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Small Islands Board Game Review

WBG Score: 8

Player Count:1-4

You’ll like this if you like: Carcassonne, Fjords, Cascadia

Designed by: Alexis Allard

Have you ever asked yourself the question? If I was trapped on a desert island, what would be the best size of island? I love the show Lost but even I’d have to say that that island would be a bit too big. That series was on for six seasons and even they didn’t get round all of it. So, having weighed up all of the options I’ve decided that a small island is probably best. Besides if this game is anything to go by then there’s tons of resources on them! You probably wouldn’t want to leave!

Small Rules

Set up by giving each player their pieces and two tiles each from the stack. Then place out the four starting tiles on the table in any orientation following the rules for placement, I’ll get to those in a bit. Then place six tiles on the exploration tile and place three from the main stack face up next to it. Place all four ship tiles in a row above that. Each ship will be placed faced up depending on which colours are in play the rest will be on their grey side.

At the start of each round players will get three objective cards. You will pick one for this one round, keep one in reserve to potentially be played next round and then discard the other.

On your turn you’ll either take a face up tile then place down one of the three in your hand or land a ship. Tiles have to be orthogonally adjacent to tiles already on the table and all terrain types have to match the tiles they’re touching. Then replace the tile you took with one of the six. At this point you can now place one of your resource tokens on an island over an existing resource. Players continue taking turns like that until the stack of six tiles is empty. From then on players have the choice to carry on laying tiles and replacing the tiles from the main stack, or they can now land a ship. When you land a ship you’ll take the ship of your colour (or a gray ship if there are less than four players and your coloured ship has been used) and place it using the same placement rules. The round then immediately ends and players score their current objectives.

The regular objective cards will have two halves on them. The left hand side will have the prerequisites for scoring on them. The right hand side will tell you how you score points for those islands. To be able to score a card you need to place one of your buildings on islands that meet the prerequisites. You can place a building on each island that meets it as long as a) there are enough empty building slots and b) you haven’t already placed a building on that island.

The game will play like this until either four rounds have been played out, you can no longer create a six tile stack at the start or a round or there are no tiles left to replace a tile that has been taken. You’ll then score your last objective card and score points for any exploration tokens (you get these from some objective cards) and for every port symbol on tiles surrounding your ship.

A tiny island across the sea.

The first time you play Small Islands there’s a good chance you’ll make a mistake. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all done it and in fact it’s part of the learning process of the game. In the first round you’ll try and make this huge island that will earn you loads of points and when you score that first goal it’ll feel great and you’ll pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Then the second round will hit and around the time you choose objectives for the round you’ll have that sinking feeling and you’ll realise that the Island you so proudly spent the entire last round working on, you won’t be able to score again. It sounds like that could be frustrating and it can be. But once you realise that, you come to understand how you should be playing the game.

Small Islands is a game all about self control. In a game like Carcassonne you want to build that city out for big points. Here, you have to stop yourself doing that and spread out lots of profitable islands across the map. They’ve even gone and given you the strategy in the game's title! It might sound simple, you just don’t build big islands, but it’s just so tempting when a perfect tile comes out to just add one more onto it, just to eek out a couple more points. You know you should be planning for the next round as well but what will a couple more points hurt! In some games maybe that wouldn’t be a big deal but in this, where anyone could end the round at any point after that sixth tile has been taken, adds an incredible amount of tension. It could be the difference between you starting the next round at a bit of a head start for your next mission or being on the back foot.

I love when games have round based goals but then give you the goals in advance, either privately or publicly. Think Wingspans goals as a comparison. It gives you so many options for how you want to approach the game. You tend to see a decent variety of tiles come out per round but if for some reason the tiles just aren’t coming out to make this goal work, well you can just as easily start to work on next rounds goal. Something else I love about this game is that you're not bound by the goal you picked for the next round. Being able to change tactics before each round is so freeing. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with goals that you just can’t achieve and this alleviates that to some degree. This again really opens up the game and means that everyone has a decent chance of maximising your points each round and keeping in the game.

Small islands is a tile laying game and with it brings all the satisfaction that tile laying brings. It’s great to see the islands as they get built out, what shape they’re going to take and exactly how small they end up being (spoiler, maybe not that small) You’ll often find yourself wanting to place placing tiles in spaces just to finish off islands regardless of if it scores you points or not (or maybe that’s just me) yet again proof that they should put a disclaimer on the box saying “warning will power required”. The problem with that of course is that not many people have a friend called Will Power (that’s my one dad joke for this review) Just be sure to give yourself space on the table because this one is going to spread out and moving tiles isn’t easy. I’m still lobbying to get magnetic tiles but it’s just not attracting any attention! (Ok maybe one more for the road)

The real trick is knowing when to stop.

Small islands is a game of four rounds………maybe, because it could last three, or maybe less? That of course all depends on how long each round goes on for and when or if the stack of tiles runs out. This is a part of the game that I have a love / meh relationship with. On the one hand it’s a fun system that, like I said earlier, really ramps up the tension. It puts the end of the round in the players hands and when you decide to do it could be used for a tactical advantage. On the flip side though there are a couple of things about it that I don’t love. You end a round when you land your coloured or one of the grey ships. The lower the player count the more chances you personally have to end the round and at two this gives you control of half of the rounds. At higher player counts you have less control over this and as such, once you’ve landed your ship you’re waiting for other people to end the round. This means if they’re reluctant to do that then rounds have the potential to outstay their welcome and there’s nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t happen all the time and sometimes it may actually be to your advantage but If you happen to have a goal card that isn’t getting you a lot of points that round then you may be begging for it to end just so you can get new cards.

Advanced mode

After a few plays you’ll more than likely see most if not all of the goals. To stop these becoming samey Small Islands comes with an advanced mode. There are going to be two decks of cards. One missions deck and one rewards deck. Players will have three of each at the start of each round and then make up their own goal cards, again having one for this round and one for next. You’ll want to start using this variant as soon as you feel ready. They add a lot more variety to the game, and offer an even better chance to score based on how the map is looking at the time you put them together. The base goals are great but have the possibility of being a bit more limiting. That being said you can still enjoy Small Island without ever needing to use this mode so don’t feel that you’ll be playing a lesser game if you don’t.

Small Islands, big game

The art, the look and the gameplay all come together to make a brilliant, strategic tile laying game that’s another fantastic addition to your collection of tile laying games and may just want to make you visit one of the islands you create. Make sure you finish it first though. No one likes construction work when they’re on holiday!

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