To me, one of the cardinal rules of an abstract strategy game should be that the rules be as simple and clear as possible. Many times I've played games that had fairly simple rules but clouded them with obtuse game terms in an attempt to give the game a thematic flavor. This, I fear, is the biggest problem with Yang Tzee (Blue Panther LLC, 2006 - Brendan Herlihy). If you take away the theme of the game and simplify it somewhat, I think that you might have a clever and interesting game.
Yang Tzee also looks very nice, made with Blue Panther's traditional 100% wood components, having the look and feel of a medieval game. And perhaps there are some deeper strategies, but I had a difficult time getting past the strange terminology and symbols I constantly was looking up. It's an interesting game, but we found that if one player got a little lucky with a tile placement, they could run away with the victory. This two-player game works on paper but seems to lack the "fun factor" I seek in games.
The main components of the game are thing tiles with three characters on them in a column. These characters can either be symbols (sun, moon, bird, rabbit, fish, hole) or blossoms (Mum, Bamboo, Orchid, Plum). Nine of the tiles are designated as start tiles and are placed in a single row randomly on the table, forming the "Sea." The remainder of the tiles is shuffled face down into an area known as the "Sphere", and players draw six to form their hand (also known as "Rain"). Each player also has another area in front of them known as their "Stream." Players place some discs of their color next to a scoring board, and one player is chosen to go first.
On a players turn, the first thing they do is to draw one tile from the Sphere if they have less than six tiles in their Rain. They then must take one of the following two actions.
- Rain to the Sea: A player can place a tile from their hand directly into the sea. This tile must be lined up with the other tiles there - tiles have only one facing - and placed at either end. When taking this action, the player scores one point.
- Rain to the Stream. A player can place one tile from their hand face up in their Stream, with a maximum of three tiles allowed there.
- Stream to the Sea: A player can place a tile from their Stream into the sea - again, at either end. At this point, the player has the opportunity to form and collect sets.
When a player "Streams to the Sea", and a symbol on the tile they placed matches another symbol in that same row - with at least one tile but no Bamboo in between, they collect the all tiles in between the symbols, including the tiles that show the symbols. If the player matched two "hole" symbols (the most common), they make a "Spirit Match", which allows them to steal one tile from their opponent's stream, placing it in their collection. Otherwise, the player makes an "Earth Match" and scores points for each tile depending on the blossom on that tile. Bamboo tiles are worth one point, Plum tiles are worth three points, Mums are worth one point for every tile in the collection, and Orchids are worth one point - and double the total points for the collection. After scoring the set (or sets - it's possible that a several sets are formed by placing one tile), the player must make an "offering," allowing the opponent to take one tile from their Stream, adding it to their Stream instead. Once a player has collected any set, they then discard the tiles, and add one tile from the Sphere to the Sea on the same side the set(s) was collected.
Players continue playing until either the Sphere or either player's Rain/Sea is out of tiles, or one player collects the last tiles in the Sea (although they do lose ten points from the collection). The player with the most points is then wins the round. The first player to win two rounds wins the game!
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: The tiles, scoreboard, and box are really impressive, all completely made out of a nice quality, durable wood. The box has a removable lid and looks like an older, antique game; and the long, thin tiles are rather well done. My only problem with the tiles was that it was sometimes difficult to tell at a glance which blossom was which. I could never remember how they scored either and had to keep looking that up. The trays included hold the tiles well, and they fit snugly inside the box when storing. The scoring tile, with two wooden tokens to move up both sides to keep track of scoring, was a little unwieldy, but better than using paper and pencil, I suppose.
2.) Rules: The rules are printed on six pages of parchment and do a good job of explaining the game - although some things are out of order - I would have placed them differently (not so many "see this section of the rules"). Explaining the game isn't that difficult, as long as I leave out the murky terminology. Still, it's not a game that's easy to grasp, and it often takes an entire game before people I explain it to understand what's going on.
3.) Theme: I know that there really isn't a theme to the game, but the Rain, Stream, Sphere, and other terms only muddy the explanations. After attempting to use them, when explaining the first game, I finally just gave up and used basic terminology. Woe betide the first person to read the rules in a group, though! Keep it simple!
4.) Strategy: The game has a decent amount of strategic options, but sometimes they seem a bit obvious. Certainly a player wants to place tiles in their stream and avoid placing tiles directly from their hand, unless it sets them up for a better score. Players can also use clever means to snag a good tile from their opponent's stream, to use and score with themselves. All of this is nice, and once players figure out what in the world is going on, they have some decent options. There are two problems with this, however. The first I have already mentioned - the rather confusing methodology of gameplay and the strange terms actually make it worse, not better. The second is a large luck factor. Many times my opponent had a tile down that was about to allow them to score several large sets, and there was simply nothing I could do about it. Considering that one good scoring can swing the game either way, I found this unfortunate. There are a couple ways to stop an opponent - directly laying a tile in his path that has bamboo blocking the important rows, or by stealing their tile. But many times, neither option is available - and it is frustrating. There are only a few tiles with the really good blossoms on them; and if the opponent snags them, you simply limp out the rest of the game, attempting to catch up and knowing you never will.
5.) Fun Factor: With a more understandable theme, I think the game could have been fun; but as it is, it's a bit difficult to understand. The game isn't too long, but perhaps is just a bit lengthy for what it is. I can see that some folks will enjoy the game, and some may even like the theme; but it really wasn't one I enjoyed that much.
Yang Tzee (which will often be mispronounced by folks as a form of Yahtzee - wait and see!) is a game that has an ancient flair to it, and that includes its rather clunky theming. There are some tactics in laying down tiles and attempting to thwart your opponent, but I found that there was simply too much luck in this two-player game and not enough fun to make it worth while.
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BoardGameGeek entry for Yang Tzee