Islebound is a Ryan Laukat game. He has quite a few popular designs, e.g. City of Iron, Above and Below, but the only other game of his I have tried is Eight-Minute Empires: Legends. One thing unusual about this designer is he does his own artwork. So not only the game mechanisms feel familiar, the artwork feels familiar too.
In Islebound you are captain of a ship, and you sail about an archipelago gathering strength and capturing islands. You start from your own little island in a corner. Every island you visit allows you to do something. You collect goods, you recruit pirates and sea serpents, you increase your influence and so on. When you have enough influence or military power, you can attempt to capture an island. If successful, you earn a lump sum of money, and thereafter you get to use the island's ability for free, while any visitor must pay you the landing fee required to use the island ability. During the game you may construct or buy buildings, which give long-term special abilities. Once a player owns 6 buildings, the game ends. You score points to determine who wins.
The main board is assembled from 8 double-sided pieces. Many combinations are possible, creating variability. Islands with a red banner can be captured by military means, while those with a blue banner can only be captured by political means, i.e. by spending influence. Regardless of the means used, upon conquest you earn a lump sum of money, and you get to use the island ability once, as if you are visiting the island normally. Money is directly converted to victory points (1:1) at game end.
Your player board is your ship. At this point I have a crew of three. Sailors on deck are active, while those below are exhausted. Some actions in the game require sailors of specific skills, and once these sailors are used, they become exhausted. They go below decks until you perform a Rest action to revive them. Other than helping you with some specific actions, sailors can help speed up your ship and also contribute to military conquests. Your ship speed is indicated at the top right corner. That's how many steps you can move on your turn. The cargo hold is at the bottom right. There are only two resource types in the game, fish and wood. Your cargo hold has space for 10 units.
These are the buildings you can construct or purchase directly. There will always be five to choose from. There are book icons above the three on the left. This means they are available to you only if you have the required number of books. Study hard, boy! To construct a building, you pay the resources indicated at the bottom of the card. To purchase a building, you pay the price at the top left of the card. The price is also the victory point value of the card. So you are basically converting your money (money = VP) to permanent asset form. This is normally a good move, unless you have a liquidity problem. You do need some cash in hand for daily operations (visiting islands).
This is the side board, for various administrative purposes. The spaces at the top are a simple score track. Each time you reach 7 victory points, you collect a 7VP tile which give you a small bonus immediately. You keep the tile for records purposes, and reset your position on the score track. The two cards on the left are influence cards. They specify what you need to do and where you need to do them to earn influence. Once any player makes use of one such card, it is discarded and a new one replaces it. The two cards on the right are boasting cards. There is a boasting island on the main board. You visit it to utilise one of these boasting cards. When you boast, you earn VP based on the criteria on the card. Similar to the influence cards, once a boasting card is used, it is replaced.
The three characters are sailors available to be recruited. The two on the left cost $1 each. The third guy works for free. That pool of money is the collection box for whenever anyone visits a still-neutral island. The landing fee is collected here. On your turn you may forfeit your normal action to claim the money accumulated here. The $4 in this photo means it is starting to look attractive. The row of spaces at the bottom are the influence spaces. When you gain influence, you place one cube on the leftmost free space, and the number on that space indicates how much influence you gain. Naturally, you want to time your influence gain such that you get to place cubes on the higher valued spaces.
Some islands already have player cubes now, which mean they have been captured.
I did a full four-player game with Ivan, Boon Khim and Allen, and this is probably the best player count. I was rather clueless at the start of the game. The islands offer a plethora of options, and I wasn't sure what combination of actions would be effective. A player turn was simple - sail then take one action. The question was how to choose a succession of actions that was meaningful. At first I felt it was rather pointless to capture islands. It took much effort, but the benefit seemed small. I got to be toll collector and a free visit pass? That was it? I later realised I had neglected the one-time lump sum earned at the time of conquest. Money was VP, so the effort spent was worthwhile. Also the small benefits post-conquest would add up.
Allen started focusing on buildings early. Buildings = VP, and it was buildings which triggered game end, so his was a direct approach. The building abilities varies. The buildings you buy will affect your strategy, because you do want to make the most of them. You will tend to take actions which trigger your building powers.
These were some of my buildings. The one at the top left let me score 2VP every time I captured an island by political means. It was good to get this out early, and then focus my energy on politics. This gave me synergy.
The general feeling when playing Islebound is I am constantly assessing the tactical situation to find the optimal move. I watch out for opportunities, and I try not to create them for my rivals. I watch my opponents to see if they are racing with me towards a certain objective. If this happens, I must either speed up and make sure I beat them to it, or I switch tack to go for something else so as not to waste my effort. There are always many options on the board, and different options will have different values to different players at different times. You need to observe your opponents' strategies to understand how they will value the options available. You are like children in a candy shop all trying to grab candies at the same time. You can't have everything. You need to identify your favourites and focus on them.
You can play warmonger, or ruthless politician, and capture islands belonging to other players. However, this really is not a game about fighting for control. Losing an island is not really all that painful. You lose the long-term perks, but you don't need to refund the one-time lump sum. The other thing is you can't really defend against such attacks. There is little point in holding a grudge and capturing the island back. The player interaction in this game is very much the Euro type - grabbing the good stuff before your opponents do, and blocking them.
There is a little development game feel. The sailors you recruit, the buildings you buy and the islands you capture make up your engine. They create differentiation between players, resulting in players valuing available actions differently. However I feel this aspect is not particularly strong. Mostly you are still grabbing tactical opportunities and trying to play efficiently. Players don't become significantly different.
You start the game with three sailors. By now I have five.
Many islands have been captured by now. There are player cubes on them.
I like the characters in the game.
Islebound is a middle-weight strategy game. It's a gamers' game. At any time it presents many options, which I think will be overwhelming to casual gamers and non gamers. I find it mostly a tactical optimisation game. There is some long-term strategy arc, but it doesn't come across strongly. I am constantly evaluating the possibilities on the ever-changing board, grabbing opportunities that come up, while making sure I don't leave juicy exploits for my opponents.