Himalaya appeared on many radars when it was nominated for Spiel des Jahres in 2005. The game was formerly known as Marchands d’Empire and available as print-and-play. The new edition, published by Tilsit and by Marektoy in Finland, is rethemed: medieval traders became yak caravans in Himalaya.
The new theme is quite unique and charming: the plastic yaks are pretty. Otherwise the game components are a curious mix of clunky and neat. Everything works, basically.
Year of trading
The game is divided to 12 turns. On each turn, players program the movements of their caravan in secret from other players. The programs are then executed a step at the time. Caravans can move from village to village or trade in the villages. Trading means either taking the cheapest goods cube from the village or fulfilling a contract.
When a contract is fulfilled by bringing the right goods to the village, player gets to choose two rewards of three options: building a stupa (religious influence), placing delegates (political influence) and taking yaks (economic influence). The game is won with a mixture of all three. Yaks and stupas are basically points, while political game is an area-majority contest: you get point for having most delegates in an area.
In the four-player game, the player with the least religious influence is eliminated first. Then goes the player with least political influence and finally the remaining player with the most yaks wins. With three players, winning requires success in two areas.
Light, chaotic fun
Himalaya is a light game. There’s plenty of luck involved. When a village is emptied of goods or a contract is fulfilled, new stuff appears to replace it. The location of the new stuff is decided with a roll of a die, and that can make or break plans. There’s also lots of player interaction: you’ll have to keep an eye on what your opponents might want to do. Being late to fulfill a contract is one of the worst things to happen.
Figuring out who’s in lead isn’t trivial, as the scoring is slightly complicated. I believe the game plays best when players don’t care about it. It’s fairly easy to play the game in 60 minutes, if you keep a brisk pace and use your intuition to guide your caravan. It’s also easy to spread the game over 120 minutes by agonizing and analyzing — but that, I’m afraid, will suck all fun out of it.
If you’re looking for a quick, fun game with lots of chaos and player interaction, Himalaya is a good choice. It’s a bit heavy for a family game, but should still work pretty well for non-gamers. For serious gamers, it’s a nice break from more analytical games.