Game Review: Palm Island

palm island card game - box reviewClassic board games took up about three square feet of table space. Think LIFE, or Monopoly. Card games? Generally quite a bit less, unless it involved laying out sets or building chains (e.g., Rummy or Solitaire). But modern games have become bigger and bigger affairs, and a monster like Massive Darkness or even Shadows Over Camelot can end up requiring a sizeable play surface, possibly bigger than your current dining table! If you follow me on Instagram – d1taylor – you’d see what I mean as I often post photos of games I’m playing, and some are quite daunting and can take 30 minutes or longer just to set up.

I admit, there’s a certain fun to having lots of bits and pieces, however, so this isn’t a complaint by any stretch. Cool miniatures, bright, elaborate boards, a layout that you discover as you proceed through constructing a dungeon or map, all can be a significant contributor to the fun of a gaming adventure. But sometimes you just want to pull open a box and start playing immediately. Sometimes you’re on a plane and just have a tray table, or are in a café and have maybe a square foot of space to allocate to your game. Now what?

Enter the remarkable strategic card game Palm Island. Designed by Jon Mietling it’s literally a game you play “in your hand”, meaning that there’s no table space required. At all. The game consists of you going through a deck of 17 cards eight times, utilizing cards as resources or tapping other previously unearthed resources to upgrade that card, either by purchasing more valuable resources, flipping the card 180-degrees, or flipping the card back-to-front, based on what you can afford.

Let’s look at the starting hand: 17 cards stacked up, but only the first two visible:

palm island card game - starting two cards

Notice the frontmost card, Housing, has two orientations. All cards start with the white quarter-circle on the top left in, well, the top left. Your challenge is to manage and spend resources so you can flip and reorient them to gain points. The upside-down of the Housing card is worth 1 star, for example, which becomes 1 victory point. To flip it upside down (and gain that point) you need to spend 1 wood and 1 fish. See that on the card?

Above it, but “behind” it is the Canoe House, which can turn into a single fish (green arrow, rotate 90-degrees and tilt it out of your stack) or, if you have a fish resource to spend, can rotate upside-down (yellow arrow for the cost of a single fish or flip back-to-front (blue arrow) for 1 fish instead. Which is the best move? That’s where the strategy comes in. Every time I rotate out a resource, play a card or discard a card because I can’t play it, it moves to the back of the stack without reorienting in any way. Once a rotated resource rises to the top it’s discarded unused. So sad.

A bit further down the deck, I have this situation:

palm island card game - hand in play

An identical Housing card has bubbled up to the top, with the Quarry behind it. To my side are three available resources: fish, wood, wood. That means I could use a fish and a wood to rotate the Housing card, gaining me a victory point! Or I can use the two wood to rotate the Quarry card. Or I can just wait until a better upgrade opportunity arises. I can only hold on to a max of four resource cards, though, so that’s something needing thoughtful management.

A little bit further in the game yet, I’m now looking at this situation:

palm island card game - cards in play

Here’s where long term planning is important: I can use the Logger card as a wood, giving me a total of two fish & two wood, but I could also use one fish and one wood to rotate the Logger card, making it an even more valuable resource later in the game. Then I could use the one remaining fish to harvest the Market‘s stone resource or, hmmm, use two wood to rotate the Market card or two fish to flip it! Lots of options, eh? Notice if I rotate the Market card I won’t get any victory points (the stars) but I would get the upward arrow. These are known as upgrades and only apply if you’re scoring up a two player game, not solo play.

Here’s a close up of a few of the cards so you can see how even just rotating them 180 makes them far more interesting, but the cost can be daunting, particularly early in the game:

palm island card game - a few sample cards

That Temple’s a nice one, worth 3 victory points on a rotate. But you need 2 stone, 1 wood and 1 fish to do so, and that stone in particularly can be tricky to unearth.

Seventeen cards. And you go through the deck exactly eight times. How do you keep track? With the end-of-round counter card, of course!

palm island card game - end of round card shown

It’s simple: Start with the ‘1’ as shown to denote the end of the first round (just slip it in as the last card in the deck after you shuffle it before starting your new game), then flip or rotate it each time through until you see ‘8’, at which point you’re done!

To count up your score, simply go through your hand and count up stars. Like this:

palm island card game - final score stars

I only care about the stars that are oriented properly, which means that the above is worth 8 points. The game rating scale for solo play suggests anything above 30 points is “exceptional” but I can’t quite break 20 yet, even after a number of plays. Talking to other players, I’m not alone in finding this a challenging little game… Break 30, however, and you get to add one of the “feat” cards next time you play. There are additional cards for co-op, competitive, “villager” modes too, along with those feat cards:

palm island card game - feat cards

Honestly, I haven’t made it to that point yet, with a max score of 19 to date, so I’m just going through and trying my best, sometimes spending quickly, other times deferring my spend until something bigger is available. Someday…

And that’s it. That’s Palm Island. A surprisingly compelling and fun game to play, and once you get the hang of it, you can go pretty quickly through that deck eight times, producing an approx 15min play time. There’s a co-op multiplayer mode, a competitive mode, quite a lot for such a simple game. Oh, and it’s fun and challenging too.  Better yet, unlike Massive Darkness, it’s also affordable. 🙂

Palm Island, designed by Jon Mietling. Published by Portal Dragon. $19.99 at Amazon.com

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