Reviewed by Herb Levy
(Lookout Games/Mayfair Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; $37)
The isle of Skye is a small island located in the English Channel. Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, as designed by Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister, uses that setting to challenge players to develop their own “clan territory” in such a way as to achieve dominance on the island, thereby rising up in stature from tribal chieftain to king.
In Isle of Skye, everyone begins with identical starting tiles depicting a home castle, gold coins (representing a starting income of 5 gold which players take and keep hidden behind their player screens) and a road leading out to several tile edges. Players also receive a “discard” marker which will come into play shortly. Color-coded score tokens begin at 0 on the scoring track (the board is two-sided, the side used depending on how many players are in the game) with the black token placed in the first round position on the board. In addition to a scoring track and “round” track, the board also has space for four scoring tiles.
There are 16 scoring tiles used to set conditions that may be created through tile placement which will result in Victory Points – but only FOUR of these, randomly chosen, are revealed. (The remainder are placed aside and not used.) These scoring tiles are NOT scored each round. Although all will be scored, single scoring tiles or combinations of certain ones are scored at the conclusion of each round. (For example, after round 1, only the scoring tile in the A position scores. At the end of round 3, scoring tiles B AND C will score. By the time the last round is completed, tiles B, C AND D will score.)
On a turn, all players draw three landscape tiles from the heavy cloth bag provided and these tiles are displayed in front of their player screens. Now it is time to make some decisions.
First of all, players, behind their player screens, will set “asking prices” for TWO of the tiles in front of them using their own money to set the price. (So, for example, if a player commits 3 gold to a particular tile, then another player wishing to buy it would have to spend 3 gold to get it.) The third tile gets assigned the “discard” tile. Once all are done, the screens are removed and the costs (and discards) revealed.
Tiles matched to the discard tiles are returned to the bag. Remaining tiles are now available to be purchased. In turn order, a player may buy ONE tile from another player or pass. If buying, the player gives the seller gold equal to the price asked and the seller gets to keep the gold used to set the price. Once everyone has made a buy or passed, any tiles remaining in front of a player are KEPT by that player but the money assigned to it gets returned to the bank. Now tiles are placed.
Tile placement is rather simple. There are three types of terrain: mountains, green landscapes and water. Tiles MUST be placed so that terrain matches terrain on all sides. Tiles also may contain roads (which do NOT have to link up), barrels (which represent additional income), farmhouses, ships, towers, lighthouses, sheep, cattle and scrolls. With tiles placed, the appropriate scoring tile goes into effect and players receive VPs based on how well they have met the requirements of the scoring tile(s). Once scoring has been calculated and markers on the scoring track moved accordingly, the starting player shifts clockwise and the next round begins.
Play continues until the end of the sixth round (five rounds when there are five players). When the round scoring is completed, scrolls – and the Victory Points they generate – found in a player’s kingdom are counted. Scrolls can reward players for having sheep or cattle in the territory or the most cattle connected to their castle by roads or the most barrels of whiskey etc. In addition, 1 VP is awarded for each 5 gold remaining in a player’s possession. (Gold also serves as a the tie-breaker if needed.) The player with the most VPs becomes the anointed king!
The variation of the “marry, date or dump” ploy works very well here on several levels. First, players are not at the mercy of bad tile draws. Faced with tiles that meet with disapproval, they always have the option of discarding one. (That the tile is not cast aside but recycles into the bag where it may reappear later is a nice touch as unwelcome tiles at one stage of the game might prove valuable in a later appearance.) Second, the relative value of tiles remaining is set by you so your judgment becomes the deciding factor. Just how much IS a tile worth – both to you AND to your opponents? If you set your price too low, your opposition can score big at little cost. Too high and you end up paying too much for too little payoff. And, of course, since you have to use your own funds to set these prices, you could end up making yourself cash poor for a round (or two), limiting your own ability to grab up a key tile for your scoring needs. To dampen the possibility of a runaway leader problem, the designers have opted to give a “Gold infusion” to players lagging behind on the scoring track. As the game goes deeper into the later rounds, trailing players get extra Gold added to their coffers based on how many players are AHEAD of them on the scoring track.
Another beneficial design decision allows for variability. Because only four of the 16 scoring tiles are used each time, you are assured that goals will change from game to game. Further, since what gets scored also varies from round to round and you KNOW what will be scored in the upcoming rounds, your tactics and strategy have to remain fluid and flexible to maximize your score.
Although tile placement is relatively easy, while terrains must match, roads need not. The idea that roads may end abruptly into the sides of mountains – and that is OK in game terms – can be a bit disconcerting. (Counterintuitive placement is not exactly new – Castles of Mad King Ludwig, featured in the Spring 2015 issue of GA Report, does it very successfully – but, in that case, weird placements made sense. After all, the King was mad!) A bigger concern is that it can sometimes be difficult to determine if an area is completed or not. (Depending on which scoring tiles are appearing, this can have a direct and major impact.) The problem has been addressed by the designers who declare “If two adjacent borders of a tile show the same terrain, they are always connected. This is not southern France where sometimes wall touch in corners and roads split meadows in two.” But the problem could have been avoided with some sharper graphics on some tiles and a few clearer examples in the rules.
There’s something eminently likable and charming about a game that entices you to buy it by promoting on its back cover “Quick Tile Placement and Action Game”, “Little Rules, Lots of Fun” and, perhaps even more importantly, “Woolly Sheep”. It certainly makes you want to look inside the box. The danger, of course, is that the game would be a simple rehash of more famous tile placement offerings. Fortunately, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King offers a few clever twists to give the game a character – and worthwhile playability – of its own. – – – – Herb Levy
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