for first down to three for fourth place. There’s definitely value in fighting for the more valuable gems, but if you lose close battles for them, it might leave you in a tough place.
Face up/down placement – Do you place your ‘4’ face up and your ‘0’ face down? Or do you bluff with the ‘4’ facedown and put the ‘0’ in the market to gain a point? It’s important to win as many areas/quadrants as possible, so you don’t want to focus on just one or two areas. You’ll sometimes have to gamble and hope you scare players off with your low-value, face down brokers. I love the bluffing element in Ys.
Turn order – When turn order is won, the winning player usually chooses to go last. This allows the player to win one or two areas cheaply, as the other players cannot respond. This is valuable. But how valuable is it? Valuable enough to bid 6 broker value? It can leave you crippled during the round if you bid too high. It’s an interesting debate you’ll have with yourself four times throughout the game.
Suspense – You might know the value of your pawns, but you won’t know the facedown pawns of your opponents! The reveal at the end of each round is always very exciting and engaging. It’s disappointing to realize you committed a ‘3’ and were beaten by a ‘4’, but sometimes you might win an area with only a ‘1’ broker. This really ratchets up the excitement.
Length and pace – Four rounds is perfect for this game. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and because so much information is unknown to the players (i.e. facedown brokers), that it doesn’t lend itself to much analysis paralysis. It tends to move fairly quickly. A game has never taken my group longer than 90 minutes, and they usually fall closer to about 75 minutes.
Market/city balance – Placing in each area is usually very attractive. Placing in the market nets a point, potentially a gem, and allows you control over the quotation tracks. But, using a broker there gives you less control in the city, where the bulk of the gems are acquired. If your placements are wise in the city, you could be okay, but oftentimes, you’ll need to use most brokers to win areas of the city. It definitely requires a balanced approach. The market has just enough incentive to make this a tough decision (every turn…).
Artwork – As I stated above, the art is pretty bland and the numbers on the score track are difficult to see. This isn’t a huge negative for me, but some people put more of an emphasis on the aesthetics than I do.
Almost a memory game – This game is sometimes criticized for being a bit of a memory game. All gems are collected publicly, so if a player is really paying attention, they could know exactly how many gems of each color each player has. I tend to have a general idea of who might be collecting what gems, but I’m not cut-throat enough to do the math.
Bad ‘luck’ – If you lose a lot of close bids, for areas and turn order, you might have a rough game. It’s not all luck, of course. There’s strategy in predicting which face down brokers might be high or low numbers, but you won’t always be right. There’s nothing worse than bidding five or six for turn order and being out-bid by one. The ‘luck’ in this one comes and goes, so it tends to even itself out, but it can be frustrating at times.
I like this game a lot! It’s not overly complex which makes it very easy to teach. I often tell players that it’s very important to collect as many gems as possible, and to worry about the colors later. Often times, other players will move the market in the directions you want anyway, so there’s less value in you placing in the market to do the same. Turn order can’t be ignored. In my experience, if you don’t have some control over the turn order, you will have a hard time winning the game. I didn’t discuss the character cards, but many of them are very fun and powerful, receiving high bids when available. The most frustrating thing about this game is that there are always so many things I want/need to do, and I only have eight brokers to place each round!
How easy is the game to learn?
At first it might be a little overwhelming, but players usually catch on after the first round or so. New players are often very competitive.
Will it be easy to find players?
Depends on the marketing, I suppose. The aesthetics aren’t great, but if you stress that Ys is a game with really cool mechanics that takes under 90 minutes, it shouldn’t be hard to find willing players. Almost everyone I’ve taught this game too has really liked it.
Is the reward worth the time spent?
Again, this game isn’t without some luck and fortunate placement by your opponents, but playing well and outwitting your opponents feels pretty good. The scores are usually pretty tight at the end, so players don’t usually walk away from the table too bummed out.
How much fun is defeat?*
Losing is still pretty fun. Because the gems are tallied and most points scored at the end of the game, I often don’t know if I’m doing well or not. So, the first 99% percent of the game feels the same regardless of winning or losing.
*I think one of the best ways to evaluate a game is to consider how much fun it is to lose. The goal is to have fun whether I've won or lost!
If you enjoyed reading this review, feel free to check out my other game reviews HERE
Great point, I suck at some of my favorite games (Kingdom Builder, Samurai, many deck-builders), but I still enjoy playing them, and they are the best challenge!
I was even a bit sad that I finally won for the first time at KB last time we played
Great point, I suck at some of my favorite games (Kingdom Builder
, many deck-builders), but I still enjoy playing them, and they are the best challenge!
I was even a bit sad that I finally won for the first time at KB last time we played
Yep, you're right. I was just mercilessly dismantled (twice!) at Carson City. One of the reasons it's my favorite game is that I still had a blast!
BoJack Horseman wrote:
I can't see any reason not to play with open gem info. it only adds more competition, and more bluffing/psychology to the placement of tokens. My main complaint about this game was that the token placement isnt quite as exciting as you might Think, but this probably gets better with competence as theres more obvious competing for the clearly best spots, but then theres a long period of book keeping where youre just scoring areas and doling out gems and moving things around. So it gets a bit procedural. Quite a nice game though, I'd like to try it again with open gem info
I can see both sides of this. Yes, it takes the memory aspect out of the game, but I think it would lend itself more to AP-prone players with gem knowledge being public. On the positive side of things, it would definitely increase tension and competition during the placement phase, because greater importance would be placed on the acquisition of certain gems. I'll have to try this out.