Designer: Stefan Feld
Artist: Alexander Jung
Publisher: Alea / Ravensburger
If you like Stefan Feld, then La Isla is a slight change of pace. Probably much closer to his early days of game design. Think Roma instead of Bonfire. I suppose the fact that the game is packaged in the medium Alea box should be a clear indicator of its complexity level. No matter, having the Alea stamp on the box is enough to pique my curiosity. Even though I have stopped being a collector, that name still carries weight and is enough to make me pause and take note.
After the several plays, La Isla is definitely lighter, but still retains at least one signature Feld element: multi-use card play. Here, players draw three cards from the main deck each round and assign these three cards to any of the three action slots labeled Phase A, B and D. It follows that each multi-use card would have 3 different variable printed on it. Phase A is mainly a “power” card. If you play a card here, only the power or benefit portion of the card will be activated. Up to 3 different powers can be continuously activated and so the first three cards will be slotted into a card holder to indicate their active status. The fourth power card played, which is usually the fourth round, will force you to make a choice of kicking out one of the previously played cards in favor of the new card. So, that’s Phase A. In Phase B, players will select the card where the resource cube will be harvested. There are 5 types of resource cubes in this game. I don’t even know what they represent. Honestly, I don’t think the game even bothered to describe it as it doesn’t matter. The colors are grey, white, brown, yellow and green. You get to pick up one cube that matches the color printed on the card selected for Phase B. The card is then discarded. Phase A and B can be played simultaneously by all players. In Phase C, players get to play their explorer on to a shared, modular board in turn order. Two cubes of a similar color must be discarded to place the explorer in the matching terrain. Notice that no cards are assigned to Phase C. Explorers can be placed anywhere on the board so long as they match the colors of the cubes spent to put them there. Finally, in Phase D, the last card is discarded and players get to move a token up the animal track that matches the card they played. More on why that is important later. In any case, that is it for the actions in each round. Players continue to draw and assign 3 cards each round until the game is over. I was pleasantly surprised that the rules were quite easy to explain and it took no more than 10 minutes. This is not true for all Feld games, of course. It was an odd, albeit pleasant experience.
So, why place explorers, you say? Well, in La Isla, we are all explorers trying to hunt exotic animals: Owlet Moth, Giant Fossa, Dodo, Golden Toad and Sardinian Pika. Apparently, all these animals are extinct and happen to appear on the mysterious island of La Isla. If you are a conservation biologist, the theme is slightly distressing since the game uses explorers to encircle these animals and to hunt or capture them (as an act, you are picking up the animal tokens). Luckily for all you animal lovers, the theme is not remotely relatable to the actions you perform. At no point do you feel like a savage beast chasing after the Dodo. So, rest assured that no animals were harmed in the process. Yeah, a truly forgettable theme. At least it’s not capturing bearded dwarves or pointy-eared elves.
Anyhow, back to the game. Explorers are placed throughout the island on terrains adjacent to animal tokens based on the color of the resource cubes spent in Phase C. Once a player has enough explorers to surround an animal token, that token is picked up and you are now the proud owner of an extinct animal. Each colored terrain also spots a different icon which provide another layer of variables for game play. So, you may have a yellow terrain paired with a campsite or a green terrain paired with rope. There are a total of 5 different icons and 5 different terrain types that matches the resource cubes. However, the pairing of icons and terrain colors are fixed on the modular pieces. To setup the main board, 10 modular island “spokes” are constructed around a central base. These pieces all comprise of terrain types and areas to place animal tokens. It’s a cute arrangement and together with the randomly seeded animal tokens, they will provide an endless number of possible configurations for the game.
The game is clever in a couple of areas: At a higher player count, the competition for the animal tokens will be keen. Explorers from different players can share a same spot and the way the island is constructed, one explorer can contribute toward competing for several adjacent animal tokens. So the fight can be tooth and nail for high value animal tokens. This is unusually interactive for a Feld which normally focuses on developing personal boards and banking on choice denial as the main form of player interaction. Here the conflict is sharper and more vicious. Someone can really mess with your plans and if you start something you can’t finish, you might end up with the doodoo instead of the, well, real deal. Again, this works better at higher player counts. With 2, the game is just a leisurely walk in a deserted island, plucking up the animals as you saunter by their habitats.
No doubt, the power cards also provide a lot of variety for the game. This part is very Feld-like. The 3 active card powers can shape the placement strategy and if lucky, one can tap on the synergy to provide maximum benefits with a single placement. Benefits or powers run the usual gamut in a Euro strategy game of this sorts: cheaper placements, victory points for specific placements, bonus resources, more cards, more cubes, more points, that sort of thing. Nothing much to crow about. But I guess the game does reward those with some foresight and planning as to where they want to focus their battles on. In practice, it was too tedious for me to figure out and so, I went with the easiest solution: placing my cards based on which animals token I want to push in Phase D.
Phase D is where the meat of the game is. Well, sort of. There are two main ways to score chunks of points. When you surround an island space and pick up an animal token, you score 2-4 points depending on how many explorers are committed to the effort (i.e. the larger the space, the more explorers you need to encircle the poor animal and the more points you get). The other main scoring mechanism is the end game value for each animal token. Cards played in Phase D allow you to increase the value of specific animals by pushing their score track higher. So, the higher you go, the more points you earn for each token. The game ends when a set number of points is collectively reached by all the animals on their score tracks, depending on the player count. This is basically a stock market score track. So if you have 8 golden toads at the end of the game, with each golden toad worth 5 points, then I think you will be in good shape with the 40 extra bonus points for the animal. However, there are no negative points in the game. So, you can breathe a sigh of relief if your Dodo comes in dead last. I do like this scoring method, I must say. It is dynamic and collectively decided by player actions. You have a choice of moving up on specific animal tracks, but I don’t think this is a dominant way to win. Earning points throughout the game, either via capturing animal tokens with explorers or using card powers to trigger additional scoring is just as important.
If you like Feld, then you probably already own La Isla and this review is for nought. If you want a taste of Feld but hate setting up Amerigo or Oracles of Delphi, this one is much easier to teach and will give you a taste of a multi-purpose card driven game that is the rage these days. I suspect many lifestyle gamers will find the game just ho-hum, especially if you already have plenty of experience with Feld and feel ambivalent about his designs. There is nothing particularly new here, but the lightness of the game is attractive for me, and might be for you as well. It’s too bad that at 2 player count, the game tends to be more multiplayer solitaire.