A couple of learning games of Small Islands, solo. The game has some difficulty/complexity sliders available, with six different set-ups for the automaton opponent (named Alexis after the game’s designer), and a “normal” and “advanced” game mode which makes one aspect slightly more complex; and then a not-so-hidden “expert” set of rules that you can break open once you’ve gotten good at the game (it gives you some targets to achieve before you attempt that); so it feels like it should have some decent legs.
I picked an intermediate difficulty under the “normal” game rules for my first game, and managed a win (55 points vs 48 to Alexis), and then got thumped in my next game at a slightly higher difficulty (scoring 40 vs 75).
The card-driven automaton rules are extremely easy to execute – essentially you just draw the next card from its deck, and it tells you which of the 3 available tiles to take, and where to place the tile relative to the last tile that you played. So it likes to play in the same areas as yourself, but there’s also some fuzziness to it. The desired location is given as 3 directions (in order of preference), and if you can legally place the chosen tile anywhere in one of those directions, moving outwards from the tile you last played, then that’s where the tile goes. This often means the tile will be near yours, but it can also put it across the other side of the map, so long as there’s a legal position along that line somewhere.
As the player you have some knowledge about how the AI deck was composed for each game, and the 3 tiles they will be selecting from, so you can judge whether and how risky a given move might be, based on whether or not the AI might be able to mess things up for you in its response.
Once I’d learned the game, the set-up and play time for the second game was nice and quick, which is certainly what you want from a lightweight game. The production quality is good, and the art is nice. I’m not sure the theme comes through in the gameplay, but I do like tile-laying, and I found it enjoyable. I suspect this won’t blow any minds, but I’m happy to have a tile-layer with a smooth solo opponent, and I look forward to playing it more.
It might wind up being solo-only for me, though – with multiple players I suspect I’d go for Carcassonne. (And for two players and a vaguely similar theme, I’d be keen to break out Land vs Sea if I thought that the cut-throat nature of its gameplay would go down well.) Small Islands has hidden objectives for players (you draw and choose these from cards at the start of each round), and while this largely just manifests as “variety” for solo play, it isn’t something I tend to enjoy with human opponents. I think it will mean it’s much less confrontational, though, which might be helpful information.