Small Islands: Explore the sea and conquer the land [Review]

Small Islands

Small Islands was not on my list during my Spiel Essen 2019 visit. However, when I strolled by, the bright blue box decorated with that beautiful bird-eye view of the archipelago… It was definitely a sight for sore eyes! I then decided to buy this game at the drop of the hat and have been having no regrets whatsoever.

Small Islands is designed by Alexis Allard and I found three publishers who got their hands on the game. One of them, The Wood Games, is someone we’re delighted to make an acquaintance with during Berlin Brettspielcon 2019. We have reviewed their games as well before, Board Game Cafe Frenzy.

An overview of Small Islands

In Small Islands, you and your friends are explorers who want to bring wealth and prestige to your clan. You will embark on your trip to sail over all the small islands and scavenge through the ancient civilisation. Whoever gather the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

Disclaimer: the rules written here is not the complete rules. It is just an overview to help you easily illustrate how the game goes.

The setup of Small Islands.

The setup

You and all other players need to pick a colour and take the Houses and Bonus tokens of your chosen colour. Then, the first player needs to determine the placement of the 4 Starting Tiles. Afterwards, shuffle the Landscape Tiles and pile it all face down as Reserve Stack. While doing so, place all the Ship Tiles nearby along with the Navigation Tile. Draw and place face up 3 Landscape Tiles.

Moving forward, shuffle and place all of the Discovery Tokens face down along the Prestige Tokens. We need to distribute 2 Landscape Tiles from the Reserve Stack to each player. Do not forget to shuffle 12 Objective Cards and form a stack face down before distributing one to each player. This card will remain secret from other players and only you can know what’s inside.

Preparation phase

Small Islands will be played in rounds; each round has three phases. In the Preparation phase, 6 Landscape Tiles are drawn and place face down on the Navigation Tile (this is the Navigation Stack) and each player secretly draws 2 Objective Cards. Then, one is chosen for the current round, another one for the next round, and return the last one face down to the stack.

Exploration phase

The Exploration phase is where the players draw and place a Landscape tile on the board to extend the island and optionally place a Bonus token (exploring). There are some rules to be respected while doing so. There will be three tiles available to pick and it ends with the players always having 2 tiles on their hands. Afterwards, refill the face-up tile from the Navigation Stack.

After exploring and depleting the Navigation Stack, the player may choose to continue to explore and refilling the stack from the Reserve or to end the phase by Landing. To land, take the Ship tile of your colour or other grey ship (with a player count less than 4) and place it still respecting the Placement rules.

Reward phase

In this phase, all players reveal the Objective card chosen for the current round. Then, starting from the player who places the first Ship tile this round, all may place House on islands to win Prestige point. Each player can only place one House on an island.

This is how your Objective card looks like.

End of round & game

After all of the phases are done, the player who placed the Ship last round is the first player. All the Objective cards are shuffle back and the game restarts from the Preparation phase. The game ends when there are no adequate Landscape Tiles to form the Navigation Stack, or there are no more Ships to place. Whoever has the most points is the winner. There are some tiebreakers if the situation arises.

Thoughts and opinions

First impressions

Judging by its cover, at first, I thought Small Islands is intended for younger audiences. How wrong I was. Indeed, it is packed in bright colours but the content of this game is far cry from kids’ game. The tile placement also reminds me of Carcassonne, one of the classic tile-placement game we know.

Appearances: artwork and components

As mentioned, the dazzling colours that wrap the box and all of the components radiate a friendly vibe. The artwork is well-made and illustrated neatly. It was pretty refreshing to see all the beaches and vast oceans, especially when you are longing for Vitamin Sea for a while. All cards and tiles are slick, the rulebook was drafted to be pretty much palatable and I didn’t have any complaints whatsoever towards it.

How the board becomes mid-game. I love the components so much.

Gameplay and design

Small Islands is definitely designed to be a tile placement board game. Unlike Carcassonne where you may deploy your ‘followers’ to score only on your most recently placed tiles, you can put your House during the Reward phase to score on whichever legal area to score most points. This means you can be more flexible in Small Islands on whatever aspects you want to expand to score points at the end of the round. You can also score on incomplete islands. However, be aware that the Houses you have placed can never be taken back.

Truth be told, I find this concept to be more depending on luck at the end of the day. It’s true that you can somewhat draft your hands and have three tiles as your options, but what you can and want to deploy pretty much rely upon your opponents’ last moves. It does not mean necessarily that Small Islands is not balanced or badly designed, though! It was just not as strategic as I thought but this game still exceeds satisfactory notes.

It’s noteworthy to mention Small Islands’ high replayability. With a selection of Mission cards and in addition with the Advance mode and solo-variant, you’ll get as many game sessions as you need.

When all four ships are deployed on the board, it means the game ends. There are other conditions to end Small Islands, too, though.

Experience and recommendations

Albeit the 1-4 player count, Small Islands is most entertaining when played in its full capacity. In my experience, fewer players sometimes mean bigger island because nobody wants to land when the ports are not set up. The presence of the grey ship is also a game-changer. You should expect a game session around 40-45 minutes with 4 players.

Small Islands, to put it bluntly, will be welcomed by most casual players with experiences. The game might not be too friendly for newlings but it’s definitely will be a good gateway game to a more complex tile-placement breed.

Small Islands is a solid and sleek board game. I overall like this game and would recommend all gamers to at least try this game once.

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