The following review assumes that you have played the previous version of Runebound and understand how the base game works.
The isle of dread expansion supplies you with a new partial game board, all new encounter cards, and various counters to account for new rules and gameplay events. Also included are new characters and their associated figures. All of the components are on the same level as Runebound second edition. They all have the same quality and artistic style. One item about the components that did bother me, was the game board. It's simply an overlay that alys on top of your Runebound Second Ed. map. The areas around the sides are left off the new board so when you lay out the expansion board, these areas are still usable. What bothers me is that the board doesn't like to lay down completely ontop of the other board. Also, nothing really holds the overlay in place, so it can slip around if you are not careful. This is not a huge issue, but simply a minor complaint.
The game is basically the same as Second Edition with just a few extra rules. The blue encounter deck is replaced with sea encounters. These encounters only come into play when you are venturing out to different islands. The sea travel aspect of the game is a nice change of pace from the standard Runebound travel mechanics. When you enter a town, you can hire a captain during your market step. On your next turn you can head out to sea and try to make it to another island. Along the way, you will have to stop and encounter sea creatures. Eventually you will make it to another town on a different island, where you can disembark and quest again in the new land.
Also, some event cards have been added to the encounter decks that give the heroes quests to perform. Completeing these quests generally involves ending your turn in a certain type of terain and making a skill check. Usually you will be rewarded with so gold or maybe an item, ect. Also, completeing quests can result in benefits later on for having more completed quests than the other players.
Once a player has reached a high enoungh level, he can sail out to the Isle of Dread and attempt to defeat the main bad guy in the game (his name escapes me at this moment). In order to sail out to the Isle of Dread, you need to collect two peices of a map and then spend a move action while you are at sea. Once you are there, you draw encounter cards from the Isle of Dread encoutner deck until you either die or encounter the bad guy and kill him.
This game is a nice change of pace. It spices up the basic game more than the other card expansions do. Having a new map to explore and new mechanics really makes the game feel fresher, while you still feel very comfortable with the game. Also, by having seperate islands, players can kind of seperate themselves from others easier and quest in peace. If you like PvP for Runebound, this will be a downside for you, since you opponent will see you coming from a mile away (basically once you hop off your ship in the town). Additionally, despite the new rules, the game takes basically the same amount of time to complete. Our group finished in under 2 hours with 3 players (which is typical for us).
One of my gripes about the game is the sea encounter deck. There appears to be a wide range of monsters that you can come across in the ocean. Generally these monsters are much easier to kill than standard blue creatures from the second edition game. One player my hit the open waters after only leveling once or twice and be able to reach a new island with ease, while another player who has leveled 3 or 4 times might run into a huge sea serpent and be sunk. Considering how quickly the starting land runs out of encounters, this can be a serious set back. In one game, a player lost a lot of ground because he got sunk trying to get to new land while the other players where defeating encounters on new islands.
Also, due to the wide range in the difficulty of sea encounters, the sea encounter deck doesn't provide a proper stepping stone from yellow to red. Our groups has found itself in the middle of the game simply crushing yellow encounters untill we get enough strength to take on the red ones. This takes some excitement out of the game as a few turns have no real danger of anyone being beaten.
The quest system also was a bit "ify" to me. Due to the nature of the encounter deck, you may never encounter a quest. This wouldn't be a big deal, if there was only one reward for completing a quest (in other words, just the gold or item, ect ). However, since there are world events that reward the player with the most completed quests, it seems a little imbalanced. There really is nothing you can do if you don't draw these quests. It would be different if there was a "quest pool" where all players could compete over completeing the same quests. But as it stands now, if you fall behind to a player in number of quests, there is really very little you can do to close the gap.
Our group enjoyed this game a good deal. The few "cons" that I have for the game are not game breaking. Yes, the balance isn't perfect, but that's the nature of this game. We all enjoyed ourselves and had a good time trying out the new characters and new encounters. If you enjoy Runebound, this expansion is a no-brainer.
A nice review, but I did want to mention to those considering Isle of Dread that the "Sea Adventures" (blue cards) are actually quite nicely balanced. If the adventure is one of the 6-7 "difficult" encounters, it comes with a free Escape possibility so that you can just skip it and sail on. You don't need to fight the Sea Serpent or the Kraken until you are feeling up to it. This fact was not mentioned in the above review and I felt it was worth noting.