Snagged on a Mackerel: Isaribi Review

Designer: Hisashi Hayashi

Head Artist: Ryo Nyamo

Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games

Year Published: 2014

Players: 3 – 5

Playtime: 45 minutes – 1 hour

Reviewer: Luke Muench

At first glance, Isaribi appears to be a rather plain, somewhat arduous game, offering little thematically or visually to draw you into the experience. After glancing through the rulebook, one wouldn’t be out of line in feeling that the mechanics seem a little basic, rather familiar, and has nothing to offer that other games already have.

They wouldn’t be wrong; Isaribi is not a particularly novel or good-looking game, nor does it bring anything particularly exciting to the table. But that doesn’t make this a necessarily bad game by any means, just comfortable in its similarities.

In Isaribi, players are tasked with getting the most points by collecting and selling the four sea creatures that populate the town’s harbor; clams, prawns, mackerels, and sea breams. At the start of each of the five rounds, players draw cards for the different types of animals, placing a number of cubes around the harbor according to what the cards dictate. This establishes the status of the economy, ie which commodities are rarer and harder to come across or how far a player will have to sail their boat to get the goods they desire.

Each turn, a player gets to choose a variety of actions to take based on their action point pool. Players start the game with one and a half action points but can upgrade this in order to do more on their turns. The five actions a player can take are “fish,” “move,” “sell,” “gain a technology,” or “flip a market card.” The effectiveness of the fish action, as well as how many action points you have access to, is dependant on how much you’ve upgraded your player board, empowering this ability as well as generally allowing you to do more each turn.

“Move” simply allows a player to sail their boat through the different spaces that compose the harbor, spending one action point for each space the boat travels. Depending on where your boat is, you’ll have access or be prevented from doing certain actions.

“Fish” will allow you to collect cubes from where your boat is located, an action that can only be done once per turn. You can fish via hand, which costs half an action point and provides one animal of the type of your choice, or you can fish via net, which costs one action point and provides multiple animals of the type you select, depending on how much you’ve upgraded your nets. Clams may only be caught by hand, whereas sea bream can only be caught in nets.

While one market card will always be revealed at the start of each round, players may spend one action point from anywhere to reveal the next market card. These are jobs being posted for the players to complete and are the primary ways of earning victory points. This acts as something of a timer for each round, as only a certain number of jobs are available each round. Revealing them may give you the information you need to complete that task, but you also lose an action point in doing so, often giving your opponents a head start. More often than not, this action feels unrewarding, almost detrimental, and most will put off revealing a new card for as long as possible, resulting in players faffing about for multiple turns before someone bites the bullet and allows the game to progress.

“Sell” allows you to offload your collected goods to complete these jobs at the docks, collecting a certain number of points depending on the card. Completing one of these cards costs a certain number of action points depending on how many goods you are selling, meaning you can theoretically spend an entire turn turning in your goods for a single card. It’s worth noting that these jobs aren’t balanced, relying on the luck of the draw to make the game fair, which, for me, is frustrating to see. It’s never interesting or rewarding to see my opponent, who happens to already be by the docks, earn five points by selling two mackerel when, a turn later, I get to sell my two mackerel for a measly three points, all because of how the cards were revealed.

Lastly, players can spend their victory points at the docks to upgrade their nets and action points. Players may also purchase one of three technology cards, which give them game-breaking abilities, such as storing more seafood between rounds. Due to how few technologies there are, something that might have injected the game with much-needed variety feels tacked on and mundane.

Players continue taking turns until a player decides that they don’t want to take any actions, instead choosing to pass. Much like in Terra Mystica, that player then gets to select one of the available collaborator cards, giving them a buff for the following round. While there are a few options to pick from, those I played with quickly found that the Carpenter is the best and by far most powerful of these, especially early game.

Players must also discard down to one good before the new round starts unless abilities modify this number, preventing anyone from coming into the next round with a huge haul of creatures already in tow. Once each player passes, a new round is set up and begins, and this process continues until five rounds have been completed.

Much of the tedium of this game comes from the limitation on how many times a player can fish in a given turn, feeling like you can barely get any traction turn to turn, especially when collecting clams. It doesn’t help that the game system is already monotonous, but putting such a stark limitation, while necessary for game balance, doesn’t help with the game’s pacing or making it feel fun.

What also constantly holds this game back are the various caveats or exceptions to the rule. The fact that some actions are half a point is downright obnoxious, and little details like how clams can only be collected by hand while making sense thematically, are annoying and sometimes frustrating from a gameplay perspective.

I could see some people finding enjoyment out of Isaribi’s system, and like I said, it is very functional and by no means broken. But I don’t have any desire or interest to return to Isaribi. The theme is perplexingly dull, which isn’t helped by the flat artwork. The system doesn’t feel rewarding or engaging at any point. And when I was finished playing, I found myself looking at my opponents around the table, shrugging, and packing the box back up in silence.

When the best compliment I can give it is that it’s “serviceable,” I struggle to recommend this to anyone but those looking for a thinky game to throw on the table when everything else on your shelf has been played to death, and even then I would reconsider what’s already in your collection rather than dropping fifty bucks on a fairly forgettable experience.

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