Islebound, which plays two to four players in an hour to ninety minutes, is a nautically themed area influence game where players sail a fantastical archipelago -- hiring crew, managing resources, constructing buildings, and using diplomacy and aggression -- in an attempt to gain the most renown. The game, from Ryan Laukat and his Red Raven Games publishing company, is a loose sequel to Laukat's earlier storytelling game Above and Below.
The most interesting feature in Islebound is its open nature and multiple paths to victory. The game's end condition is a certain number of buildings being constructed, and each building is worth renown equal to its cost to build in gold. Gold, which is also worth renown, is acquired three ways -- treasure hunting, allying with a town, and conquering a town. Treasure hunting is usually worth a few meager gold coins, and the more lucrative money is in taking towns, either by allying with them through diplomacy or by conquering them -- as they pay out large sums of gold when taken over. However, diplomacy requires influence points, and conquering towns requires hiring pirates and/or taming sea monsters. There are also books, another difficult resource to acquire, which can then be traded in for renown. Finally, there are spaces on the board that give a player a single point of renown directly.
With all these paths available, players will find no shortage of combinations of ways to win, depending on the layout of the modular board, which towns become owned by which players, and which towns are within sailing distance on any given turn.
Pros: Islebound successfully blends racing, building, resource management, and action selection, and the entire experience is elevated by the always gorgeous art of Ryan Laukat. It is a very straightforward game, at least once the nuances of the rules are learned. One of its best features is its open nature, which allows for changing strategies mid-game and rewards experimenting with different strategies.
Cons: The design has a few too many things going on to be called elegant. The game has a lot of bits, which can make it a bit fiddly at times, and create a number of edge case rules to remember. The game also takes up a good amount of table space. As for the box, it lacks a good storage solution for all the game's components.
I'm listing the following aspect of the game separately, as some will consider it a pro and some a con: Do not be fooled by the ability to hire pirates and tame sea monsters. There is no direct conflict between players. If a player moves to occupy the same area as another player, they simply exhaust an administrator as a penalty. If a player visits an island controlled by another player, they pay the fee to that player instead of to the supply.
Overall, the open nature of this fantastical sailing game is a refreshing, enjoyable experience if you can get past some unintuitive rules. This is an archipelago of islands I very much enjoyed visiting, allying with, building on, and, of course, conquering.
See more of my board gaming thoughts on my blog, The Cardboard Hoard, and my GenCon 2015 travelogue.