Yomi: In The Beginning, There Was Street Fighter

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I knew of David Sirlin from his presence in the Street Fighter scene long before he started making board games.  He used to post on alt.games.sf2, where I lurked back in the day and occasionally cracked wise.  He was mildly famous for winning a few good-sized tournaments back in the 90s, and he's still pretty good, although not a top contender.  My involvement in the scene was never that active, but I usually keep an eye on it for nostalgia's sake.  When I heard he was moving into the analog design space I was quite intrigued -- and now, after a couple of warm-ups, he's finally released his main design, YomiYomi is a fixed-deck, non-customizable card game that is designed to replicate the mental side of video fighting games like Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, and so on.  But how can a card game replicate this?  Well....

Street Fighter is the most popular fighting game series of all time and hardly needs introduction, but for those who are too young or too Southernman to remember its prime, or only gave it a cursory glance, it's a fantasy martial arts beat-em-up.  You have a joystick and various attack buttons that you use to produce different moves in different situations -- your "hard punch" button might do a spinning backfist if you're standing up, a ducking uppercut if you start from a crouch, a flying chop if you press it when you're airborne, and so on.  Each move has varying degrees of reward, utility and risk depending on the game state: the ducking uppercut might be great against opponents who are jumping at you, mediocre if they're standing next to you, useless if they're on the other side of the screen, and suicidal if they're crouching close to you.  This changes slightly per opponent -- one guy might have a cool jumping kick that beats your ducking uppercut, so you'll have to find a different solution versus him.

The point of all that is to use the right moves in the right position at the right time, to do enough damage to your opponent to knock him out, before he does the same to you.  If you KO the other guy, you win the round.  Best of 3 rounds wins the game.

As a video game, there's an undeniable element of dexterity.  If you can't reliably pull off moves in a clutch situation, or you flub the timing of a series of hits and whiff an attack, leaving yourself open to be counterattacked, then it's going to be tough to compete.  However, the dexterity requirement, while it sucks to struggle through the learning curve where you know what to do but your brain can't get your fingers to do it, is surmountable.  After a period of practice, you have the basics down about as well as anyone.  And yet you still get beat by people who are no more dextrous than you.  Why does this happen?  Well, because they can do two things better than you: reading and valuation.

"Valuation" means correctly calculating the situational risk and reward of any given move at your disposal at that point in time.  Throwing a fireball at your opponent might be great from six feet away, but from two feet it gives the enemy time to block and trip you, and from nine feet away it gives him time to leap over it and hit you while you're recovering from the move.  So you have to know not only what your character can do, but what your opponent's character can do.

"Reading" is the poor English translation of the Japanese word yomi, which gives us Sirlin's title.  The actual concept is something like predicting or knowing -- like getting inside your opponent's head.  At the start of a round, there's a lot of back-and-forth jockeying for position, but eventually the flow of the match reaches points where you [b]must[/b] act.  However, given the nature of the game, and the speed at which the match unfolds, it is impossible for the nervous system to react in time.  If you wait to see what I do, then by the time your eyes send the signal to your brain, your brain interprets it, analyzes the correct response, sends the signal for the right response down to your fingers -- it's too late.  I've already hit you, thrown you, or whatever.  So you can't react, you have to predict what I'm going to do.  If you predict wrong then you lose the exchange: take damage, get put in a worse position, or most likely both.  But if you predict right, then you get to do that to me.  And that's where reading comes in.  Can you predict what I'm going to do?

Predicting the correct move sounds like a simple idea -- just rock/paper/scissors -- but there's two elements that take the final product beyond this seemingly boring description:

  1. Because of valuation, the correct move is not easy to figure out.  It depends on the situation at that moment in time, the options available to you (via the situation and the character you're using), and the options available to your opponent (ditto).
  2. Human beings are notoriously terrible random number generators.  We fall into patterns, or we like options for aesthetic reasons instead of gameplay ones, or whatever.  If you can figure out your opponent's pattern then you can break it.

These two things combine to provide a fantastic gameplay experience.  When you're on your game, your opponent falls into your hands.  You've whittled down his decision tree before he's even arrived at the first branch.  Every move he makes, you've already answered before he knows he's going to make it.  It's a beautiful feeling.  A rush.

Once you've mastered the dexterity part, of course.

And that's where the genius of Yomi's design lies.  By boiling the essence of fighting games down to the two mental elements, it strips away the barrier of entry that holds people back from this kind of competition and removes the need to practice incessantly to get the basic moves down.

Like all fighting games, there's a backstory that's easily ignored because it is both irrelevant and lame.  More importantly, like all fighting games, there's a variety of characters that you choose from.  There are ten characters in the initial release, with a bunch more in development for a possible expansion.  The ten characters are:

  • Grave Stormbourne, wind warrior:  The stereotypical warrior who can doesn't care about anything except improving his skills and winning the fight.  He's good at figuring out what you're going to do and shutting it down.
  • Jaina Stormbourne, phoenix archer:  Grave's sister, likes fire and archery.  She can get back useful cards by hurting herself.
  • Master Midori, mentor dragon:  Grave and Jaina's teacher, an old man who can occasionally hulk out by turning into a dragon.  His strategy is all about setting up the hulk-out, or threatening to set up the hulk-out.
  • Setsuki Hiruki, ninja student:   Fast and combolicious.  She specializes in fairly safe poke attacks that she can chain into large combos.
  • Garus Rook, stone golem:  In a controversial political stance, he loves freedom and hates facism.  Based around throwing people for huge damage, and using his rocky body to absorb damage and plow throw fast attacks.
  • Jefferson DeGrey, ghostly diplomat:  Imagine if Bruce Lee and Thomas Jefferson had a baby, then that baby had a baby with Sylvia Browne.  He's all about eliminating the options that are really good for you, so you have to choose between crappy options.
  • Valerie Rose, manic painter:  She wears flimsy dresses and is apparently always cold.  Also, she's bisexual, so anyone who likes to fantasizes about three-ways with fictional anime characters should take note.  Strategy-wise she's really good at combos.  Not as good as Setsuki, but more flexible.
  • Max Geiger, precise watchmaker:  He makes timepieces, and in the logic of fighting games and anime, this gives him the ability to control time.  He's good at chipping away at people and setting up throws.
  • Lum Bam-foo, gambling panda:  Obviously racist because Pandas are Chinese, and everyone knows Chinamen love to gamble.  He's really swingy and a fun character if you like to take crazy chances that sometimes pay off.
  • Argagarg Garg, water shaman:  The creature from the black lagoon, if it was less into stealing our women and more into being a turtling d-bag.  His strategy is to turtle and occasionally poke at people with quick attacks.

Each character is a deck of 56 cards.  One of these is a reference card for the basic rules.  One of those is a character card, which tell you your hit points, special ability, and roughly how good you are at various things.  They break down like this:


The other 54 are your moves.  All moves are either attacks, blocks, throws, dodges, or jokers.  The game itself is pretty simple mechanically:  You and your opponent choose a character.  Shuffle up and draw seven cards.  Each round you draw a new card, then select a card and reveal it simultaneously. Each move lists:

  • how much damage it does it hits (if it's an attack or a throw).
  • how much damage it does if it's blocked.
  • how fast it is (if it's an attack or a throw).
  • what, if anything, it can be followed up with ("combos into...") for free.  You get to play additional cards from your hand to add to the damage.
  • various special effects.

And there's a rock-paper-scissors relationship between the various moves:

  • Attacks beat throws and lose to blocks/dodges.  They also beat slower attacks and lose to faster attacks.  They do damage, sometimes a lot.  They usually let you follow up with more attacks for additional damage.
  • Throws beat blocks and lose to attacks.  Like attacks, they beat slower throws and lose to faster throws.  They usually do okay damage and sometimes allow followups.
  • Blocks beat attacks and lose to throws.  They don't do any damage but let you draw a card for more options next turn.
  • Dodges also beat attacks and lose to throws.  If you win, they let you follow up with one (and only one) attack or throw.
  • Jokers beat both attacks and throws, and lose to nothing.  If you win, they don't do any damage but allow you to search your discard or deck for up to two aces.

Some moves allow or require additional cards.  E.g. Geiger's ace requires that you discard an additional ace or else it fizzles.  Grave's king does 7 damage, and lets you discard an additional card for another 7 damage if you like.

At the end of your turn, you can discard sets of cards to search for aces in your deck or discard.  This is important because aces are your most powerful cards.  You want multiple copies of them because they either are required to be played together (like Geiger's) or can be pumped for massive damage (like Grave's king).  The process of searching for them is analogous to charging up your super meter in a video game, and it provides a nice additional layer of complication -- if I know that Rook has all four aces (letting him do his super-throw for 50 damage[!]) then blocking or dodging becomes incredibly risky -- so I should either attack or throw, but then Rook can forgoe blocking and use his Rock armor to blow through my attacks, and so on.

Jokers have an additional effect:  If you hit me with an attack and start to follow up with a combo, I can put a card face-down.  At the end of your combo, I reveal and discard my card.  If it's a joker, then none of your followups do any damage, and I draw two cards.  Anything else, and it has no effect.  So this lets the slower characters bluff the fast, combo-heavy characters like Setsuki and Valerie.

That's prettymuch the game; the rest is in the details.  And the details are awesome.  Learning the ins and outs of each character is as pleasurable as its video game counterparts.  Each character requires slightly different skills of hand management, and has various playstyles that require learning and tweaking.  They may or may not align with your preferred playstyle as a player, and likewise your opponent's preferred playstyle.

There's a lot of games where the pleasure comes in mastering the game itself.  You learn how to, say, set up a food engine in Agricola really quickly, so that you can move on to diversifying your farm while your opponents are still trying not to starve.  Or you learn how to keep your Dominion deck lean and mean.  However, focusing on the game means that your opponents are often not especially relevant.  Being good at optimizing your Dominion deck versus Johnny is about the same as optimizing your Dominion deck against Billy.  Repeated plays might make you better at playing against the game itself, but it will not make you better at playing against one opponent as opposed to another.  Yomi is the opposite of that.  The true pleasure of the game is revealed with multiple plays against the same set of opponents.  For me, I have a few guys down at my FLGS who are into Yomi too.  We are learning the game together and learning how to play against each other too.  One guy loves power moves for big damage; another loves tricky and clever combinations of cards.  Each opponent plays each character slightly differently.  I have to take the player and the character into account in order to win.  Sometimes they outsmart me; sometimes I outsmart them -- but in each case I know what I did right or wrong and I can use that to improve my chances next time.

So as far as achieving its design goals, Yomi is essentially perfect.  It successfully captures the reading and valuation parts of fighting games.  My only major criticism is that the games lacks any mechanic to capture positioning.  This is such a major part of fighting games that it is glaring by its omission.  In most fighting games, if you can back your opponent into a corner or wall then you have a major advantage, and the fight to get out of the corner is a little sub-game that is exciting and pleasurable.  Yomi has none of this, and is similar to the first few Tekken games where each stage is infinitely long in every direction.  Given the huge effect that position has on valuation, I am surprised that Yomi leaves it out.

Relationships to other games:

  • Not a whole lot.  One advantage of Sirlin being effectively "outsider design" is that he avoids a lot of the stale trends that have plagued many recent designs.  There's no worker placement, dudes on a map, or whatever.
  • Of the games that I've played, I relate it the most to Pizza Box Football and Lost Worlds. In PBF, you have the same type of decision-making in regards to plays.  If you're on offense, do I do a running defense, a short-pass defense, or a long-pass defense?  In Lost Worlds, it's closer in theme to the mano-a-mano combat, but the design itself has aged poorly and isn't as compelling as the tightly-balanced gameplay of Yomi.

A few minor criticisms:

  • If you like this game and expect it to see a lot of play, then you might want to sleeve your cards.  But if you sleeve your cards, then they won't fit into the pretty little boxes they come in.
  • Sirlin is an auteur game designer who thinks that because he is good at designing and balancing games, he also knows everything about publishing and marketing to the hobby game market.  The Dunning-Kruger effect on display for everyone to see!  This has caused a bunch of cringe-worthy gaffes as he moves from talking about his game with sycophants on his forums to promoting it on BGG and elsewhere.  While this doesn't affect the product itself, it is distracting and annoying; specifically most of the recent online conversations have devolved into the eternal blood war of OLGS vs FLGS, instead of actually talking about the game itself.
  • The price points (below) to get into the game are weird.  It would've been way better, as a marketing tool, to follow the Blue Moon/Summoner Wars model.
  • In a perfect world, there would be 55 different pieces of art for each of the 55 cards in a character's deck.  I realize that in the actual world, this is cost-prohibitive, but still.
  • Yomi is a stupid name.  Yeah, I get that it's the main skill, but it's still kind of lame.

If you want to play the game, you have four options:

  1. Play for free, right now, against either live humans or bots, at http://www.fantasystrike.com/dev/.  This only works with Windows or OSX, so if you're a Linux guy like me you are out of luck.  Supposedly there are ways to get the Unity Web Player working in Google Chrome for Linux, but I can't be bothered.
  2. Buy the complete print-and-play for $14.99 from Sirlingames.net.  You can print out two characters to start with, and the rest as you want.
  3. Buy individual two packs for $24.99 MSRP.  They come in Grave/Jaina, Midori/Setsuki, Rook/DeGrey, Valerie/Geiger, and Lum/Argagarg.  Each one is self-contained; it's not like Blue Moon where there's a "starter" pack and then you buy a bunch of additional decks.
  4. Buy the deluxe edition for $99.99 MSRP.  This includes not only all ten characters, but two neat play mats that have sweet art and life point trackers, one featuring Jaina and Valerie (if you like cheesecake art) and the other with Grave and Rook (if you don't).  It has a box that stores all the decks, and also comes with comes plastic gems to help track life points on the mats.  This is what I went with.

In conclusion, Yomi is seriously great.  It absolutely nails its design goals.  While it's not a multi-player, epic-length affair, it is already the best of class (two-player, 20-minute game) in my collection and one of my favorite games overall.  The abstracting out of positional play is the only serious knock against it.  9/10 points and already one of the best games of 2011.

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