With the holidays fast approaching, I should probably pivot somewhat to games that are good purchases for your loved ones, or games that I bought for myself because I am weak and Kickstarter is strong. Who knows what this one will be?
In Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar, you play intrepid … tourists, tasked with exploring the Extremely Definitely Safe For Sure eponymous isle in the hopes of finding various treasures and taking snapshots around the island to please the company who courteously allowed you to explore here. However, Vul-Kar is not pleased with your insolence, and you’re not extremely fireproof, so that’s gonna be an interesting combination. Will you be able to escape immolation? Or will you end up burnt to cinders?
So the first thing you gotta do is build the board; it’s a very challenging four-piece puzzle.
Start with the pieces:
I may have mildly misrepresented the number of pieces; there are also these bottom covers:
Whatever. They sit under the board so they’re with the board but not of the board, which is a distinction I’m going to choose to care about. Add the Unstable spaces to the board as well; they’re two bridges and a ladder that were surprisingly difficult to photograph and are equally wobbly. Seems very safe. There are also trees you should pop into the board at various locations; turn their roots to face however you want. Shuffle the treasures next:
Put them face-up in every one of the relevant spots on the board. Easiest way to do this is to get a little felt bag, put all of the treasures in there, and shake it up. While you’re adding stuff to the board, you should place the Heart of Vul-Kar near the big dude:
He keeps it visible to make himself appear more vulnerable and emotionally available, which I appreciate. Also, take the marbles:
The Kickstarter ones are nice. Thanks, Restoration. Place the Ember Marbles (clear / orange) on their various spots on the board. Add one of the Fireball Marbles (red) to the Scar (the indentation on the left side of the board). Add the remainder to the Cataclysm Board:
You’ll also want to set out the Maw:
Inside the Maw, place the Lucky Penny. If you went to a con that Restoration Games was at, you could smoosh your own Lucky Penny, but if not, well, you still have the cardboard one:
Now, set out the Snapshots:
There are two of each type and they correspond to six different spots on the board. Make sure you know where those are, even though this is still part of setup. Shuffle the Souvenir deck and then give each player one:
Shuffle the Action Card deck and give each player two:
Now give each player an Adventurer:
And a player aid in their color:
You’re all ready to start!
Fireball Island is about two things: makin’ money and takin’ snapshots. Players who manage to do both will find themselves immeasurably wealthy; players who do not will just find themselves … immolated. Your entire goal is to take Snapshot Cards from three locations around the island and then return to the helipad, but you figure you can make some cash on the side by picking up treasures (or pulling an Abu and taking the gem at the heart of the volcano). Vul-Kar, naturally, has other plans for you. Very flamey plans. Plans with fire.
On your turn, you’ll first stand up if you were knocked over. It’s possible for you to have been knocked over on a previous turn, so generally stand up in the space you’re on. If it’s unclear what space that is, well:
- River / Lava chute: Ride it all the way to the end and then pick a space at the bottom of it.
- Off the board: Impressive. You can start in any of the numbered (and unoccupied) Cave spaces, but you cannot use the cave on your turn.
- Beyond that, just the closest space to where you ended up. Both do your best and use your imagination.
Once you’ve resolved that, you then play an action card. These will cause you to move around the board. You must move the exact number of spaces, unless otherwise stated. Moving through a space with another player does not count as a space; you also gain none of the benefits. Let’s talk about other movement rules:
- Treasure spaces. Generally, you may pass through spaces marked with a line of red triangles; these are treasure spaces, and you may take the treasure from the associated treasure spot. If there are multiple treasures there, you may take one treasure of your choice. Note that the Heart of Vul-Kar is a treasure, but with a special exception: When you take the Heart of Vul-Kar from its resting place, immediately add a Fireball from the Cataclysm Board to the Scar. He’s upset because you did a rude thing.
- Path spaces only. You can only move on brown path spaces; I’ve been told that they just put down fresh sod and it’s very rude to walk on the grass, sorry.
- Tree roots. You can step over tree roots, as well, so don’t worry about those being in your way.
- Caves. If you finish your movement on a cave space, you duck in there and come out somewhere; roll the handy die and go to that cave. If all of the caves with that number already have another player on them, you can’t go through there and you have to stop moving, sorry.
- A life of crime. If you pass through another space with a player who has the Heart of Vul-Kar, you take it. It’s definitely stealing and you’re a criminal now, so, that’s gonna be a lot to deal with.
- Snapshots. If you start on or move through a space with the Snapshot icon on it, you may take a Snapshot provided:
- You don’t have any of that color;
- There are Snapshots of that location to take;
- There are no players on that space.
- Unstable Spaces. The bridges and ladder are Unstable; this means they’re rickety and definitely not up to code. When you move onto one, you end your movement there. If a player is already on one, you skip that space; helpfully, this means you don’t have to stop.
While playing an action card, you may see multiple symbols:
- Rotate: This lets you rotate Vul-Kar or any tree one turn on its base. This causes marbles to behave differently on the board.
- Ember Marble: This lets you poke / push (not flick; this isn’t ICECOOL) any orange Ember Marble on the board. This may cause it to knock players and structures over; leave the players and fix the structures. If you cause an Ember Marble to leave the board due to being too aggressive, place one of your treasures into the Maw and players you knocked over may stand up without any ill effects.
- Cataclysm!: First, take all the fireballs in the Scar and drop them into Vul-Kar. Once you’ve done that chaos, discard the Cataclysm card to an empty space on the Cataclysm Board. If it fills up, add another fireball to the Scar and shuffle the three Cataclysm cards in with the Action Card discard pile and the deck to form a new deck. If you run out of marbles to add to the scar, the game’s end has begun!
During the process of playing with fire, it is possible for you to knock another player over. Being knocked over means that anything but your base is touching the ground. If a player knocks you over, give them a Treasure of your choice. If you knock yourself over, sigh deeply and add one of your Treasures to the Maw. Either way, you get a Souvenir in the hopes that you won’t sue. You may fall over not due to a marble (the board is wiggly); your house may rule whether or not that counts. Many players say marbles / people sent flying via marbles only.
You may freely play Souvenirs on your turn; as many as you’d like.
End of Game
Once either a player lands (doesn’t need to stop moving, just lands) on the Helipad space with 3 different color Snapshots or the fourth fireball marble has been taken, the Hello-Copter returns! Each player has two turns to make it back or the Hello-copter will leave without them. Moving from the Helipad to the Hello-copter is one extra space, but when you land the Hello-copter you get to take a Treasure from the Maw! This can even the be the very valuable Lucky Penny. Once you’re there, you can still play cards on your turn, but you don’t move; you only can perform the action.
Once two turns have passed or every character makes it to the Hello-copter, calculate every player’s score (even if you were stranded on Fireball Island):
- Treasures: 1 / 3 / 6 / 10 / 15 for 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5+ of each type of Treasure.
- The Heart of Vul-Kar: 7 points. Very valuable and shiny.
- The Lucky Penny: 6 points.
- Snapshots: If you made it to the Hello-copter, 5 points each. If not, 0.
The player with the most points wins!
For some head-to-head Fireball Island action, you’ll each play with two characters and this token:
This is used to tell you whose turn it is, as you’ll alternate turns between players. This mode works kind of like you’d expect:
- You share Action and Souvenir Cards.
- You score Treasures together but keep them separated during gameplay.
- If you hit one of your characters, it counts as knocking yourself over.
- Your characters can steal from each other.
The main difference is that you need all six Snapshots to summon the Hello-copter. You share Snapshots between your characters.
Player Count Differences
The only real difference is the two-player version, in which you control both characters. Beyond that there’s more chaos happening every turn at higher player counts and more people just kind of flopping around the map. At two, you should be splitting your focus and running both sides of the island simultaneously, but it’s also tempting to just get twice as much treasure out of the deal, if you can. It does feel a bit empty, though, since you can really only target two other people (and there’s no incentive to hit your own pieces), so you end up just kind of aggressing each other. I prefer it at higher player counts, where there are many more explosions.
- Look, I’m going to be real with you. This isn’t a game you want to play super strategically. The whole game is about playing cards and lighting people on fire via an angry volcano demigod. There are definitely ways to play this with a bit more strategy, but consider this section more “just some handy tips” while noting that the game is a lot more fun if you’re just kind of letting things happen, particularly explosions. That said.
- You don’t have to exclusively rotate Vul-Kar. One thing you can do is rotate the trees to insulate yourself against fireball and ember marbles. The tree roots will generally protect you, though that’s not a guarantee. You can also rotate other things to potentially light up other players, if that’s the very specific life that you want to live.
- Remember that you can only get one Snapshot of each color. This is a common first-game mistake; players assume because there are two of each color that they can get both; this is not the case.
- If you know a player has five of a Treasure and knocks you over; give them one more. That’s worthless to them, which is always fun (though it does let them use it to insulate their Treasures against getting wrecked, so your mileage may vary on this bit).
- Weigh risk and reward. It’s not worth going across the island for the third snapshot if you won’t be able to get back to the Hello-copter; you’ll just not gain any points. Know when you should advance and when you should retreat. You really don’t want to lose all those points.
- General advice is to avoid the outside tracks if you can. They tend to attract a lot of marbles and there aren’t a ton of good blockers; that’s why they also have a lot of treasures on them. One exception being if you have the Tote Bag or enough movement that you can get back to the Hello-copter quickly; just kinda go for it; you can get a lot of stuff.
- Also don’t end your turn on bridges / ladders if you can. That’s how people die in Fireball Island, or worse, get launched into the abyss. They’re unstable for a reason; use that VIP pass to get around them.
- Pretty much every Souvenir is super good; get more if you can. The “worst” is probably the Snowglobe (every player you knock over must give you an extra Treasure), but that’s only because I tend not to play particularly mean (beyond lighting people up when I can). The Jet Pack is incredibly useful, especially if players don’t expect you to be able to return to the helipad, as you can get off the island before they have a chance to mount an offensive against you. Surprise is definitely your friend in this game.
- Cataclysm card are great and you should play as many of them as possible. Chaos.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- What a production. The board is so bright and colorful, Vul-Kar’s construction is amazing, and it has the kind of table presence that people dream of. It’s really top-notch. It’s going to make a hell of a holiday gift for families; it’s also a hoot to play.
- A very fun theme. I get that it’s a restoration of an older game, but I think they leaned into the ridiculous a bit more with the Souvenirs, which I genuinely appreciate as the kind of thing a crummy lawyer would suggest to a company if their tourists got immolated by a volcano. Subsequent expansions lean into the camp even more, and it works super well for the game.
- The ember marbles are super fun to poke. It’s a very nice dexterity mechanic and I like it quite a bit.
- Vul-Kar just works so well. The rumbling of the marbles as they go down the island, just busting everything out of their way, is fantastic. I love it so much and I want it to happen forever.
- Plays quickly. It played a lot faster than I expected — I think most of our four-player games were 35 minutes? It may take longer if you feel like idling around the island for a bit and getting lit on fire, which, is the dream.
- It’s kind of annoying to put away. I think that apparently there was drama about the box construction, but whatever; it’s not a huge deal, just I wish it were a bit vertically taller so that I could fit the pieces in more easily.
- It can occasionally be difficult to tell where you can and can’t walk on boards. I think that’s just a quirk of the manufacturing process, unfortunately; hopefully that’s not the case for everyone, but it happened once or twice with the boards I played with.
- Unlucky draws / dice rolls can set you back. There are very few circumstances more frustrating than falling short of making it back to the Hello-copter because you didn’t get the cave roll or the Action Card draw you needed; on one hand it would be nice to have more cards in your hand, but on the other it would just make the game take much longer.
- It is aggressively large. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t account for that when I got it and I don’t think I have any place to put it in my house, currently. But I’m not dealing with that right now. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
- It comes with no baggies. I mean, I own some bags and I can provide them for the game, but … that’s kind of frustrating, since a lot of the pieces come in “please rip this bag open to get at the stuff inside” bags that then just flop everywhere inside the box. It makes the internals of the box a mess and it’s not appreciated. At least it kind of evens out since pretty much every other game gives you a few more baggies than you need.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I’m still kinda enamored with Fireball Island! I’ve had some time to sit with it and really grapple what I like about it, and I’ve narrowed it down. I appreciate that it’s reminiscent of the games that I grew up with without giving into the things that made those crappy. I love the dexterity component / lighting up random pieces on the board with some marbley nonsense. It’s clear from the construction how much effort went into making this a really high-quality production while still keeping the price from being absolutely ridiculous. Sure, the box isn’t my all-time favorite box, but I figured out how to put it away and that only required an advanced Engineering degree. I haven’t yet figured out where in my home to put it, but that’s a problem for another day / life. I’ll be pretty clear — if you’re looking for a crunchy Euro or a game that tests your strategic resolve, this ain’t it. If you’re looking for a game with an awesome table presence that’s very light, fun for the whole family, and plays decently quickly, that’s much more what this one can do. Either way, I’ve had a ton of fun on Fireball Island, and I’m looking forward to coming back for the expansions!