Web-Based Board Games: Yucata

YucataYucata is much like Boîte à Jeux, which I reviewed earlier this week. Both offer free online play of board games, which are legitimately licensed and feel very faithful to their tabletop equivalents. The two sites have very different approaches, though.

Yucata is older, has heavier traffic, and over eighty available games. (Three new ones were released in just the past couple months.) There are a lot of good games up there (like Targi, Glen More, and Jaipur), but it also reads like a list of generic Euros from years past (Hacienda, The Hanging Gardens, and Oregon, for example). Also, the most popular games tend to be quick fillers like Can’t Stop and To Court the King. In general, the variety means that I can always find something I want to play, but it’s different than Boîte, which has a few games I want to keep playing over and over.

R-Eco is Yucata's latest game (added yesterday!)

R-Eco is Yucata’s latest game (added yesterday!)

The site also helps you move from game to game easily. After making a move, the webpage automatically prompts you to move on to the next game awaiting your input. It’s nice, but it also insists that you play them in the order that it chooses. This can be annoying if you want to keep up with a two-player game that you’re currently playing live, but Yucata says that you must switch focus to a five-player game that goes a full week between turns. (And if your current game has a bug that’s keeping you from finishing your turn, you simply can’t play anything until an admin fixes it.) On the other hand, this system seems to work. Though Yucata doesn’t let you restrict your invitations to fast players only, most players do seem much more responsive than Boîte’s. (Just last week, the site added options to request the game speed or similarly-ranked players. However, the speed option is just a suggestion, as the site doesn’t track this. And while it does enforce the ranking restriction, it’s frustrating that you don’t find out if you qualify until you try to join the game.)

The site is very Javascript-heavy, with even complex moves being calculated entirely client-side. Sometimes this is nicer than Boîte’s server-side work, but it makes a lot of the games difficult to play on iPhones. Some of them insist on putting different sections of the page within frames, and when it repaints the screen on an iPhone it might unexpectedly resize a frame. For a long time, I thought Egizia and Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers were both unplayable until I figured out that the game board was appearing in a tiny sliver of space that I had to scroll around in to puzzle out the current state. (And because I have to play my turns in the order Yucata insists on, putting those games off until I get back to my computer isn’t an option.)

Can't Stop is a quick, simple game, but the scripting won't let me resize the board on an iPhone. Scrolling (with lag) around the screen takes longer than making a move.

Can’t Stop is a quick, simple game, but the scripting won’t let me resize the board on an iPhone. Scrolling (with lag) around the screen takes longer than making a move.

Also annoying is that most Yucata games don’t show a history of moves until the game has completed. They do show the last move that everyone took, but it’s with a mouseover option that doesn’t always work on iPhones. (Besides, there are many ways that someone could play two moves in a row, and then only the most recent is shown.) Some games also use a mouseover action to view other players’ boards, and at least one (Hawaii) uses such a large screen size that I can’t see all of the board without scrolling off of the mouseover spot. Even when I do get to see history, scoring calculations are usually unexplained.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining so much. Yucata has a great selection of games and a great community, and it solves Boîte’s biggest issue by consistently lets you undo moves. Everything positive I said in my introduction to web-based gaming holds true. But with its difficulty tracking past moves or other players’ boards, and the fact that its easy to add fast-playing filler games to the rotation, the site really seems to be encouraging loose, non-strategic play. Even when I play a meaty game on Yucata, I can’t focus on it in the way that I would on Boîte.

Yucata ranks players on each game type with a score called TrueSkill. I’m not sure if this is the Microsoft system of the same name, and I don’t know how it works, since the algorithm explained on the FAQ page doesn’t match the results I’ve seen. It seems suspicious to me, as players’ scores jump around drastically for the first few games, and then settle down to the point where a player with over 1000 TS is likely to gain or lose only 1 point after a game. They could even break even on winning, which seems unfair since they were risking points if they lost.

There’s an additional metagame that gives everyone a title based on missions such as winning a variety of games, defeating different players, or collecting “ranking points” (a separate system from TrueSkill, which is a total added together from every played game). It seemed silly at first, but once you rise to the level where you could get demoted by playing poorly, it does become interesting. The ranking system makes Yucata pretty fun, as long as I ignore the fact that my skill in the filler games is making up for the points I lose by not paying attention in the meaty games.

Though I have some issues with some aspects of it, Yucata is a very fun site overall. I don’t feel like I’m gaming as seriously on it as I do in person or on Boîte à Jeux, but it provides a huge variety of games with an easy interface and addictive meta-game. Over the last several months, I’ve changed my mind several times about whether I prefer this site or Boîte. Usually, this one does feels like the less serious of the two. Even so, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any fan of board games.

Grade: B

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