Do you like Carcassonne? If you answered yes then you can skip straight to the “add to basket” stage for Isle of Skye. If you answered “Meh, kind of. I wish it had more depth” then again, you are going to want Isle of Skye in your life. Still here? Fine I will get on with the rest of the review.
Isle of Skye is a tile placement, auction, territory building, strategy game for two to five players from Alexander Pfister and Andreas Pelikan. In Isle of Skye, players take on the role of clan chieftains on the Scottish Island of Skye. They must build up the landscape around their castle with lakes, roads, mountains and farmland. They must take the best areas of land for themselves as they compete for gold, dominance and glory to see who shall be crowned King of Skye.
Once I was a lowly Chieftain
Each player begins the game with a player screen, a discard token, and a single castle tile that will make an income of five gold each round. Four scoring tiles are randomly selected and placed on the scoreboard. These tiles will trigger in a variable order at the end of each round. To succeed in the Isle of Skye, players must try to work with and prepare for the scoring tiles that will trigger each round.
Gameplay is simple and split into five phases. First, we take income, which is five coins plus one for each whisky barrel connected to your castle by a road. Unlike Carcassonne, roads do not have to be complete, nor do they create boundaries. In fact, it's completely fine to have a road going straight into a lake. But you will find that to make money, and points, linking your roads up is a wise move.
In step two, each player draws tree tiles from a communal bag and sets them in front of their screen. Next, hidden from view, the players select a tile to discard and assign values to the other two. They do this by placing some of their money next to the two remaining tiles. Don’t use all your money here though! You will see why soon.
After the screens are removed and tiles discarded, players take it in turns to buy a tile off another player. They play the value and take the tile. The seller gets the money plus their own coins back. However, if the tile does not get bought by another player then you get to keep the tile but lose the money you put on it.
Next it’s time to place the tiles in your territory. Tiles must match up correctly with other landscape such as grassland, mountains and lakes. This is where you can get your tiles placed for both maximum points and income, both for this round and going forward.
Now I am King
When I explain the part about assigning values and buying tiles it’s like Christmas morning seeing all those gamer’s little faces light up. Here’s the bit where people start to grasp the simple genius in the design of this game. You can only use the money that is not currently assigned to a tile, so you might not want to put all your money on the tiles to raise their value as you won’t be able to spend it.
Selecting a value isn’t as easy as you might think. You need to think about whether you want the tile or if there is demand for it elsewhere. Putting a high value on a high demand tile is a great way to make money, but what if nobody can afford to buy it? Not only have you locked up all that cash for the round, but you will lose the money at the end.
What if you want to keep the tile? How should you value it then? What if you don’t want the tile? Should you put a low price on it to encourage a sale? I’ve found people pay more attention to high-value tiles, so you can sneak tiles you want under the radar but not valuing them highly.
Playing the System
Where you come in turn order has an effect on your strategic options. Going first means you have the most choice but you don’t know which of your tiles you will be left with. And your money is locked up in the tiles in front of you. If you go later in the round you have far fewer options to buy, but if people have bought tiles off you then you now have lots of money to buy and that high scoring tile that’s still available. Thinking about where you will be in turn order going forward can help you plan your finances better and not end up too broke to buy anything.
Predicting who might buy what tiles can help you work out how much cash you may have on your turn. Pushing your luck with the economic aspects of the game is a strong strategy for winning by a mile, but if your opponents see what you are playing at you can quickly find yourself languishing in last place as your opponents tactically block your access to money or important tiles.
The High Roads and the Low Roads
With Isle of Skye every game is different, with mountains of replay-ability. Not only are you randomly selecting four scoring titles from 18 every time you play, but how the tiles combine together makes a big difference. One game you may need to cover all bases to do well, the next you may need to put everything into farms and animals. Of course, this means that the value of each tile you pull is different each game and with the changing game state. The variety of scoring further prevents that game from becoming repetitive. This all combines for a unique game every time you play.
I enjoy how the point scoring builds throughout the game encouraging you to plan ahead. It also eases the player into the game making it more accessible to new players.
As much of the game can be played simultaneously there is decent player engagement and limited downtime. The only time you need to wait for others if when players are buying tiles. I found at five players, especially towards the later stages of the game, analysis paralysis can set in. I played at five players with all new people and towards the end, we all felt the game was outstaying its welcome, but this is less of a problem for experienced players. Still, I don’t think I’d recommend this for five.
Final Thoughts on Isle of Skye
For a long while, I’ve regretted giving away my copy of Carcassonne. Although Isle of Skye is only superficially similar to Carcassonne it does fill that gap perfectly of an easy to teach, low downtime, tile laying game. I’ve played Isle of Skye more than any other game this year and I’ve only had it about six weeks.
Isle of Skye does what it does perfectly. It’s entertaining, and it has a good amount of depth without being overwhelming. It doesn't outstay its welcome at 2-4 players, and it plays smoothly. The game is easy to teach and pick up with no fiddly rules to remember or complicated mechanisms. I love playing it at two players, it really works nicely when you are duelling it out for supremacy. At three and four players the extra options really encourage more strategic plays.
Isle of Skye will suit anyone looking for a short to medium length game that gives you something to think about. It suits playing with non-gamers and I’d call a “next step” game. If people are enjoying playing Carcassonne, Pandemic or Ticket to Ride then this is a great next step.
Isle of Skye will be getting a lot more plays and will be staying in my collection for a long time to come.