Originally published in 2018 by MushrooM Games, this edition from Lucky Duck looks set to bring Alexis Allard's cleverly designed tile-laying game to a much wider audience.
On the surface, Small Islands looks similar to the now-classic game Carcassonne (Hans im Gluck/Z-Man) in that players are laying tiles that match up with those already in the shared tableau. However, Small Islands isn't a Carcassonne clone with more vibrant art (by Aurélie Guarino); it plays very differently from its predecessor. In this game, the 2-4 players are laying tiles that extend or complete islands. They each have a hand of two tiles. On your turn, you pick a tile from the three displayed and place a tile to match up with one of those already in the tableau. You can also place a token that changes one of the icons on a tile.
You have a secret objective card that sets out the conditions required for you to build a house on the island (for example, that it has more flower icons than fruit) and how much you will score. The three-tile display is replenished from a six-tile 'navigation stack' and when that is exhausted players can either continue to draw and add tiles, taking them from the reserve (all the other tiles) or place a ship tile, which ends the round and triggers scoring for all of the players. Since the islands' characteristics can change as tiles and modifier tokens are laid out, deciding whether or not to continue to place tiles or to end the round and trigger scoring becomes a neat push-your-luck decision, and a judgement call over whether you or your opponent(s) are likely to be ahead on scoring.
Without imposing a cumbersome rules overhead, Alexis Allard's design includes several features that add scope for strategy and forward planning. In our Board's Eye View plays we particularly liked the fact that players are given a choice of objective cards: drawing three and not just deciding which one to keep for this round and which one to discard but also choosing a card to be one of your three in the next round. This gives players an opportunity to plan ahead to maximise their score without locking them irrevocably into a strategy that seems less attractive as the tableau is further developed.
We've especially enjoyed Small Islands as a tense 30-minute two-player game but the publishers have also included a solo mode that works well, not least because it offers scaleable levels of difficulty. The game also incorporates an 'advanced mode' that provides for customised objectives, so tho' the islands may be small this is a game with massive replayability.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)