[Disclosure: Designer Bryan Johnson is a friend and member of board game groups that I frequent. I have also backed this game on Kickstarter.]
When I got to Unity Games bright and early yesterday morning, Bryan was one of the first people I ran into in the main ballroom. "Bryan! Island Fortress!" I knew he had a prototype with him - this would be my first chance to play.
My other friend Tucker joined us and Bryan gave us a rundown of the rules. Despite being mildly distracted by the big bag of auction games I needed to offload and scanning the room for the buyers who were texting me, I only missed a few things that were quickly clarified.
Bryan teaching the game.
In Island Fortress, the players are working to build a fortress on a harsh unforgiving penal colony. Points are scored for completing sections of wall, having majorities on different levels of wall, and completing favors for the governor, which involve building certain patterns into the wall.
The game is played over 12 rounds (though I believe this changes based on player count), and each round consists of 3 turns (this does not). Players bid for the right to go first (which also comes with an additional perk) at the beginning of the round and whoever wins that auction (single bid, blind - the "fisting" method) goes first on each of the 3 turns in that round. On each turn, the players choose 1 of 5 role cards from their hands and play it. The player then chooses 1 action to perform out of the 3 allowed by the role card. Actions allow you to get jade (the currency), buy wall materials, and gather workers (either hired laborers or unpaid convicts), among other things.
4 of the 5 role cards have a "repeat" cost associated with them. The other role card has an action choice that allows you to pay the repeat cost to re-use that card. In place of the repeat cost, this card has a "buyback" cost.
When Bryan explained buyback, my jaw dropped. The buyback cost allows the player to pay to take the card back into their hand immediately after playing it and then immediately take another action. While expensive to perform, it is a powerful ability and adds a lot of flexibility to the game. Buyback chips, earned by completing wall segments, provide the ability to do this with any card. There were a lot of cool combos possible with this power - for example, one can play the Builder card to complete a wall segment, earn the buyback chip, and immediately play the buyback chip to pick up the Builder role and play a different role to capitalize on the new board situation.
Building a part of the fortress requires 1 wall tile (the representation of the building materials in the game) and a variable number of workers, depending on how high up the wall tile is going. When the tile is built, all the convicts that participated in the building and half of the skilled laborers (rounded up) die.
Wait - die?
"So thematically, are they actually dying?"
"Oh yes. These are brutal working conditions and these people are being worked to death."
For the second time in the rules explanation, I was surprised. This one little detail made the game's theme come alive despite playing a prototype with none of the art that is going to make the theme even stronger.
At the conclusion of rules explanation, I mentioned that I liked Bryan's shirt with his publishing company's logo on it. "Well, if you win the game, you actually get a t-shirt!"
"But I don't usually lose, so if I win, whoever is in second place can get one. And there are prizes for everyone who plays."
I let Tucker know that I was ready to fight hard for that t-shirt!
I ran myself low on jade early on by stocking up on wall tiles and workers. It's more expensive in terms of jade to buy many tiles or workers at once, but more economical in terms of turns. Bryan and Tucker balanced their start a little better: Bryan bought fewer wall tiles and workers in order to save on jade and Tucker scooped up some free convicts instead of hiring skilled laborers.
Bryan also quickly demonstrated the power of going first after buying the lead for the cheap price of 1 jade. The perk I mentioned earlier is a governor's tile that is free to place (but is not of your color, so does not count for majority). He built 3 wall units that turn - 2 of his own, with the governor's wall between them.
This seemed like a clear tell to me. I was pretty sure Bryan was setting up to complete some favors. I put up a strong bid to be the next round's leader despite being low on jade. After winning that auction, I dropped my governor's tile directly on top of Bryan's, hoping to interrupt those plans to complete favors. When the game was over, I found out this worked - Bryan had 2 different favors he was planning on completing over there and was caught off-guard when I dropped that block there.
Tucker moved to the other side of the wall and began building there, hoping to leave Bryan and me competing as we continued building in the same area. He was able to build up a significant portion of the fortress over there without any competition. Meanwhile, I pushed forward with trying to get my tiles down where I needed them to complete my own favors.
Before I could actually take the time to claim my favors, however, I needed to rush over to Tucker's side of the wall and start laying some tiles down to protect my majority on the second level of the wall. I had 3 tiles there already, but Tucker had 2 and there were 2 open spaces remaining on that side. If he built both, he would dominate that level of wall and get a serious advantage.
As it worked out, Bryan also swooped over to assert his own dominance on the first level of the fortress. A strong bid for lead in following round made it easy for me to go first and get my wall tiles down in the remaining wall openings on the second level, snagging a shared dominance with Tucker on the 2nd level of that side of the wall, total dominance of the full 2nd level of the fortress, and the bonus for completing a section of the fortress.
Tucker responded by dropping several favors that gave him a big material advantage and a strong work force to assert himself on the 3rd level. Meanwhile, Bryan built straight up to try and snag 5 points available for each level 4 tile, at one point agonizing of the decision to place a governor's tile in one of these hotly desired spots that he was just short of building to prevent Tucker or me from getting it for ourselves.
I drew additional favor cards and persevered by grabbing one 3rd level block back on the other side of the fortress that would then allow me to complete 4 of my 5 favors (I started with 3 and drew 2 additional ones). When I finally took the time to play a couple of my favors, I gained enough materials to easily throw down a couple more level 3 tiles to grab majority on that side of the fortress.
Thinking about my turn while Tucker looks on.
Close-up of the board - almost finished!
I played my other 2 completed favors then finished up my own building by snagging the last of the 5 point level 4 slots. Bryan finished the fortress by building the last tile on level 3, causing a shared dominance of the entirety of level 3 between me and Tucker.
We then accounted for end game points, during which you score for having the most of the different game resources. You also score for the number of tiles you have on the side of the fortress you built the least on. Significantly, Tucker scored 0 points for this due to focusing only on one side of the fortress. On the other hand, he had a wealth of resources that allowed him to pick up a few extra points in the other categories.
The final score had me at 40, Tucker at 37, and Bryan at 34. Bryan congratulated us and told us he thought we both played very well while he asked for my shirt size. Meanwhile, Tucker let me know that had he won, he would've given the t-shirt to me anyhow because I was so excited about it.
We then debriefed about the game. Tucker and I were both very enthusiastic and congratulated Bryan on an excellent design with a lot of chances to do clever things. The game was very tense throughout - even Bryan had a moment of indecision - and the winner was truly not decided until the very end, when a scoring category I had forgotten about (points for wall tiles on the side of the fortress you have built the least on) gave me the few points I needed to push me over Tucker's strong performance.
Today, I am wearing my Frost Forge Games t-shirt as I remember the great fun I had yesterday at Unity Games. Kicking the day off with an excellent game with Tucker, a gaming buddy that I hadn't gotten to play with in too long, and Bryan, whose friendly good-natured demeanor brightens any game he plays, was the perfect way to justify my sleepless excitement on Friday night. Now I just have to deal with the excitement of waiting for the official printing of Island Fortress to arrive so I can play whenever I want!