12 December 2016
We set sail anticipating shallows but encounter unexpected depth in this naval strategy title
‘Welcome to the Archipelago!’ reads the introduction to the latest strategy board game from Ryan Laukat and, indeed, Islebound does offer a very warm welcome with its gentle, appealing artwork and rounded fonts. But don’t be fooled – there is a serious strategy game lurking beneath the waves.
Islebound funded on Kickstarter in late 2015, raising $88,000 from 1,628 backers – smashing the initial goal of $15,000. It is published by Red Raven, of which Laukat is the founder and president, perhaps best known for the microgame Eight Minute Empire – a game which,
like this one, he designed and illustrated himself.
As captain of a fine sailing ship and its crew, players set sail from their home ports into a beautifully-realised archipelago filled with bustling towns, sea monsters, pirates and gold. The goal is to become the most renowned player by the end of the game by collecting treasure, hiring crew and using either might or diplomacy to bring island towns under your rule.
The game has a high number of components and it does take a while to punch out, sort and set up. However, it’s a gorgeous thing to behold – the lavishly-illustrated tiles grace and transform the table into a delightful cluster of islands, soft and colourful with gentle lines that evoke an atmosphere which would not be out of place in a Zelda game.
Unfortunately, the rulebook could be a lot more succinct. It’s long, repetitious and not that easy to navigate. At 24 A4 pages in length it does present a barrier to entry, and is the first jolt to anyone pulled in by the easy-going visuals; Islebound is anything but easy-going.
The game plays over a series of rounds in which each player must move their galleon and complete one action. The actions you can take largely revolve around the island towns evenly spaced across the eight sea tiles that make up the board; the most major actions are to visit, attack or use diplomacy on them.
When you visit an island town you must pay the cost to harbour there, but you gain whatever benefit the town offers. You might get a haul of fish or wood to store in your hold, attract pirates or sea monsters to fight at your side, or have the chance to recruit new crew members.
If you have more serious intentions, you can try to take control of a town using either might or diplomacy. With the former, you first decide how many pirates, sea monsters and crew to send into battle. Then you roll dice equal to the total number of combatants, hoping the total damage will beat the defence value of the town.
The alternative is the diplomatic approach; each town has a diplomacy value that must be exceeded to become its ruler and it is the influence of you and your crew that will win the day. Influence is tracked on a side board during the game, and increases when players construct buildings, visit certain towns or complete special reputation cards.
In either case, when a player successfully takes control of a town they gain an immediate boost to their renown and mark it with a cube of their colour. From that point on, they get to use it for free whenever they visit. What’s more, if other players visit they must pay the entry cost directly to the owner instead of to the bank.
Closer to home, the crew of your ship plays a big role in not only your success but also in your style of play. Crew members each have different skills you can call on. These range from negotiation and administration, which can increase your influence and make it possible to trigger certain town abilities, to combat and sailing, which add extra dice to attacks or increase your ship’s movement speed.
The final key element of the game is buildings. Beside the play area there are always five faceup building cards to choose from. To build one you must pay the cost – usually a combination of fish and wood. Doing so scores you immediate renown, but can also grant either a special ability you can draw on for the rest of the game or a multiplier that kicks in during final scoring. This is triggered when one player has constructed seven buildings, at which point total renown is totted up and a winner is declared.
All in all, Islebound gives you a lot to think about from turn one. It soon becomes clear that there are many routes to victory and it can certainly trigger analysis paralysis in those with a propensity for that. This isn’t helped by the fact that the iconography of the game is not quite as intuitive as it could be and a lot of the rules are rather fiddly – you will need to regularly dip into the rulebook and glossary to check how things work.
The fact that Islebound is an intense strategy game just doesn’t quite gel with its cute, easy-going looks. While you should never judge a book by its cover, with a board game you absolutely should be able to tell from the box what kind of experience you are likely to get. Nothing about the packaging of Islebound prepares you for the level of intensity it offers. Of course, this is fine if you like that sort of thing, but you may be disappointed if you (understandably) pick this up expecting it to play the way it looks.
For these reasons, Islebound is likely to be somewhat overlooked. Serious strategy fans might sail right past it and those looking for a more lighthearted style of game may drown in the strong currents of its heady ruleset. This is a shame, because this game has got it all – great looks, deep gameplay and so many routes to victory that even after a brain-burning two-hour session you are left with a desire to have another go.
Islebound is a visual treat but offers far more complex and strategic gameplay than its looks might suggest. The rules could do with a little streamlining and the art sometimes impedes mechanical ease, but ultimately it’s an utterly engrossing title that deserves your attention.
Publisher: Red Raven Games
Genre: Area control
Time: 60-120 minutes
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