- Number of Plays: 27
- Game Length: 30 – 50 minutes
- Mechanics: Tile laying, auction
- Release Year: 2015
- Designer: Andreas Pelikan, Alexander Pfister
- Artist: Klemens Franz
I come from a Scottish family. My grandpa proudly displays our family crest emblazoned with the MacKenzie clan motto: Luceo Non Uro (translation: I shine not burn). He has a tartan kilt and reads biographies and histories of the Scottish clans. It’s his influence on my life that makes me yearn to visit Scotland and the titular Isle of Skye.
It bothers me to no end that MacKenzie is not an available clan
Naturally, my predisposition to Scottish culture draws me to games like Isle of Skye. I find myself already liking this game before I’ve even took the box lid off for the first time. The playerboards emblazoned with Scottish clan names, long horned cattle just waiting to be herded, and the brochs nestled high in the mountains appealed to me in a way that other games with objectively inferior themes (like Mediterranean trading) just can’t reach.
How to Play
Isle of Skye is for 2 to 5 players and takes around hour to play. Each player gets a castle to start their kingdom, a hatchet to cleave the land, and a player shield to hide all of their wealth from the other players.
You start with naught but a castle
Gameplay is broken into 6 phases, repeated for 5 or 6 rounds (player count dependant). First is the income phase; each player earns 5 gold from their castle, plus one more from each whiskey barrel that has a road leading back to your castle. In phase two each player draws three tiles from a bag and puts them in front of their player shield. Each player secretly sets the price for the tile by assigning coins from their own treasury to each tile behind their player shield. You only put coins behind 2 of your 3 tiles, however, as the third tile gets assigned the hatchet. It can be an agonizing experience to not only weigh how much to value each of the tiles, but also to decide which one of the three you want to throw back into the bag! All my tiles are great, can’t I just keep them all?
The fourth phase begins by lifting away the player shields and pitching the axed tile back into the bag. One by one every player is given one single opportunity to purchase a tile from the another player. If a tile does get purchased, the buyer gives the seller the same amount of coins they placed by the tile in the previous phase and takes that tile into their supply. The seller gets to take the money from the other player and the money they used to set the price for the tile in the first place back into their treasury. Once every player has had one opportunity to buy from their opponents, all the players take any unpurchased tiles remaining in front of them into their own supply. The money that was used to set the price for each tile is deposited into the central bank; you effectively purchased the tile yourself.
If I can’t have the sheep, no one can have the sheep
Depending on how that last phase shook out, the fifth phase has each player taking their 0 -3 tiles now in their own supply and placing them into their kingdom. While roads don’t have to connect to anything, the terrain on each tile edge must match when placed next to other tiles (a pasture must be matched to a pasture, a lake to a lake, etc). Every tile must be placed on the round it was obtained and may not be held in reserve to be placed in later rounds.
The final phase is scoring; at the beginning of the game 4 scoring objectives are placed the 4 slots (A, B, C, and D). Each round some of those objectives get scored. In round one, only objective A is scored, but in later rounds objectives A, C, and D may be scored one after the other. By the time the game ends, every objective will have been scored 3 times.
Playing Isle of Skye is a quick affair. The game begins simply as each player only has 5 coins to split between two tiles. Inevitably if you’re early in the turn order, you’ll want to hold money back so you can purchase a tile from someone, meaning your tiles will be cheaper. The reverse is true for players later in turn order; they feel fine committing most of their cash on a tile, hoping to extract more money from their opponents who choose to purchase their tiles. By the end of the game, some players will have literal fistfuls of cash and suddenly holding money back for spending is no longer an issue.
The flow of Isle of Skye is satisfying. The game moves through the upkeep phases quickly to get players back to making interesting decisions. Having multiple scoring objectives laid out each game pulls you in multiple directions; do you earn a few points now, or do you build toward a specific goal hoping to earn a massive amount of points in a later round?
Around the third round, the catch-up mechanism shows up; suddenly every player gets money for each player ahead of them on the score track. This encourages players to be just barely in last place to get the largest bonus. I’ve had games where the player scores are grouped tightly for the first five rounds, then suddenly one or two players manage to dial in on the final scoring objectives and fly ahead of their inferior opponents.
While getting a reward for doing poorly isn’t my favourite thing in the world, in Isle of Skye it feels necessary. Without the influx of cash, a player in last place can find themselves strangled, every tile that may be worth a couple points priced horribly out of their reach.
The economy grows substantially throughout the game. Every player earns at least 5 coins each round, and only the coins left to unbought tiles leaves the game. Each whiskey barrel and every player ahead of you increases the amount of money available to players, and that money changes hands freely. In the first round you have a piddly little 5 coins to try and price 2 of your tiles AND hold enough money back to buy a tile from someone else, but in the last rounds, suddenly everyone has stacks of gold, and it’s not uncommon for a particularly valuable tile to cost 15 or 20 gold, and for the tile to sell. Fortunately money is worth points at the end of the game, at a ratio of 5 coins to 1 point
You get money by having a castle, and for whiskey barrels that have a road going back to your castle
The shopping phase is where the game heats up! Each player has one opportunity to buy a single tile from any opponent. The questions begin to pile on, do you buy from the player to your left, giving them extra money for their purchasing action? You really want the tile with 3 sheep from the person to your right, but they’re furthest ahead on the score track, should you really be giving them extra money? They don’t even need the sheep! They just priced it higher specifically because they know you get extra points for sheep! Ahh!
If I can close off that pasture, my bonus points for cabins doubles
You can always choose to pass instead of buying of course, but that’s rarely a good move. Many of the scoring objectives grant points for having tiles arranged in a specific shape (such as having three or more tiles in a column). There’s also the bonus objective scrolls nestled in some terrains that can have their points doubled if its terrain gets completed. This means ANY TILE is often better than passing. Everyone buying buying tiles from each other keeps the money in the economy (rather than it being lost to the central bank), which in turn encourages others to spend more money and raise the prices on their tiles next round.
By the time the last round of the game rears its head, Isle of Skye is nearly unrecognizable. Tiles are selling for 15 coins each, kingdoms have grown by 11 tiles, and the landscape has become a dizzying array of pastures, lakes and mountains with sheeps, farms, lighthouses, ships, and cattle. Players are gleefully axing tiles with precious lighthouses on them only to cause other players to clutch their heads in despair because they were counting on buying that lighthouse to complete a set to earn 5 points and would have paid a ludicrous amount of money for it. The dynamics of Isle of Skye are a joy to behold, and when the dust settles and the final sheep bleats, I’m always eager to play this game again.
Having the expansions makes this a well sized box. I’ll talk about those next week.