This is an ambitious game from Capstone Games and Frosted Games with a lot of moving parts. Essentially, Cooper Island is a worker placement euro game which also uses tile placement, but it's also an engine builder.
Players each control their own archipelago on which they lay out double-hex tiles representing different terrain, each type of which produces its own raw material: meadows produce food (and you are penalised if you don't produce sufficient food each round to feed your workers), forests produce wood, mountains produce stone (or gold if the mountains are high enough), and settlements produce cloth. Tiles can be stacked (with a special mechanic for generating single-hex tiles to more easily accommodate stacked placement) and stacked tiles generate resources equivalent to the height of a stack (so a three-tile high meadow produces 3 food).
There is a satisfying elegance about the way in which players' archipelagos rise over the course of the game but that isn't the main thrust of Cooper Island. Players will be placing out their workers on action spaces on the central board to which each of the archipelagos is attached. These allow them to draw and/or place more tiles, remove ruins that block hexes and/or build and place statues, take cargo crate markers, add buildings, and add ships that give a benefit at the 'income phase' that starts each round. Buildings, ships and several other actions earn you 'helm points'. These are the victory points in Cooper Island and they are represented by the boats you sail from sandbank to sandbank around the island. These also collect bonuses when they cross tiles you place out.
There are numerous special abilities that can be earned, including the power to unlock additional workers, some of whom can be placed out at locations that give bonus actions, and there are objective cards that can earn bonus points at the end of the game.
There's much to admire about Andreas (odé) Odendahl's design for Cooper Island and the artwork by Javier Gonzalez Cava (Javier Inkgolem). The random elements are very well controlled: tho' tiles are drawn from a large canvas bag, they are all double-sided so you aren't wholly at the mercy of Lady Luck, and tho' you are dependent on a card draw for your buildings' special abilities, you get to draw four cards from which to choose. You'll have to pay a resource to the player that went to a location ahead of you, but worker placements don't block you from taking the same action. There are a lot of icons but they are mostly intuitive and easily deciphered; our only gripe in relation to them was how busy they made our individual player boards. You'll need decent lighting and good eyesight or you'll be wishing that the publishers had made the player boards rather larger (and used heavier card). You may also find the resource management in Cooper Island more fiddly than it perhaps needs to be: resource cubes on your map are worth the height of the tile they are on but that is disregarded and they are deemed to be worth just one when transferred to the storage area of your player board. In some circumstances, resource cubes and coins are placed in a 'market' area of your player board; these have to be transferred to the storage area (a free action) or are lost at the end of the round. We could understand the rationale for this complication of resource management but it all seemed clunky in comparison with the elegance of much of the rest of this game's design.
Tho' there's a lot to take in before you start, the game itself plays quickly. It takes place over just five rounds, and with just two workers apiece to start with (and possibly no more than that for most of the game), each player may actually end up taking no more than 10 worker placement actions throughout the entire game. Even if players focus on picking up extra workers, no-one is likely to get in much more than a dozen or so actions in total. On the plus side that means that even with a full complement of four players (the game takes 2-4), you can complete a game in a little over 60 minutes – which is not much more than the time it takes to cover all the complexities of the game when teaching it before you start!
And therein lies the frustration of this game. There's so much to do that you can only ever hope to pursue a fraction of the options. Cooper Island appears to envisage players' boats sailing around the circumference of the board and benefiting from other players' tiles as well as those you place out yourself. This is a nice touch but in just five rounds you'll be hard pressed to sail very far into your neighbouring player's archipelago even if you concentrate all your 'helm points' on just one of your two boats. Cooper Island is a game where you'll have the satisfaction of building an effective engine for generating helm points only to find the game comes to its five-round halt just as your engine is about to get into its stride.
Cooper Island is a good game, and it's one you'll want - indeed need - to play several times to fully consolidate your understanding and appreciation of the intricacies of the design, as well as to repay your investment of time in the heavy upfront learning curve. Just be conscious from the start that all you achieve has to be accomplished in maybe no more than 10 worker placement actions: so tho' this is an ambitious game, you'll need to curb your ambition.
There's a solitaire 24-card deck add-on for Cooper Island which, surprisingly, isn't included with the core game. If we get hold of a copy at Board's Eye View, we'll report on how it plays and show it off in another 360º shot.
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