Game: Islands in the Mist
Publisher: Schmidt Spiele
Designer: Volker Schächtele
Since the release of The Quacks of Quedlinberg in 2018, I have been looking out for an annual ‘big box’ game release from Schmidt Spiele each year. with Quacks being such a smash hit, it’s a tough act to follow, and even its prolific designer didn’t quite have a repeat success with The Taverns of Tiefenthal in 2019. In 2020, Schmidt Spiele have not gone with another Wolfgang Warsch title (in fact, I’ve not heard of any games from him recently after 2018’s smash hit year), but from a relatively unknown designer, Volker Schächtele.
Islands in the Mist has come out in an English language edition, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that since its page on BoardGameGeek has the title ‘Die Inseln im Nebel‘ and a picture of the English cover can’t even be found. I feel like we’ve stumbled upon an obscure German game, rather than the classic feeling gateway game that Islands in the Mist actually is, so it’s a nice game to be able to share this review.
Islands in the Mist has you taking the role of hot air balloon pilots exploring an island’s lands. Each round dice will be rolled to determine the direction the wind is blowing along with a bonus die that features small bonuses for every player to receive. Once the wind direction is determined every player will move a number of spaces in that direction based on the number on the tile they are currently on. These numbers vary from zero to six, so some players will be more in control of their flight than others. You can manipulate your flight at any time by spending energy. Energy can be spend to speed up or slow down. In addition if you spend enough energy to stop completely you can begin spending energy to move against the wind, though this is costly so don’t expect to do it constantly.
Once your balloon stops moving players will take it in turn to draw tiles from one of the cloud locations in the center of the board. These locations contain from 1-3 tiles available in the six land types as well as cities and statues. Tiles may immediately be converted to energy or held to be placed. Once tile are claimed each player may place land tiles in the six hexagons adjacent to where their balloon ended up. Tiles score in different ways, The six basic lands all score points for being connected to the land of the same type on the edges of the maps. Cities score for being surrounded by different land types. Statues score more if you are the player who has the most. Finally wild land tiles count as every type, but score fewer points than a dedicated land of the correct type. The game ends once a player has connected all six land types on the edge of the island to the central city, at which point players add up their score, gain bonuses for large clumps of single land types and lose points for uncovered volcanoes on the game board.
In addition, Islands in the Mist contains two modules, once includes a dock which you can visit if you fly off the island. Not only does this let you trade tiles with those stored at the dock, but next turn you can come on from any island edge, giving you some precious control over your destination. The second module introduces personal buildings. Each building has their own special power, such as giving you more tile storage, and there are some large bonus points if you build them all, but you can only access them by forgoing tiles for that round and having enough energy in storage!
Amy’s Final Thoughts
Islands in the Mist appears at first glance to have borrowed heavily from The Taverns of Tiefenthal‘s rulebook. Featuring a base game with accessible rules and modules that expand upon it. However with only two modules available, Islands in the Mist never quite reaches the heights of complexity that Tiefenthal ends at. The joy of the module system is taking a simple game and complicating it step by step until you find the level that’s right for you, but for me Islands in the Mist never reaches that satisfying level.
But if the modules don’t take it far from the base game, then how is the base game? It’s simple, but effective. The map slowly filling out in front of you makes for a perfectly good excuse for a tile laying game, while the semi-forced balloon movement ensures that you have to manage when to go with the flow and when to use your limited resources to push away in a bold new direction. The movement is both thematic and feels good, but the tile laying feels just a little bare bones. The problem is the scoring mechanism to almost every tile is get a bunch of the same thing and put it together near the edge of the map of that type. Covering volcanoes or fuel spots are good, but something that usually happens as a coincidence of wanting to put tiles there anyway. The only tiles that have more complex scoring are statues, which are essentially just plonk them anywhere, the more the merrier. And cities which want to be surrounded by different tiles. These don’t do quite far enough to make the tile laying feel nuanced and so every game feels like you are solving the same puzzle.
Islands in the Mist then is a bit of a disappointment for me, but that’s not to say it’s without merit. The movement system is unique, the balance of the first player getting first pick of the dice, while the last player gets the choose to re-roll or not works both mechanically and thematically (the first player is the person in the strongest wind, i.e. with the least control of their balloon) and the module system really is a fantastic way to make a game approachable as players can learn the nuances game by game. I did enjoy my time playing Islands in the Mist, but no end of clever movement mechanics could make up for the bare bones tile laying puzzle. Were there a module 3 and 4 that further added to the game then this could easily have been an addition to our shelves, but as it is it’s not quite there.
Fi’s Final Thoughts
Islands in the Mist is a game that really manages to capture its theme. The hot air balloon movement feels like a really intuitive touch because it makes sense within the theme – you can burn more energy to fight against the wind, or you can just let the wind take you and push you along based upon your current momentum. The addition of the land tiles is a bit of a thematic stretch, presumably something to do with discovering the land that is revealed as you travel through the mist, but I don’t mind that more abstract part of the game.
Besides each player having a different starting position, every roll of the dice affects all players, so at the end of the game, when you determine the winner, it’s clear that everyone had the same opportunities, but simply chose to play differently. I always find this a deeply satisfying aspect of a game, that is perhaps most common in ‘roll and write’ or ‘flip and fill’ games, like Welcome To or Metro X. It’s incredible how quickly your path will diverge compared to other players, fueled by the need to cover volcanoes, or meet and of the various ways to score points. Plus, the terrain tiles you are able to draft will cause even more variance too.
The biggest downside for me with Islands in the Mist was that it was just a little boring. I was hoping that adding the modular expansions might spice things up, but found that I barely used the first module, completely ignoring it and then winning during one game. The second module was OK, but I’d definitely recommend that seasoned gamers add both straight away to get the most out of the game. The movement mechanism is interesting, but the tile laying puzzle was not very interesting to me, and with so many truly fantastic tile laying puzzles to choose from, Islands in the Mist just didn’t quite make the grade.
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All players work with the same dice rolls each round, making the game seem very fair.
In spite of the apparent fairness, your strategies will diverge massively, which is quite impressive to see.
The balloon movement is a really thematic and logical mechanism.
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Visuals are not this games forte – the art is OK, but the components could’ve been a lot more impressive and evocative.
If you play a lot of games, the modules are a must, meaning that it feels less like a game with modular expansions and more like just one game.
6.5/10 Islands in the Mist is a little on the simple side for our tastes. It was at its best with all of the modules added, but it still didn’t quite shine. It’s niche is perhaps as a gateway game, sitting alongside Kingdom Builder and Ticket to Ride, but doing something new and different. The movement mechanism is both fair and thematic, standing out as something a little new and impressive through a new gamers eyes. It’s a solid game, just not a collection game for us.
Islands in the Mist was a review copy kindly provided to us by CoiledSpring Games.