Still Not a River in Egypt
It’s hard to imagine anybody improving on good old Tigris & Euphrates. At over twenty years old it still remains a monument of our hobby, a surprisingly fluid combination of setting and systems, simple enough to learn, incredibly difficult to master.
Yellow & Yangtze is Reiner Knizia’s attempt at besting his own classic. What’s there to change? A whole lot, it turns out. And much of it has to do with that staple of Tigris & Euphrates strategy, the monument.
For the uninitiated, both Tigris & Euphrates and Yellow & Yangtze revolve around the same idea. There are four colors of points, each representing a different sphere of governance — bureaucracy, agriculture, commerce, and military, in this case. But when the game finally wheels to a stop, your final tally is only as great as your smallest stockpile. The historical lesson is that the states that thrive are the ones that strike a particular balance; after all, there’s little stability in a farmer-emperor who can’t also exterminate threats and navigate court intrigues. Even the presence of both games’ fifth “wild” resource is historically sound. It’s gold, don’t you know. And a fat treasury is great at masking any number of shortcomings.
Points can be picked up in a few ways. Fighting, sure, and we’ll talk about warcraft in a minute. But more often, points are gained simply by laying down tiles. Place a green tile on the board, for instance, and as long as that state has an attached green leader, that leader earns a green point. Easy.
Then again, it’s also easy to fall behind in a category, especially since those tiles are dealt randomly from a draw-bag. If you spend the entire game with a surplus of black and red tiles, it’s still possible that your score will be a whopping zero points once all is said and done.
That’s where pagodas come in. In Tigris & Euphrates, they were called monuments, and represented the pinnacle of a civilization. The basic idea was that a block of same-colored tiles could be upgraded into a monument. From that moment forward, this monument resembled a thoroughly-kicked vending machine, spitting out points to any color-matching leaders smart enough to position themselves nearby. It’s little surprise that T&E’s first rounds usually revolved around erecting the things, while its second half was about conquering and holding them.
Where Tigris & Euphrates was defined by its monuments — permanent, unmovable, gluttonously rewarding — Yellow & Yangtze is also largely given shape by its pagodas.
First of all, they’re easier to build. The board’s shift from squares to hexes means it only takes three rather than four tiles to set one up. Expect them early, is what I’m saying. To counteract their abundance, they only provide a single point each turn, encouraging a bit more diversification. And, even more crucially, these banquets are moveable feasts — and prone to disruption.
Let me explain. See, as in Tigris & Euphrates, each state can only contain a single leader of each type. There’s only room for one merchant lord, general, governor, and farm boss, and spares aren’t welcome without a fight. In the past, this meant that much of the strategy was about ousting leaders. That’s the case in Yellow & Yangtze as well, and many player machinations will revolve around careful placement of local bureaucracies (black tiles) to shore up support, or armies (red tiles) to prepare for that climactic moment when two states merge together and duke it out to determine who remains. Spare tiles are wagered, allegiances are tested, and somebody is sent packing.
But there’s an additional subtlety to Yellow & Yangtze. Rather than going to the trouble of ousting an entrenched leader, why not simply dry up their state’s prosperity? By placing your own matching tiles, you can steal their pagoda outright. Now the vending machine is yours to kick at your leisure, while their fancy fortresses and bribed politicians aren’t worth beans.
And then there’s the alternative. If you don’t happen to hold the right tiles to build a pagoda, it’s always possible to deploy one of your special abilities.
I know. Special abilities. It’s like a mouthful of carsick.
Like everything else in Yellow & Yangtze, however, these are handled with a master’s touch. The basic idea is that each color boasts its own way of unsettling the normal progression of the game, often in unexpected ways. Yellow tiles provide wild points and nothing else — that’s benefit enough. The other colors are more dynamic. Blue tiles, for example, can be played in sequence for a single action. Blue, blue, blue, all in a line. A green tile, when placed, lets you select a tile from the marketplace, giving you a bit of additional control over what you’re holding. Which is a huge boon, since red and black tiles are necessary for prosecuting wars or revolts.
There’s more. Spending two green tiles at once will enact a miniature heist, stealing a pagoda straight out of a rival state and transplanting it onto one of your own suitable foundations. Two blue tiles, meanwhile, will trigger a peasant uprising, removing a tile from the game entirely. It’s a move that’s reminiscent of Tigris & Euphrates’ disaster tiles but without the permanent salting of the earth, and it’s the perfect way to fragment a state before an invasion or tear down somebody’s pagoda.
Even your leaders get involved. While most of the time it’s necessary to have leaders on the board to hoover up all those points, they’re no longer worthless in reserve. A blue or green leader on the sidelines decreases the cost of Ocean’s Elevening a pagoda or fomenting a peasant uprising, while red and black leaders add a point to your side in a fight. These perks are nice, and can occasionally swing a conflict into your favor, but they’re balancing instruments more than anything. Now a player who’s witnessed their dynasty get swept off the map can enjoy a few bonuses while they rebuild their strength.
This isn’t the only instrument of balance. The bigger one is that wars are no longer prone to flooding their winners with points.
In fact, the entire concept of war has been made more evocative of how a clash between rival Chinese states might actually go down. Where leaders in Tigris & Euphrates behaved as agents unto themselves, waging a series of small battles until no like-colored overlords remained within the new unified kingdom, leaders in Yellow & Yangtze are tethered to their states. When two sovereign entities collide, it’s every leader in one versus every leader in the other. Everybody wagers tiles, both states count up their strength, and the losing side suffers an aggressive downsizing.
It’s hard to overstate how much smoother this feels, rendering the wars of Tigris & Euphrates awkward by comparison. For one thing, it’s entirely possible for members of your dynasty to fight on both sides of a conflict. It’s a perfect flourish for a game about bitter family rivalries. Cousin is pitted against cousin, you’re forced to make an excruciating decision about which side to support, and the consequences are far greater than the few points you’re awarded for being on the winning side.
Even cooler, when I say everybody wagers tiles, I mean everybody. Just because somebody isn’t directly involved in a conflict doesn’t mean they can’t deploy soldiers to help their chosen side. If anything, this is the perfect antidote to overly aggressive players. Make enemies too wonton-ly (sorry) and you may find yourself struggling to win even the smallest war thanks to all the third-party mercenaries trampling in from next door with the singular purpose of pissing in your porridge.
But the real beauty of these overhauled wars is that they’re less cataclysmic than those in Tigris & Euphrates. Rather than tearing a hole straight through everything you’ve built, states tend to congeal over time. Not only is this thematically appropriate for the rise of the Qin Dynasty, it also lends Yellow & Yangtze a tempo of its own. Where its predecessor tended to slowly build to a small handful of kingdom-shattering wars, this game provides flashpoints early and often — but lets you recover from them just as swiftly.
That difference in tempo is the one thing that makes me hesitant to proclaim Yellow & Yangtze the superior game, despite a number of advancements that make it play more smoothly than its hallowed progenitor. Where Tigris & Euphrates was about the rise, coalescence, and breaking of a culture over a thousand long years, Yellow & Yangtze is more intimate — and acrimonious. Conflicts arise more rapidly, yet are put to bed more swiftly. Dynasties grow into conflict, furiously wage wars or revolts, and then settle back into a rhythm of mutualism. Rather than ascending to a plateau and then leaping over the edge, it moves in leaps and bounds and fits and starts, but always upward. As wars are fought and dynasties deposed, civilization continues to spread far and wide until at last there’s hardly any isolated spot worth battling over. For such an enthusiastically bitter game, it’s strangely optimistic.
Put another way, it’s hard to say whether Yellow & Yangtze will endure as Tigris & Euphrates has, but it’s certainly not the worse of the two. It’s a testament not only to the expressive power of a seasoned designer, but also to the necessity of iteration within our hobby. The dynasty has been sundered; long live the dynasty.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I too live alongside a river, though it’s been put underground and sometimes floods to the surface like a furious buried deity. Just a nifty detail about me.)