By: Mr. Saint
Note: Review originally published on BGG September 2019.
Yomi is one of our forgotten games. Initially procured in 2014 at PAX East, it was played quite a bit that year and then put on the shelf, where it quietly gathered dust for years. We recently rediscovered our collection of Yomi decks while organizing our game collection. Does it stand the test of time or is it going on the sell pile? Read on to find out!
Yomi is a self described “Fighting Card Game”. Players pick a deck of cards to pair against each other. Each deck represents a singular character in the Fantasy Strike universe, complete with all their unique attacks, special abilities, combo points and hit points. At its core, the game uses a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy to resolve conflicts between characters. Attacks beat throws, throws beat dodges and blocks, dodges and blocks beat attacks in a circular priority system that determines who wins combat. The player that reduces the enemy character’s hit points to zero first is the winner.
Gameplay consists of both players selecting a card from their hand and placing it facedown on the table. Each card in a character’s deck can be played in either north or south orientation, further expanding the options (most cards have different characteristics depending on their orientation). A player wins combat based on the above referenced rock-paper-scissors hierarchy, with the faster of the two moves winning in the event that both players play the same type of card.
True to its source material, when a player wins combat with an attack or throw, they are often given the opportunity to combo into additional attacks for big damage. These most commonly take the form of ascending values of normal attacks (3+4+5 etc.), augmented by cards with the Linker keyword and limited by your character’s combo point maximum. String enough normal attacks together in a combo and you get the opportunity at the end of the turn to search for your characters powerful super move cards. Represented by the deck’s aces, these attacks typically require a player to discard multiple copies of the card to be used. You can also search for aces by discarding matched sets of cards at the end of your turn. These mechanics introduces an interesting hand management mechanism to the game. Do you do what you can with each won combat, getting incremental amounts of damage in? Or do you save up for a truly devastating attack, chaining together multiple cards for big damage and getting closer to activating your character’s super move?
Jokers add a bit of variability to the rock-paper-scissors gameplay. Played as your facedown card for the turn, they represent bursts (an ability that interrupts an opponent’s long combo, typically seen in Anime-inspired fighting games). A joker played in this way will beat both attacks and throws, and if it wins combat, allows you to search for two copies of your super move, significantly improving your odds of being able to play that move during a game. Jokers can also be played facedown to “reverse time” after you have lost a combat, invalidating all but the first hit of a combo. The trick here is that you can play any card facedown after losing combat, daring your opponent to continue with disastrous consequences should they choose incorrectly. The tension of staring at an opponent who has just played a facedown card in response to your won combat, deciding whether to commit to a full combo or cut your potential losses and end the turn with a much smaller win, are some of Yomi’s best moments.
Growing up, around the ages of 10-12, I lived about two blocks away from a Pizza Hut restaurant. This is notable for two reasons. The first is it instilled a lifelong love of the P’zone. The second is that this Pizza Hut had three arcade cabinets. My friends and I would often spend our entire allowances and all manner of found change on these cabinets, and after we had mastered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men: the Arcade Game, we turned our attention to the restaurant’s sole competitive arcade game: Super Street Fighter II Turbo.
Once we discovered the world of competitive fighting games, we never went back to the other cabinets. All our collective money went to vying for supremacy in our peer group. We spent many hours playing Super Turbo, trying to figure out which character to main, practicing combos and special moves, and of course facing off against all-comers. I can even remember a trip to the local library to look at back issues of GamePro magazine, trying to find new tech and strategies to maintain my competitive edge.
Those early years at Pizza Hut sparked in me a lifelong love of fighting games that continues to this day. If you’ll pardon the indulgence, I thought it important to ruminate on my personal history with fighting games to frame the context of this review. So that when I say Yomi, in many ways, feels like a pure distillation of the fighting game video game genre to its most essential components, you’ll know where I’m coming from.
The core gameplay of Yomi, that rock-paper-scissors dynamic is at the heart of all fighting games. It is usually obfuscated by frame data, character specific interactions, execution requirements, positional awareness and matchup knowledge, but at their core, most fighting games work on a system in which throws beat blocking and are in turn stuffed by incoming attacks. Yomi runs with the hierarchy and makes it the core concept of its gameplay loop.
And as we played games games of Yomi, a very interesting thing happened. The games began to take longer. This is significant because it is counter to how most of our game playing works. As one gets better at a game and internalizes its systems, the game typically takes less time (AP problems aside). With Yomi, we started out playing a quick 5-10 minute scuffle, playing cards mostly at random. This quickly evolved into a high tension 15 minute chess match, in which each move is considered against the opponent’s range of possible options before it is committed to. The rabbit hole of “they know that I have this but that means I should do this other thing unless they have thought that far ahead in which case I should action this third option…” is deep indeed. To bring things back to fighting games, it felt like we were graduating from button-mashers to more practiced combatants, complete with a greater understanding of matchup knowledge and our chosen character’s capabilities.
This isn’t to say that Yomi’s reduction to the base elements of fighting games comes without cost. Positioning, where your character is relative to your opponent and the battlefield, is largely absent in Yomi. This concept is key to master for the fighting game enthusiast, and the intricacies of match-up dependant footsies are some of the most rewarding and skill intensive moments of the genre. This omission has the effect of making some moves , such as some characters’ “dragon punch” special attacks (see Grave’s or Jaina’s Q card – Dragonheart), unnaturally safe bets.
In video games, these moves typically have very fast start-up and sometimes invincibility at the beginning of their attack animation. This is counterbalanced by giving the opponent the ability to initiate a full combo if you whiff due to you being very out of position. Because most of these attacks in Yomi give you the benefit of very fast speed without the corresponding punishment when you whiff, they create a low risk game-plan against an opponent who is on the ropes, in which you spam copies of these attacks interspersed with throws to finish them off.
It bears noting that this observed phenomenon does not seem to have an impact on Yomi’s balance (as indicated by David Sirlin’s analysis of more than 35,000 online games of Yomi, in this article – http://www.sirlin.net/articles/game-balance-and-yomi. And there is a small concession to positioning and range in the unique ability of the character Bal-Bas-Beta (BBB). But we found BBB to be one of the more awkward characters, both to play and to play against, so, for us, it didn’t quite fill the gap.
Overall, revisiting Yomi was a lot of fun. It fills a nice niche in our collection as a fast and frenetic dueling game. It definitely stands on its own, and in the near term, is a keeper! It’s also revitalized my interest in other card based fighting games, and it seems that some of its newer competitors have attempted to integrate positioning into their tactical play. Level 99’s Exceed and BattleCON, as well as Alderac Entertainment’s Sakura Arms are now on the radar (especially Season 3 of Exceed, which hits the nostalgia centers of my brain with its focus on Street Fighter characters). Until we get our hands on some of those to test out, we’ll be enjoying this more tactical version of Roshambo!