Saturday, 7 May 2016

Isle of Skye

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The first thing Isle of Skye reminded me of was Carcassonne. Every player builds his own kingdom in a very Carcassonne-like manner - placing tiles and making sure the sides match. There are three terrain types on the tiles - grassland, mountains and lakes. These must match when you place a tile next to another. However roads don't need to match. They can terminate in a dead-end abruptly. The tiles have many other elements - sheep, cattle, farms, ships, barrels, lighthouses etc. All these help players score points in different ways.

This is the main board. At the start of each game, four scoring tiles are drawn from a pool and placed on the spaces marked A to D. They determine the scoring criteria for each of the 6 rounds in the game. Many scoring tiles come in the box, so there are plenty of variations in the combinations and orders of these tiles, making each game different. The 6 plates on the board represent the 6 rounds in a game, and the ribbons with alphabets indicate which scoring tiles will be active for each of the rounds. E.g. in Round 1 only scoring tile A will take effect, while in Round 6 tiles B, C and D will all take effect. Taking tile A as an example, everyone scores points based on his largest lake. The lake scores 2pts per tile.

The most important part of the game is how tiles are acquired. At the start of every round, everyone draws 3 tiles and places them in front of his screen. Everyone gets to see everyone else's tiles. After that, you secretly decide which of your three tiles you will remove from the round, and how much money the other two are worth. These are done behind your player screen. You use the axe marker to decide which tile to put back into the bag, and you use your own coins to set the prices for the other two tiles. Once everyone has done this, the screens are removed, and the axed tiles are removed. Beginning from the start player, everyone gets one chance to buy one tile from another player, paying the price as indicated. If there is any tile that you don't sell, you must buy it yourself. Upon the conclusion of the tile buying phase, a player may have up to 3 tiles, one purchased from another player, and two of his own which are not bought by others. In the worst case, he may have no tile, because he can't afford to buy one, and both of his are bought by others. After all the buying is done, players add their new tiles to their kingdom, and then score the current round.

When the screens are removed, you may be surprised, e.g. a tile which you have expected to be available is being axed by the owner, or the owner has set a price which is higher than the amount you have set aside.

One crucial part of the game is how you set the prices for your tiles. Set it too low, and you would be making things easy for your opponents. Set it too high, and you may be forced to pay the price yourself. A tile is usually worth a different value to different players. Sometimes it's because of the difference in terrain and kingdom shape. A tile that fits one player may not fit others. Sometimes it's because the players are focusing on different scoring criteria, or they have collected different scrolls. Scrolls are one type of element found on the tiles. They are used for end-game scoring, different scrolls specifying different scoring conditions.

Everyone makes money at the start of a round, so money is injected into the game economy. There is a base income of $5, but you earn more for barrels connected to your castle by roads. When players buy tiles from one another, money stays in the system. When they buy their own tiles, the money is paid to the bank and thus leaves the system. The value and power of money changes depending on how much is in circulation. Every $5 is worth 1pt at the end of the game.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. Kareem taught Jeff, Allen and I to play. I completed a medium-sized lake in Round 1, which allowed me to start scoring. It was worth 8pt each time it scored, which was a decent amount in the early game. That helped put me in the lead for most of the game. Unfortunately that wasn't necessarily a good thing. From Round 3 onwards, trailing players earn some extra money, depending on how many opponents are ahead of them. The end-game scoring from scrolls can be a significant part of the final scores, so taking the lead throughout the game is no guarantee for success. Planning well for the end game is important. Kareem did this very well, buying many tiles with scrolls. I did poorly, and ended the game with just one scroll. When we did the end-game scoring, I dropped from first place to last.

Allen had a funny experience. Somehow he often came away with fewer tiles. Everyone liked buying his tiles. Maybe he was always lucky (or unlucky) to draw attractive tiles. Even when he priced them high, others still bought them. He had a smaller kingdom, but on the bright side, he was filthy rich. The money did help him to "protect" his tiles later on, pricing them beyond what others were willing to pay, or could afford to pay.

In the late game, prices sometimes went beyond $10. At this range, we had to consider carefully whether the tiles were really worth the money, because $10 was 2pts.

This was the last round, before the final scoring was done. I (green) was in the lead, but this was hollow. I was ill-prepared for the final scoring and I knew things were not looking good.

This was my kingdom at game end. I had only one scroll, at the bottom right. It gave me 1pt per tower. I had 3 such towers in my kingdom.

The Thoughts

The most special aspect of Isle of Skye is the tile pricing and buying mechanism. Evaluating how much each tile is worth to different opponents and to yourself is tricky. There are many factors to consider and priorities to weigh. There are many different ways of scoring, and many different elements on the tiles which count towards these ways of scoring. They feel abstract and uninspiring to me. I feel they exist purely for the sake of creating many different incentives. They are there to create differences in values of the tiles to different players. I can't link them to the setting. I can't imagine any interesting backstory.

The game has a spatial element - how tiles fit together and how you sometimes want to complete certain terrain sections. There is satisfaction in seeing your kingdom grow, and in optimising your tile purchases to maximise scoring across multiple criteria. The kingdom building part is mostly a solitaire game, since everyone plays in his own area. Overall the game isn't attractive to me, because of that feeling of multiple ways of scoring existing for the sake of having multiple ways to score. It is needed to support the tile buying mechanism, but it rubs me the wrong way. The tile buying mechanism itself is quite clever.


Todd Kauk said...

My favourite game of 2015! It rubs me the right way. =)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Ha ha good for you! It is quite clever, just not my type. Have fun!