In a previous review on the GamesQuest blog I talked about the Spiel Des Jahres, one of the most prominent board game awards you can get in the industry. The same people who issue that award also have the Kennerspiel Des Jahres which focuses more on games that require an extra element of strategy. Now this doesn’t mean that any game nominated can’t also be considered a family weight or gateway level game, but typically they tend to be more for seasoned gamers.
Isle of Skye has been around for the last year, but for me, was never really seen on the gaming table. It looked nice on appearance, but I glossed over it when passing by. Then I saw it win the UK Games Expo 2016 award out of nowhere, which was the first shock to the system, but then before I knew it Isle of Skye had knocked down strong contenders like Pandemic Legacy and Time Stories to take the Kennerspiel award as well. Two awards in two months just out of the blue.
Comments on the grapevine said that Isle of Skye was a very simple game, yet contained a level of depth and interaction that at first glance is invisible to the naked eye and thus was better than its name and marketing would have you believe.
Well any of my followers will know that gateway games are something I try to focus on where possible and so with these comments and the awards to go with it, I couldn’t sit on the wayside, I had to investigate this further and see what was the big deal. Annoyingly I couldn’t actually go to the Isle of Skye itself and do the review there, budget restrictions and all that, but I guess Portsmouth will suffice (seriously the Isle looks breathtaking, I really want to go there).
Designer: – Alexander Pfister & Andreas Pelikan
Publisher: – Mayfair
Ages: – 8+
Time: – 45-90 Minutes
Players: – 2-5
WE’LL CALL IT . . . THIS LAND!
Isle of Skye: From Chieftan to King, as it’s formally known, is a tile-laying game with some light auction and set collection mechanics interwoven within. Players are chieftains of famous clans and the goal is to build your kingdom in such a way as to, you’ve guessed it, score the most points. Primarily this is done with the use of scoring tiles that each give a different means of attaining points. However Isle of Skye has 16 of these tiles and only 4 will be used each game.
Isle of Skye is played over 6 rounds (5 in a 5 player game) and the game play follows the same pattern in each round as follows:
Income – All players collect money, based upon their castles, connected barrels, and players ahead in score.
Draw & Discard Tiles – Each player draws 3 tiles from the bag and puts them in front of their player screen. These are depicted with the landscape in various forms, think Carcassonne with less cities and more water. Then each player allocates their discard token to one of their tiles, which is then discarded back to the tile bag, and allocates some gold to the other two to set their price.
Buy A Tile – Each player gets a chance to buy only one tile from another player. You choose any tile from an opponent and pay the gold price that player set. It is not mandatory that you buy a tile and sometimes money issues will force you into that situation. If a tile is unsold, then its owner pays the price they set to the bank and receives that tile in addition to any purchased.
Placing Tiles – Players now take all their tiles and add them to their kingdom. Much like in Carcassonne they must be placed next to a tile already laid out with the terrain types matching (i.e. lakes must connect with lakes, etc.) The only exception (which does throw Carcassonne players for a loop, me included) is that roads do not have to connect, but doing so may increase your income generation in future rounds so there is an incentive to do so.
Scoring – This is where those four scoring tiles from earlier come into play. Each has a letter from A-D below it and in each round, you will score for the tiles whose letters are shown underneath the round marker. Each of the four randomly selected tiles will be scored three times during the game, but at different times so the players focus will chop and change throughout.
After all rounds are played, there is some final scoring of any tiles you acquired during the game that have scrolls on them. These depict ways of scoring additional points based on collecting sets of buildings and animals (printed on various tiles). If the scroll is within a completed area (i.e. a fully enclosed area of terrain such as a lake surrounded by plains and mountains) then it scores double the points. And of course like in nearly every game, there are some spare points for leftover gold as the cherry on top. The winner of Isle of Skye is, of course, whoever has the most points at this stage.
Everything the Light Touches is Our Kingdom
Tile laying games have to be visually appealing, otherwise you’re ignoring one of the key factors that makes them popular. Mayfair’s artwork is not the prettiest around, but it’s always colourful and vibrant and Isle of Skye is no exception; with a plethora of tiles to build from in the bag. Symbols on the tiles are clear and concise, allowing for no mistakes when counting up for scoring or completed regions. Despite some small differentiation in the terrain patterns, Isle of Skye might not be the easiest game for someone who is colour blind to get used to, just a forewarning.
Aside from that you don’t get a ton in the box. The money is standard cardboard tokens and the screens are cardboard also, but sturdy and won’t break from handling without putting in the effort. They could benefit from being a little bigger though, its difficult to hide your tiles behind them.
The graphic design on the objective tiles and board is also pretty good. It’s very clear how income and scoring works with the only minor exception being that it doesn’t convey well the fact that completed scroll regions double, so I find myself having to remind new players. The objective tiles are quite intuitive. Many of their pictorial representations are enough to figure out how each one scores, though of course a few will require a rulebook check.
On that note the rulebook is near flawless. You’ll be surprised how little there is to learn, but it’s clear, colourful and easy to follow with plenty of picture guides. I only had one rule ambiguity arise which related to adjacency for lighthouses in water areas, but that was quickly rectified with a quick check of BoardGameGeek online forums. I do believe Isle of Skye fits a gateway category. The rules can be taught in less than 10 minutes with ease and you’re already away.
YOU NO TAKE TILE!
The hidden depth of Isle of Skye is in the auction/buying phases where you set aside gold and buy opposing tiles. In the first round, money is tight, you’ve only got five to spend. How you fare beyond that depends on your play. Being too stingy with prices may lumber you with tiles you don’t really need, but you don’t want to offer opponents a pot of points for cheap either. But you need gold to buy other tiles so how much do you keep back and do you even have enough to hold back?
Not all information is known to you, so this is one of the more tight money management experiences I’ve had in a gateway game. There are occasions in Isle of Skye when you’re just rolling in money and a lot of that comes from the additional income that arises from being behind in the scoring. This is a divisive mechanism for me as the catch-up mechanic of gaining additional gold for being behind in the scoring works, but it is artificial in nature. In a 4-5 player game the people at the bottom can be raking in money in the late game, allowing them to potentially make a big comeback.
Many games have this style where you almost deliberately hurt yourself to do better later (cough cough Power Grid weirdness), I’m not usually a fan of that, but here it’s a light enough game where it doesn’t spoil the fun. Plus it does allow for some interesting strategies and tactics. Being at the front the whole game will severely hinder your income stream, as I found out, but maybe holding back at the start will reward you later, as long as you’re not so far behind that you can’t possibly make up the difference.
Never Too Many Clans
I was asked about expected scores for your first play. To be honest it’s impossible to tell. Typically you would expect to loop the board (50 points here), but I’ve seen finishes on 80-90 before. It really all depends on the objective scoring tiles and what comes out of the bag so you can’t compare. That’s a good thing however, as you’ve got 16 objective tiles and only 4 are used each game, that’s a incredible amount of variety out of the box and every combination will influence what tiles players will aim for and how they build their kingdoms. Plus scoring has generally been very tight, in fact one 5 player game had less than a 10 point spread between first and last, that’s impressive.
Also even more surprising is the fact that Isle of Skye scales well from 2-5 players. Most phases are simultaneous with only the buying part being on an individual basis. This means that unless you have a player who self generates analysis paralysis the game should still progress at a good pace. You play one less round in a 5 player game as well to make up for the additional time per player and it balances out nicely.
Of course I’m the poster child for the club that states that almost all Euro games are best at 3 players and I stand by that position here, three is the sweet spot, but I’m glad to have a Euro game that I can suggest when you get that dreaded 5 player dilemma at a game night far too often.
The Verdict on Isle of Skye
Everything I heard about Isle of Skye was true. It is indeed a solid game that’s easy to learn yet contains a healthy amount of depth within. If the rules explanation doesn’t tell you alone, you will understand after a couple of rounds as I quickly did and before you know it, you’re hooked.
Games are tightly scored (mainly because of the catch-up mechanic) and with variable objective tiles every time, every one will play out differently by influencing what players will aim for. Balancing out your gold with what tiles you want to keep vs what you’d like to sell or buy elsewhere keeps you engaged throughout and you’ll get that visual satisfaction from watching your kingdom grow via the tiles much like how the landscape grows in Carcassonne.
On that note, with Isle of Skye being only slightly more complex than Carcassonne, this has the potential to be a killer for that game. You get the same building feeling, but with added spacial awareness and money management to boot. It’s perfectly placed in the gateway category and I will continue to use it as such.
Isle of Skye deserves the recognition it got. I’m still surprised it was in the Kennerspiel and not the Spiel Des Jahres, but who cares, both are prestigious awards and I’m glad this one and the UK Games Expo Award was given to Isle of Skye. If it needed any more awards, I can give it my Broken Meeple Top 100 Seal of Excellence, if I had such a thing. . .
YOU WILL LIKE ISLE OF SKYE IF:
You want a family weight game that is easy to teach, but rewards careful planning.
You like the visual appeal of the kingdom building with tiles much like in Carcassonne.
You like having variable paths to victory as well as different objectives each game.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE ISLE OF SKYE IF:
You find the artificial catch up mechanic unnecessary.
You feel 5 players is a little long, but I say compared to many Euro’s it’s actually a good length.
I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.