In Yunnan, players take on the role of tea traders, establishing lucrative trade routes and transporting tea to remote provinces in the interior of China. As players race to extend their trade routes, they work ever harder to maintain the tenuous connections between their merchants and trading posts. The game is a unique and interesting amalgam of route building and worker placement, with an interesting take on area control that I’d probably describe as “area priority.” The game is well paced and rewards careful planning.
The first thing that struck me when playing Yunnan was the beautiful board. Not only is it colorful and richly illustrated, but it manages to simultaneously convey a town filled with busy merchants and a map of China where the various trade routes are plotted. To do this, the game board is divided in two sections: one representing the village of Pu’er and the other depicting the main trade route through multiple provinces of China. Between the two sections is a clever turn order mechanism along with reminders of how each round proceeds. Overall, it’s an impressive piece of graphic design.
At the start of the game your traders are in the town of Pu’er, where you can bid to accomplish a number of tasks. The game begins with players taking turns placing their traders on one of five bidding tracks that allow you to increase your workforce, increase your influence, obtain additional border passes, construct a building or move your caravan deeper into China. If the bidding becomes too expensive, you can pull out your traders from the bidding tracks and head to the bank for some more money. You also have the option of placing your traders onto the start of the trade route which lies within the town. These traders won’t help you win any upgrades, but this is where they need to be if you want them to embark on any trading expedition.
Once the upgrade phase is over, players can move any traders on the trade route deeper into the provinces of China. The first province you can enter is Yunnan, where your caravan horse is located to start the game. Traders cannot move any further than their horse, so at first players are fairly restricted in their movement. If they want to move further into more remote provinces, they need to move their horse (via upgrades in town) further down the main trade route.
As the game got underway, I found the internal conflict between bidding on upgrades and placing your traders as traveling merchants to be very interesting. If you don’t upgrade your trading operation, you won’t get very far, but if you spend all your time in town, there’s no one to earn any money, and pretty soon you won’t have enough to bid on upgrades. It’s a fun balancing act that made for some interesting decisions.
At the end of the round, any traders in a province (even the start of the trade router where they were originally placed) will earn money, so players are naturally attempting to place their traders in the highest income provinces they can access. Unsurprisingly, the further down the track, the more income you’ll generate. However, there’s a bit more to it than just moving your traders into the most lucrative provinces. First, as I mentioned before, traders can only advance as far as their caravan has moved. Second, whenever a trader of higher influence stops their movement in a province, that trader can knock you back one province, which makes turn order quite important. Third, after all traders have moved and knocked each other around, the Inspector arrives at the most lucrative province and expels one trader with the highest influence back to the starting province of Pu’er. It can be a bit daunting trying to picture how this all will play out as you’re moving your traders, but that’s part of the fun. It’s a shifting board with a set of very deterministic rules so how you “game” that system will have a huge impact on how well you do.
Once the movement is all settled, you calculate the income for each player. As your traders travel further into China, you need to have either a trader or a trading post in each province along an unbroken route back to Pu’er. If not, you’ll be penalized for each gap in your route, and on the next turn you’ll need to fill in that gap or your lead trader will be forced to return all the way to Pu’er. As the game progresses and your traders are further out, maintaining an unbroken connection back to Pu’er becomes increasingly more important. After income is calculated, each player chooses whether to receive that income in points, money or any combination thereof. First player to 80 points triggers the final round with some additional endgame scoring.
For me, establishing and maintaining these trade routes was the most intriguing aspect of the game. It takes some effort to maintain a solid trade route that’s being constantly beset by competitive traders wanting to kick you to the next province as well as the troublesome Inspector who’s always after the richest traders on the board. By constructing buildings, players can mitigate the unexpected. Trading posts connect your route, earn income (although much less than a trader), and, most importantly, cannot be kicked out. Tea houses score points at the end of the game and protect players from the Inspector. Bridges shorten your route by connecting through a short cut and allowing you to concentrate your resources into a more focused route.
Thematically, the jockeying for position felt like real competition between entrepreneurial traders, and I really appreciated the efforts the game made to encourage speed. Also, since Yunnan is a bidding game, the key aspect of this competition isn’t just making a LOT of money, it’s making more than the other guy. In others words, far better that you make 10 and the other traders make 5 than you all make 15. This dynamic kept things interactive and really took the strategy in the game to the next level for me. I love building games where you develop a civilization or an empire or in this case a trading operation, so I really enjoyed how the buildings allowed you to shore up one aspect of your trading operation so you focus on other things.
One thing I didn’t like so much was continuously counting up points and income, which you will need to do a lot. This part of the game got a bit repetitive for me as you spend every round counting up what money each player is entitled to. In addition, there’s a player order reshuffling mechanism driven by each player’s income that’s a tad clunky. Those are minor issues compared to the one huge problem I had with this game, which is it really cannot be played with two players. The game’s “solution” is for both players to play two colors – in other words, have a modified 4-player game. Sorry, but with all the counting you need to do in this game already, the prospect of doing that twice, while keeping money separate for each of your colors and then adding up victory points together just wasn’t any fun. It’s really not a workable concept and it was the one place where I felt the designer just mailed it in. On a separate note, it might have been fun if the “gifts” that players receive upon entering a new province were more exciting than just a few victory points. That may have introduced some unwelcome randomness but I still think it could work.
Those points aside, there is an abundance of really wonderful ideas in this game. There’s a significant first mover advantage for players to reach distant provinces. To this end, a sort of race develops as players push their trade routes deeper into China and receive gifts from local merchants. The gifts are limited, so arriving first uncontested can be a tremendous advantage. Then again, the faster a player extends their route, the more vulnerable it is to interruptions. I mentioned this earlier, but a straightforward concept that really simplified the game is each round players have the option of taking their income as any combination of money or points. It doesn’t sound terribly impressive, but not a lot of games do it and gives tremendous flexibility to players over when they pivot from building their engine to focusing on winning. I thought it was a wise design choice to make that part of the game easy, allowing players to focus their attention on other matters.
Designed By: Aaron Haag
Published By: Passport Game Studios
Ages: 12 and up
Time: 60-90 Minutes
Mechanics: Area control, network building, worker placement, auction/bidding
Yunnan can seem fairly complex and certainly there is a lot going on, but I feel this game does an excellent job of combining simple mechanisms with deep strategy. In many ways, this felt like an abstract game with surprisingly effective theming. Perhaps not a choice for family game night, but in the right hands, this game is extremely replayable, highly interactive and deeply strategic.