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La Isla

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Alea/Ravensburger, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes, $39.99)

laisla1Exploring the unknown has always been a crowd pleaser for gamers whether it’s a dungeon crawling roleplaying experience or a science fiction odyssey to the furthest reaches of outer space. In La Isla, the latest offering from Stefan Feld (and number 10 in Ravensburger’s line of Alea small box games), exploration moves closer to home as players, in the role of scientific researchers and intrepid explorers, seek to discover long thought lost species of animals lurking on this unknown island.

The game board is actually a scoring track which surrounds five columns containing purple cylinders which rise in value depending on how much “information” has been gathered for each of the five rare species of the island (the Dodo, Golden Toad, Giant Fossa, Sardinian Pike and Owlet Moth). But don’t get caught up with their names (we gave them less picturesque names in our playings, using insect or chipmunk as the case may be). Fortunately, they are color-coded for easy reference. What is important is: the more information collected, the more valuable the species.

The island itself is constructed from a center piece surrounded by 10 “crooked” pieces to create a large circular island. The island shows clearings (numbered from 2 to 4) surrounded by colored areas, each with marked with an icon (rope, canteen etc.). Into each of these 35 clearings, go one of 35 animal tokens (7 for each of the 5 rare animals) of the game. All players receive a cardholder and six explorers in their chosen color (one placed on the scoring track, the remainder placed in reserve). They also receive five cubes (one of each of the five colored resources of the game) with the rest placed off to the side as a general supply. Every player gets to randomly choose one large animal token (the equivalent of two of the smaller animal tokens) as a helpful “incentive” in the quest to capture these rare species. Getting those rarities is what La Isla is all about.

La Isla is played in a series of rounds with each round consisting of an A, B, C and D action (as shown on each player’s cardholder). The deck of 180 cards is shuffled and, at the start of each round, everyone draws three cards and must choose how to use them.

Every card has three “abilities”. The center part of the card depicts a special power that can be activated if that card is played for the A action. The bottom left of the card shows which color cube may be collected if used for its B action. A and B actions are played simultaneously with the card chosen for the A action placed in one of the slots of your cardholder. (There are three slots available.) The card used for the B action is simply discarded. The D action shows which species will rise one slot higher in its column. Once that adjustment is made (and the player making that adjustment receives 1 Victory Point for each animal of that kind he has), that card, too, is discarded. But let’s talk about the third action, C.

In turn order, each player MAY place one of his explorers onto the island, onto one of the colored areas. Basically, you cash in TWO cubes of a color to occupy a space of the IDENTICAL color. As play continues, more explorers will get onto the board. If you manage to surround a clearing with an animal token, you get the token AND the Victory Points that token is worth (which is the number of explorers needed to surround that piece, from 2 to 4 VPs).

2079(1)As the game continues, more and more special powers will come into play via the cards played during the A phase. There is only room for three of these to be active at the same time so, by the time the fourth round arrives, you need to decide WHICH of those special powers is worth keeping and which you can afford to do without. The value of these powers can vary as the game dynamics change. Cards will also allow you to place an explorer at the cost of only one cube (rather than two) in a specific colored area of in an area showing a particular icon or earn bonus Victory Points for which “ring” of the island (outer, middle or inner) an explorer is placed. These powers remain in effect until covered by another card during a subsequent phase A. But there are exceptions. For example, one power can get you extra explorers and another will give you an extra slot for a fourth active power, valuable powers made even more powerful since they, unlike other powers, remain in effect even when covered!

Rounds continue and points scored until a certain “animal value” on the board is reached. As those purple cylinders climb up their columns, they move into sections valued from 0 up to 5. When the total of ALL of the cylinders reach a prescribed amount (7 with two players, 9 with three, up to 11 with four), the end of the round signifies the end of the game and final scoring.

To the total of Victory Points scored during play, each player receives 10 VPs for each complete SET of five different animals (and your starting token counts as two of the same type). Everyone also scores the value attained by each animal at the end of the game multiplied by how many of those animal tokens held. (So, for example, if the Dodo has managed to rise to the 3 level, each Dodo token held would be worth 3 VPs.) Finally, each two resource cubes held are worth 1 VP (rounded down). High score wins! (Tie? Then the number of resources left over is the tie-breaker).

Stefan Feld always manages at least one clever mechanic in each of his games and here there are several. The variable construction of the island rearranges the color and icon relationships each time, an arrangement that keeps the island from being static and provides new considerations with each play. (It helps that this is a Ravensburger/Alea release which means component quality is high.) The other quality Feld touch is his card use compelling you to do four actions every turn powered by your hand of three cards. Cards with multiple uses is not exactly new (you can go back to Broker from 1961, for example) but here each card has three DIFFERENT abilities with only ONE of the three usable by each card. (The fourth action is placing your explorer on the island.) Because cards are the driving force in the game, there is a certain luck factor. You may simply not get the powers you want or, perhaps, you need a certain colored cube and your cards do not provide one. This is somewhat modified as there are cards that allow you to draw four cards (and play three, discarding the fourth) and the rules allow you to take a cube of ANY color instead of placing or moving an explorer. While the game scales well with 2 and 3, the game is at its best with 4 players as there is more competition for positioning on the island AND cards that grant you bonuses for placing explorers in an area already occupied by another explorer have more meaning. Four players ratchet up the challenge in getting sets of counters as well.

Despite a relatively easy learning curve (the player aids supplied are a nice help although having different languages on each side rather than the same language on both sides is a head-scratching decision), meaningful decisions need to be made every turn with explorer placement and relative values of animal tokens keeping would-be explorers constantly searching for the right combination for success. We’ve played this one many times already and have found it to be a pleasure each and every time. La Isla is a lighter Feld (along the difficulty level of Rialto [Summer 2013 GA Report], for example) but NOT a lesser effort. On the contrary, this is Feld at his finest which makes La Isla an island well worth exploring.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


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