Archive for December, 2015

Variability in Isle of Skye

I had a brief discussion on Twitter the other day about whether the new game Isle of Sky is truly “variable”. [You can read my review of it.] Seth Jaffee talked about it back in November, and took the position that the variability was “fake” because it only changes the value of the tiles, not how players choose tiles and use them. After realizing I couldn’t properly express my thoughts 144 characters at a time, I wrote a defense of why Isle of Skye does include real variability, in the sense that they do more than change the value of the tiles.

I think Seth and I agree that Isle of Sky is a market valuation game first and a tile laying game second. So the value of any tile depends on how many icons are on it, what each icon is worth for scoring. Then you have to factor in how much money you have, and how much other players are willing to pay for it.

But there’s an extra piece, which is how well it fits in your region. And importantly, that is more than just the tile-laying. Each tile is a different scoring scheme. Some reward set collection, some reward network building, some reward careful terrain placement and closing regions. No two are simply functionally identical with different icons.

So when you consider the value and the placement, you have to consider how the scoring interacts, and include the income and scrolls. Route-building goals suggest more sprawling boards in favor of connectivity. But the postage stamp goal suggests a compact board. And the order makes a difference because it’s harder to re-connect a road in later rounds. Scoring most boats doesn’t care about water area size, but largest water does. Largest water also cares about closing the area while boat plus lighthouse doesn’t.

Because the scoring overlaps, the mechanisms can be in cooperation or in competition, or some mix. So from game to game, you’re doing more than just calculating the value based on arbitrary rules. You’re trying to take advantage of the rule interaction to determine what strategy to take. In all my games so far, the winner hasn’t simply been the player who prices best, it’s the player who correctly chooses what goals to focus on and when.

To look at it from a different angle, I think it would quickly become stale if you just used the same 4 tiles and only varied their order. You would be able to match up the same features again and again. With the different scoring mechanisms, you can’t rely on forming the same combinations in every game. The variability doesn’t depend on that newness, but the random draw and mixing and matching do at least make it more replayable because they make it harder and take longer to establish good rules for valuation.

Because the pricing aspect is so central to IoS, it’s easy to see it as simply variations on “value your tiles correctly”. But I think that glosses over a lot of the nuance of how you determine value from complexly interacting scoring systems, which for me is where the richness of the game lies.



Isle of Sky – When a Body Meet a Body

Isle of Skye is a 2015 release from Mayfair/Lookout, by the design team responsible for 2015’s Kennerspiel des Jahres winning Broom Service, Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister. When it was released, a lot of people were talking about it replacing classic Carcassonne, due to the tile laying aspect. My mind went straight to the thematic similarity with one of my favorite games, Glen More. Of course, I was skeptical that it could be as good, but I kept hearing positive reports about it. Now that I’ve played it several times, I am really glad I bought it. It has been a hit with everyone I’ve played it with before, and I see this being a popular game for some time to come.

What You Get

  • 66? Tiles showing terrain (water, mountain, field), roads, and various icons (Farms, highland cattle, sheep, boats, lighthouses, barrels, and Brochs (stone towers))
  • 1 bag to draw tiles from
  • Coins in distributions of 1, 2, 5, and 10.
  • 5 castle tiles (1 in each player color)
  • 6 player screens (1 in each player color and 1 extra)
  • 6 wooden score markers (1 in each player color and 1 extra to track round)
  • 6 axe tokens
  • 18 door shaped scoring tiles
  • 1 two-sided game board. (2-4 players on the front and 5 players on the back)
  • 1 first player token

My initial thought was that the bag was way too big, but after playing several games, it’s actually appropriate. The inclusion of an extra player screen was a bit odd, but it doesn’t take away from the game. I also initially thought the coin distribution was a bit off, with too many 10 coins, but after a few plays, I can see those being absolutely necessary in a later game with more players. The box is happily full but not over-filled once the tiles are punched and bagged up.

The tiles are all very nice quality, so they should hopefully hold up well being mixed in the bag. I really enjoy Klemenz Franz’ art style, but it doesn’t get in the way of the game. If anything, the icons are sometimes difficult to see across the table.

This would be a great game to add some nice metal coins to, since they will be passed around to many sweaty hands, but making sure they stack and are easily identifiable (as the included coins are) is important. I do find myself wanting some kind of token to indicate when I’ve finished pricing my tiles, but that is incredibly minor.

What You Do

Players bid and buy tiles then arrange them in separate regions in order to score points in different categories throughout the game. Isle of Skye is played over 6 rounds (5 with 5 players), with scoring at the end of each round, and a few extra scoring steps at the end.

To set up, each player starts with just a castle tile. 4 scoring tiles are randomly selected and placed on A,B,C and D spaces. Scoring will use a different subset of those tiles each round. Starting with A, then B, A+C, B+D, A+C+D, and finally B+C+D (the A and B rounds are combined for 5 players) so each is scored 3 times in the game.

Rounds operate in phases. First, the income phase where players receive 5 coins for their castle, and another coin for each barrel icon connected to the castle via a road. In later rounds, players farther behind also receive increasing income for each player ahead of them on the score track, acting as a catch-up mechanism.

Next, players each draw 3 tiles from the bag, set them in front of their shield, and simultaneously set a price for each tile. This price will be the amount opponents will have to pay to buy the tile from you, but it is also the amount you must pay for it. You must place price each tile at at least 1, but you also get to secretly choose one tile to get rid of by placing your axe instead of a coin. The coins used to price tiles come from money in hand, so you must balance how much you are willing to pay, how much others are willing to pay, and how much money you need to buy another tile.

When all players have priced their tiles, reveal them and return axed tiles to the bag. Then each player, in turn order, may buy at most one tile from one other player. When a player buys your tile, you get the money you set as the price back, and may use it to buy a tile on your turn. You keep any tiles that weren’t bought by other players, placing the money in the bank. In this way, players may have 0, 1, 2, or 3 tiles depending on purchases.

Next, players simultaneously arrange their tiles in their region. Like Carcassonne, edges must match: water to water, grass to grass, and mountain to mountain. Unlike Carcassonne, roads need not match, and do not separate areas. When all tiles have been placed, players score based on the current scoring tiles.

At the end of the game, each 5 coins are with a point, and any scrolls on tiles score for various icons. Scrolls in completed areas (no free edges) score double. Our final scores have been consistently grouped in the 65-75 point range, with 2, 3, or 4, players, showing that not only is the game balanced across player counts, but that it’s any player’s game until the last round.

The game is surprisingly challenging, because you have to consider everyone’s tiles, and try to factor that into your pricing. Money is hard to come by, so overpricing a tile means you’re out of cash. Underpricing means somebody got points for cheap. Between the various icons, the multiple scoring categories, and the scrolls, there are a ton of things to consider in that valuation. Going first in a round is tough because you must set the price of the tiles and keep enough money to buy tiles from others, and you can easily end up with 0 tiles in a 3+ player game. The catch-up element of income plays out a bit like Power Grid, where you ideally stay a little behind in order to get that advantage and leap ahead toward the end. The two player strategy is a bit different because money becomes incredibly important. Combined with the fact that you see fewer tiles, you need to maintain good cash flow to get the tiles you need.

What I Liked

A lot of people compare this game to Carcassonne because of the tile-laying and terrain matching aspects. Some of the scoring depends on completing areas. But to me, that’s where the similarities end. Carcassonne is largely about Area Control. Isle of Sky is a more abstract economic game that actually uses a price mechanic instead of a price theme. Players determine the value of their drawn tiles relative to other players, and players influence production with the axe. Yes, matching terrain on your tiles is a component of scoring, but that is a much smaller aspect of the game. Instead the buying and selling of tiles provides a ton of interaction, even when you don’t buy from or sell to a player, but that interaction is strongly positive. When you buy a tile from a player, that money stays in the game, giving that player an opportunity to buy from someone else.

A much stronger game comparison is Glen More. Of course there’s the obvious surface similarity in theme, and it also has the tile laying aspect. But that comparison goes much deeper to me. I laid out some reasons in a series of tweets a while ago.

  • Score the same categories multiple times in the game, so you have to consider future points, and how returns diminish over the game. Plus an extra unique scoring mode at the end of the game.
  • Setting the price feels similar to the rondel in GM. Do you really need that tile enough to jump ahead, giving others the chance to collect more tiles? Is it really worth buying that tile and giving another player a lot of money? Which can I afford to skip, and what works best with what I have already?
  • You are building your own area, and don’t have to worry about competing for room.
  • The economy is very tight, you won’t frequently have a lot of extra money or resources to do things with. But producing them is part of the challenge.
  • In fact, icons in IoS, particularly the barrels, are similar to resources in GM. But they are also similar to things like having the most tams, whiskey barrels, and clan members.
  • Some tiles have special scoring features, similar to GM’s castles.

In addition, the placement requirements are relatively loose. In GM, you only have to match the river and road, then you need to have a clan member nearby. In IoS, you can ignore everything but the underlying terrain. But it’s more important to put the right combination of tiles in the right places, but you also need to consider the overall balance and shape of your build. It’s less about individual tiles and more about the interaction of them.

Despite the complexity, IoS plays reasonably quickly and isn’t too hard to teach, but it provides very deep decisions on each turn. I constantly feel like my head is about to explode when I play. And with all of the different scoring tiles, I see this being very replayable. Switching the order of a few scoring tiles around makes for a fairly different game, even before you consider turn order and random tile draws. I can even see some room for expansions, though it can’t get too crazy.

As I mentioned, scoring is tight and balanced, and there’s enough variety in scoring that players can all be focusing on different strategies.

What I Disliked

Not too much to dislike about the game. The two player game suffers a little bit, relative to the 3- and 4-player games. It’s a little too easy for a player who gets ahead on money to stay ahead on money, pricing you out of affording a their tiles and buying yours to build 3 tiles to your 1. It can snowball a little too fast. One player getting consistently better tile draws can exacerbate this. In larger games, the added flexibility from other players and more tiles goes a long way.

Isle of Skye could be rethemed fairly easily because the icons could be just about anything. And the terrain doesn’t make a ton of sense. But, I love a Scottish theme, especially the highland cows and sheep. And whisky. As a theme. Ok, and as a drink, too.


Does Isle of Skye replace Carcassonne? No. The games are different enough in play style and weight, that they target different audiences. But Isle of Skye makes a great next game for people who have gotten tired of Carcassonne, and are ready for a more complex meatier game. And unlike Carcassonne, where you don’t really understand how important something like farmers are until you’ve played once, you immediately can understand the different parts of Isle of Skye. So it might even be easier to teach.

Then does Isle of Skye replace Glen More? Nope. Though the two share similarities, Glen More is more of a traditional engine building resource management game, while Isle of Skye is more economic. However, Isle of Skye is more accessible. I may even enjoy it more than Glen More.

My prediction is that Isle of Skye will become a new modern classic.That term gets thrown around a lot, but Isle of Skye seems to have the legs and pedigree to really run with it. Since it is by the same designers as last year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres, I suspect it will be on several short lists for next year’s award. Isle of Skye is about getting the most value for your money, and I can safely say that Isle of Skye is a lot of value for your money. If a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye, a body better grab a body and play Isle of Skye.


Double Mini Review: Fleet Wharfside and Seven7s, Two E-G-Gs, Sunny Side Up

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a game I’ve played. It also seems like it’s been a long time since I got new games I wanted to review. So it’s time to break my fast of game reviews with two E-G-Gs. That’s Eagle Gryphon Games’ small box series. Who doesn’t like breakfast food.


Jason Tagmire’s Seven7s is #7 in the E-G-G Series. And it is exactly the filler game I want it to be. So many games, especially light games, fall short of expectations. But Seven7s nails the strategic filler game with the right balance of strategy and randomness for the length.


  • 49 Cards, plus some quick reference cards and the rules.

Really simple component list here. When your game is just a deck of cards, the card quality matters, and EGG has delivered. These cards shuffle beautifully. The box size is fixed as part of the E-G-G line, and hopefully the extra room will be used by an expansion in the near future.


The core gameplay is simply play a card, draw a card. There are seven suits of seven cards, and each suit is a famous set of seven things (Wonders of the world, deadly sins, etc.), numbered 1 to 7. Cards are played to one of 7 stacks, by suit, and the game ends when any stack has 7 cards. Score at the end is simply the value of the cards in your hand.

But each suit also has a unique power, activated when added to its matching stack. There are two special suits, Ages of Man and Colors. Each card is one of the seven colors, with different numbers having different colors in each suit. Playing a Color makes cards of that color wild, so they can be played anywhere. Ages of Man are always wild, but if played to the Ages of Man stack, players ignore cards with values of 7, 6, 5… for each card played. But cards of the current Color are always worth the maximum.

The game revolves around using these powers and trying to maximize your score for the end of the game.


I’m a sucker for games involving the seven Wonders of the world. But the gameplay really brings me back. It’s really easy to teach, but offers a lot of tough choices about what cards to play. for a Draw 1, Play 1 style game with a 3 card hand, it’s surprisingly strategic . And it still works all of your tactical muscles. It’s a balance of risk and reward holding onto the cards you think will maximize your score. The category powers add a twist to the simple equation, and the scoring at the end is really clever because the value of a given card can really swing during play. It’s everything I want for a game that plays in about 15 minutes with virtually no setup.


Very little for me to criticize in Seven7s. It would have been nice to see unique art on each card, but I know that would be expensive for a small game. Maybe we’ll get a deluxe edition in a few years. My biggest complaint is that I have to wait for an expansion!


I compared Seven7s to another small 7-based game, Red7. Red7 has a super simple highly random mode, and a super complex highly random mode. But I find Seven7s to be the far superior game. It knows exactly what it is trying to achieve and then does it. Light, but not too random, strategic but not too brain burning. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Fleet Wharfside

Wharfside is game #8 in the E-G-G series, set in the world of Fleet, and designed by the “Fleeples”, Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback. But Wharfside is an entirely new game with its own feel.


  • 72 Goods cards, (shrimp, oyster, tuna, lobster swordfish crab)
  • 20 Contracts, and 4 Buildings (similar to contracts but fixed points and generally more expensive)
  • 7 Trophies
  • 4 Captains (scoring reference, each with a bonus for a different catch)

Typical high E-G-G card quality. The art is recycled from Fleet, but that’s expected when you make a small game set in the same universe.


Players collect different types of fish, and shellfish at the wharf and sell sets of them to gain contracts that grant grant abilities. [Important notes: a more valuable set of fish can be played to obtain a contract, e.g. 3 of a kind instead of a pair, 3 lobsters in place of 3 shrimp, and a pair of goods can be used in place of any 1 good to buy or fulfill a contract or building] Players also use goods to fill contracts, and completed contracts earn points but lose their abilities. A turn can either be buying a contract or a building  or using the wharf, which consists of using any abilities, allocating goods to contracts, and finally drawing two new cards from the three available “north wharf” or three available “south wharf” goods. When new contracts are obtained, the newly revealed contract also adjusts the market price for one of the contracts. Play continues until a player completes 4 or 5 contracts (including buildings), then it’s most points from completed contracts, captain bonuses, trophies (earned for being the first to complete various types of contracts), and any King Crabs which can be set aside during play.


A return to Ridback Bay is always welcome. Like the original Fleet, Wharfside is focused and well balanced instead of trying to do everything all at once. But you can still see room for expansions. The game plays quickly and should teach easily, since the fish cards have just one piece of information on them. The replacement of an auction with the contracts makes Wharfside accessible to new players while keeping a similar flavor. The game gives plenty of ways to adjust your strategy, and a great take on tableau and engine building, where you slow yourself down by converting to points.  There’s actually a lot going on between the markets, allocating goods to contracts, and managing powers, that you’re trying to balance 3 turns ahead. But turns are still quick, because the actions are straightforward. For the box size, Wharfside has a lot of table presence, but it still feels very manageable.


The only real thing I can complain about with Wharfside is that it plays like a bigger game than it is.  The theme was a little light compared to Fleet. You don’t ’re not catching fish or launching boats, you’re just moving sets of things around. You can occasionally get bitten by the randomness. There’s a little bit of randomness when activating abilities and drawing new cards, but that really makes the strategy overall randomness is pretty low because you can make almost any set of cards work in your favor. Interaction is also light, because you can’t do much to interfere with an opponent. But I’d rather have that than having my plans ruined. And these are very minor issues, because the theme, randomness, and interaction are all appropriate for the game weight.


Unfairly, Wharfside will likely live in the shadow of Fleet. But while there are thematic and mechanical similarities, none of it feels like a rehash. Wharfside is a great game in its own right. If you’ve got enough room to play Wharfside, you probably also have enough room to play Fleet. But that doesn’t really matter, because they fill different purposes, and are both worth carrying around. If anything, Wharfside might stay with me because it is more convenient to pack. If you’re fishing for a new game, Wharfside is an original experience in a familiar package, plenty strategic but light enough to kick back and play the next time you find yourself at Ridback Pub. While it’s a small game, it’s definitely not one to throw back.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Game of the Month Club

buttonshyAlong with 11 other designers, I was privileged to be invited to be a designer as part of ButtonShy Games‘ Game of the Month Club in 2016. This will be a subscription service through Patreon, where you can contribute $5 a month and each month, you’ll receive a new postcard with a game on one side and awesome art on the other side. The games (and the art) are inspired by this year’s theme, Cult Classic Movies.

The games will also require some extra pieces, but only ones that would be readily available, such as a deck of standard playing cards, a pair of dice, a few tokens, and maybe a pen and paper. You won’t need to keep a pile of fancy components around. And all of the games will come inside an envelope—not mailed as a postcard—so you don’t have to worry about them getting damaged in the mail.

Since this is intended to be sort of a surprise every month, I can’t really reveal any details about the game I’ve designed, or reveal the month or movie the game is based on. But I’ll say that the movie I chose was the first that came to my mind, so I’m really happy to get the chance to make the game.

I’m really excited to be a part of this, and if you want to learn more about the project, including a full list of designers and movies, you can look at this posted update. If it looks interesting to you, please consider supporting it on the ButtonShy Patreon page.


Leave a comment

Notes from New Bedford – Part 15: Adding a Player


When I originally designed New Bedford, one of my goals was a fast game. So I limited the game to 4 players at most. This also made it easy to track building ownership around a square board. And, when I ran the numbers, it worked out very well for the number of buildings and whale tokens I could fit on a sheet of paper. [Perhaps you could argue that I subconsciously chose all the numbers precisely to fit the paper size, but either way it’s funny how often these little things seem to work out.]

And four players was fine. I rarely sat down to play with a group larger than four. But every once in a while, I found that it would be helpful to play with one more. It’s easy to see the advantage of adding an additional player, as it makes the game accessible to a lot of groups. Looking around at the games I liked and respected, many of them played up to five out of the box. So I began trying to figure out how to make a fifth player work.

As I previously discussed in Part 7, In the basic game, turn order is fixed, but the game length was set to give every player an equal chance at going first. With a fifth player, that balance goes out the window unless you make the game a few rounds longer, which I didn’t want to do. Other concerns were running out of whale tokens or buildings.

I really tried to avoid adding the “first player” space, as many games do, but a variable turn order was the only solution I had. And so, I added the “Wheelhouse” that allows a player to take the ship’s wheel, which serves as the first player marker. Yes, I know that’s a part of a ship, and not a building per se, but it immediately ties it to taking the ship’s wheel. I could have gone with Captain’s House, I suppose, but that was already in use.

It would have to be a town action, so it needed a bonus and regular action, and that gave me an opportunity to put my own spin on it. Instead of taking the ship’s wheel as the bonus action, taking the wheel is the basic action, and the bonus is taking $2. Let me restate this: the last player who takes the action spot in a round becomes the captain. This guarantees that one player can’t monopolize the space multiple rounds in a row (which would be inefficient anyway). The $2 can either be a nice bonus or a consolation if someone goes on to claim the wheel after you. And it introduces a small amount of money which I expect to be a little tighter with more players.

With the addition of a fifth player, I had an opportunity to look at some new actions that wouldn’t work with fewer players. I wanted buildings that increase interactivity by keying off of other players. Part of my motivation was to keep players involved, since it would be longer between turns. It was surprisingly difficult to find abilities that were unique, balanced, took advantage of the increased player counts, while keeping direct negative player interaction low.

A few of the new buildings were simple: a building that reduced the ability to block building action spaces, a building that could disable other player buildings. That became the College and Empty Lot, respectively. I needed another bonus building, and decided to add the Rectory, which is like a small version of the Seamen’s Bethel, but requires another player to own it. This keeps one player from being able to grab 10 easy points, while adding some strategy in timing.

I also wanted to carefully add the ability to take money from other players (with the Chemist’s Shop/Unpub Labs already providing the ability to take resources). To balance this between player counts, the Almshouse takes $3 from a single player. This ends up being one of the most inefficient ways of getting money, but the net gain against a single player is decent, and has the potential to impact carefully laid plans. The Firehouse went through several iterations, dealing with wood cost in buildings, but the final version is straightforward. It also scales better, since it becomes more difficult for all 5 players to build 3 or 4 buildings.

Of course, all of these extra buildings and Wheelhouse can also be used in games with as few as 3 players. And the buildings, in particular, can be mixed in with any other buildings as normal. But they won’t really make sense in a 2-player game. One odd consequence of a 5th player is that the 4-sided town board needed to change. A board add-on to keep the 90° angles while adding perimeter space was considered, but the final result will be a roughly pentagonal board. While less thematic than a grid of streets, it was the most effective way to add a 5th player, and the regular 2-4 player board will still be included in the box.

As a final note, this was definitely something that I felt was more appropriate as a stretch goal, because it wasn’t part of the core design. It adds extra mechanics, but only the few player tokens needed to accommodate the extra player–no new whale tokens or resources–and it’s not something that we felt was necessary to enjoy the game. In short, it’s not simply something that was simply held back as a marketing gimmick. It really couldn’t have been added without the support of so many backers.


1 Comment