Isle of Skye – Review

Type: Tile Laying & Euro

Time to play: < 1 hr (Teaching: 15-20 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players

Isle of Skye is a tile playing game where each player builds their own isle – full of whisky barrels, cows and castles! In the game, you start with your own castle and then draw three tiles from the bag. With those three tiles you then discard one and place a bid behind two others. This is done in secret with the bids held behind a small screen. A short trading round then occurs – any money you did not bid is available to you to bid on the other tiles you see. You can buy the tile of any opponent for their bid. If you do buy the tile, that player gets their bid back and the money you paid. The trading round goes clockwise until all players have bought or passed (just once!). Then all players lay their tiles on their own maps – as long as they fit in some form.

This is a fascinating game for two reasons; one it has a pricing model that is intriguing and difficult to master, and two the scoring (not mentioned above) is different every time. Starting with the pricing; each round you will have three tiles which you will value or discard. You can only value them with the coins in your hand – overspending in one round can leave you exposed in the next. Undervaluing a tile will surely lead to your opponent buying it. However if no-one buys the tile, you must pay that price for it. So each round you look around and try to work out (a) how much that tile is worth to you and (b) how much it is worth to someone else. Playing well you can ensure you don’t overpay for what you keep and you can get the most for the tiles you do lose.

Turn order also plays an intriguing role here. If you buy a tile from a player still to purchase/pass then that player will have more money to buy your tile. However, if you want them to buy it then perhaps you want them to have the money!

So then to the scoring; at the end of each round you score based on tiles picked at random at the start of the game. At first only one tile, but then combinations of the four chosen. So then you might try to play for each rounds scoring round by round, or prepare for a big score in one round hoping that others won’t outscore across the others (or that you will not have to pay too much for the tiles you need!).

I have taken the time above to explain these key mechanics because they are in my opinion what makes this game really impressive. I would closely compare this to Carcassonne (as the classic tile laying game), but here rather being limited to placing a meeple on the tile you lay, you are able to build for multiple strategies each round. Furthermore, you can pull back a player winning by pricing them out of the tiles they need. This kind of catch up mechanic – where the group can work together to hold back one – is the most interesting approach to me. Having the game shuffle player odder, or provide preference to other players helps but it is best when players can catch up through their own choices.

Comparing it to Carcassonne; there is a great tension here in each round. If you have a tile that would be too valuable in another player’s island then you can simply discard it. However, if the coin would help you build then perhaps you should keep it and put a high price?! This circular iteration between discarding, bidding high and worrying you would have to pay that price is well developed.

So, I think this is a very compelling game and I prefer it to the classic in it’s genre. However, despite the expectation into Essen 2016 it has not perhaps reviewed as well as it could. The biggest flaw in my view would be that this is neither a “filler” game nor is it long/complex enough to build a fulfilling strategy like many other engine builder / Euro games (e.g. Terraforming Mars or Terra Mystica). Trying to pick a flaw within the game, I would point to the tiles that score bonuses for other resources on the tile – the player that gets these multipliers is often the winner. Most of the time this can balance out, but sometimes it doesn’t and that kills the game.

Last notes;

  • If you like Euro games or want a variant on Carcassonne to change up the play or you like bidding games then I would strongly recommend this game
  • If you like theme, then this is quite weak. The theme is almost irrelevant to the game
  • If you are sitting down for a long game, jump this or be ready to play this a couple of times

Catan – Review

Type: Area Control (with some “Euro” mechanics)

Time to play: 1hr – 1hr 15 mins (Teaching: 15-20 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players

Catan is a tight civilisation building game where you compete for limited resources and limited space. The game is based on a simple resource collection mechanic where a dice is rolled on each players turn and that determines which resources are paid out and to who. To get more resources, you will need to build roads, towns and cities to spread your presence on the board.

So, what do I think of this. I am a big fan, and it falls into the category of “Intro Games” – games suitable for players who haven’t played many other games / have a low tolerance for 20 page rulebooks! The game is a classic because of it’s tight map that restricts the number of each resource and the probability of each resource. In fact the best games are where players really have to manage their trading, and take risks on low probability outcomes.

However, that’s where my appreciation for the game stops short of calling it a “must have”. It’s a great game but the fact that it’s rate a 7.35 and outside the board game geek top 100 is probably fair.

Firstly, the number of dice rolls in Catan is not quite enough to smooth out the luck of this game. Rolling two 6 side dice gives you the outcome from 2-12, of which the 5-9 outcomes are probably well distributed in any given games but if you are forced out to an 11 or even a 4, the randomness of this game is going to effect you.

Secondly, and what compounds the issue with the randomness – the robber! It’s a great little mechanic that steals cards from other players, but it also blocks the resource being produced. This particularly compounds the issue of being on a lower probability number as the only way to get stone or another good in the late game and you find yourself forced to wait and wait and wait……… before you can take another turn

Lastly, and probably the biggest impact on the game; there aren’t that many ways to win. Looking at the fact you only have 4 cities (worth 2 points) and you need 10 points to win, that means you need at least 6 towns / cities to win from the map. This is extremely rare. If you have played it you know that this is because you can use “Longest Road” or “Largest Army” to gain 2 extra victory points. However, this balance means you have to basically compete for one of these conditions.

There are also some victory point cards available but as these are in the same deck of cards (at random) as the cards for the army, they actually tilt the game play more in favour of the “Largest Army” strategy rather than providing balance.

So if you like a tight game with a high element of luck and which can be played in a relatively short amount of time between experienced players then this is a great choice. If you are all willing to always pull back the player in the lead (yes you really don’t want to have 1 more point than everyone else until the end!), then this could be relatively balanced. However, it’s relative and the only way to catch back up with the leader is to block them, not trade with them or set the robber on them – you rely on the other players to help hold them back.

Last notes;

  • If you are introducing others to gaming then this is usually well received – short and luck based
  • If you want a short game with a good variation of winners – this game is easy to learn and you can hold back an early winner as a group
  • If you don’t like luck or “take that” mechanisms – this isn’t going to be a keeper!