Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Skye High

Those who follow board games won't be surprised to hear that Codenames won this year's coveted "Spiel des Jahres" (Game of the Year) award. But I was eager to see which game would take the Kennerspiel des Jahres -- the "Connoisseur's" award (or, if you prefer not to swap one foreign word with another, the "Gamers' Game" of the Year). That honor went to Isle of Skye, by designers Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister.

Some people have made comparisons between Isle of Skye and Carcassonne, but I think that's a superficial comparison that fails to convey much about this new game. Isle of Skye is a tile-laying game in which geographic features are lined up against each other... and that's about as far as I'd go. First, each player in Isle of Skye is using tiles to develop his own, personal territory. Second, tiles are acquired through a challenging auction system. Third, the game uses a clever system for scoring victory points that injects tremendous variety and replayability into the experience.

The game lasts just six rounds. At the start of each, every player draws three tiles from a bag and places them face up in full view of all players. Then, simultaneously and in secret, players set the prices for their three tiles. One tile is removed from auction entirely, while the player prices the other two by assigning money to them from his own gold on hand. Once everyone has locked in their decisions, players go around the table in turn order -- with the option to pass on purchasing for the rest of the round, or to buy one tile from an opponent for the price that opponent set. If someone buys a tile from you, you take back the gold you used to set that price, and you take that amount from the purchaser. If no one else buys one of your tiles, you have to buy it, spending all the gold you used to set the price.

It's hard to overstate the amount of nuance going on in this system. Do you set a high price in the hopes that no one will buy your tile and you'll get to keep it for yourself? Do you set a price hoping to get money from a rival to boost your own bank? How high can you go? Pricing your tiles high takes up your money on hand, and if no one buys from you before your turn comes in the auction, you won't have funds to buy something desirable an opponent is offering. But if someone buys from you right away, does that mean you lowballed yourself and gave someone a great deal?

Then there's that twist that one of the three tiles in front of each opponent won't even make it to the actual auction. Which tile is an opponent likely to "kill?" As you're setting the price for your tiles, can you assume that another similar tile in front of your opponent will stay in the mix? Or might he choose that as his throwaway, leaving you with a one-of-a-kind commodity?

This auction mechanic alone would be enough for Isle of Skye to earn distinction in my mind. But then it also has a great system for keeping score. There are 16 different score tiles, each with a condition for rewarding different features on land tiles (or different configurations of those tiles). But only 4 of the 16 score tiles are used in any given game. The randomly chosen 4 are arrayed in slots marked A, B, C, and D, and then different score tiles are checked at the end of each round of the game -- each condition at three different points across the six rounds.

In any given auction, you have to weigh the value of tiles against how many more times they'll score during the game, and when they'll score. Can you get a good deal by ignoring the things about to score in favor of something that will score later? How expensive can you price a tile that works toward two or more different scoring conditions? And that's all just within the context of a single game. The next time you play, some or all of the scoring conditions could be completely different. Or a condition that scored mostly in the late game last time might score very early on this time. "No two games play the same" is a popular cliche, but here the vast number of possible combinations really makes that feel true.

My one concern here is that a significant skill gap could develop between more and less experienced players. Even though different things are more valuable from one playthrough to the next, the veteran's ability to size up those difference feels like it could easily grow to eclipse those of a less experienced player. Still, this is the "Gamers' Game of the Year," so I think that's something to be expected. This isn't the game you pull out on "let me introduce you to German board games" night.

Isle of Skye has been on my mind quite regularly since I got to try it, and I can't wait to play it again. I suppose my grade is a bit provisional until I get to play it more, but it feels like an A to me, and certainly a worthy award winner.

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