GTM #200 - Islebound
Reviewed by John Kaufeld

Hop aboard your trusty ship to find adventure and fame in Islebound, the latest title from Red Raven Games.

Set in the same universe as their popular Above and Below game, Islebound casts players as wise and wily rulers of island cities in an archipelago. Your goal is to gain the most renown by assembling an impressive capital city and bragging about your accomplishments. (Really — the cards actually say “brag.” It’s delightful!)

You do that by trading, conquering, and allying with the various island cities. Each city boasts a unique specialty such as adding crew to your ship, giving you resources, increasing your knowledge, or improving your combat capabilities. To win the game, you must carefully plan your island visits, maintain a steady supply of gold, and watch for buildings that give your strategy an edge.

Let’s sail into five things you need to know about the game.

~ A Board Designed for Replayability ~

The game’s archipelago map uses four large main tiles and four smaller home port tiles to form its map. The tiles are double-sided, making two distinct maps which the game refers to as the “standard” and “advanced” versions.

Learn the game on the standard side. Get a couple of plays under your belt so you feel comfortable with the mechanics and strategies, then switch to the advanced side for a new challenge. Some of the cities are the same on both sides of the board, but others get tweaks in their abilities or strength.

Don’t mix the standard and advanced sides — use them as two distinct boards. Because you shuffle the four main tiles before building the board and then randomly add the four home ports, the game gives you plenty of new challenges every time you play.

~ No Direct Player vs. Player Action ~

Islebound is a classic example of an “indirect competition” game. Winning the game hinges on you making the best decisions possible, not on how much pain and agony you can inflict on the other players.

Your ship can’t directly attack your opponent’s ship. (Granted, there’s an optional rule for that, but just ignore it.) You can attack your opponent’s islands, but they’re harder to beat and don’t give you as much in spoils (loot) if you win. And even if you do conquer the island, your opponent can still use it by paying the normal fee printed on the board. Most of the time, fighting another player simply costs too much.

~ Diplomacy or Combat? Yes! ~

Speaking of capturing islands, you can do that either through raw military might or clever diplomacy. Each island’s information pane on the board has either a red flag, blue flag, or both flags hanging from it. You use military might to conquer islands with red flags; blue flags require diplomacy.

To fight, you must collect pirate cards and sea serpent cards, then spend them in the attack. Each card has two dice printed on it. Roll the printed die value or higher to gain a certain combat value. Add up the values from all cards, then compare it to the number on the red flag. If it’s equal to or greater than the number, you win.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, requires influence. (This is different than renown, which you use to win the game.) You gain influence by completing events around the board and adding your markers to the influence track at the bottom of the renown board.

Although it’s not clear in the rules, only one player cube can sit on each influence track space. That means cubes from all of the players will mix and mingle across the influence track, like a scrambled rainbow of colors. That mechanic puts some interesting tension into the game. Do you spend your influence now or wait? And which influence cubes should you spend from the track, because that opens those positions to your opponents? Ah, decisions, decisions.

~ Building Combinations ~

Whatever your strategic focus, watch for buildings that both work together and support what your strategy is trying to accomplish. Some buildings make a perfect match; others, not so much. If you select the right combinations, your building benefits stack on each other.

For example, if you mainly attack islands using combat, you’ll want buildings such as the School of War (free pirate when you gain books), the Mercenary Guild (free pirate when you buy a building), the Monster Trainers (free sea serpent when visiting your home port), and the Blacksmith Shop (automatically re-roll one combat die).

~ It’s Also a Mini-Expansion ~

Red Raven set Islebound in the same world as the Above and Below game, but then they took the connection one step further by making all of the crew cards into usable Above and Below characters. Each crew card is double-sided. The icons for Islebound are on the face; the Above and Below values appear on the back.

The Islebound instructions devote a whole page to the details of using your crew cards with Above and Below. Basically, you set up the game using the normal villagers, then introduce your crew cards as replacements when the villagers are recruited.

~ Verdict ~

With high replayability, plenty of ways to win, and a modular board aimed at making each run through the game unique, Islebound will give you many plays and nights of strategic fun for two to four players. Highly recommended!

  • Age range: 13 and up
  • Set-up/Play time: 5 to set up, 90 to play
  • # of Players: 2-4
John Kaufeld often frets over whether the word "meeple" has a proper plural form. You can find him writing about board games, parenting, and other stuff on Twitter at @johnkaufeld and in his newspaper column, The Dad Game (http://dadga.me/column).