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Subject: Standing on Shoulders to Avoid the Lava - A Yokohama Review rss

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Chris Ruf
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Acworth
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Standing on Shoulders to Avoid the Lava – A Yokohama Review

Hola, El Presidente!  What?  We are in Japan?  Oh… ummmm…  I know I have a book of Japanese words around here somewhere… Mushi mushi?  No, that’s the phone greeting.  Next time can I please get a heads up on the locale before I start?  I don’t think it’s much to ask.  I can’t find that book.  And my Wi-fi is down?  Ugh…  We are sticking with Mushi mushi.  Did I even spell that right?  Too late now.  Too lazy to check.  We must continue… in English.

Mr. or Ms. President, secret service is one their way…  What?  So not “President” president.  Like a company president?  Got it.  Sir or madam, it is your job to run a successful import and export business in Yokohama during the Meiji period.  You and your assistants will harvest fish, tea, silk, and copper and export those to such fantastical lands like Britain, The United States, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.  In exchange you will get western technology, imports, and STARS (otherwise known as fame [otherwise otherwise known as victory points]).  You may also send your assistants to work at the Customs House or they may even leave you to work for the Church.  Which one?  I dunno.  I’m sure you can guess thematically what’s going on there.  But I’m not touching that here.  NO WAY!

Does anyone else find it strange that so many people are just thrust into such high profile positions like President of a company, high profile merchants, or leaders of a faction vying for control of THE WORLD!!! Mwha ha ha ha!  Isn’t there any sort of screening process for any of these?  I feel very underqualified to run my own company.  I’m getting off track, aren’t I?  Sorry.  On to the review of:

Yokohama
Designer:  Hisashi Hayashi
Publisher:  Tasty Minstrel Games
Retail Version

Quick heads up if you are new to my reviews, which is most people since this is only my 5th review I believe.  I will be talking in thematic language for the bulk of the review.  So I may not be calling components by their actual names.

For those of you familiar with the rules, you may want to skip to the “Review and Analysis” section.  If you are lazier than that, you can skip to the “TL;DR” section.

Your Stuff and Yokohama
(Descriptive section title, eh?  I amaze myself sometimes too.)

You will start with a bunch of things besides just yourself.  You didn’t expect to be doing this all on your own, did you?  You will get some assistants, the rights to build 8 shops and 4 trade houses, some Yen, and some starting export goods (fish, tea, silk, and copper).  But this is just to get you started.  I’m only here to show you the ropes, not just give you everything.  I know what you’re thinking, “if this guy knows all this, why isn’t here running the company.”  Simple, I’m just a disembodied voice in your head trying to guide you through this.  You may be just a bit crazy, but hopefully it won’t become an issue.

Interesting fact: Yokohama is like Schrodinger’s Cat.  You have no idea what it looks like until you look at it.  So the layout is always different.  Plus it varies in size based on how many competitors you have.  Did I forget to mention you aren’t the only one I’m helping?  But some things will remain consistent.  There will always be places to harvest the 4 export goods, hire more staff and purchase shops, send assistants to the customs house or church, acquire export contracts, and acquire that sweet foreign technology.  But if there is a lot of competition, there may be more places to do some of these things.  Yokohama is nothing if not accommodating.  They don’t want things to be TOO difficult.  They like to hand out STARS like candy on Halloween, or like Oprah.

The city will also have some goals they would like to see you accomplish for extra STARS.  I don’t know why exactly they care that you are the first to have 8 fish or build a shop in 4 production districts.  Isn’t 8 fish a pretty low bar for an export company?  But they will have 3 of these goals each game.  The city will also have random rewards for building shops in each district.  And a sweet bonus for the first player to amass and use a large workforce of at least FIVE whole people (as opposed to not whole people) in each district.  The city of Yokohama is quite generous.

The Main Action Phase
(Yes, I broke with thematic language for the title.  I have to be somewhat grounded right?)

You understand the point of it all, you know the setup, now let’s get to how it’s done.

Placement and Movement

Due to some weird city laws, you are only allowed to put at most 3 of your assistants to work each day.  Plus, none of them like each other.  So they all have to go to a different district to work.  Now, if you want to force them to work together at the same place that day, then the 3 of them get into an argument, feelings get hurt, noses may get broken, and one of them says, “Screw you guys!  I’m going home.”  So only 2 end up working that day.  But, hey, you may really need stuff from that district.  Besides, you’re the boss!  But make sure you give them some money.  Should they run into the President of another company in their district, they may have to slip them a bribe.  1 yen ought to be enough.

Sadly though, your assistants are also super lazy.  They won’t do anything unless you are there to help them.  Or, unless you send a foreign agent to supervise (we’ll get to them later).  Your assistants don’t want to appear lazy in front of the westerners.  They will happily just stay in their district forever until supervised.  So keep sending more people there each day!  They will all just sit around and do nothing.  So you must decide which district to go work at each day.  Now seeing as you are hearing a voice in your head, you have probably assumed you have some issues.  Did you realize that the ground is made of lava?  Don’t panic!  It’s not really lava; you just think it is.  I know that doesn’t make you feel better, but your assistants can help.  You need to get to your work location of choice, right?  You have some assistants in districts, so just jump between the shoulders of your assistants.  You obviously can’t and don’t want to go through districts where your assistants aren’t because lava.  And it’s professional courtesy to give 1 yen to any other President you pass along the way to your destination.  And you dare not stop in the same place they are.  You don’t want them to tell everyone that you think the ground is lava, do you?  Worry not though, they also think the ground is lava.

Getting to Work

Look at you!  You arrived at your intended district to work and didn’t melt in the lava!  So now that you’re here, your assistants will actually do something.  Each district will provide you will either export goods or services based on the size of your workforce and the building presence you have in the district.  But only up to a certain limit.  In this case 5.  5 what?  I’m not sure.  I just know it’s 5.  So each shop, trade house, assistant, and yourself contributes to this work.  You can catch fish, mine copper, harvest tea or silk, rob the bank (it’s doesn’t take more than 1 person to withdraw money, so obviously you are robbing it), hire staff, get more building permits, get contracts, etc.  You know, the stuff I mentioned earlier. 

If you had at least 5 workforce there, and were the first to do so, the city will give you a bonus.  Yokohama likes hard work.  Most of the time, the reward is an import from one of those western countries.  What is it?  Stuff.  Generic stuff.  In a box.  Labeled “Imports.”

Now if you had at least 4 or 5 worth of workforce, well that’s enough to build a building seeing as it’s the minimum required amount of people to create a “how many blank does it take to blank” joke.  You may choose to build a shop or a trade house in that district.  But you can only have one of each in any particular district.  And they earlier you build the better!  Yokohama is impatient, and wants their economic foot print built up quickly.  So building a shop early in a district offers you better city bonuses like STARS, money, or maybe some free chances to hire some people.  Only one trade house can be built per district, but the city gives you lots of STARS.  Aren’t they pretty?

But after the work is done, your assistants go back to the void they came from and you are left standing in imaginary lava.

Contracts, Technology, the Church, The Customs House, and City Goals

So you’ve got some staff, you built some shops, you have a bunch of goods to export.  Now what?  Make sure you stop by the docks to see what foreign contracts are available.  Other countries want your stuff!  And you have stuff!  Before or after you move around during the day, you can ship some of your stuff off to one of the western countries for STARS, generic imports, money, and maybe some more staff.  Assuming you had an appropriate contract.  That country now likes you a bit.  But they can like you MORE!

You can also learn some cool western technology, like Newspapers, Gaslights, or Language Schools among other things.  These will surely help you, your workforce, and your STAR gathering potential.  Plus western countries like it when do like they do.  If you manage to fulfill 2 contracts and/or learn technology from the same country, you can earn a foreign agent from that country.  Which will allow you to do twice the amount of work in a later day.  But they don’t actually add to your workforce power.  And your assistants will still return to the void after working.

At some point you may realize you have too many people working for you.  How do we put a stop to that?  With enough imports, you can send them to work at the Customs House.  Doing so will net you more STARS, possibly some money, get your assistants out of your face, and cause your rival Presidents to become concerned, as those Customs House jobs are very limited.  Or you can send them to the church to do… stuff.  I’m not sure what, but I know you will get STARS, motivate your other assistants to go to some districts, and again instill fear into your rival presidents.  These church positions are also highly limited.

Lastly, you can send one of your assistants, before or after the workday, to prove to the city that you accomplished one of the city goals.  However, the city staff then kidnaps him and keeps him for some crazy reason.  But you didn’t want that guy anyway.  He never did any work on his own.  And always needed constant supervision.  But the city threw your some STARS for keeping your employee.

Making it End

At some point I’m sure you and your fellow Presidents will tire of standing on people’s shoulders.  How does it all end?  Well, the city has several guidelines that govern the shutdown of your companies.  A certain number of customs house jobs have been taken, a certain number of church positions have been taken, when the foreign contracts run out, when you build all the shops you can, or when you build all the trading houses you can.  Only then will you finally get relief from me and your lava problem.  The city will do some final tallying, award some STARS, and declare one of the Presidents the best importer/exporter Yokohama has ever seen.  BTW, here is what they tally:

Highest sum total of foreign technology

Most (ties broken by highest position) assistants in the Customs House

Most (ties broken by highest position) assistants in the Church

Sets of different countries represented by your fulfilled contracts and researched technology

And some conciliation stars for left over stuff you didn’t make use of (shame on you for not being more efficient)

Review and Analysis
Total break from thematic nonsense.

I have the standard retail version, so the components are just pawns, cubes, cardboard chits, cards, and punchboard tiles.  These are all totally fine, but very standard.  I realize that the Deluxe version has mini meeples, special President meeples, metal coins, and wooden resources.  But I really don’t think it’s worth the cost.  The art is bright and colorful and the graphic design is very solid.  There is not a plethora of symbology to learn.  Once you know it, it sticks.  But the game is a massive table hog, especially at 4 players.  You just keep adding more boards the more players you have.  So more and more of the table starts to disappear; sometimes to never be seen again (at least in my case).  So setup and tear down are a bit of a chore, with setup being a bit more time consuming.

Point salad!  It’s really very much an Oprah game.  You get points for everything.  I personally like point salads because being constantly rewarded is nice.  You never feel like you are doing nothing.  So just know that going in.  If you prefer working hard for your points, this isn’t for you.

Sidenote:  I don’t get why it matters if you work hard for points, or get them all the time.  It’s really the same thing.  I think some games just need a more granular point scale for what they are doing.  Often times in some games, you could just scale the points down to where the least point generating action gives zero.  But I’m no game designer, so maybe I’m way off.  I just know I like both types of games.

Yokohama presents you with lots of options, and not much direction.  Some people love this.  Some hate it.  I’m neutral on it.  But you have no personal objective or anything driving you.  All the goals except for your starting contract are public.  And you have no special power.  So everyone is on equal footing.  This can make early game decisions feel somewhat arbitrary.  It’s hard to see what forms a cohesive strategy as so many of the things could be your main focus.  Getting the top spots in the Church or Customs House awards a lot of points, but it’s a lot of setup as well.  You can definitely nickel and dime your way to victory by building or completing contracts.  And end game scoring can really add up.

The gameplay is quite fluid and fast.  Even though it can be hard to focus, you typically won’t have to think too long on your turn.  Place some guys, go to a place, get some stuff.  There is a decent decision involved in getting in the way of others so they have to pay you.  But in practice, it’s rare that people will choose to pay you to place or go through your space.  There is typically a way to get around it.  Sometimes that delay of one turn can really hinder you, but often you can find something worthwhile to do while you wait.

The technology cards vary in usefulness.  I’m not saying there are balance issues with them.  But some seem to be easier to implement, or more generally useful than others.  And the first player has the best shot at getting the more expensive ones first since they can drop an assistant there and then block money on the first turn.  (This does change a bit based on player count.  There are two tech spots in a 4p game.) The card that allows you to place 2 assistants in one place and a 3rd in an adjacent space seems to be the most useful.  It significantly speeds up getting the 4 and 5 power actions.  This can sometimes be setup dependent if certain places aren’t near others though.  And interestingly, the card that allows you to place 4 assistants instead of 3 is quite difficult to utilize efficiently.  You will often find yourself picking up less than 4 assistants a turn, so you eventually will get to a spot where you just can’t drop 4 a turn anymore, even if you have hired a lot more assistants.  Whereas the previous card almost guarantees you will have 3 to place each turn since you almost always picking up at least 2 assistants a turn.  The cards that offer points or money when performing certain actions help lend to focusing your strategy more.  But if you don’t get them early in the game, they are near useless except for the country flag they provide, and as a means to win the tech bonus at the end of the game.

Despite all the variability in setup, the game feels very similar each time.  Part of this is the non-specialized player setup, and part of it is my own view of how much setup variability really changes the game.  Yokohama has lots of setup variability, but because of the multitude of paths you can take during the game, even the different achievement cards don’t really do enough to change the flavor of the game.  All the building bonus cards do similar things, and most of the bonuses are useful regardless of the strategy you take.  The only big difference between games are the tech cards available at the beginning of the game.  I’d rather have the differences in setup than not though, but I don’t think it will do enough to stop the game from getting stale.

Quick note on the 2 player game, I feel it needs another layer to tighten the game up a bit.  I would have liked to have seen a neutral President that moved around the board blocking some spaces.  I understand from a design standpoint that this just adds complexity that isn’t really necessary for the game to work.  I just thought in the 2 player game it was sometimes a little too open.  You only have to wait one turn to make it to the location you got blocked out of.  Whereas in higher counts, you may get blocked many turns in a row.  This makes the tech that lets you move your president to the same place as another much less useful.

Even with my gripes though, the game is just very enjoyable to play.  And it can play very quickly with experienced players.

TL;DR

Standard components.  Interesting worker placement/route building gameplay.  Mild player interaction.  Lots of options.  No real sense of direction.  Points everywhere for everything.  Techs vary in perceived usefulness.  Getting techs early is way better than getting them later.  Highly variable setup.  Game is so open ended that variable setup isn’t that impactful.  2p game a little lacking in my opinion.  I’d give the game a 7/10 or 8/10 depending on my mood.  I think the newness factor to me has it at an 8 right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this moved down to a permanent 7.  It’s too enjoyable a game to go lower than that for me though.
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Heidi S.
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Richardson
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Hilarious. I will forever imagine my lazy assistants hating each other so much that when I place two together on the board the third is at the hospital with a broken nose. I hope you are the rules teacher for your gaming group.

And I agree, the regular retail Yokohama is great and I wouldn't want to pay double or more for the deluxe version.
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Ruwen Bussinger
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Hi,

Really good review of the game that I agree with almost wholeheartedly. Especially your opinion of the variable setup and technology totally hit the nail on how I have been feeling about them. Usually I love variable player powers but the technology cards somehow fail to deliver on that for the reasons you stated and the variable board and 5power rewards keep the board from having one "best" strategy but matter too little to me to have an impact that you really could tell afterwards. Still a great game and we're glad to have it in our collection.

Best regards
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