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Cooper Island pits one to four players against each other to reclaim and settle their own peninsula in the Island of Cooper…  It is a heavy-...

Cooper Island by Frosted Games and Capstone Games Cooper Island by Frosted Games and Capstone Games

Cooper Island by Frosted Games and Capstone Games

Cooper Island by Frosted Games and Capstone Games


Cooper Island pits one to four players against each other to reclaim and settle their own peninsula in the Island of Cooper…  It is a heavy-weight Euro-smorgasbord of mechanisms: worker placement,  tile placement, engine builder and rondel with intricate interplay between how you score points and how the $*&# do you score points? (At least for your first few plays.)

Gameplay

The game plays out in punishingly-few-five turns.  Each turn consists of 3 phases, the Income Phase, the Worker Phase and the Clean-Up Phase.  Two of which are simultaneous and which give the game a surprisingly low downtime per player when you consider how much stuff you’ve got to think about on your turn.

The Harbour Master in the Second Round

There are only 8 action spaces for your workers to be placed onto, but you can also perform an almost unlimited number of five Anytime actions.  As your peninsula develops new spaces will be revealed on your player board giving additional bonuses and sometimes extra stuff for you to do.  I don’t think I’ve ever been as bewildered by a game on the first play as I have this one.  Working out how to score points was not even on my radar on my first playthroughs of this.


I came away from my first game (with a terrible score) with a numb brain and I had only just realised that my anytime actions were pivotal for any type of success in this game.  On my second play through my brain was hurting even more because I was trying to optimise my choice of actions spaces with the anytime actions that I had at my disposal.  However, I was still trying to do a little bit of everything and consequently didn’t receive too many points. 

A really close game - not my first

It wasn’t until the third play-through that I even considered trying to score points (instead of them just happening as a result of my actions) and actually have a strategy; which currently looks like - optimise to get more workers as soon as possible (by fulfilling Milestone Tokens) and then Settle and Build at the highest level possible… This could be utterly wrong, maybe exploring your peninsula or building statues is better… I still don’t really know how to do well.


The earlier you can get more workers the more benefit they will provide over the course of the game is an age-old, (well at least Agricola-old) strategy of building your engine.  However, you need to fuel that engine and your workers will need feeding, however, there isn’t the same level of jeopardy that you feel when you can’t feed you Agricola-family.  In this, you just receive an anchor token which prevents your ships moving around the peninsula.

2 Normal and 1 Special worker need feeding

So with 5 Anytime Actions, 8 worker Actions (each with their own bonus actions), 4 terrain types, 6 resource types, 18 unexplored hexes to fill, 8 sandbanks to visit, 5 ruins to explore/statues to build, 3 different types of buildings to construct and two different types of workers, 6 boats to build and a player-dependent number of Bay Water and Harbour spaces to visit; you’ll hopefully begin to understand how wide the decision tree you are faced with is at the start of the game.  However, finding good combos and synergies between your anytime actions and your workers’ actions is what makes this game tick.


The pace of this game is perfectly balanced. The first one or two rounds are much simpler, (you’ve unlocked fewer bonus actions) which helps new players to become familiar with the core actions and flow of the game and during the fourth and fifth round, your combos can be magnificent and convoluted.  Keeping track of a resource as it moves from a fourth level hex to pay for an action which gets additional bonuses and more market stock to pay for further bonus actions can almost feel like you’re doing the work, but it’s damn rewarding.

The end of a solo game - not too shabby  

The Income Phase is a simultaneous affair where you quickly take the income (shown by Terra Mystica hands) revealed on your player board.  Additional hands can be in play by building one of your Income Boats.  The standard income actions allow you to draw a double hex tile from the bag into your personal reserve and place a double hex tile onto your peninsula from your personal reserve.  The important thing to understand that any time you have actions to do (including your anytime actions) is that you choose the order of them, which adds another wrinkle to your brow when you’re trying to optimise actions.


Double hex landscape tiles and islet tiles form the core of your peninsula and they build up to an attractive looking board with nice, chunky card being placed on top of each other.  You can shim a mismatched terrain height by using one of your Anytime Cartographer actions (assuming you’ve got the necessary amount of Cartographer points).  Each time you place a landscape tile you’ll place matching resource cubes onto that tile. The height at which the resource cubes are placed determines their value.  However, once a hex is a Meadow hex, for example, it is always a Meadow hex you can’t change its hex type (unless you decide to place a settlement tile onto it). Building your landscape in this fashion (following all the tile placement rules) is like a 3d puzzle and could be a challenging game in its own right.

This looks great on the table

The Worker Phase is the core of the game and you only start with two workers to place onto the board.  Those two workers have a choice of 8 spots in the central island board to occupy.  Four of the actions will let you place additional landscape tiles into your peninsula (following the placement rules) and which gives resources.  The other four actions require you to pay resources you’ve just gained to build buildings, statues, boats, or supply some cargo which all have their own specific benefit and most importantly answer the first question of ‘how the $*&# do you score points?’.


Traditionally in worker placement games, a worker on a spot will prevent other players from taking that action.  Here, you just have to pay the player 1 resource to go on top of their worker.  This adds an unexpected boost often at opportune times.  I suppose it would be possible to determine the board state of another player to work out where they are going to place their workers, to maxims this boost to you, but my gameplay is so far from this level – I’m just gripping on to my ships pennants keeping up with my own game.  I just consider it a nice and often welcome surprise if it does happen to me.

The worker actions spaces / central island board

You can unlock special workers (the ‘square’ discs…) which provide a more powerful version of their action space.  However, to get these new workers, you’ll need to remove a normal worker but also unlocking additional victory points.  Deciding the optimum strategy of whether the new worker should be normal or special is well beyond the processing power of my brain.

The Clean-Up Phase is a blessed relief on the grey-matter, even though you have to start by feeding your workers.  It is another simultaneous affair in which you may get points and you reset your workers and market and move the round tracker.  There is a decision to be made to pay or not to reactivate an asset, however, in my experience, you only have one maybe two assets that even need reactivating and it’s nearly always worth it.  This is the easiest decision in the game.

A clear and easy to follow rulebook

This game plays in about 90 minutes to two hours.  If you all know the game 4 players can complete the game in under 2 hours which is a huge achievement for such a dense, crunchy (in a good sense) game.  Few games can provide the same level of challenge for four players in the same length of time as this does.

Components

Some of the components deserve special praise. The landscape hex tiles are deliciously thick and create a good-looking peninsula after the game.  The player colours are standard red, green, blue and black pieces and the resources are contrasting shades of brown – wood, purple – cloth, grey – stone, pink – food, and yellow – gold.  These pieces, resources, workers and buildings are all made of wood – which I prefer.

All good here

The rulebook does a tremendous job of conveying how the game plays.  Each section is colour coded to relate to the actions. This colour coding exists throughout the game i.e. on the player board so after reading the rules, you’ve got a good idea of how the game will play.  This is an amazing achievement for such a dense game.  The rules are contained in 27 pages of very well written text and copious examples littered throughout.  Although I did find one non-game affecting typo relating to page number references.


The player boards and central island board, at first glance, contain a dizzying array of icons, but as is the case with most heavy Euros, once you’re familiar with the actions themselves, the icons provide a non-textual and intuitive prompt for what is going on, and what you should be doing.  I thought the player board with its colour-coded sections, and icon design allows a returning player to pick the game flow back up very quickly.

A bit of a table-hog.  2 Player game

I was disappointed that there is no insert of any type in the box and similarly the two-piece player boards are made from quite a thin card stock.  However, these are just minor quibbles for me as I’ll end up 3d printing an insert for this and I understand that another 3 or sheets of board stock with different die cuts would have been much more expensive.

Criticisms

The only criticism I have is not really fair to level at Cooper Island, as it was designed to be a complex worker placement, is that it's a complex worker placement game.  You’re not going to have a good time introducing this to gamers more comfortable with Splendor and Ticket to Ride.  However, there is a place in the market and my collection for complex Euros like this.  If you buy this I am confident that you’ve already done your research and you’ll know exactly if this game is for you or not.

Conclusion

I really like this game, the huge amount of actions you have over five short rounds is impressive.  I appreciate the design and all its complexities coming in under 2 hours.  However, I don’t think it will see the light of day (or game night) at the moment – I don’t think I can face continually teaching it to lots of new players.  Maybe when life is a bit more settled and less crazy I’ll feel a need to train my brain after another relaxing day in the office (/s) and I’ll pull this out for some stimulation.  However, 2020 is not that year, my work has been manic of late and I just don’t feel up to Cooper Island but I look forward to the time when life is a bit more peaceful and normal and this will become a regular on my table.


P.S. The solo mode is fun and challenging (I’ve only beat the first difficulty level) but I feel less pressure when playing this solo and not teaching the game.


I’d like to thank Asmodee UK for sending this review copy. This is in stock in many stores and you can use this link https://www.asmodee.co.uk/contentpage/find-your-game-store to find your Friendly Local Game Store who need all the help they can get at the moment.

Designer:  Andreas "ode." Odendahl

Bgg page:  https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/269511/cooper-island

Play time:  90 minutes

Players:  1-4

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