Like other high schoolers, I often would sleep over at my friends’ houses. And by sleeping over, I mean that we played Risk and videogames all night long. Our brain-rotter of choice was Tekken 3. On one occasion we played for probably five hours straight, making the loser of each match step out to face the winner. It was a cruel affair, but it was the first time that I remember attaining oneness with a video game. You’ve been there, right? You play a game so much that you do everything in the game without thinking. It tended to happen mostly with old school platformers like Mega Man, but it also happened with fighting games when you played against other players. I was never better at Tekken 3 than I was that night. I took out all comers with Jin Kazama, and I could not be stopped. Then I made the mistake of sleeping and my powers left me as I slumbered. Never again did I attain oneness with Tekken.
Playing Yomi, memories of Tekken come flooding back. This card game by David Sirlin seeks to replicate the mind games of a fighting video game like Tekken or Street Fighter. There are ten characters, each of which has their own deck of cards. These decks are actually tied in with a normal deck of playing cards, complete with ranks and suits in the corner. The cards are divided into attacks, throws, and blocks/dodges. Players each choose a card simultaneously, and they reveal them. The cards are resolved with a rock-paper-scissors method. Attacks beat throws, throws beat blocks and dodges, and blocks and dodges beat attacks. If you land an attack or a throw, you may be able to land some more hits on your opponent in the form of a combo. Each attack and throw deals a certain amount of damage, and you win if you reduce your opponent to zero health.
There are some other vagaries there, like the ability to discard sets of cards to draw the very powerful Aces out of your deck. Some of the very powerful attacks (like the aces) require you to discard additional cards for them to have any effect. But really, the entire game is explained on a single sheet of rules. It’s so simple and straightforward that your brain wants to invent rules problems that aren’t actually there. It’s a good thing that the game is so simple, because there is a shocking amount of complexity in this design. Each character is unique and has their own personality. Sirlin created his own cast of characters for Yomi (and for his other games, Flash Duel and Puzzle Strike). These 10 characters each have their own set of moves, strengths, and weaknesses. One of my favorites is Rook, who’s a giant stone golem. He has incredible throws that deal a ton of damage, including one move that can knock out half of a character’s life. However, he is completely unable to dodge, as he has no dodge cards in his deck. Some characters are great at combos, like Valerie and Setsuki, while other characters are tanks, like Rook and Midori. There are the middle-of-the-road characters who are pretty good at everything, like Grave and DeGrey. And of course, there are the weird characters who will infuriate the people who can’t play them, in Lum the panda and Argagarg the water shaman. It’s a surprisingly rich world, and one of the underrated aspects of Sirlin’s games is how he’s been able to keep these characters consistent over three different games (though I haven’t played Flash Duel). Even more impressive is how these characters all feel so unique and individual without any single character running away with the game. The balance is the single most impressive design element of Yomi.
The key aspect is the rock/paper/scissors element. The word “Yomi” comes from a word meaning “to read,” as in reading your opponent’s mind. It’s this aspect of fighting games that Yomi emulates with perfection. It’s tempting to assume that selecting a card is a blind guess every time, but that’s not really true. There are several ways, depending on the characters, to railroad your opponent into playing only certain types of cards. And as we know, human beings aren’t really random. We fall into patterns and habits, and Yomi encourages you to seek out those patterns. I once played a game where I was down to about 10 health, enough to lose with one good hit. My opponent, however, kept playing attack cards. Blocking or dodging every attack, I was able to eventually whittle him down by counterattacking after playing dodges. It was then that I was convinced the game had stumbled onto something that few games can attain. It forces you to study your opponent and to analyze his tendencies, just like you would in the best fighting games. And the game plays very quickly, usually in 15-20 minutes. It’s trivial to have someone over and knock out 7-8 games in one sitting. When that happens, you can sense “oneness” with Yomi developing. You get in your opponent’s head and it feels like you can predict everything he does. And sometimes, you just keep getting beat and you get frustrated. Is it pure luck? I don’t know, but it sure feels like it has more going on. Sometimes the illusion of control is more important than actual control, and I’m not sure it matters which one is here.
Doing a little bit of research, I discovered that Sirlin has been tinkering with Yomi since 2004. It was only released a year ago, so that means 7 years were spent on development of this one. That’s very difficult, and the hard work shines through. Yomi has been polished to a shine, and every single aspect feels carefully considered. It’s pretty clearly designed for the tournament scene, as are most other fighting games. Unfortunately, this careful engineering may make the game feel a little too studied for some people. It’s an extremely tight design. You are meant to use the game only in the ways that the game allows you. Again, this speaks to Sirlin’s video gaming background. He loves balance and judging from his blog, he’s not a fan of people exploiting bugs in a game to their own advantage. Yomi is designed to prevent those exploits. Some fighting game fans will be disappointed in this, because for them it’s part of the whole experience. Some board game fans will be disappointed because we just like it when goofy crap happens. If you were a big fan of the wilder side of Magic: The Gathering, Yomi’s staid nature will probably leave you cold. I am usually a big “goofy crap” fan, but this isn’t really that kind of game. It functions best as a duel within a very light but very clear ruleset. I do think it could stand to loosen up a little, but I can live with how it is right now.
But that does tie into my biggest problem. Because of the need to learn not just the game, but your opponent’s methods and patterns, Yomi only really begins to reveal itself when you’ve played a lot. I know that some people won’t stick around long enough to let it get there. That’s a problem, because while other games become good with experience, they still hook people in from the beginning. Yomi struggles to hook people, but it needs to hook someone to pay off. I’m not saying that it won’t instantly appeal to people. Obviously it would, or else the game would have already failed. But I am saying that it’s appeal is not instantaneous. It’s a little like the girl who you need to spend a ton of time with before she wants to date you. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt like it’s keeping me at arm’s length. It might be because of my general fear with most fighting games, which is that I’m never very good at them. I’m always a little intimidated by games at a highly competitive level, and Yomi is engineered to exist primarily as a tournament game. That’s more my problem then the game’s, but it will probably be a factor for other people.
The pricing of Yomi is a little strange. You can buy all of the characters at once in a big deluxe edition, or separately in little dual packs. The dual packs retail for $25, and the big set is $100. That seems like a lot of bread, but it depends on how you spin it. If you’re a board gamer, it will seem impossibly overpriced. Yomi does not look like it should retail for the same price as Space Hulk or Runewars. On the other hand, if you are an experienced CCG player Yomi will look like quite a bargain. CCGers are used to shelling out hundreds of dollars to get a fraction of the cards in a game, so $100 would be trivial for a complete card game. The production quality is pretty sharp too. The card art looks really cool, and the deluxe edition includes player mats and a fancy box. For those of us who just can’t justify paying $100 for a card game, there’s also a a print-and-play version for $15. This is the route I took. Although it involved a lot of printing and cutting and sleeving, the total cost ended up being closer to $50 for the whole game. There’s also a nice online version that is available at fantasystrike.com. I haven’t played online since it came out of beta, but it’s a great way to get a feel for the game without any money at all.
Yomi is an interesting game to me. I find that it has had flashes of brilliance where I’m totally on board with the game, and then moments where it just leaves me cold. It’s proven to be best when I’m playing it a lot. It’s only really worth your trouble if you feel like you’ll be able to play it a ton. But if you WILL play it a ton, then it’s definitely a winner. It invites you to become an expert. It’s an uncomplicated game, but a very complex one. And as a result it can be very rewarding, but it can also be easier to admire than to love. However, if someone can put the time and effort in, Yomi can be a knockout.