Palm Island is a 17 card handheld game where your goal is to make a paradise island prosper by managing resources; improving mining, fishing and woodworking facilities; and upgrading buildings. Palm Island is designed by independent game designer and publisher Jon Mietling (who’s also responsible for the artwork) and it was released in 2018 by his company Portal Dragon. On the box it says it’s “a game you can take anywhere. Sitting, standing, waiting, riding, flying, relaxing… no table required.” I brought it to the park to try it out.
How to Manage Your Island
To explain how Palm Island is played, we first have to look at the cards. All cards in the 17 card deck have four different areas, but only one area is active at a time; the top half of the side that’s facing the player. One of the four areas has a small symbol – that’s a marker that let’s you know how the card is supposed to be oriented at the start of a game.
To prepare you arrange all the cards in such a way that the start marker is visible in the top left corner, then shuffle the deck maintaining the orientation of the cards. After shuffling, you may look at the order of the cards. Then you hold the stack in one hand with the start area up, facing you, and place the Round Tracker card on the back of the stack (more on this card below). Then you slide the top card down to make the top half of the next card visible, and you’re ready to go.
On each turn you do one of two things: you either do the action depicted on the top half of one of the two visible cards on the top of the deck, or you take the top card and put it on the back of the stack. Whenever the top card is moved to the back, you slide the new top card down to make the next one visible. The available actions allow you to either put a card sideways to store the resources on the card, or to pay resources to upgrade a card by rotating or flipping it, making another area on the card active. In either case, the used card is put on the back of the deck. Using actions on many cards, especially upgrading, often costs resources. To pay for an action you simply turn your resource cards back up again, making sure they still maintain their position in the deck. You can only store four resource cards sideways at a time. Also, if you don’t make sure to spend the resources and they show up on top of the deck again the next round, those cards are immediately put right way up again and discarded to the back of the deck.
You go through the whole deck in this manner, improving it in the process. When you get to the Round Tracker, that card is flipped or rotated to keep track of what round it is and put in the back again. Then you repeat this for a total of eight times and calculate your score. Most upgraded cards are worth Victory Points (VPs). According to the rule book a score of 10 to 19 needs work, 20 to 29 is respectable, 30 to 39 is exceptional, and 40 or more is astounding.
The Palm Island Experience – And a Revelation
The cards are of high quality with a nice linen finish. The illustrations on the 17 basic cards fit the theme and give off a pleasant vibe. The character illustrations on some of the extra cards in the box, however, look cartoonish, bordering on caricature – I don’t like that.
I had to re-read a few passages in the rule book before they made sense to me, and the manual card manipulation felt a bit fiddly at first. When I played the game for the second time, though, my hands had found the right grip, and I felt I understood the game well enough to be able to see at least what would be an obviously bad move. After about five plays I was breezing through it. Manipulating and holding the cards didn’t feel like a dexterity test anymore. Some tactical decisions were actually getting pretty obvious. That might sound discouraging, but at this point my understanding of this game changed altogether.
Palm Island is a very light game, just like I expected. But after playing it several times a day lately, I’ve come to realize that I have a strange misconception about light games: for some reason I tend to think of a light game as less strategic and more tactical, and, conversely, a heavy game as more strategic and less tactical. I don’t know why I’ve been thinking this way. It might be because I’m a little bit better at tactics than strategy. Anyway, this dawned on me as I realized that Palm Island is more of a strategic challenge than a tactical one – despite being a lightweight game.
Like I pointed out above, during setup you’re allowed to look at the order of the cards after shuffling. This has started to make sense to me now. The cards will keep showing up in the same order a total of eight times. To get the best possible score you have to formulate a plan from the very beginning. Depending on the order of the cards, your options will be very different from time to time.
There are a few things that make this game a strategic challenge. On some cards, the area that is worth the most VPs is totally useless during gameplay, while other areas give a lot of resources. You have to have resources to upgrade these as late as possible, but if you have these very cards stored as resources they obviously can’t be upgraded. Some cards have no function at all during play – only during scoring. If you don’t have a long term plan it’s tempting to upgrade these when you have a few spare resources and feel like there’s nothing better to do. The problem is to know when doing that is not a waste of resources, and that depends on the order of the entire deck of cards, especially considering the four resource card limit, and that you never want a resource to show up on top, be turned back to its original position and put on the back of the deck again, wasted.
By making good tactical decisions and keeping track of roughly how many cards of this or that kind that you’ve upgraded, it’s fairly easy to consistently get what the rule book deems an exceptional score. My average score so far is 35. But to consistently get the astounding 40+ scores, you have to make detailed plans and be decent at counting and memorizing cards. At first I felt like this game was no challenge at all. “Two plays in and ‘exceptional’ scores both times! What a simple game!” Now I feel that this game will keep challenging me for a while. And I haven’t even tried adding the extra stuff in the box.
So… Should You Bring an Island With You on Your next Vacation?
Or rather – should you bring Palm Island to a deserted island where you have nobody to play games with? I think you should. At first it’s a pleasant tactical challenge. When you’ve gotten to know the rules and how the game works, the memory aspect will become more important, and so will the strategy aspect. This is a game you can put in your pocket or handbag or wallet or in a tiny cart that you drag around… You might! I don’t know you… Anyway, you can play a round or two, and when the boss shows up you can hide the whole game under two Post-it notes (or one of those handy paperweights we all have on our desks).
There are some things with Palm Island that are not for everyone, though. And to be honest, these are things I usually don’t look for in a game either. Firstly: the memory aspect. To really improve you have to start memorizing cards. I for one am not used to exercising my brain in that way when gaming. Secondly: no clear winning or losing. Beat your previous score. I tend to prefer when a game ends with an unambiguous win or loss. But in the case of Palm Island I don’t mind these things. It’s such a fast, smooth game, and the challenge is never of the I-wonder-if-I-should-call-my-accountant-and-ask-for-advise variety. It’s difinitely more of a pleasant pastime than a strategical challenge. Like a paradise island should be, I guess.
I’m very impressed with this game. For what it is – a simple 17 card handheld game – it delivers above expectations. I think Mr. Mietling is a game designer to keep an eye on.
Two more things. First I have to point that there’s more to this game – the box comes with decks for two players, cooperative rules, confrontational rules, an almost campaign-like play system where you can earn certain cards and add them to your deck. I’ve tried none of these yet. Man, I would have been fine with just the 17 cards and a rubber band! I also have to point out that the cats didn’t come with me to the park, but they helped me writing this when I was back home again, and they say hi.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.
Update September 2019: I ended up getting rid of this game. In this article I explain why.