Please Take Note: This is a review of the game’s final prototype. The art, game bits, and the rules discussed are all subject to change. The game is being reviewed on the components and the rules provided with the understanding that “what you see is not what you might get” when the game is published. If you like what you read and want to learn more, we encourage you to visit the game’s Kickstarter campaign. Now that we have all that disclaimer junk out of the way, on with the review!
- For ages 8 and up
- For 2 to 4 players
- Approximately 45 minutes to complete
- Active Listening & Communication
- Counting & Math
- Logical & Critical Decision Making
- Reading & Writing
- Memorization & Pattern/Color Matching
- Strategy & Tactics
- Risk vs. Reward
- Visuospatial Skills
- Hand/Resource Management
- Bluffing and Misdirection
- Child – Easy
- Adult – Easy
Theme & Narrative:
- Be the first to hide your treasure to claim the ultimate prize!
- Gamer Geek rejected!
- Parent Geek mixed!
- Child Geek mixed!
The old and beloved king of the small island kingdom was nearing the end of his reign and was without an heir. To avoid a potentially violent dispute over the throne, the old king decreed there would be a competition available to all his subjects. This competition would test the contestants’ wits and intelligence. Whomever won the competition, be they a noble or a simple peasant, would be the next king. You eagerly signed up.
Gemstone Island, a self-published game designed by Sonya Writes, will reportedly be comprised of 1 Gemstone Island (a 12″ x 12″ vinyl roll-up Chess board), 40 Gemstones (in 8 different colors), 4 Player pawns, 1 King, 64 Location cards, 20 King cards, 58 Gemstone Island cards (referred to as “playing cards” in the rules), 4 Collection cards, and 4 Sack cards. As this is a review of a prepublished game, we will not comment on the game component quality. The game components we have listed above are not necessarily complete, either. Depending on an individual’s pledge level in the game’s Kickstarter campaign, a number of expansions can also be included. Note that there might also be a bag in which the Gemstones are placed and randomly drawn from. However, the bag is not noted in the game component list, nor is is part of the game set up based on the rules we were provided. It is briefly mentioned in part of the game play rules, however. Also not included in the game, but handy to have, is a pen or pencil and a piece of paper for each player so they can keep track of what locations on the Chess board they have explored or need to.
Game Set Up
To set up the game, first set the Chess board in the middle of the playing area. All players should sit on one of the four sides of the Chess board. This game uses the Chess board like a grid with each of the 64 squares having a matching number and letter representing its position.
Second, hand to each player 1 Player pawn, 1 Sack card, and 1 Collection card. The Sack and Collection cards are placed in front of the player, face-up. The Player pawns are now placed in one of the four corners of the Chess board. Only one Player pawn per square.
Third, separate the Location, King, and Gemstone Island cards into three different decks and give each deck a good shuffle. Deal out to each player 6 Gemstone Island cards and 1 Location card, face-down. Players can look at their cards, but should keep them hidden from their opponents until revealed.
Fourth, place the Gemstone Island, Location, and King decks face-down in a location where all players can reach them. Make sure to leave enough room for discard piles and flip over the top card of the Location deck so all the players can see it. Place the King on the corresponding Chess board square noted by the Location card (the Location card will have a value that corresponds to a specific row and column – example “F4”).
Fifth, and depending on if the game will come with a bag or not, either place the Gemstones on the table, in a box, or a bag from which they can be drawn from blindly. Note that for our games, we put the Gemstones on the table for the players to pick from when playing with younger players and put the Gemstones in a bag that we had on hand when playing the game with more experienced players.
That’s it for game set up. The player who has their Player pawn located closest to the King will be the first player.
Treasure Hunting and Hiding
The game is played in turns with no set number of rounds. On a player’s turn, they will complete 2 steps that involve multiple actions. The steps and actions are summarized here.
Step 1: Draw a Card
The very first step a player will take is to draw a Gemstone Island card. If the Gemstone Island card deck should ever run out, simply shuffle the discard pile to create a new deck.
Step 2: Take Actions
The second step is a bit more free-form and complicated as it allows the player to do a lot of different things. What they do is based on the cards they have in their hand and where their Player pawn is located on the Chess board.
There is no limit to the number of cards that can be played on a player’s turn. The one exception is a “Move” card that states how many squares the Player pawn can move. Movement is always up, down, left, and right; never diagonal. Only one “Move” card can be played unless the player has a “Move Twice” card in their hand they want to play also. When moving, a player can interact with an opponent and the King only if they move through or stop their movement on the same square as where the other Player pawns or King is currently located. Players can also pick up any Gemstones on a square their Player pawn moves through or ends their movement on. All recovered Gemstones found this way are moved to the player’s Sack card. After the player ends their movement, they then take 1 Gemstone from the Gemstone supply and add it to any other Gemstones on their Sack card.
There are a number of other cards in the Gemstone Island deck that can be used and played during, before, or after a player decides to move or not. The timing of when the card is used is up to the player and part of the strategic game play. They are summarized here, and once played, are either kept in front of the opponent that they affect or are discarded.
- Switch: when passing an opponent’s Player pawn, this card allows the player to force their opponent to swap their Sack card with the player, along with all the Gemstones that are currently located on the card.
- Hole: when passing an opponent’s Player pawn, this card allows the player to put a small hole in their opponent’s Sack which forces their opponent to “drop” 1 Gemstone on the Chess board for every 3 squares they move on their turn. It is possible for a player to have more than one hole in their sack during the game.
- Patch: this card removes the effects of one “Hole” card.
- Telescope: this card allows the player to look at all of the cards currently in their opponents’ hand. Out of all the cards currently held by the player’s opponents, they can choose any two to keep (both cards do not need to be from the same opponent).
- Bump: when passing an opponent’s Player pawn, this forces the opponent to drop all the Gemstones currently located on their Sack card onto the Chess board. The Gemstones are as evenly distributed around the opponent’s Player pawn as possible.
- Earthquake: this card is like the “Bump” card, except it forces all the players on the Chess board to drop their Gemstones held on their Sack card.
- Medium Earthquake: this card is like the “Earthquake” cards, except the players must drop their Gemstones 2 squares away from their Player pawns.
- Confusion: when passing an opponent’s Player pawn, a bout of confusion is placed on their opponent for 3 rounds that forces their opponent to only move a maximum of 1 square per turn.
- Clarity: this card cancels the effects of the “Confusion” card.
Additionally, there are King cards that are much more powerful (and harder to get) than the Gemstone Island cards. They are summarized here, as well.
- Draw 5: allows the player to draw 5 Gemstone Island cards.
- Severe Earthquake: this card is like the “Medium Earthquake”, but in addition to dropping the Gemstones, it also takes any Gemstones on the players’ Collection cards and places them back into the general supply. Essentially, it starts all the players at zero.
- Buried Deeper: this card allows the player to bury their Gemstones a bit deeper and cancels the effect of an opponent finding the player’s treasure for 1 round.
- Relocate: this card allows the player to draw a new Location card that can be used to relocate the player’s treasure. Very handy when combined with the “Buried Deeper” card, as it allows the player to move their precious treasure to a new location on the island before their opponent circles around and collects is for themselves.
- Move Twice: this card allows the player to play 2 “Move” cards on their turn or double the movement noted on 1 “Move” card.
- That Was Mine!: this card allows the player to take back Gemstones that were found and taken by an opponent.
- Quicksand: this card allows the player to draw 5 Location cards. The squares noted on these Location cards are now considered “quicksand”, but are not shown to the player’s opponents until such time their opponent’s Player pawns stop their movement on them or attempt to pass through them. When attempting to pass through quicksand, any additional movement is canceled. If the Player pawn ends its movement on the exact same space as the quicksand, the player looses their next turn.
- Treasure Map: this card identifies the location on the Chess board that contains a long-lost treasure that can be found by anyone. When any Player pawn ends their movement on the square noted by the Location card, that player is awarded 4 Gemstones. Of course, because the player who played the “Treasure Map” card is the only one who knows exactly where the treasure is hid, the odds of them finding it before their opponents is pretty good, but far from a sure thing.
- Move 10: the ultimate “Move” card, allowing the player to move 10 squares.
Move 1 Space
A player is never forced to play a “Move” card if they don’t want to. By default, a player may move their Player pawn 1 square, but only if they don’t play a “Move” card.
Visit the King
If a player should move onto or pass through the square the King currently occupies, the player can trade in any 2 Gemstones from their Sack card to draw 1 King card to be added to the player’s hand. A player can trade in as many Gemstones as they like (1 King card for every 2 Gemstones). All Gemstones used for this transaction are returned to the rest of the yet to be claimed Gemstones.
The player can only bury their Gemstones on the square noted by their current Location card. Before the player moves through or stops on the square that matches the Location card, they must announce they will be “burying” their treasure (but only if they want to bury their treasure to begin with). After the player completes their movement, they then take any Gemstones on their Sack card and move them over to their Collection card. Note that only 1 Gemstone of every color can be moved to the Collection card. All extra Gemstones remain on the player’s Sack card. Buried treasure (Gemstones located on the Collection card) are technically no longer being carried by the player and are not subject to being lost via an earthquake, bump, or a hole in the Sack card. A “Severe Earthquake” will, however.
Dig for Treasure
Once the player stops moving their Player pawn, they can announce they are “digging” for treasure. If their Player pawn is occupying the same square that matches an opponent’s Location card AND the opponent did bury Gemstones there (the opponent has Gemstones locate don their Collection card), all the Gemstones on the opponent’s Collection card are moved to the player’s Sack card. The opponent now discards and draws a new Location card. Regardless if the Player pawn is located directly above a treasure or not, the player will always receive 1 Gemstone.
Note that a player could technically play all their cards in their hand during a single turn. A player does not draw back up to 6 cards when they play their last card. Instead, they continue to simply draw 1 card at the beginning of their turn.
A New King is Crowned
The game ends as soon as 1 player buries a complete collection of Gemstones on the island. A collection consists of 8 differently colored Gemstones.
To learn more about Gemstone Island, visit the game’s Kickstarter campaign.
Gemstone Island would appear to be a fun game of treasure hunting and bluffing. Players must carefully watch their opponents in an attempt to find where they might have buried their treasure, while at the same time doing all they can to avoid having their own treasure stolen. The game itself is not terribly complex (very simple turn order and actions), but this is a game that will require each and every player to focus. I imagine that the game will surprise a few of our group members in regards to how much they need to lean forward at the gaming table and take notes.
For the Child and Parent Geeks, I predict total success. Gemstone Island has a very low learning curve and it’s not necessary to know or even understand Chess to play the game, despite some of the components being Chess related. I think the Child Geeks will enjoy the hunt for treasure and the fun of faking out their parents and peers. For the Parent Geeks, I think they’ll find Gemstone Island to be a fast and engaging mental exercise for not only themselves, but also their family.
For the Gamer Geeks, I think Gemstone Island is going to be rejected. The game is a bit too straightforward and it’ll be viewed as nothing more than a hide and seek game. I also predict that Gemstone Island will overstay its welcome with the Gamer Geeks, especially when earthquakes are released and players are then forced to spend time and energy recovering that which they have already spent time gathering.
Teaching Gemstone Island is not difficult, but take the time to make sure that players understand that they need to be as tricky as possible when it comes to their movement and burying their treasure. Players should very quickly see that making long and complex patters that just happen to also include the square noted on their Location card is vital to keeping their treasure as safe as possible. You should also make sure to suggest a few different ways the players can keep track of movements and take notes regarding their opponents’ possibly treasure locations. This is a game that requires deduction and observation. Players can’t be looking out the window when their opponents move.
After teaching the game to my oldest little geek and a few friends, we were ready to play the game. Most of the questions involved card timing and holding Gemstones. Again, Gemstone Island is a very light game when it comes to the rules and any confusion on the player’s part is most likely due to just a simple misinterpretation of what the teacher stated. For example, I told my groups that you can move any number of spaces noted on a “Move” card or simply move 1 space. One player thought I said you could move the distance on the card and then ADD the 1 additional space to it. Not the case. And so, after answering all the questions, I asked my little geek his thoughts on Gemstone Island so far.
“Pretty easy. Find gemstones and hide them, but do it so others can’t find them.” ~ Liam (age 8)
Yep, he’s got the concept, but let’s see if he can take the abstract idea of what he thinks the game is about and demonstrate a concrete understanding of its more subtle game mechanisms.
The Child Geeks had mixed opinions about Gemstone Island. The older Child Geeks enjoyed themselves and sometimes went crazy with their seemingly random routes in hopes of confusing their opponents – which they did. The younger Child Geeks and those not as familiar with abstract strategy games were considerably less creative in their routes and, as a consequence, it was much easier to determine where their treasure stashes were buried. All the Child Geeks had a hard time getting down a good process to help keep track of where their opponent’s might have hidden their treasure, too. We observed more “lucky guesses” than “educated guesses”. In fact, one of the Child Geeks spent several turns simply moving one space at a time “digging” because he was absolutely convinced his opponent had buried their treasure in the immediate area. Sadly, not the case. Gemstone Island either highly frustrated and bewildered the Child Geeks or tantalized and engaged them. It was a very mixed set of votes and the Child Geeks were very polarized in regards to their final thoughts. It is our opinion that Child Geeks 8-years-old and older who have had prior experience with abstract games will do well with Gemstone Island, while anyone younger in years or much less experienced with abstract games will flounder a great deal and wander about the island a bit lost.
The Parent Geeks were also mixed when it came to their final thoughts on the game. All the Parent Geeks agreed that the game was well designed, but the constant need to take notes and the higher number of errors than successes when it came to finding treasure made many of them feel that the game asked too much of them. Of course, the other side of the coin were the Parent Geeks who really got into the game and were taking ridiculously detailed notes. One Parent Geek even drew a map. Those Parent Geeks who played Chess, abstract games, and games in general did very well and enjoyed themselves. The non-gamers and those Parent Geeks who didn’t want a game to be so much about note taking and concentration, thought the game was simply too much. This led us to ask the Parent Geeks if they thought Gemstone Island was a “casual game”. One Parent Geek summed it up best by stating, “No. This is a game where you have to keep one eye on the board and one eye on your opponents at all times. That can make your eyes – and brain – feel tired.” In the end, Gemstone Island won over the more “geeky” Parent Geeks and confused and frustrated the others.
The Gamer Geeks very much liked the concept of the game, but not the way the game went about it. For example, they quickly discovered there was no penalty for always digging for treasure at the end of their turn. They also discovered that the game could last indefinitely if one player was getting close to winning and all the others simply focused on finding their treasure. While a typical game should only take 30 to 45 minutes, one game with the Gamer Geeks approached 90 minutes. A bit absurd, but understandable. This is a game that requires you to trick your opponents, but if your opponents are totally focused on finding your treasure instead of splitting their attention between their own treasure and the other opponents, there is no way to win the game. The Gamer Geeks also thought the game presentation was a bit “lazy”. Using a standard Chess board as a grid works, but they would have preferred to see the game be played on a map of the island with special locations and a whole bunch of stuff I’m pretty sure the game designer didn’t think about or intend to include in the game. In the end, the Gamer Geeks thought the game would be a good one for kids, but not for them.
The game’s biggest hurdle will be its visual appeal. There is nothing to this game that visually pops, sizzles, or entices. Gemstone Island is very abstract, both in its game play and its presentation. That’s a hard combo to sell to some players in this day in age when most games offer a visual feast for the eyes, regardless of their medium. I think the game’s current design is meant to be functional, but it needs to be more. Every player’s first impression of Gemstone Island was one of disinterest. And, yes, all our players knew that what they were playing was a final prototype of the game, but not its final form. It made little difference.
Overall, Gemstone Island is an engaging and light game of deduction, but it can start to feel like a lengthy exercise of cat-and-mouse if players approach the game in a casual manner. Players must observe the table at all times and watch their opponents like a hawk. Shrewd game play is a must and only through trial and error using deduction and elimination will a player discover each of their opponent’s hidden loot. The amount of time it takes for a player to go through their own trials and tribulations of hits and misses when attempting to uncover buried treasure is dependent not only on how keenly they watch the board but also how much guile their opponents have. If an opponent is not able to creatively and craftily drop their treasure, the game fails for all involved. This was apparent right from the start when we played Gemstone Island with groups with mixed skill sets and levels of game playing experience. Child Geeks versus Parent Geeks was always one-sided, Parent Geeks versus Gamer Geeks was slightly more even, but the Gamer Geeks were always able to outwit their less geeky opponents. Child Geeks versus Gamer Geeks wasn’t even a contest.
So is Gemstone Island a game worth your time and a spot in your collection? An excellent question and for me the answer is “no”. I have more complex and entertaining games that involve deduction and observation that appeal to all three groups. But it cannot be disputed that Gemstone Island is a well designed game in concept. The game play is solid, but it feels incomplete visually. There are abstract aspects of the game (such as the island) that could be made much more appealing to players if more time is spent helping the game components communicate the game’s theme and narrative rather than simply being the medium and means of the game play itself. But for what it is, Gemstone Island delivers what it set out to do, which is keep players focused, guessing, and discovering while at the same time hiding, tricking, and bluffing their way to victory.
This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.