Yspahan was a finalist for the Spiel des Jahres in 2007 (losing to Zooloretto) and caught my eye because of its unusual name, referring to a city in Iran more commonly known as Isfahan, and the promise of a game that combined a worker-placement dynamic with one involving selling goods in a market. It didn’t quite live up to that description, and is more like a lite version of Puerto Rico, where players choose between building, placing your cubes in neighborhoods, and shipping goods on the caravans, but unlike the more complex Puerto Rico, in Yspahan it’s hard to win without balancing your strategy across all three main methods of scoring points.
Yspahan’s board consists of four neighborhoods, each of which is broken down into groups of buildings called souks, with the four neighborhoods separated by two roads that cross near the center of the map. Each player has a supply of goods that s/he can place on buildings on the board with an eye toward filling complete souks, each of which has a different point value tied to its size and its neighborhood. These goods can also be sent to the caravan, which, when filled (nine spaces in a three-player game, twelve in a four-player), returns additional points to the players with goods on it, tied to how many goods they have and where they sit on the caravan. Each player also has a small board of six special buildings that can be built by spending gold and/or camels; each building gives the player some special power or bonus for the rest of the game, and building at least three buildings yields immediate bonuses of five to ten points, with a maximum of 25 if a player constructs all six.
The twist in Yspahan’s mechanics determines how players get the right to place cubes in certain neighborhoods and how they acquire camels and gold. There are nine white dice in the game, rolled once per “day” in the game (which is divided into three weeks, for 21 total turns). The dice are placed on another board that comprises six spaces: camels at the bottom, gold at the top, and the four neighborhoods in between. The players sort the dice by number, placing all dice with the lowest rolled number on the camels space, the highest on the gold, using the remaining dice to fill up the neighborhood spaces from the bottom up. Therefore, the top neighborhood, labelled with a green vase, is the hardest to get because that space on the tower is often empty. Each player takes dice from one row on the tower and gets to either draw as many camels/coins as there are dice on those spots or to place as many cubes on a neighborhood as there were dice in that neighborhood’s row. The player can also choose to draw a card from the main deck, each of which grants some special privilege such as additional camels/coins or free placement of a cube, or to move the supervisor up to three spaces to a road space that sends any adjacent cube(s) from the board to the caravan.
Souks are scored and cleared at the end of every week, with each completed souk worth from 3 to 12 points, plus a possible 2 point bonus per completed souk for players who’ve built the Bazaar. Incomplete souks are worth nothing. The first row of caravan spaces is worth two points per cube, and the second is worth one, but the big scoring comes at the end of each week and again when the caravan is filled – each player gets one point per cube there, multiplied by the highest row on which s/he has a cube. So if a player has one cube in each row, s/he would receive nine points – 3 cubes times row 3. In playing live and on the authorized free PC version found here, I’ve found it impossible to win without racking up at least some points in all three major areas – souks, buildings, and the caravan – and I’ve always needed a little bit of luck, or at least an absence of bad luck in die rolls, to pull it off.
The flip side of that in-game balance is that Yspahan starts to get to close to the edge of strategy games where playing starts to slightly resemble work: If you play to win, or at least to compete, you have to do certain things by the end of the first week or else the game is nearly hopeless. It’s very hard to come back from an early hole like that, so the early part of the game becomes a to-do list, with a good chunk of your fate in the hands of the dice. The game reminds me of Alhambra in that regard, another game where the random element in the mechanics can put one player in a giant hole from which s/he can’t crawl out. Yspahan’s simpler than Alhambra and moves faster, and far more balanced than many games on the market, but despite that simplicity it has some of the intensity required by more complex games like Le Havre or Agricola, which isn’t entirely my cup of tea.
I’ll be updating my board game rankings by the end of this week, for those of you waiting for that post; here’s last year’s rankings to tide you over until then, with ten new titles for me to add to that list.