Review – Isle of Skye: Big Box
|Designer||Andreas Pelikan, Alexander Pfister|
|Publisher||Lookout Games (Asmodee North America)|
|Release Date||January 2023|
In 2015, a huge revolution in board gaming happened: Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 and T.I.M.E. Stories rewrote the very idea of what a board game could be, to huge notoriety and success. Both were nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, the “advanced” category for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award. And both of them lost to Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, a traditional (broadly speaking) Eurogame from Alexander Pfister and Andreas Pelikan, the same pair of designers who won the year before! This led to several expansions and promos for Isle of Skye, and now, eight years later, a “Big Box” collection. Is this the definitive version of Isle of Skye? Let’s take a look!
This review is primarily meant to be about the value of the Big Box, but I can’t really do that without talking briefly about the original game. Isle of Skye takes everything fun about tile-laying, engine building, and variable setups, puts it all in a blender, and somehow the resulting cardboard smoothie is delicious. The idea of variable scoring is lifted straight out of Kingdom Builder, but reimagined in a way so clever that it’s stolen almost line-for-line by later Kennerspiel nominee Cartographers. The escalation of the economy gives a sense of engine building not present in most tile layers, and the auction gives a high sense of tension and bluff. Perhaps most importantly, the hardest part of the game – pricing the auction – has everyone in “crunch” mode simultaneously, so that no one is wasting time watching another player’s internal gears turn. It’s fast, furious, deep, interactive, and fun. In short, it’s a masterpiece.
And like many masterpieces, it’s fragile. I don’t mean that an incompetent player or a specific strategy can break the game. I mean that it’s so perfect that you really shouldn’t mess with it. Yet, success means expansions, and expansions we got. Journeyman was a convoluted mess that was way too far removed from the original gameplay. It is odd and perhaps frustrating for some that Journeyman was not included in the Big Box. The publisher openly explained why: nobody liked it, so why include it? I actually wholeheartedly approve of this decision. I love that the Big Box is not that big, and I certainly would not want to pay more for stuff I know I’ll never use. Likewise, there is a small promo expansion included called Tunnels and I would have gladly paid less to remove it. It’s terrible, and I’ll never play with it again. It is incredibly hard to see the tunnels, even harder to actually use them for anything, and anyone who’s played Carcassonne is going to have their head explode when they read the rulebook and try to understand how connected mountains (think Cities in Carcassonne) are defined in this expansion.
Let’s move on to more positive inclusions. The quick and obvious one is that Bonus Scoring Tiles are a joyous, welcome inclusion. The other large expansion, Druids, adds a second opportunity to purchase tiles each round, presumably fixing the one possible flaw in the original game. Occasionally, you are in a situation where you can’t buy a tile on your own turn, and then both of your tiles are bought, leaving you with many coins but little progress. Druids is not that complicated, especially compared to Journeyman – I actually quite like the expansion, but the problem is that the Big Box outclassed it.
Much to the chagrin of early adopters, the Big Box includes a unique small expansion not present elsewhere, called “Borderlands”. Each player is dealt the same set of six “half-tiles”, whose jagged corners (on the hypotenuse of the triangle) cannot touch other tiles. But one Border tile can be played each round for free, in addition to your other tiles. In such a simple addition, the game is elevated in so many ways. The obvious one is that you know for sure there is a tile you can play each round, so you have a “failsafe” if your other tiles do not work out. But really, you have six tiles you know at the start of the game you can use, so with repeated plays, some longer strategy with these tiles can really emerge. Lastly, this expansion cleverly avoids disrupting the in-game economy, which has a very specific growth curve that is actually quite central to the gameplay. It’s a fantastic addition, which is great for Big Box owners, bad for early adopters, but also bad for Druids. I don’t really want to play them together because then the number of tiles each round becomes incalculable nonsense, and I’d rather play with this simpler, more effective expansion than Druids.
Which really comes to my biggest complaint, which is that this didn’t need to be a Big Box. A 2nd edition of the base game with Borderlands included would have been smaller, cheaper, and the absolute perfect version of Isle of Skye. Instead, a game that was once $35 is now $65, and includes at least a little bit of unnecessary content (the Tunnels). However, if you’re a diehard Isle of Skye fan, or if you’ve played it before and are looking for the best version to pick it up… It’s hard to say; it really depends on your expendable income whether that big price tag is worth it just for Borderlands. But in my book, Borderlands is the best addition to a master-class game that benefits very little from big additions. For me, as far as the “Big Box” goes, this is an 8/10 edition of a 10/10 game. But you’ll probably need to deduce the real value proposition for yourself.
The Bottom Line
The best package out there for this fantastic game, despite the price.