Isle of Monsters (BGG, Amazon) is set on a remote series of tropical islands far away from civilization. Like most tropical islands, they are filled with exotic plants, delicious fruits, and monsters. You, as an inhabitant of the island, understand the importance of the care and feeding of these unusual creatures. Feed them the proper foods, and they will grow to an amazing and fearful stature. Keep your islands an unknown paradise by raising and training these fearsome beasts to keep the curious at bay (hopefully their own bay, far away, and not our bay right here). Capture and keep the best monsters, raise them right, and scare your competing islands to see who has the best and most fearsome beasts (don’t worry though, these monsters are all snarl and no devour). The winner of the competition will have the honor of displaying their beast for all to see and marvel at and for all curious to scream and run from.
It plays 2-5 humans aged 8+ and takes about 30 minutes. Each player is collecting sets of monsters, gathering resources, and then playing monster cards to score scare points. At the center of the table is the main island, and between each player is a series of smaller islands (the outer island boards). In front of each player is their cage board with three cages where they can hold up to three monsters while they feed and mature them for the scare phase. Each outer island board will get monsters cards with the top one face up. Resources are drawn blindly and two are placed on each outer island board and a number equal to the number of players are placed on the center island board. So you have monsters and resources. Everyone can access material from the central board but players can only access the outer island board that are adjacent to them.
There are four phases to each round: a nurture phase, and mature phase, a scare phase (which can be repeated a few times and can be confusing), and a clean-up phase. The rulebook is very well-illustrated with clear text and copious examples so consider this a brief synopsis.
During the nurture phase, each player does one of three actions: capture, feed or pass. When you capture, you take a monster from one of the adjacent outer island boards and place it on your cage board. To feed you choose one of the available tokens from the center or adjacent outer island boards and place it on one of your captured monster cards. Play continues until everyone passes. First person to pass takes the draw bag and goes first the next round.
During the mature phase, each player will check to see if any of their monsters are fully fed and then take those cards into a pile in front of them. The monster cards will have a numeric value (1-9), a monster type (water, fire or earth) and which food it requires to mature. Once those food requirements are met, the monster can be added to the player’s hand. All spent resources are returned to the draw bag.
The scare phase is where most of the action takes place. Each player takes their matured monsters (from the current and any previous rounds) into their hand. Then you must choose a number of cards from one type (earth, water, or fire). These are placed face-down in a pile in front of the player masking the type and number of the cards chosen. Everyone reveals their cards at the same time.
There are two ways of scoring during the scare round. The player’s whose set of cards totals the most “scares the crowd” and earns 3 scare points. Then players can see if they scared the players next to them. In this case, the numerical value is meaningless. Instead the *type* of creature is what determines who scares who. Water scares fire, fire scares earth, and earth scares water. Players get one scare point for each adjacent player they scare. The cards played are then discarded and set aside and the scare phase can repeat with new cards chosen from their hands. This continues until all players are out of cards or if only one player remains with cards.
During the clean-up phase food is replenished and a new creature card is drawn and placed on each outer island board. The game continues until the creature deck is exhausted.
The artwork in Isle of Monsters is delightful. I recognize Kwanchai Moriya’s artwork previously in Kodama: The Tree Spirits and I love to watch the monster’s “evolution” as their numerical value increased. The only disconnect for me is that this kind of infers the ability to level up monsters throughout the game (which really triggered my Pokemon itch) but this isn’t a mechanism used in the game. Perhaps a missed opportunity but the artwork is still amazing.
The two and three player games were not particularly engaging and I would avoid those player counts. Instead, play with four or five players. The adjacency rules really shine in the higher player counts and it is overall a more enjoyable experience. The set-up is variable which does provide a difference sense of the gameplay depending upon how many people are playing.
The scoring is very simple. You are basically adding up the cards of the same color to see who was the scariest and then determining which monsters scared the adjacent monsters using a rock/paper/scissor method. Nothing is particularly challenging but the strategy is there. Players need to be aware of what their adjacent players are doing and what is in turn happening to them from the players adjacent to them. Long story short, you need to constantly pay attention to what is happening around you. What food is available? Who needs it? What type of monsters are your neighbors collecting? While you start with very little, soon everyone has a hand of cards and you are struggling to remember who has the 8 water monster and whether now is a good time to grab the earth monster next to you.
Overall, a good game for families whose kids are not old enough for King of Tokyo or some light filler for more experienced players.