Among the many educational advantages to playing board games are the numerous ways you can not only learn something about history, but participate in activities that reflect that history. This doesn’t mean that a game’s actually going to get you out into your backyard to plant crops, raise cattle, or build a barn, but in making choices to do so, within a game’s process, you encounter aspects of short- and long-term planning that, in effect, create an historic experience.
There are countless war games which set up historically accurate scenarios and require you to play them out as you see fit. You either duplicate the historic results or alter them in some way, depending on your skill at the game and which side of a given conflict you’ve chosen to represent.
Then, too, there are the abstract strategy games that are, themselves, historic; chess, checkers, mancala, and parcheesi, for example. These are games that have survived centuries of civilizations, from the primitive to the modern, tapping something essential in us that keeps us playing, over and over. There are some modern abstract strategy games, like the multiple games played on a single board with the same pieces by Murray Heasman called Project Kells (2004), which draws on historic facts to create a game scenario; players, like historic landowners in ancient Ireland, look for ways to attain, and consolidate land to become the (board) area’s most prominent ‘High King.’
A lot of times, the connection to history is tenuous, with themes that are what members of the board game community call ‘pasted on.’ Letters from Whitechapel, for example, a cooperative game set in 19th century London. One player is Jack the Ripper and everybody else is trying to catch him before he can claim five victims. It’s a good game, but it could as easily be about Billy the Kid and a posse, or a terrorist cell and Homeland Security agents.
There are also games like Mayfair’s recent release, Isle of Skye; From Chieftain to King, which uses a Scottish history theme and marries it to a process that offers players the opportunity to participate in roughly accurate historic activities, similar to those realized on the titled island.
First, the background. The actual Isle of Skye is the largest and northernmost island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland (see photo). Occupied since the Mesolithic period (10,000 to 5,000 BC), it would eventually be ruled, first, by the Norse, and later by an emergent group of clans whose leaders looked to develop lands as Chieftains, and consolidate holdings to become King.
In the game, each player becomes head of an actual clan that existed in the island’s post-Norse history – either Clan MacKinnon, MacNeacail, MacInnes, MacLeod, or MacDonald. The historic aspect of the process involves player participation in the development of land area (represented by tiles) with the goal of having developed said land most efficiently by game’s end, measured by scoring points in each round of play.
Here, the game veers from its historic foundation into a game process that involves tile laying and an auction mechanic. Each player is given a screen, labeled with the name of a chosen clan, a starting landscape tile with a castle on it, a discard marker, a scoring token, and in the opening phase of the opening round (of which there are six), five ‘gold’ for the castle on your starting landscape tile, which you collect at the start of each round.
There is a central board, where space for four scoring tiles, six round-progress spaces, and a scoring track are located. One side of this board is for a 5-player game, while the opposite side is for 2-4 players. There is one less round in the 5-player game and that side of the board displays the five appropriate round-progress spaces, instead of six. Four scoring tiles will be drawn randomly from 16 available and placed into their appropriate spaces on the central board.
Each of the four scoring tiles will be placed randomly in four spaces marked A, B, C or D. In each of the five or six rounds, only certain scoring tiles will be considered. Round one in a 4-player game, for example, will score player points based on conditions of the tile in its A slot. Round two will score the B slot, round three will score A & C, round four will score B & D, round five will score A, C & D, while the final round will score B, C, and D (each of the four scoring tiles will be used three times). These scoring tiles will determine the choices you’ll be making in each round of play. Using only four of the 16 scoring tiles per game means that it could be quite some time before you encounter the same game circumstances twice.
Each scoring tile features a graphic display of specific board conditions that need to be fulfilled to score appropriate points. One, for example, dictates that a player will score one victory point for every completed area (land/water/mountain that is completely surrounded by one or a number of other landscape types). Another scores points based on who has the most ships at the end of a given round; 5 points for the player with the most and 2 for the player in second place. Based on which round is being scored, and looking ahead to future scoring rounds, players will make appropriate choices in selecting landscape tiles to add to their central landscape tile (with the castle).
Three landscape tiles are drawn from a bag by each player, and placed in front of their clan screen. Behind the screen, a player must place either coins or a discard marker in the same position as the cards in front of the screen. The coins placed will set the price that an opponent must pay to purchase the appropriate tile. The discard marker will determine which tile in front of a player’s screen will be discarded for the current round of play.
Thus, everybody gets to see all the tiles that are available for purchase, while the cost to purchase them and which are to be discarded is initially hidden. The discard marker could potentially eliminate a tile you’ve got your heart set on in front of an opponent’s screen. Once decisions have been made (costs have been set and discard markers placed), the screens are taken away and beginning with the starting player (which revolves around the table), each player purchases a single tile from another player. All purchased and unpurchased tiles (which remain in possession of the person who owned them in the first place) are then added to each player’s landscape, according to adjacency rules about edges of tiles requiring matching terrain. Once this is done, each player’s display is analyzed to determine points scored, based on that round’s scoring tile(s). Play continues through six rounds, after which a Final Scoring occurs, based on certain placed tiles with scrolls on them, and the amount of money (turned into victory points) a player has at the end of the game. Player with the most victory points wins.
It has the tile-laying, adding-to-a-landscape feel of Carcassonne, without the need to match road segments (“Hurrah!” some say). It ups the ante on the acquisition of tiles you get to put on your landscape, by forcing all available tiles in a given round into a marketplace, in which you cannot purchase from your own stall; only by default do you get the tile that you’ve initially decided to put up for sale. An opponent has to purchase it, or you get it. And a few of the ‘goods on sale,’ as you make up your mind about which tiles in the marketplace you want, are going to be discarded. And while you’re dealing with an eventually known stack of tiles for actual placement on your landscape, you’re dealing with different scoring options, not only in a given round, but every time you play the game and use only four of the 16 possibilities.
This has a way of negating all but a few veteran player advantages, for a while at least. Eventually, repeated play will yield familiar scoring tiles, but at your start with this game, you’re going to be poking around, possibly getting caught up in a few analysis paralysis traffic jams. Easy enough to figure out the requirements to fulfill conditions of a scoring tile. Whether or not you can accomplish the given set of conditions will depend greatly on the tiles you come across in the round’s marketplace, not to mention the ones you’ll overprice in the hopes that an opponent will find it too expensive and leave it for you. When someone purchases a tile from you, you get paid twice; once by the player who’s bought the tile, and by the return of the amount that you used to identify the price in the first place. You get the tile(s) that no one purchased, but you lose the money you used to set the price.
So already a few steps ahead of the types of decisions you generally have to make playing Carcassonne, and The Castles of Good King Ludwig.
Gettin’ some love on the Geek. First listed contributor to comment on his “10” rating (Michal Starek) noted that it “is what Carcassonne should have been.” It’s been rated by just over 1,000 people so far, and has a 7.56 average rating. I’d give it the .44 benefit of the doubt and make it a solid “8.”
There’s potential for frustration playing this game. Like when, for example, an opponent or series of them over time, plays ahead of you in turn order, and purchases a card you want. Or you find yourself perennially short of money and unable to purchase what you want. I suspect that the potential for frustration increases in direct proportion to the number of people playing. You get more cards to choose from in four- or five-player games, but more competition for them, too. Can’t attest to this myself, but BoardGameGeek commentators say it’s a terrific two-player game. One could argue that it has a ‘pasted on’ theme; that it could as easily be Pilgrims landing in Plymouth, a group of each settling in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts/Rhode Island and Connecticut, trying to develop the land to the best of their ability. Same process, different theme, but in either case, the short- and long-term planning stays the same.
So grab a little history, develop a landscape with water access, farms, and a few breweries. See if you can purchase the resources available to all to accomplish your short-term goals, while looking ahead to the future.
Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, designed by Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister, with artwork by Klemens Franz, is published by Lookout Games/Mayfair. It can be played by up to five players, and has an age range that begins at 8 years old. It takes about an hour to play, with some time-added to account for analysis paralysis. It retails in the vicinity of $35, with the usual bargains to be found by astute shoppers