Published by Hans im Gluck
Designed by Stefan Dorra
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Following my less than positive reaction to Kilimanjaro, and favourable review of El Grande, we now find out that Hans im Gluck's corporate plan is to release a light, 'junior' game at Nuremburg and a heavier, hobby game at Essen each year. This explains a lot. Yucata is this year's offering in the lighter category and has been played a lot recently. This is partly because it takes less than 20 minutes to play, partly because it accommodates a maximum of four players and partly because everyone in my three groups wanted to try it - if nothing else, Hans im Gluck now have a following. But despite a number of plays that would please even my most stringent readers, I am still left a little baffled by this one, as we shall see.
Yucata is an abstract race game with qualities that immediately remind me of Ravensburger's Elefantenparade. As such, it feels somewhat derivative and it is possible that this has fostered my indecision. Another aspect is that, unlike Elefantenparade, Yucata has a theme to which it is difficult to warm. Basically, each player is a Mayan priest aiming to move around a simple track, avoiding evil and gaining favourable spirits. These spirits are represented by dark and light stones respectively. At the end of the game, you add up your light stones (each worth one) and deduct a figure for the number of dark stones you have collected. The first of these is worth one, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and so on - all these are added together, so five stones would reduce your positive score by fifteen points - likely as not producing a negative score overall. If you are the first priest home, you claim a red stone which cancels one dark stone. The highest net score is the winner.
All the stones are laid out on the track in a set pattern, one per space, spreading the dark ones randomly throughout the course. As the priests arrive on, or pass over, spaces, they take all the stones there. Movement is sequential, using cards numbered from one through five, with some twists which I'll explain later. So if it is Biff's turn and he is in second place, the space ahead being occupied by Jim, and there are three light and one dark stones ahead. He plays a four and collects all three light stones. Had he played, or been forced to play, a five he'd have had to pick up the dark one as well, and a one would have netted no points at all. As it is, it is a good turn. The other cards are a knife, which means either move one place ahead of the leader, or move one place if already in the lead, and a question mark, which mirrors the previous player's move exactly. The fundamental rule is that you may not play the same card as the previous player. You thus play the cards one by one, requiring use of each in a given cycle, and when the last card has been played you pick them all up and start again with a full hand.And all the cards are useful in their way.
The key play element is that you want to be in a position to grab the light stones, but not the dark ones which you'd much rather someone else collected. The comparisons with Elefantenparade will be obvious as it equates almost exactly to the first elephant needing to enter the water hole before the others can pass - someone has to take the medicine before others benefit. The result is the same in both games - players hold back, trying to maintain a good position and rushing forward to claim positive points (light stones or logs) when the opportunity presents itself. The similarities continue because eventually someone will be forced to take the bitter pill and move onto the dark stones. Your only hope, following, is that you can avoid the fate and gain some points, or at least a good position, in the process.
Where it differs from Elefantenparade is that it is possible to press on ahead on your own.There is no mechanism to make a leading player drop back once he's picked up a dark stone, so he is free to continue, collecting large amounts of light stones along with the dark. Tactically, this works to a point. While you can amass a load of positive points (in fact almost all of them if other players are that way inclined), the burden of the arithmetically progressing dark stones will get you in the end. Realising this, you might try and mix and match, by being near the front, but holding enough low cards to avoid problems, and sprinting forwards to grab what you can. Then again, the best policy might be to hang right back and snatch just the odd point here and there. Depending on other's tactics, any of these can work, and in this respect Yucata is different each time.
The tactics and your decisions, as far as I can work out, are compromised only by your available card mix and other players moves. You seldom have the right number to do what you want, having used it earlier, and the 'overtake leader' card eventually forces you to the front however clever you've been lurking at the back. That said, you will usually need some points to win, since everyone would need to be negative otherwise - an unusual (or perhaps impossible - mathmen?) position. The inability to match a previous card except by playing your valuable question mark is another factor.
And broadly speaking, that is that. The priests move around the track, gaining stones, working out their relative position to other players, and hoping to grab the last red stone which can be really useful. The final twist, and one that may ultimately save the game from mediocrity or the sale list, is that the rule book quite happily suggests that you might want to lay out the initial stones in different patterns. Indeed, it even proposes a number of 'themed' starting layouts. These are themed to the extent of depicting a Mayan legend, so really only offer a different angle on the same basic problem. Oh, and there is a competition to win Hans im Gluck's games as well. That's it. There is no more.
I am left a little high and dry by Yucata. It is clearly not the same game as Elefantenparade, but it adds so little to that classic's racing formula and, being abstract, fails to engage me on almost all levels. The saving grace is that it is very quick, and accordingly does have that elusive, 'Let's try it again', quality - often following a complete disaster on the dark stone front, and thinking you have a better way to play next time. The real question, and one I am not entirely qualified to answer (as it falls into the 'if he does this, I do that etc' category), is whether there is a 'perfect' play tactic that will make the game a foregone conclusion. After about a dozen plays (hard to believe eh?) I haven't found it and since every game is quite different it has proved at least interesting. Not a great deal of fun, but certainly interesting. What I hope doesn't happen is that someone comes along and says 'If you play a five to start and then play leader -2 the rest of the game it's all over' or similar. Because then I won't even be able to sell it. Playing a hunch, I think (and hope) it won't prove to be crackable in this way. Much like 6 Day Race, Yucata looks as if it may be, but the other players always have a bearing and it is true to say each of the twelve games have been very different. I even won three of them, which proves it isn't that abstract. Whether the same would be true after fifty or a hundred plays, I couldn't say.
Like most abstract games Yucata has very little wrong with it. In fact, the rules, system and tactics are clear, straightforward and largely transparent. Production is good, but should be for the asking price of around £24 ($35). With the right people and the right approach, it will happily fill an hour or so with no feeling of disappointment.The downside is that it is not cheap, is lacking in flavour and really comes down to you against the abstract system and the other players. Many of you will enjoy this, I prefer something a little more engaging. Whatever, for what it is (a 'junior', simpler, lighter game), it is perfectly adequate. Drawing as it does on the generally unavailable Elefantenparade, this is a solid, if unspectacular and derivative release from one of our favourite game companies. Me, I'll be waiting for the Essen 'hobby' game.
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell