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.

Conclusions

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.

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