Islebound by Ryan Laukat, published by Red Raven Games. 2-4 players, 1-2 hours.
I seem to be on a roll when it comes to playing beautiful games. Scythe, Heir to the Pharaoh and now Islebound. All of them are wonderfully illustrated and laid out – and Laukat’s latest is no exception. I very much enjoy the whimsical, broad stroke style that Red Raven games embraces! Here we have a bit of area control, some area movement, a neat modular board, a dash of resource management and a few tracks to go up or down on thrown in for good measure.
How to play
I’m not going to exhaustively re-write the rule book here so there will be a few things missing from this section. You should be able to get a real feel for setting up and playing though.
On first setup, the game looks a bit complicated and does take up a decent amount of table space. I’ll say this though, after the first few turns you realize that the actual game play is relatively intuitive. As with many of Laukat’s games, the simple play hides some fairly deep strategies, tough decisions and the ability of for your opponents to force you to adapt your strategy on the fly.
First, players set up the modular game board. There’s two sides to each of the 8 map pieces – one for beginners, the other for more advanced play. Once the map is set up, the play board goes into place and each player takes their own ship board.
On the game board (separate from the map) you’ll find a renown track, two stacks of Event cards, two stacks of Reputation cards, a stack of Renown tokens and three crew members. Not in the picture below (but visible in some of my other pictures) there’s also a diplomacy track. Certain in-game actions will allow you to add to your renown, place cubes on the diplomacy track, hire new crew, complete an Event or bolster your Reputation. All of this goes towards your total renown, which at the end of the game will determine the winner.
On your ship board, you’ll find your three starting crew and spaces for them to rest, to store fish, wood and books (the three resources in the game) and a spot for your gold.
You then lay out five building cards. The first two can be built for the price in gold and cost in goods listed on them. The last three cost one, two or three books in addition to their listed cost.
Here’s what each player does on their turn.
- Take 1 regular action and any free actions.
That’s… it. Two things you can do. Okay, adding in the game play and you’ve got some actual meat in there but really if you can get that you do those things, you have the basics of this game down.
Moving: The map is divided into a series of regions. During your turn you must move up to the speed on your boat. You start off with a move of 2 but depending on which crew you hire can go as many as four regions in a move turn.
Actions: You must perform one action during this portion of your turn. They are: Visit the town, Attack the town (and attempt to conquer it), use Diplomacy to ally yourself with a town or Hunt for Treasure and earn your self some gold.
Here’s where the meat of the game is found. If visited, every town allows you to do something different, for a cost of course. Hire crew, get fish, wood or books, hire pirates, get some sea serpents, build buildings and more. Every crew member allows you to do more as well – move further, get more resources, add extra dice when needed to attack, do some physical work, or take care of some administrative tasks.
Each building also gives you bonuses – not only in renown, which will win you the game, but added resources or abilities.
Some towns are susceptible to attack while others can only be allied with through diplomacy. There’s a neat track on which the players place cubes sequentially, with the higher value spots being further down the track. Various in-game things allow players to place cubes. Want to use Diplomacy to grab a nice town? Remove enough of your cubes to pay for it on that track.
If attacking is more your style, you’ve got to hire pirates and sea serpents to help out. Pirates are easier to come by but sea serpents can pack a bit more of a punch. Commit your forces and try to beat the town – do so and it’s yours.
Similar to Above and Below, the pirates and Serpents score you differing amounts of points (or no points at all) depending on how your die roll goes, adding a bit of chance to the mix. Doing things with your crew can also exhaust or hurt them – which means a trip to a port where they can rest and recover is probably in order.
If you take a town through attacking it or diplomacy, you gain a hefty amount of gold, and get to visit it for free (as long as it still belongs to you) for the remainder of the game.
While all of this is going on, players are building as well. The first player to reach 7 or 8 buildings (depending on the number of players) triggers the end game.
Once the game is over, players add up the renown from their buildings, renown tokens, their current location on the renown track and each gold is also worth one renown point. The highest total wins.
Why you should play
Hmm. First, there’s the ‘I’ve never met a Red Raven game I didn’t like’ factor. Second, the game is beautiful with great components and a pretty impressive price point for what you get. third and most importantly though – it’s good. It’s ‘set it up I again want to try something different this time!‘ good. The simplicity of the rules, the ease with which the iconography makes sense and the astoundingly wide variety of choices laid before you ever turn make for a very deep game. I’d be really surprised if any two games played extremely similar to each other – there’s just so much to do, and so much to react off of when your other players do something you were just going to do yourself! Do you pay the extra cost to do it too? Go elsewhere? Alter your plans a bit?
If you’ve played Above and Below, you’ll be familiar with the look and feel of this game. It employs many of the same mechanics, has that same are style and weird beasties along with the humans you can play. Heck, it’s the same world – all of your crew members have their Above and Below alter egos on the flip side of their tokens so you can pop them into that game and use them as villagers. Sweet!
I’ve found Islebound to be just a little more streamlined than Above and Below, which is as it should be. Here we have a straight up, knock down, area control resource gathering strategy game, without the storytelling aspects of Above and Below. For that, I think this game fits in a similar niche but feels much faster. There’s still room on my shelf for both of them however, depending on my mood and if I’d like to explore vast underground caverns or a mystical archipelago.
The game started out a bit complex for us, took a nice ‘ahhh I get it!’ turn fairly quickly and then opened up and became much more than move/action/free action. This is a great title to showcase how fairly simple play can lead to very complex, long term decisions and strategy. Just don’t get married to your move three turns out because your opponents will be sure to muck up those well laid plans!
This game is a real gem. I’d be more than willing to bring it to the table when anyone requests it and I’ll be sure to bring it with me to the next bunch of game nights and conventions I’ll be attending because I want to play more!