I like blind bidding as a device in board and card games.
It’s often capable of producing heart-in-mouth moments. The second or so before bids are revealed can be splendidly tense – whether you’re worried that an optimistic low-ball bid will have back-fired, or if you’re scared that you’ve blown too much on something nobody else values.
This stands in contrast to the way in which open auctions often come off, in my view, as scripted and stilted. Unless there’s a mechanism to prevent it, players will very often up the previous bid by the smallest increment available. Once-around systems, where each player only has a single bid can cure this, but in doing so introduce a new problem to be solved: the advantage given to the last player in the turn order. If there aren’t enough separate lots auctioned in a game for this advantage to average itself out, neither version is wholly desirable.
Still, I guess there’s something in being able to use a big bid as a statement of intent. There’s a thrill to an emphatic, public all-or-nothing moment.
Enter Ys. Not only does it mix blind and open bidding, but it also gives its players a high degree of control over which method to apply where.
In the game, players represent merchant-princes or princesses, trying to sell gems and earn prestige in the mythical island city of Ys. They send brokers into various regions of the city to buy gems, or into the marketplace to try and influence the future sale price of those gems.
That’s the principle. But, in playing, the brokers never really become more than chunky wooden pieces, with a number printed on one end. The city, drawn as perfectly circular, is too diagrammatic to be believed in (though it is colourful, and pretty good-looking for what it is). It’s all alright, however. While the theme fails to take off, there’s more than enough to get into without it.
The buying power of a particular broker is represented by the number printed on it (between zero and four). On each turn, a player chooses two of these brokers, and places one face up somewhere in the city, one face down. Thus, one bid is made publicly, one not. Indeed, the two brokers could even be placed in the same section of the city, one revealed, one not, giving opponents a sniff of what a bid might be, but perhaps a misleading one.
Each player places eight brokers in total per round before the hidden numbers are revealed and rewards accordingly distributed. Each game consists of four rounds – meaning a game can easily be completed in under an hour.
Domination of a city quarter means gems. The player with the highest number in a quarter of the city receives two gems, from a choice of four (of three different colours). The player with the second highest number takes a single gem from the remaining two, while the third-placed player takes whatever gem those others didn’t want.
Each quarter is also sub-divided into three sections. Having the highest number in the port area of a given quarter means picking up a black gem. The highest number in a commercial area is a straight three victory points, while the highest number in a palace area yields what is known as a character card. The name is apt, because the special effects these offer contribute a healthy amount of character to the game. The possible effects are numerous, but a couple of the most fun are the spy and the herald. The spy allows the player holding the card to look at the numbers on three face down brokers which other players have placed, while the herald allows the player to move one broker the regular placement phase has finished. Sixteen powers are available, not all of which will be seen in a single game.
For some, the city might feel too spacious. Even forgetting for a moment that brokers can be placed in the market, that there are 12 sections in total available in the city (in a four player game) into which 32 brokers could be placed, means bidding wars seldom occur. But, again, to me, it’s fine. Depending on the players, about a third of brokers placed might end up challenged in a given section (and control of a quarter will always be contested). The question isn’t so much how to win control of a specific section – placing a value four broker anywhere should, in most cases do so – but which contests to enter.
Also, the order in which brokers are placed provides material to ponder. A value four broker placed early can be the statement of intent I talked about earlier. But there’s also something to be said for keeping a strong broker in reserve; there will be weaker face-up brokers waiting to be beaten in the last turn.
Meanwhile, the marketplace is a grid, made of of twelve spaces in a four-player game (which is by far the best number with which play Ys: three is okay, and two is to be avoided). The player with the highest number in a row receives a specific gem – the colour of which was determined by the draw of a card before placement of brokers began.
For the four columns, the owner of a given broker is less significant. Instead, the value of all brokers in a column, from all players, is added together. Each column is associated with a colour of gem (red, yellow, blue and green); the gem with the highest value column associated with it moves up two notches on the track charting sale value. The second place gem moves up by one, third place down by one, fourth place down by two. The player who placed the highest value of brokers into the market can further adjust the value of one gem up or down by one.
The value of gems is only significant at the end of the game: it determines how many victory points each gem will be worth. If, say, red is top, then yellow, green and blue – the player with the highest number of red gems receives 24 points, down to fourth place in the number of blue gems being worth three points. The black gems picked up from the port area of the city are valued separately, on a fixed, slightly strange progression: holding one black gem at the end of the game is worth one point, two is worth four points, three gems are worth eight points and up in increments of four until a cap at seven black gems giving twenty-four points. Any more add nothing.
How to use the market is one of the trickier aspects of Ys. Raising the value of a particular colour of gem early in the game may well mean helping an opponent to victory: while you’re operating in the market, another player can be focusing on the city, picking up the kind of gem you’re making more attractive. Also, the city’s commercial area, and port area offer reliable value – through the straight three victory points, and the fixed-value black gem respectively.
Partly because of this, placing a broker in the marketplace immediately gives a single victory point as recompense. But a broker in the market, even early in the game, can have power in influencing how people use the city. If, say, green looks like it’s going to increase in value, people may commit more resources to sections of the city giving green gems: meaning control of other quarters might be achieved more cheaply.
It comes, of course, down to mind games. Open bids are about sending an unambiguous message, blind bids are about sowing doubt. Each lets the imagination do work. Thus, the value of a placement is partly in what it does to your opponents – which I love, though those who want to analyze too mathematically might find this less appealing. But the interplay of bidding mechanisms makes Ys unlike anything else, and that in itself, is to be commended.
Ys was released in 2004 by Ystari Games, was designed by Cyril Demaegd, and is for 2-4 players.