Chaos Isle is a card based game where you are a plucky adventurer/survivor/some-poor-schmuck-who-just-happened-to-wander-by on an island where a mad scientist’s insane experiments have gone out of control. You must fight monsters, gather resources and just try not to die.
First of all, let me own up to the fact that I was sent a review copy of the game. (Thanks guys!) I am really more of an abstract and euro kind of guy. This is not the kind of game I would normally pick up. Heck, my regular gaming group started off as a Go group before we decided to try other games, if that gives you any idea where I’m coming from.
That said and, in case you’re only going to read the first three paragraphs, Chaos Isle is a solid beer and pretzel adventure-style game. While it’s not perfect and there are some issues (I’ll get to those), the designers made a number of choices that I think made the game more balanced and streamlined than a lot of similar games.
So, what do you get when you buy Chaos Isle? You get a bunch of cards. You are going to have to add some six-sided dice and some way to keep that of health as well, just so you know. The rules suggest using glass beads to track health but you can just as easily get away with using a pencil and paper. If you don’t have some six-sided dice lying around your home, welcome to board game geek. It’s a really neat site and I'm sure you’ll have some fun here.
There are actually four separate decks of cards that come with the game. A character deck, made up of six cards; a mission deck, also made up of six cards; an equipment deck that thankfully has more than six cards; and an enemy deck that is more twice the size of all the other decks put together. Hey, it’s a game about fighting monsters. The deck of stuff to fight had damn well better be big.
We’re going to have a brief aside in which I rant a bit. While the front side of each card will make it clear to you which deck it’s in, the other side has the same artwork, the only difference being the name of the deck in relatively small font and some slight color changes. I’m color blind! Come on, guys, if you are going to make backs different (which you should), couldn’t you make them really different?
The card stock is about average. It’s not linen finished like Bohnanza cards or made from card stock that’s so heavy you can shave with them the way the Mystery Rummy decks were but they’ll hold up to a decent number of plays. Black borders, though, tisk, tisk. Nothing shows wear and tear faster than black borders.
In Chaos Isle, you’re not some omniscient guy who is controlling a group of people, the way you are in, say, Thunderstone. Nope, you are represented by one dude. That’s what the character deck is for. That tells you who you are, what your stats are like and what kind of special power you have. On a whole, I’d say that characters seem all pretty evenly balanced.
Each character has four stats. (All the monsters get them too, by the way) Those are Speed, Life, Protection and Fate. They might look kind of scary and complicated at first but they’re really simple. Each one does only one thing. Speed determines when you go in combat. Life says how many hit points you have. Protection tells you what a monster has to roll to hit you. Fate is your saving throw. The odds are, if you’re playing this game, you already know what a saving throw is.
Mission cards are used in Mission-style play (which is the only way I’ve tried, just to let you know). They give you a goal that you have to accomplish. Every goal, by the way, somehow comes down to killing monsters. That’s okay, though. You didn’t come to Chaos Isle for character development. You came there to fight!
As you might have imagined, the equipment deck is equipment that your character can use. Yeah, that’s about it. Nothing too exciting about it. There is a rotweiller in it, though. I think that's cool, as well as one of the best pieces of equipment. A savage attack animal IS a man's best friend.
Ah, the enemy deck. This is, of course, the heart of the game. It’s also the claws, the fangs and the poisonous stinger of the game as well. It’s made up of events, tasks and monsters, which monsters being the most common card by far.
Okay, we’re going to have another aside. Artwork and functionality. Two things that tend to go to war with each other when it comes to card design. Is the card pretty and how well does it tell you what it does? These two things don’t always go well together.
The artwork for each deck looks like it was done by a different artist. The characters are more cartoony than the monsters. Is the artwork any good? Well, your mileage may vary there but all of the artwork is very appropriate. If you can mix up Chaos Isle with Bella Sara, you need glasses and to put down that shot glass.
As for actual card design, well, there are some issues there. The character cards, the mission cards, the equipment cards, the event cards, and the task cards are all laid out the exact same and it’s easy to find whatever you need to on them. The equipment cards, in particular, are standout in their clean, easy to read design.
The monster cards, on the other hand, have a few issues. The stats for the monsters and their special powers tend to be placed around the artwork, so they’re not all in the same place. More importantly, the colors of the lettering can vary and can sometimes be very hard to read, particularly if you’re colorblind. The one thing about the monster cards that is consistent and actually very good is that the resources are always in the same place at the top of the card and a nice, strong contrast yellow.
Don’t worry. I’ll get to resources in just a second.
There are a variety of styles to play Chaos Isle, although all of them will involve playing the game in the same way. They just change the endgame conditions. There are mission-based games, in which each player has a mission card and is trying to accomplish it. There is campaign, where you play a bunch of games and keep track of the score. And there is last man standing, where you play until one guy isn’t dead.
I’ve just played mission style and I think of that as the default way you play the game.
Every player draws a random character card and, if you’re playing that way, a random mission card. Everyone then gets to draw three random equipment cards. Then, you’re ready to play.
Another aside note, I really like having the equipment deck separate from the monster deck. It gives everyone a chance to get equipment and means that the monster deck is going to solely be about things happening. There’s no danger of someone drawing a handful of equipment on their turn or someone getting no equipment at all.
On your turn, you draw three cards from either the enemy deck OR the discard pile. You can mix it up as far as which deck you draw the three cards from but you must declare before you start drawing. You are allowed to look at the discard pile so you know what cards you get.
Event cards cause something to immediately happen and they affect everyone at the table. If you draw one, you don’t get to draw a replacement card. If you draw one from the discard pile, it doesn’t do anything.
You get to choose if you want to perform a task card. You can only do one task a turn and it takes up your entire turn, meaning you have to discard any monster cards you drew. Tasks are always some kind of skill challenge, meaning you roll two dice and try to roll under the appropriate stat. If you succeed, you get to draw an equipment card. If you fail, there is some kind of penalty. Like event cards, these don't work if you draw them from the discard pile.
Finally, there are monster cards. You were waiting for this. If you’re playing this game, you’re playing it to beat up scary monsters that frightened you as a child from the closet or under the bed. This is your second chance to take those bastards out. You draw monster cards, you fight monster.
And, just to get technical, they are not called monster cards. They are called zombi cards. Spelled like zombie with one less letter. However, these are not just the walking dead. They are hidious and bizarre monsters that come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. None of those shapes are sweet and cuddly, though. Unless you are really sick. If you want to cuddle something called a coprse grinder, seek help. Fast.
Remember how I talked about speed earlier? Every character and monster has a speed stat. You go in that order in combat. The tie breaker is players go before monsters. Personally, I like to line up the cards in order so I can go right down the row in combat. That means this is not one-on-one, mano a mano fighting. Nope, them monsters are ganging up on you.
Each player and creature has an attack that will list how many times they get to attack, plus any bonuses they might get to the attack. Some pieces of equipment can take the place of an attack and will usually be better. And, yes, those pieces of equipment are called weapons.
Attacking is simple. Two six-sided dice are rolled and if the roll is equal or higher than the protection stat, the attack is a hit. Attacks normally do one point of damage. The plus side of that is that almost every monster except for the sole boss monster has only one hit point.
Some attacks, though, are called fate cards. Instead of the attacker rolling to hit, the attackee rolls to save against it. Roll at or under your fate, you're sitting pretty. Otherwise, bad things happen.
If you kill a monster, you take the card into your hand. The resources listed on the monster count towards achieving your mission. Why the monsters are carrying stuff around that you need is hard to say. I'd like to think that they're just trying to start a barter and trade economy with each other and you're the sick, twisted bandit who is messing up their newly born civilization. Or maybe they're just a bunch of packrats.
You can also use some of the grisy trophies that you're hauling around to run away from slow monsters in future combat. No, I don't know how that works. Maybe you chuck them behind you and they trip over them.
If the monster kills you, you become that monster. He who fights monsters will become them, particularly if they are unholy mad science monstrosities who turn you into them when they kill you. After you become that monster, all you do on your turn is get a chance to attack one of the other players. They don’t get attack backs, though.
The combat rather reminds me of the old Steve Jackson game books I used to play as a latchkey kid, back before computers made it so much easier to play solitaire games. What? What do you mean you’re too young to remember that far back? Call me Grandpa, will ya? Come closer, you little whippersnapper so I can whack you with my cane!
The game ends depending on the game ending conditions you agreed on. When someone accomplishes their mission or is the only person left alive or has the most points in a campaign game, they win!
Okay, now let me make some comments about the game and also share some comments that my group had. I don’t agree with everything that they said.
First of all, let’s talk about combat. Now, there are some good decisions that I feel they made. I really like how most monsters have only one hit point. That really sped up combat and helped keep it from getting too tedious a lot of the time. However, we’re still talking about a lot of dice rolling. Whenever the boss monster came up, we were looking at least five minutes of die rolling. The damn thing was hard to hit and killing characters takes a while as well.
So, for the most part, combat was fast and fun but when it dragged, dear lord, did it drag.
Second of all, let me list a couple issues my gaming group had with the game.
First of all, they did not like that you could draw from the discard pile. They felt that that meant that you had to seriously think about any discards you made since that could help the next player. Me, I disagree with them. It gives players more control and choices, both of which I think are a good thing.
Second of all, they would have preferred player elimination rather than becoming a monster. That way, if you died, you could go off and go to the kitchen or something. Me, I disagree with them on that one as well. Come on, it’s a game and being eliminated is not as much fun being able to continue to play, particularly since you get to attack the other players now.
Which does bring up another good point. There’s not a lot of interaction in the game. That surprised me. A lot of games that I would put in a similar catagory to this one (Munchkin, Zombies, any Z-Man movie game) are loaded with take that elements. The main thing you're dealing with in those games is the other bastards at the table. When you're swinging your machete in Chaos Isle, though, you're really fighting against the deck.
Sure, a couple of the characters have some take that powers and dead characters attack other players but for the most part, you are playing your own game. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I guess that depends on what kind of game you want to play but Chaos Isle definitely has some multi-player solitaire elements going on.
And, yes, you can play it solitaire. It plays pretty well solitaire and a number of the issues I mentioned will never come up in solitaire play. Heck, if you are looking for solitaire action, put an extra star on Chaos Isle.
Wrapping it all up, Chaos Isle might not have been a game I was going to buy myself. I sure as heck would never want to take a vacation at the place. Now that I've taken the tour, though, I'll be getting back on that boat with the crazed captain that takes you there again. If you are looking for a card-driven adventure game where it’s you against the environment and your goal in life is killing everything that moves, Chaos Isle is a good choice. The rules are clean, keep the game moving and don’t have a lot of exception-based fiddly bits.
Well done, well thought out review with good bits of humor. You've certainly touched upon a lot of the finer points of this great game.
Good review. I added the extra star for solitaire play.