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.