If you’re familiar with the highly popular Carcassonne then you’re already halfway to knowing how to play Small Islands as Its extremely similar in style of gameplay as it consists of placing tiles to create land in a certain way to gain point. Small Islands, However, differs by having other features such as personal goals to complete, and of course the biggest difference, the player ships tiles.
The Setup for the game consists of choosing a colour and taking all of the corresponding pieces with the chosen colour. This is apart from the house components which you are only allowed a max of 4 at any one time so you will only take 4 of those for the time being. Then you create a shuffled deck of landscape tiles to pick from with 3 of these being randomly picked as the shop/reserve stack. You place the ship tiles alongside the shop area and have them faced up to be the colours of the players within the game (any that aren’t controlled by players will be turned to their grey side). The objective cards are then also shuffled, and each player takes 1 at random and keeps it private. Finally, the player takes 2 random landscape tiles from the pile of tiles to form their hand and the 4 starting tiles are placed in which ever way the players want to have them (as long as the orientation is valid for the game).
To play the standard game mode each player takes it in turns to do 1 of 2 actions. The first of those is: to take a landscape tile from the shop, then from their hand, place a tile onto the game area in a valid orientation and space connecting to the existing area. After the player has selected a token from the shop the shop is then refilled to the max of 3. During this action, the player currently playing is also able to place 1 of their extra resource tokens to the game area in an open spot.
The second action is: a player chooses to land their coloured ship/any grey ship available to end the current round. If a player lands their coloured ship then they gain as many points as there are port icons within the tiles surrounding the ship. This can only happen whilst placing the coloured ship and not with the grey ships. A round can also end prematurely if the stack of landscape tile runs out at any point and the shop cant be refilled. This makes it so you are then forced to land a ship if possible.
When a round of Small Islands is ended each player then has to choose where to place their houses out of the 4 they currently have (they may have less if they’ve used them a lot throughout the game). Each player is only allowed to have 1 house per island so choosing when and where to place a house can be the difference between winning and losing. A player can choose to place none if they so wish but this will mean they get no points for that round. Once each player has placed all their houses where they want, they flip their objective cards and go through each island you just placed a house on this round and tally up a score for each one of those houses/islands and take the point tokens corresponding to the points earned.
That is essentially the game loop of Small Islands and the overall goal for each player is to complete your personal goals each round whilst trying to get the most points as possible and also constantly being aware of the other players and what their hidden goal may be. At the end of the game the players count up their points and the player holding the most points wins the game. If there is a tie then the winner is, in order: the player with most houses placed, the player with the most ports around their ship, or finally, the last player to place a landscape or ship tile.
The solo mode work very similarly to the multiplayer mode other than you play against an AI ship called Alexis who has their own types of moves for each round depending on their difficulty (this can be chosen before playing depending on how much of a challenge you want). The setup for this solo mode is also similar to the standard setup apart from the AI doesn’t get any objective, landscape cards, or bonus resource tokens.
Your turn stays the same as normal, and you follow the standard rules of gameplay as before. Alexis’ turn however is quite different as you draw a card from his deck you had to create for him and then perform the action specified by the card which will be either to explore or to land their ship. You will then discard the card and that is their turn complete.
When placing tiles for Alexis you have to stick to certain rules to make it fair. These rules are, you place his tile as close as the tile you placed on your last turn, you never place a tile connecting to an island that Alexis has already landed at, and you always try and place the tile in the preferred locations shown on the explore card drawn. When Alexis lands his ship he will take any of the grey ships available first and if these are depleted then he will take your ship if that is available. If at any point Alexis can not play his card as wanted then they swap to their other action type (explore card then gets played as a land card and vice versa).
The end of game rules in Small Islands are exactly the same as the multiplayer mode other than Alexis has his points added by the requirement/s shown on his player card.