tabletop

Top Of The Table – Robinson Crusoe

by Matt Miller on Dec 18, 2013 at 10:30 AM

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]

Gameplay

A turn of Robinson Crusoe plays out over a prescribed set of phases. Each turn begins with an event that affects all the players during that turn, like the whole group being overcome by insomnia, making subsequent tasks that day more difficult. Then players acquire benefits and resources (or occasionally penalties) for the current state of the group’s morale and the resources available on the tile of the camp site. 

After that, it’s into the meat of the game, which is all about planning and executing your team’s actions across the island. There’s limited time in the day, so will you spend it gathering wood in the nearby forest, or exploring a new area of the island? Will you go hunt the animal you found tracks of the day before, or build a new roof for the shelter after last night’s devastating storm?

These actions (and the time you devote to each) are represented by pawns you place across the board. You usually only have one to three pawns at your disposal, so it’s often a question of how best to use the time and resources you have. This variation on a classic worker placement formula is a staple of European competitive board games, and I love the way it’s used here in a more cooperative style. 

No matter how you allocate your pawns, setbacks are inevitable. Each action you take may trigger an adventure connected to the action at hand. Building a new wall around the camp? You may injure your leg while felling the tree. Go on a hunt, and you could be wounded in the fray. These adventures form the emergent story, adding a component of randomness and danger to the otherwise clear strategic choices of each turn. 

Once you’ve wandered the island and prepared as well as you can, the weather phase rolls around, and dice are rolled to find out just how bad the snow and rain get. After that, as night comes, you’d better hope you’ve set aside enough food for everyone to eat – without sustenance, one or more of the survivors is one step closer to death. And if any survivor dies, it’s game over. 

Theme and Story

From the beautifully illustrated game board to the many varied adventures that await you across the island, the core game experience of Robinson Crusoe offers a rich thematic backdrop. The scenarios you face each add their own flavor, and tremendously boost the replay potential. 

The thing I love best about Robinson Crusoe is the constant sense of danger around each corner. The game encourages risk taking and pushing your luck – playing it safe and staying close to camp is rarely the recipe for success. But nearly every risk you take and reward that comes with it has a concurrent setback. For instance, how do you choose between collecting enough food so that the whole group can eat or building the cure that will prevent one of your companions from a terrible infection?

Robinson Crusoe excels at these moments of player-engendered storytelling. Without much intrusion from the game itself, every time I’ve played the table began to craft stories to explain what was happening in any given encounter, how any one person got injured, and why each character makes the choices that they do.

[Next up: The challenge of surviving the island]

Complexity

If there’s a complaint to level against Robinson Crusoe, it’s that the game is not easy to learn. While the rulebook is well-written as a whole, it can be challenging to find individual rules and how they apply in any given situation.

The game is also plagued by an abundance of icons that show up on dice, tokens, cards, and on the board, and it was several games in before I began to recognize them all. Thankfully, the back of the rulebook has a key, and you should expect to keep it handy for some time.

I’m also perplexed by the lack of a clear turn summary sheet – a virtual given in most recent complex games like this to help new players keep track of what happens during each phase. It’s a problem that many gaming groups have already encountered with the game, so I recommend taking advantage of their efforts to solve the issue; hop online and download one of the several rules summary sheets that your fellow gamers have created, and your first few games will play much smoother. 

Beyond the complexity of learning the game, players should also be aware that Robinson Crusoe is not an easy game at which to succeed. Part of the excitement is seeing how close you skirt death before winning, and that means more than the occasional defeat. If that level of difficulty isn’t for you, the rules include some helpful suggestions for ways to scale back the difficulty, including the cool option to have a faithful dog companion to aid in exploration and hunting missions. 

What Else Do I Need To Know?

Robinson Crusoe first released overseas, but the English version is now available in the United States. Unfortunately, I’m not the only board game enthusiast who is excited about its cool gameplay and narrative flexibility; a number of online retailers are sold out of the game as of this writing. You can check in regularly with online sites like Cool Stuff Inc. and Amazon in the hopes of new shipments. Alternately, you may have better luck heading to your local game and hobby store to see if they have any copies in stock. 

Robinson Crusoe succeeds by combining a broad opportunity for storytelling with highly strategic mechanics. Choices matter in this survival game, and you can see how those decisions pan out in subsequent turns. As thematic board games go, Robinson Crusoe is not recommended to beginner gaming groups. However, once you grasp the fundamentals, play dramatically speeds up, and few other cooperative titles can compete with the sheer variety and scope of play options. 

For more of my recommended tabletop games, check out AscensionTannhauserCastle RavenloftYomiStar Trek: Fleet CaptainsAgents of SMERSHA Touch of EvilMage WarsThe Adventurers: Pyramid of HorusDixitStar Wars: Edge of the EmpireLords of WaterdeepPathfinder Adventure Card Game, or Eldritch Horror. And keep an eye out later this month for a look at my picks for the top tabletop games of 2013. To see last year’s picks, you can peruse the Top Ten Tabletop Games of 2012