Isle of Skye: An Economic Game With Heart

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In the table-top game Isle of Skye, you may find yourself swimming around towering stacks of coinage Scrooge-McDuck-style on your sprawling estate. Or, perhaps you will find yourself with nary a pittance, wrapped in a tattered sackcloth having squandered your inheritance. The difference in these two fates is dependent on your ability to expertly master the game’s interactive economy.

As you gaze across the heather covered hills and hollows that you collected, over your herds of livestock and a scattering of farms, listening to the air howl and churn in the crumbling arches of the ancient stone structures you assiduously acquired; all will know that this was a land you tamed with your wealth and your wit, and your name will ring out on the wind through the ages. Or at least until you start up the next game.

Image Credit: Boardgamegeek

Isle of Skye is a tile-laying and economic game from Mayfair for 2-5 players that runs about an hour. You play as a Scottish chief vying for the snazziest of kingdoms. Players pick 3 random tiles that fit the rambling map that you will grow over the course of the game. Everyone reveals the tiles they pulled, and then simultaneously and secretly assign a value using their available gold to two of the tiles while they pick the other tile to axe.

Players then reveal their prices and, in turn, go around able to choose one tile of an opponent’s to buy. If someone buys your tile you get their money, and the money you put up to represent the price. If no one buys your tile, you pay the money you put up in your claim that tile was worth that much (hopefully you weren’t just bluffing). Then players place their tiles (anywhere from 0 to 3 depending on what happened in the round) and score points.

You play 5 or 6 rounds, and each round has distinct scoring goals. Each game has 4 shared goals players try to meet, out of 16 possible ones that comes with the game. There are also individual side-quests that players can pick up on their tiles that score at the end of the game. All these elements go together to make each game unique, and this replayability allows Isle of Skye to have a heavy presence in your game rotation without getting stale.

Since the game variations come through the mixing and matching of different goals and the variance of tiles pulled, there is no cognitive load for the players to manage in each iteration of the game they play (compared to say, the game 504). The game’s versatility is also reflected in that playing with 2 players runs as well as with 5, and it’s a rare game that can scale up and down as gracefully as this one.

Isle of Skye’s rules are simple, but the game runs pretty deep. While there is some decision making in how to piece together your kingdom so that it’s not a sprawling mess, and some decisions on which goals to tackle and when, the real fun of the game is to puzzle out the interactive economy. You have a lot to accomplish but only one tool: you set the price for your land.

You don’t want to overpay for your own tiles, but you want to extract the most amount of gold from your opponents. Sometimes you want to price your own tiles prohibitively to retain them for your own use, but you want to do that with the lowest price possible so that you aren’t needlessly throwing away gold. To thread all these needles, the game calls on you to prioritize your goals, to read what other players are going for, and understand your opponent’s estimation of value.

What makes Isle of Skye such a stand-out game is that its economic system is built on empathy rather than a set of cerebral calculations. We have no shortage of euro-style games built on economic engines of crunching the numbers and then moving colored cubes around. While Isle of Skye has some basic arithmetic (what’s a good return, what’s your opportunity costs, etc.), in order to deftly wield the one tool you have, price setting, you need to see things from your opponent’s perspective. It’s a refreshing game that has an economic system with some heart in it.

You get the feedback and the emotional payout for your decisions immediately. You feel agony when you realize you are a gold short to making that purchase you were counting on, or elation when you are able to swoop in and grab that piece you needed just in time for scoring, and it turned out to be on sale to boot! This immediate action (feedback setup and the game’s simultaneous turns) gives Isle of Skye a great tempo. There is no down-time, the branching paths before you are manageable, and while you may end up with some tiles that are unimportant to you, all your decisions feel important. This tempo and the simple yet deep decisions are why it’s such a good gateway game for non-gamers.

Image Credit: BoardGameGeek

For new players I generally prefer games that rely on words over symbols, so it’s worth noting that Isle of Skye does use iconography. It’s all pretty simple though and once explained that’s really the end to it. There are not a million icons spread across the table to make a non-gamer’s eyes glaze over (c.f. the game Kemet).

There are also two catch-up mechanics that keep players engaged even if some players rack up an early lead. The first mechanic is hardwired into the later rounds of the game where the players in the back of the pack gain a premium to their income based on how many players are ahead of them. The second way the game is self-balancing is a function of the economy. If you have a bunch of tiles, you probably don’t have much cash and vice versa, so there is no real way a player can get shut out of the game early on. This is a nice feature when you have a gaming group with a mixture of ages or skill levels.

While Isle of Skye is not the only game you would ever want to play, it’s in that hallowed pantheon of games like No Thanks, or For Sale, that do so much with so little that it deserves a special place in every gamer’s collection.

What are some of the games you find yourself pulling out to play over and over? Or some great gateway games you would suggest for new gamers? Whats your favorite economic system in a game? Let us know in the comments!

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