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Review: Island Fortress

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Have you ever dreamed of being a courageous, colonial pioneer building a mighty fortress amidst a harsh, cruel, and barren landscape?  Island Fortress dares proclaim to be that game.  However, the only cruelty is that inflicted upon the poor saps who perish during its construction whilst limitless resources and labor are within your reach.  Still, your nondescript king must have his nondescript power projected into this nondescript area – so your task is to help build him a nondescript fort!

How it Plays

Island Fortress uses role selection as the catalyst for collecting and managing resources to construct a wall in which all players build collectively, yet competitively.  There is also blind bidding for turn order each round.  And the wall’s construction includes a puzzle element.  Additionally, area majority is important for certain scoring aspects.  Suffice it to say, there is a decent mix of mechanics at work here.  Players earn victory points for adding blocks to the wall, setting them in certain assigned patterns, and collecting various resources.

Workers and jade – a few of the game’s resources.

The fortress itself is not so much a fort, per se, but rather decidedly more linear in construction.  Yeah, it’s a wall.  Perhaps you’ve just been commissioned to complete one-fourth of the fortress?  Anyway, two or three game boards, depending on the number of players, represent this wall.  These boards consist of a 3×5 grid in which players will place stone blocks, plus two extra squares at either end to create a fourth “level,” symbolizing towers.  Below the grids, each board has a camp, in which players’ taskmaster meeples will visit in order to be able to build in that section; and a prison from which to draw some of your labor.  Each player also has a personal board to organize their supplies of jade, workers, wall blocks, buyback chips, and treasure tokens.  The player boards also have a very helpful turn sequence summary.

A round begins with the income phase.  Jade is the game’s currency and each player collects three jade to start a turn, though there are ways to increase your earning level.  Next is a petition phase, a blind bid to bribe the governor.  The highest bid is awarded the start player token for that round and a special governor’s block that can be placed anywhere on the wall for free (following normal placement rules) at any point during their turn.

The individual player boards are well-designed to be attractive AND useful!

Finally, the heart of game play occurs in the action phase.  In alternating turns for three rounds, players select a role to play.  Everyone has the same set of roles to choose from – Planner, Builder, Recruiter, Treasurer, and Taskmaster – but there are a few factors which create some interesting decision-making.

Each role itself has two or three abilities to choose from.  So after selecting a role, you must select which of its actions to use.  Normally, you can only play a role card, and therefore one of its actions, once per turn.  However, you can earn special tokens, called Buyback Chips, which allow you to immediately pick-up a role just played in order to take another – or the same one, if you prefer.  Alternatively, one of the Taskmaster’s abilities is to replay a previously used role, for a price.  And you can use the Taskmaster like a Buyback Chip for the cost of three jade.  Theoretically then, you could play up to six roles a turn (two per round), but it’s unlikely that you’ll have the resources necessary to do so.  Instead, you’ll typically manage three or four.

Roles let you collect, manage, and spend resources.  First off you need workers to do the heavy lifting.  The Recruiter lets you acquire and exchange two types of workers: paid laborers (even though the first one is free) and convicts, which you can just round up from the prisons – a great solution to overcrowding.  At first this seems a win-win for everyone, really.  That’s not how it turns out, though.  You see, all convicts will die during construction, while laborers expire at half the rate.  Luckily there are always plenty of criminals and debtors to ship over from the homeland.  And you’ll be thanking your stars these guys aren’t union.

One section of the mighty wall – the separate strip to the left denotes the rewards for majorities in the rows/levels.

Of course you can’t add to the wall without the stones, so the Planner is necessary to acquire blocks.  Again the first one is free and then you must pay jade for anymore than that.  You can also take favor cards with this role.  These display specific patterns in which you can place your personal blocks on the wall – because everyone knows the sturdiest fortresses in the world were built Tetris-like.  Completing one of these earns you various goodies, depending on the pattern’s difficulty, and then you may reinforce one of your blocks, making it more difficult for others to remove it.

That brings us to the Builder who lets you actually add to the wall.  If you have one or two personal blocks in your supply, you may pay a cost in workers to place them to the board.  The number of workers required depends upon which row you’re adding to – the higher the level, the more workers needed.  For double the normal cost of laborers, you might instead want to demolish an opponent’s block, replacing it with one of your own.  Hey, this ain’t the Peace Corps.

The last two roles are a bit more passive, but just as important.  The Treasurer has a couple of options, as you might expect – either take three jade immediately or a special treasure token which gives one victory point and will eventually increase your income base in future rounds.  Finally, the Taskmaster allows you to move your meeple from board to board.  He acts sort of like a foreman as you can only work on the wall section in which he is present.  Or for a cost, you can also use him to use a previously played role again.  No union breaks on this job site.  You can then buy him back immediately for three jade to play another role from you hand – but plan carefully, because that’s a lot of green.

The wall rises.

As the game progresses, players will score points, keeping a running tally on the victory point track.  The bulk of these are earned for achieving majorities in construction.  Each time the five spaces of one row are completed, the player with the most blocks in that row will score points – the higher the level, the more earned.  When an entire level is finished, all rows across all boards, the majority builder earns a treasure token.  You can also earn points by fulfilling favor cards.

Play continues until either the fortress is complete or the governor’s blocks are depleted (amounting to 11 or 12 rounds depending on the number of players).  In addition to points already earned from majority building, favor cards, and treasure tokens, players with a majority in each of jade, workers, and treasure add more points to their score.  Plus you receive additional points according to the least number of blocks you have in any one wall section, which keeps you from completely ignoring construction on one board.  The winner is declared the greatest builder on Blabbity-Blah Island and receives the contract to construct a new cemetery for all the schmucks that just died to build the fortress.

The victory point track winds around A-something Island.

Do These Walls Come Tumbling Down?

I enjoy reading rule books.  Aside from learning how to play (which is kind of important), I often get a kick from reading a game’s thematic back story.  For many Euros that lean heavily toward the abstract, that text often stretches to create a topical narrative.  The result can be humorous.  Island Fortress provides some brief and generic text about the fictional island.  But when your island and governor are named after Kickstarter backers, you might as well deep-six any pretensions about theme.  Then at the end, the rulebook includes the Wikipedia entry for ‘penal colony’ as an historical note.  Yes.  Wikipedia.  I actually LOL’ed.

So allow me to go ahead and get the most (really only) glaring issue out of the way, because I fully realize this topic is very subjective.  Island Fortress’ theme just simply fails.  The governor has favorite patterns in which he wants the fort constructed?  Why and what does that have to do with sturdy walls?  You can turn a couple of laborers into six convicts?  How does that happen?  That’s some prisoner exchange, let me tell you!  There are actions that add resources here and there for no logical explanation except to get more things out in circulation.  Jade seems more oriental, rather than Caribbean, which is what the artwork implies.  You can end the game without even finishing the stinking project.  And killing off entire workforces to put one, measly stone block on a wall?  Geesh!  That makes building the pyramids look like taking a vacation!!

So, yeah, it’s all pasted on merely to give some flavor to the mechanics, which certainly work well and mesh together for some unique game play.  And a bit more starts to make sense when you learn that the title was originally themed to building the Great Wall of China.  Still, there could be some easy fixes to make the motif jive a little more.  For example, instead of workers who get killed off, why not change that resource to stone or rock or something that sounds more logical when losing vast quantities at a time?  After all, they’re just representing cubes, anyway.

Having said all that, the colonial premise provides for some fantastic artwork and production value.  The illustrations are very good and invoke a Caribbeanflavor.  And overall the components are top-notch.  The wall section boards do curl up, unfortunately.  Plus, we had some trouble distinguishing the individual symbols to denote which blocks belong to which players as the wall grew in stature.  Other than those two small issues, everyone thing else is sturdy, clean, clear, beautiful, and functional – especially the neat, green translucent cubes used for jade.

With a dozen or more laid out and mixed together, it’s still hard to distinguish these symbols at a glance…
Decision, decisions!

Despite their thematic window-dressing, the mechanics synergize nicely to create a unique gaming experience.  I think Island Fortress lacks a certain “punch” that will really impress most people as exciting, but it is definitely a well designed game in that mid-tier, strategic category.  With no random elements – other than drawing your personal favor cards – this title rewards players who mix careful planning, efficient management, and the occasional bold move at the opportune time.
Good role selection games should provide tense decisions, even making you sweat when choosing one character over another.  Island Fortress delivers in that respect as each role proves useful in most any round.  But in addition to choosing a role, you then need to decide on one of it’s unique actions since typically you may only get to use that role once a turn.

If you do need and/or want to use a role twice one round, then the game provides two, great mechanics to accomplish that.  One is a reward, via buyback tokens earned for your progress in constructing the fortress.  The other is through use of the Taskmaster role.  However, both of these methods have their own restrictor plates built-in to limit their use somewhat.  Buyback chips are not extremely common and using the Taskmaster to repeat a previous role requires jade.  So both can provide a great boost to your efforts, but need to be used at opportune times so as not to waste resources.

While the bulk of points are earned through gaining majorities on the wall, there are several other ways to move along the victory track.  The pattern-building via favor cards, though thematically silly, is a neat mechanic that provides some structured goals and rewards planning.  Not only can you earn a few extra points by completing them, but you’ll earn other resources, as well.  Treasure tokens, when earned, are worth an automatic point – and don’t neglect them, because the player with the fewest loses three points.  Maintaining a balance of your blocks between sections will score you a bonus – the more balance, the more points.  Saving buyback chips are worth points at the end.  And if you get stuck with leftover resources, it’s not a complete waste as the player with majorities in jade, workers, and treasure get a few more points for each category.  Still, if you can turn those resources into claiming majorities on the wall, you’ll earn far more than being stuck with them at the end of the game.

The secret to the walls of Jericho, China, and Berlin? Yep, Tetris-like patterns.

Island Fortress has some fine-tuned strategic depth.  In order to build, you need blocks, workers, and jade.  These resources often chain together.  You need jade to get blocks, workers to place blocks, and usually jade to get workers.  Sure, you can get some of this for free, but that’s a slower process and you’ll probably fall behind.  You won’t be able to take every action you want in a turn, so choosing the best role to maximize resource management at the right moment is critical.  Adding to the tension, you’re in a race to get blocks on the wall in order to grab majorities and/or complete patterns.  Watching your plan successfully unfold provides a good deal of satisfaction.

You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!

The interaction is quite appropriate for a title of this weight and style.  First, the competition over limited wall space creates tension.  Second, the action that allows you to switch blocks with another player injects some minor spite so that the game isn’t totally solitaire.  In fact, you’ll probably need to do that at least once in order to meet a particular pattern on a favor card.  At the same time, its not a frequent occurrence, is costly to the player who uses it, and won’t cripple the one it’s used against.The only other problematic element is it can get a bit repetitive.  If the game clocks in at around 60 minutes, which it can, then it’s not much of an issue.  If it drags an extra half-hour, it can outstay its welcome.  Even though the extra players can add to the length, it’s still better with three or four.  There’s more competition over spaces on the wall and greater tension in trying to complete patterns.  Two-player games are less interactive and feel more solitary, by contrast.

Island Fortress seamlessly integrates several mechanics to create a bit of a unique experience.  It is not thematic by any stretch of the imagination.  However, the pasted-on, colonial Caribbean motif at least adds some flavor and comes with fantastic artwork.  It probably won’t knock your socks off.  But still, there are plenty of meaningful decisions for a solid game of medium-weight complexity.  As such, Island Fortress is a good choice for newcomers looking beyond those introductory “gateway” games.  More than that, this smart design should especially appeal to serious players looking for a 60-90 minute thinker that avoids constant conflict and randomness, and rewards good planning.



iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing a review copy of Island Fortress.

Summary

  • Rating 7
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Summary

Pros

  • Good, unique mix of mechanics
  • Players drive the game - no randomness
  • Light interaction
  • Good production value

Cons:

  • Thematic failure
  • Can be repetitive
  • Difficult to tell players
7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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