Yspahan is the very first dice placement game I remember playing and I was floored. The game featured a unique mechanism of rolling and placing dice for action selection which was never seen before….. well 15 years ago. I distinctly recall feeling excited at playing the game and thought the mechanism would become mainstream, which it did. These days, dice placement games are a dime a dozen and I think many games stood on the shoulders of these early adopters. Whether Yspahan was the first to do so, is beside the point. Suffice to say, I think Yspahan should be widely regarded as the first few games to use dice beyond just rolling for a random number. Many current authors stood on the shoulders of these early publications.
A game of Yspahan lasts for 21 rounds spread out over 3 weeks. Rounds are very fast with the active player rolling dice and each player choosing an action. Each day, one player rolls a collection of dice, group them by pips and place them in separate action slots on the game board. The highest value pips will always be placed on the top most action slot which is collecting income while the lowest-value pips are grouped at the bottom which is just taking camels. Between the camel and income action slots are the remainder actions which are filled with dice in ascending order starting from the bottom. Meaning the slots closest to the top (income action) can sometimes turn out to be empty making those actions unavailable for some rounds and hence more valuable.
For most actions, it is the number of dice and not value of the pips that are meaningful. The top and bottom slots which is always available correspond to taking income or camels based on number of dice. The remain slots in the middle are represented by districts on the board. Each district on the board has a collection of houses, each grouped in a separate color and differing in number and VPs earned when completed. If one chooses an action for that district, you can place one cube in as many houses of the same color as the number of dice rolled for that action slot. One cube can only occupy one house and if a set a completed, the cubes can be placed in a new set of unoccupied houses. In this way, players try to complete sets of houses for scoring with some districts being harder to complete and worth more for VPs. Critically the building scoring is wiped clean each week after interim scoring.
Apart from performing the main actions based on the slot selected, players can always ignore the main action and choose a peripheral action that is independent of the slot chosen. One can draw two power cards and keep one. Power cards are well, standard Euro power cards which allow rule breaking benefits. The other action is to move the supervisor. Moving a supervisor on the Main Street allows players to move cubes previously placed on houses to the caravan board. Each Main Street facing house with a cube is susceptible to the supervisor-enforced eviction if the supervisor meeple stops in front of the house. To avoid eviction, one expends a camel to keep the cube in place while sending a cube from personal supply to the caravan. Being evicted to the caravans is actually not a bad thing since one can score a lot of points spread out over the entire game. Each cube in the caravan scores a point that is multiplied by a multiplier depending on how long the caravan is. Importantly the caravan scores across multiple weeks making it extremely powerful.
To round things up, player also get to construct commercial buildings on an individual tableau and apart from benefiting from in game bonuses, there are are substantial chunk of VPs to be earned end game. These buildings costs money and camels and allow players to specialize in some VP tracks. For example, the most expensive building allows one additional cube placement in any district during action selection and this allows rapid completion of housing estates for scoring. Another building favored by caravan builders allow players to grab a power card each time a cube is moved to the caravan.
Over the years, Yspahan also shared the distinction of being one of three games I traded or sold only to pick it up again at least 3 times. it tells me that I have a soft spot for the game but perhaps misguided since I sold off the game to begin with. I think Yspahan shows its age. The mechanisms were unique back in the heydays but games with dice placement has evolved. For one thing, there aren’t many ways to mitigate dice rolls. Presumably, you can get hosed if rolls are consistently against you. To only way to mitigate dice rolling is given only to the active player: Each person who initiate the rolls get to pay 1 coin to roll an additional golden-colored die. However, only the active player benefits from the golden die. Beyond that, you are at the mercy of the dice. These days, for the more modern designs, there are usually several ways to mitigate a bad die roll.
Another recurring issue with Yspahan is the dominant caravan strategy where players that ship their cubes from houses to caravans gets to consistently score points across all interim and final scoring periods. Whereas buildings on the main board gets cleared at the end of each week, a solid caravan investment will yield returns over and over again. That said, if all players are aware of the potent caravan scoring, this issue can be largely mitigated. The introduction of the mini-expansion The Souk is also thought to partially neuter the power cards that favor the caravan strategy. All of this is to say that the publishers are aware of this problem and veteran players can usually remain competitive across the different VP paths.
Still, I cannot deny that I kept Yspahan around simply because it has a lot of meat for such a barebones dice placement game. The game can be taught and played under an hour with 4 players and there aren’t many games that can do that. If you are looking for one of the classics, then you can’t go wrong with Yspahan. For players who are already exposed to dice placement, Yspahan can potentially feel more frustrating given the imbalances and dull given the aging mechanism. I think if your crowd is casual, Yspahan still deserves a spot on the shelf.
Final word: Average