I was very excited for this game as soon as I heard the name. My wife is a McLeod and their clan seat is the Isle of Skye. So I hoped that that, along with the Scottish theme, would get her interested in playing it. That alone was enough to get me to buy it, but what I heard of the game play sounded interesting as well.
The game is a combination of auctions and tile laying. The theme and some of the game play is reminiscent of Glen More.
During setup you randomly choose 4 scoring tiles out of a possible 16. These are placed on the game board in sections labeled A, B, C, and D. You’ll score based on each tile 3 times over the 6 rounds of the game. Round one you only score A. Round 2 only B. Round 3 A and C. Round 4 B and D. Round 5 A C D. And round 6 B C D. This is probably my favorite part of the game. It adds so much variety. Not only do the tiles that show up change your goals in the game but the order they are in can really shift your strategy. Do you try to get some early points with the A tile or build up to score 3 rounds in a row from the D tile?
Each player starts with a castle tile in their territory that will give them 5 gold at the start of a round.
The game plays very easily with no complex rules or exceptions. Each player earns gold based on their territory tiles. Five for their castle and 1 more for each whiskey barrel icon on a road that connects to their castle. In later rounds players receive bonus gold for each player ahead of them on the score track.
Then each player draws 3 tiles from the surprisingly nice canvas bag and places them in front of their player screen. Players secretly choose one of their tiles to discard with their ax token and secretly set an auction price for the other 2 tiles with their money. They must put at least 1 coin at each. Discarding and setting prices is the heart of this game.
After prices are set players reveal their prices and discard choices. All the discarded tiles or put back in the bag and the first player gets to choose an opponent’s tile to buy. Players cannot use any of their gold they placed to set auction prices on tiles. If they cannot afford a tile or don’t want one they pass. When you buy a tile from a player you pay them the amount of gold they set as the price for that tile. The player you buy from gets your gold plus the gold they set as a price. So if they are after you in turn order they now have a lot more gold to buy tiles with. After everyone has passed or bought a tile the gold set for each unbought tile is put in the bank and the player gets that tile.
Turn order matters a lot here. If you are going last you can feel safer about setting higher prices on your tiles hoping someone else will buy one and you’ll have the money back before your turn. If you are going first setting high prices might not allow you to buy anything and if your opponents buy both of your tiles you’ll have some money but no tiles to place this round.
You’ll need to pay attention to what scoring tiles are happening this round, how much an opponent might want your tiles and how much you want to keep them. Setting prices too high on a tile you don’t want in hopes of making a lot of money from an opponent can backfire if they don’t feel like buying it.
After players buy tiles they have to place all of their new tiles in their territory. This is generally straightforward with each tile having three possible terrain types on each side; pasture, mountain, or water. When you place tiles their connected edges must match. Some tiles have roads on them and roads do not have to connect. Though it is usually better if they do, especially in the case of connecting whiskey barrels to your castle.
Tile placement starts off very easy. Your territory is wide open and you bought tiles with a plan of where to place them. However, as your territory grows, placing tiles gets trickier. You’ll be trying to get certain tiles to achieve the goals on the scoring tiles (which drives up the prices) and for some scoring tiles the placement matters. If you slip up you might block yourself from earning some points later in the game.
In addition to getting points every round from scoring tiles some terrain tiles have additional end of game bonuses based on having different icons in your territory (sheep, cattle, farms, boats, etc.). With the right tiles coming your way these bonus points can score a lot, and the points are doubled if you manage to complete the terrain the scroll is in.
After placement you score based on the current scoring tile(s) the first player marker moves to the left and you play another round with a different combination of scoring tiles.
After 6 rounds you score bonus scrolls and get 1 point for every 5 gold you have left. The player with the most points wins.
I enjoyed this game even before I played it, and every time I play, I like it more. The rules are very simple. The iconography is clear enough that after a few plays you don’t need to check the reference sheet for the scoring tiles.
Even though each round is the same the changing goals give them a unique feel. With the variety of scoring tiles and bonus scrolls you can try a variety of strategies.
In a game I played the other night one of the scoring tiles was 5 points for the most gold and 2 points for the second most. I decided to focus on making gold. I almost always set my tile prices low so that I wouldn’t lose any money if I got stuck with them. I bought every whiskey barrel tile I could and I was luckily always just behind on the score track so I received the maximum gold bonus. I tried to get things for other scoring tiles when I could. Which was easy once I had significantly more money than my opponents. At the end of the final round I was behind first place by a bit but I managed 8 points from all of my gold and won the game by 1 point. It was exciting. We played again immediately (always a good sign). The second game had all new scoring tiles and as a result the game had a different feel.
It plays quickly, a lot of the game is simultaneous so there isn’t much down time. It can drag if you have an AP player that can’t set their prices or decide what to buy, but that’s a problem with any game that has decisions without a timer. Overall the game is light enough that decisions aren’t stressful.
Every game is unique with the order and mix of scoring tiles. Building your territory gives you a sense of accomplishment even if you aren’t winning. The variety of ways to score and the gold bonus for being behind help make sure no one is really out of it. And even if you totally botch the game it’s short enough that you can try again soon.
I like a lot of games, and a lot of different kinds of games so I’m not good at ranking them. It’s more about what I’m in the mood for at the time. But after playing it half a dozen times Isle of Skye is certainly near the top of my list.