Board game expansions come in two flavours. One type adds small twists to the existing gameplay, enhancing the existing mechanisms and perhaps addressing some of the complaints of the base game. The other type of expansion makes huge changes. The mental toll of the game is re-worked entirely, making it feel almost like a different game. Isle of Skye has two expansions, one of each flavour.
First, a caveat. I’m not really ‘into’ expansions. Usually when I’m coming into a new game, or introducing a game to someone who hasn’t played it before, I want to showcase the original game. If I’m looking for a game for myself, I’m pulled to the boxes that offer wholy new experiences, rather than building on the ones I’ve already had. So rarely is an expansion released that I feel I need to own it. Part of that apprehension comes from the fact that I find most base games pretty great on their own, I don’t need more content to elevate some parts of the game, or inject some much needed replayability or variability. For the games whose depths I have thoroughly plumbed, I’m usually more content in seeking out new experiences.
I get a feeling of trepidation when I consider adding in expansion content to my games. I worry that I’ll ‘burn’ or ‘waste’ a play if the expansion content doesn’t live up to the hype of the base game. In my scenario where a single game rarely gets more than half a dozen plays, I want to enjoy each one. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, as some would say. In the case of Isle of Skye, the game is quick to set up and is over within 30 – 45 minutes, I decided I shouldn’t have the same apprehension and should be more cavalier in introducing the expansion content. What a fool I was.
Just going for a hike in my kingdom!
The first expansion, Journeymen, introduces new tiles that go into the mixed bag and gives each player their won player board. On that player board are 3 different tracks, each with icons of various things that you might see in your kingdom. On your turn after placing all the tiles you bought, you can now place some cubes on your board, moving your player pawn around your kingdom so he can visit the various tile features and advance the tracks on your player board, giving you additional benefits throughout the game.
This addition to Isle of Skye turns the act of placing tiles from a interesting decision into a absolutely brain breaking chore. Trying to figure out how the tile best fits in your kingdom so you can maximize the points you’ll get from the scoring objectives, as well as placing a tile in such a way do your Journeyman can reach the specific feature you need is a task that my poor little brain isn’t always up to tackling, and I’m not alone. My regular play group has often opted to leave Journeyman out and play just the base game Isle of Skye more than once.
That’s… a lot of information to parse
The special powers you obtain from finishing any one of the tracks can feel overpowered and game-breaking. One of the abilities allows you to buy a tile from anyone, and have the bank pay them, effectively making money a moot point for you. Another removes your requirement to axe a tile, giving you more opportunities to play tiles to your kingdom, or sell for more money. The final one allows you a second buy phase. While getting to the end of the tracks is difficult, and likely only happen in the last round or two, these modifications feel like they take the spirit of the game, and throw it out the window for the player who achieves them. And because these powers are so strong, it feels like the only way to win Isle of Skye: Journeyman is to chase the aspects that this expansion added.
Isle of Skye: Journeyman takes Isle of Skye from a game that I would bring out and play with almost anyone, to a game that I only want to bring out with people that I know won’t be paralyzed by the indecision that I laid out above. Isle of Skye: Journeyman multiplies the number of decisions you need to make and takes Isle of Skye from a fast, easy to play experience into a slow, calculating slog. The crux of my criticism about this expansion is while it multiplies the number of decisions you need to make, they don’t feel more satisfying. Instead, you’re left with additional mental load and nothing really to show for it.
Do I place the tile to finish off the bottom lake to double the scrolls, or in the column to earn points for 3+ tiles per column scoring objective, or close to my Journeyman so he can visit the broch? and in what order do I place my cubes? Do I go up all 3 tracks equally, or do I focus on one track? The amount of decisions I need to make has compounded!
Isle of Skye: Druids On the other hand, adds a secondary board aside the main board that holds 6 special purple backed tiles. After the normal tile purchase phase, a second tile purchase phase happens where you buy the tiles from the Druid board. Tiles are progressively more expensive to purchase the further down the track they are, but as tiles on the right get purchased, the rest slide down the track.
I found Isle of Skye: Druids quite easy to incorporate into the base game. The secondary buying round happens quickly and accents the gameplay. The Druid tiles can be expensive (anywhere from 0 to 8 coins with up to an extra 4 coins depending on how far to the right on the the Druid track it is), they’re generally more useful than the regular tiles that come out of the bag, but not obscenely so. The stone tablets you can acquire give you an extra leg up on the competition, but not so aggressively that chasing the components added by the Druids expansion is now the only way to win.
I respect how difficult it is to craft an expansion without giving into power creep. After all, if the expansion content doesn’t build on the base game, or offer something stronger or more compelling, why would anyone want to buy it? My thoughts return to Food Chain Magnate’s The Ketchup Mechanism & Other Ideas expansion, that included 16 modular components that could be mixed each game. I shudder at the thought of adding every expansion simultaneously, but adding a couple different ones each game is a great way to inject some new life into a game that I’ve played over and over again. None of the modules change the core of Food Chain Magnate, rather, they offer exciting new twists and variations to the gameplay. And that’s an idea I can get behind.