While cooperative gaming has been a rising trend in the tabletop scene in the last five years, 2013 saw an especially surprising array of engaging co-op games – enough that I’ve spent the last three months highlighting my recent favorites in the milieu. Eldritch Horror offers a Lovecraftian nightmare about trying to save the world, while the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game emulates classic RPG features using card game mechanics. I’m closing out our three months of cooperative fun with another great project that came to North America in 2013. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, is an elegant and engaging departure from traditional cooperative play, both in mechanics and theme.

In Robinson Crusoe, one to four players take on the role of survivors on a tropical island filled with danger and opportunities for adventure. As each turn passes, the survivors deal with ravenous beasts, dangerous weather, and the more basic needs of food and shelter. The game is challenging to understand at first glance, and an equally challenging game to win – but the great emergent narratives that come out of each playthrough make this more than worth the time it takes to comprehend. 

Getting Started

When you first open the box, it’s hard not to get excited about the visual presentation of Robinson Crusoe’s board. The art looks like a ramshackle table where the survivors have laid out a map of the uncharted island and other plans for how to survive, including spaces to plan what inventions are needed for survival, and a clear presentation of how much wood or fur may be required to build a roof or palisade for your shelter. As the game continues, you’ll fill out the map, develop new items to help you make it through another cold night, and slowly shore up your defenses against hungry animals and nasty weather. 

Beyond the appearance of the board, initial setup can be a little overwhelming, with a wide variety of card types, tokens, wooden markers, and tiles. I strongly recommend the game’s owner take the time to preset these components on the table and understand what each one is before trying to introduce the game to friends. In fact, the rules even include a solo variant of play, which is a fantastic way to wrap your head around the game before playing with others. 

Even once you’re familiar with how the game plays, expect to set aside a good 15 minutes before play begins to shuffle card piles and prepare token piles. Each player chooses one of four characters (the cook, explorer, carpenter, and soldier) that all have unique special abilities to help the group. 

Most significantly, before the game begins, you’ll select a scenario. Each of the six scenarios that comes with the game offer a dramatically different gameplay experience, almost like individual games in their own right. The simplest of them demands that the players survive one harsh winter on the island while simultaneously building up enough wood for a bonfire to catch the eye of passing ships in the spring. Other scenarios offer great variations. In one, the island is populated by cannibals. In another, the Robinson family has no hope of rescue and must build a home and settle the whole island. In perhaps the widest departure, another scenario casts you not as castaways but as treasure hunters, gathering as much treasure as possible before a massive volcano erupts.

With your scenario chosen, it’s time to test your survival skills.

[Next up: Exploring the island, turn by turn]