Alone with My Palm (Island)
I’m a sucker for portable card games and a double-sucker for those that can be played without a surface. Never mind that I’ll never find myself in a situation where I’ll actually want to play one. In the car? Motion sickness. On an airplane? Tray table. Eating a meal on the airplane? Then I’m eating, you goofball, not playing a card game. Standing in the Fantasy Flight line at Gen Con? Never again.
But I made a promise to my grandfather that I would find the perfect surfaceless card game, so I grabbed Palm Island and gave it a few plays, all within approximately two meters of a clean tabletop. Still, it felt good to do right by old gramps. He died never having owned a table. The real tragedy was not knowing where to set all the food everybody sent over.
Oh, right, Palm Island. Let’s talk about that instead.
You’re trapped on a desert island. So it goes. Or maybe you dwell there by choice. I’m not actually sure. Either way, your goal is to construct a village from the ground up. There are fish and palm logs to gather, and trade houses and regular houses to build, and—
And look, Palm Island isn’t interesting because of its setting. If anything, the setting is like a courtesy visit to a friend’s church: a real snore that leaves you leafing through one of the pamphlets from the lobby. Thanks to the iconography on the cards, the illustrations are thoroughly obscured. I’m not one hundred percent certain I’ve ever seen a genuine “canoe house,” but I have a reasonable suspicion it doesn’t look like a shroud of mist lingering over a tropical mountain. Yet that’s what Palm Island depicts on the canoe house card.
Not that I’m complaining. Every medium has its limitations, and cramming a functional card game onto seventeen cards you can fit into the average adult human’s palm means you won’t be dazzling anybody with your revival of pointillism. Instead, Palm Island is interesting mechanically. Although in this case I’m talking about all the turning and rotating — the physical mechanical manipulation of the cards — rather than anything ingenious about the game’s systems.
It goes like this. You shuffle together your deck, slap the turn tracker onto the back, and start playing. At any given moment, you’re allowed to look at the top two cards. From there, cards can be played sideways as a resource, flipped or rotated to upgrade a card at the expense of resources, and… well, that’s pretty much it. Each card is functionally four cards, two on each side. Run through your deck until you’ve turned around the turn tracker a few times and tally up your points. There you go. Palm Island in a nutshell. Or in the palm of your hand.
The interesting details are found in the particulars of how you handle your cards. Anything you use or discard goes to the back of the deck. Can’t use something? Away with it. Want a resource? Tuck it sideways, but all the way in the back. These gradually work their way forward again, sometimes forcing you to make tradeoffs between using a resource for an upgrade now or possibly wasting it when that card returns to the front. Expect this to happen quite often. Resources must be carefully juggled, but various structures require different amounts of fish, timber, and metal, and because you can only see the two topmost cards, you’re liable to throw away some surplus fish right before you need them.
There are even some very, very, very minor meta-elements. When you meet certain milestones, such as a high score or particular upgrades, you’re permitted to include additional cards in future plays. These generally provide additional resources. Or sometimes additional resources. Also additional resources.
Really, that’s the problem with Palm Island. In spite of its pleasing tactility — and, sure, portability — it doesn’t offer anything more than, say, a mindless phone game. There are competitive and cooperative modes, but if I’m really going to be stranded with a friend, I’d rather default to something more immediately rewarding like Dragon Punch. If anything, Palm Island’s flexibility is part of the issue. Rather than doubling down on a challenging solo experience or a great cooperative scenario or a fantastic competitive game, it attempts to accomplish all three at the same time. How? Mostly by providing a roughly linear progression from one resource to the next, from basic structures to advanced temples, and then asking you to shuffle it together. Other than one or two added bonuses or objectives, it always sets foot in the imprints left by its last passage.
Once when we were standing around in his kitchen and wishing he owned a table, my grandpa said it best: “You can do one thing well in this life, sonny.” Palm Island tries to be too many things. As a result, it does none of them with any gumption. Or maybe there just wasn’t room in its diminutive format for anything other than a basic game of swapping resources for upgrades. Certainly there wasn’t room for any meaningful choices.
More’s the pity. My search continues. Grandpa, I shall avenge thee yet.