Islebound has a simple premise. You are a ship’s captain striving to gain renown through the exploration and manipulation of a series of islands near your home port. Your story will be punctuated by pirates, sea monsters, and a diverse crew skilled in the ways of the sea. This is not the only story being told. There are other sea captains who will compete harshly for fame. Each turn players will sail to one of 12 islands and either pay the fee for resources/items the harbor, use muscle or diplomatic acumen to gain a foothold in that port, or hunt for treasure.
The board is modular with four sea port boards and four sea boards. Each sea port board is a starting (home) point for a player and each sea board will contain three regions, each containing an island with a port. At these ports, players may choose to pay a fee in order to complete the island’s action. The sea boards have an easy and difficult side. It is recommended that players start on the easy side for their first game but, honestly, the only difference are slightly altered island town actions and strengths. Off the bat, let’s just say that Islebound will fill up a table. Ship boards, modular sea boards, a shared renown board, and a building track will take up plenty of space.
On a player’s turn they first have to move their ship. This is a mandatory movement. Each space has an island to visit and depending on their crew they can move 2, 3, or 4 spaces to find the perfect port with the perfect resources. After movement and consequently landing on an island, a player can take an action. They can take the easy way out and pay the harbor fee to gain the island’s benefit. For example, you could visit The Grotto and pay one coin for a bunch of fish plus some extra fish for any of your crew with the “Work” icon. Money paid to a free (translation: not held by another player) island gets placed on the Treasure Map on the Renown Board. If someone holds the port they get paid.
If the player is not feeling generous and has some muscle to flex they can just take the resources through warfare or diplomacy. Every island has a red and/or blue flag indicating the strength of the island town. Red flags indicate an island can be attacked and Blue flags indicate that diplomacy is an option. Islands can have one or both the flags providing the attacking player with the full range of exploitation. For example, let’s look at The Grotto. It has one red flag with a strength of 10 (apparently all the mercury in their fish has made them impermeable to diplomacy). By spending pirate/seas serpent cards for attacking or spending cubes on the diplomacy track to negotiate, players can earn the resources, take coins equal to the strength of the town, take ownership of the port, and place one of their markers on the port.
The combat system used is practically pulled verbatim from Above and Below. Each pirate and sea serpent card has dice values. When rolled, the results are matched to the values on the card in tally the strength of the attack, if it is more than the strength of the town, they succeed. Additionally, players can exhaust (and injure) crew members to increase their attack. Diplomacy is even simpler: Remove enough cubes to equal the diplomatic strength of the harbor. And, of course, the crew may possess abilities which can mitigate these results.
Once a player claims an island, they reap the benefits of the island for free when they visit, and get paid the cost when another player wants to use the island. Careful choice of which islands to control can be a boon to a player if the island’s benefits are important to opponent’s strategies. However, other players can take the island away from you. The strength of an occupied island is two more than the number on the Red/Blue banners so it is a tad more difficult but still tenable if you begin to get too large for your fancy sailor britches.
If you move and don’t have the ability to pay for the island’s services and don’t have the diplomatic chops to ally with the island *and* don’t have the strength to attack (or you can but just don’t feel like doing it) the Hunt for Treasure action is an option. This is an easy one, you take all the money accrued on the treasure map. You now have enough money to do something next turn…
You can now complete any number of free actions. If you visited an island corresponding to one of the two active quests on the renown board you can pay the fee to complete that quest. By completing a quest you are spending resources and/or utilizing crew members to gain diplomacy (thematically, you are providing aid to the island and gaining a reputation as a pirate with a heart of gold). You can also buy a building. Buildings will provide special abilities and bonuses throughout the game. More importantly, they provide renown points and trigger the end game. So, if all else fails, buy a building. Always buy a building. The game revolves around the building cards. Your goal is to generate renown and your primary method of doing that is to build up your home harbor with the addition of buildings. It is easy for new players to get wrapped up in the sailing and attacking but it is all about the buildings. Building is a free action and you need to do it. Everything you do should enable you to end your turn with a new building. Build a building. Once someone builds seven (or eight with 2 or 3 players), the game ends.
Ryan Lauket and Red Raven Games produce games with an emotive, thematic feel and a polished use of a consistent set of mechanics. Ryan Lauket does everything from design to development to graphic design and art. This potentially leads to one of the few drawbacks of a one-person creative show; the output, albeit well-designed, can become predictable.
Islebound removes the experimental storytelling elements of Above and Below and focuses on the mechanical. Gone is a breezy narrative style, and added are a few new mechanisms; area control and a modular board. Everything else is recycled. The building rows, the crew (the ready, spent, and exhausted states), and the combat systems come from Above and Below. That said, they work well with the modular board and provide an economy of choices on your turn: Not too many nor too little. The finished result is nicely polished game that flows well but, unfortunately, rarely surprises. And after an hour, you feel as if the game has given you everything it has and you are waiting for it to end. Turns move quickly but begin to get repetitive. I found myself waiting for a turn in the game where I went from one strategy to another. Where the tempo of the game changes. Instead, it remains steady from beginning to end without a pivot point. While not as strategically enthralling as City of Iron or as narratively rich as Above and Below, Islebound does provide a satisfying sense of flow and comfortable gameplay. There is never a loss of what to do and you never feel particularly limited. It is this ease of flow during that game that makes this title a perfect recommendation for players new to the Red Raven (and by default, Ryan Lauket’s) catalog of games. While Above and Below gets most of the praise and all of the glory, the mechanisms and the narrative tend to clash providing a jarring and confusing experience for new players. Islebound provides a tight foundation for those mechanisms without having to grind the narrative gears when going below.
End of the day, Islebound is a solid and beautiful game that may last too long on the table but still provides a satisfying experience. The turns move fast, the strategies are singular and the decisions simple enough for new gamers but may leave experienced ones pining for the expanding decision space of City of Iron or the narrative adventure of Above and Below.
Quick note on the Metropolis expansion — This deck of cards provides an additional building row with two caveats: For each Metropolis building owned, one standard building must first be owned. Only three Metropolis buildings are provided at a time so players need books to purchase them. It does add a few more decisions to the game without adding any additional playtime. Which, for a game that may already go a bit long, makes it a recommended expansion.