Yunnan is “a game for hard-boiled tea traders” by designer Aaron Haag with art from Dennis Lohausen. It was published in Germany in 2013 by Argentum Verlag and made its way to the U.S. this spring via Passport Game Studios.
It works with two to five players ages 12 and up and takes about an hour and a half to play. It has a suggested price of $50 but can be found for less than $35 online.
Yunnan is promoted as a game that is pure strategy. It has no dice, no cards, and nothing to hide from other players. But is it fun?
How it works:
Players start with three tea traders, some cash, and a horse. Their goal is to move their tea traders along the Tea-Horse Road (a real tea trading route in China that was in use for more than 1,000 years), building bridges, tea houses, and trading posts in order to gain presents, and sell tea. When players sell their tea, they can convert any ratio of the proceeds into cash or points.
They need the points to win, but they need the cash for the auction phase of the game. Players can place their traders on Progress Buildings in the first phase of each round. They can go to the bank for money, or they can bid for passes to move farther, to move their horse (which they cannot pass on the road), to gain more traders, to build buildings and bridges, and to gain influence.
When a player reaches 80 points (100 in a two-player game) or the presents are depleted, the game ends and the points are counted. The person with the most wins.
Why you might buy Yunnan:
It is fun. At least I think so. Despite the pure strategy, there are plenty of choices to make, and you have to constantly maneuver around your opponents.
Moving along the road isn’t as easy as it sounds. Influence, for instance, allows you to move other players back a province, but it puts you at risk of being moved to the beginning of the track by the tea inspector.
The game is beautiful, and everything about the board works. It evokes the theme without resorting to racial stereotypes.
Yunnan is all about balance. Every choice you make limits a choice somewhere else on the board. The advantages of going first are great, but it can put you at risk, as well.
The bidding system is particularly interesting. The two lowest bids can be outbid by other players, but the three highest can all use the Progress Building in question. It’s just that the person who got there first will pay less for the privilege.
Despite its complexity, the game is not hard to learn. The rulebook is intimidating, but once you start playing, it just makes sense.
Many games try to create a two-player game by adding a dummy player or lots of extra rules. Yunnan takes a more straightforward approach. The two players play two different colors, sharing points but not resources. This works quite well and makes it much easier to remember the rules at varying player counts.
The advanced variant in the game allows players to go into debt, with high penalties at the beginning and lower ones as the game progresses. This changes the gameplay significantly, as players can risk points to take advantage of more ways to gain points.
Why you might not buy Yunnan:
If you play with two players, you might not want to play two characters, and there’s really no other way to play.
Yunnan is a cutthroat game. There’s no way to be nice to your opponents and win, unlike many European games. To play well, you will destroy your opponents’ plans. And they’ll destroy yours.
While Yunnan is fine with any player count, it’s best with more. The choices become more difficult, and cash becomes more important.
Going first in the game has many advantages, and the person who collects the most income gets to go first after each round. This can make it difficult — but certainly not impossible — for players who take their turn last to catch up.
The point spread can be painful. We played one game where one player was modestly ahead throughout out the game and then lost by more than 100 points in the final tally.
After our most recent game of Yunnan, my husband described it as “a masterpiece,” and I agree.
The balance is remarkable, and the game forces you to diversify or lose, though you might not see that loss coming until it’s too late to do anything about it.
The game is not for everyone. You’ll be thinking every second and trying to optimize every last coin you have. I think that makes for a great game.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Yunnan from Passport Game Studios. I wasn’t required to write a positive review. These are my honest opinions.