When Tobago first came out many predicted it would win the Spiel des Jahres. It didn't. I don't think it even made the shortlist. But still, it is a good family game, and it has very good-looking components. Tobago is a game about treasure hunting on a mysterious island. Players put together clues to determine the locations of buried treasure. Once a location is determined, the first player to reach that spot can raise the treasure, which will then be split among those who had contributed towards finding it. The game ends when the deck of treasure cards run out, and players sum up the coins on their treasure cards to determine the winner.
The key mechanism in the game is how players construct the treasure map by playing clue cards on one of the four treasures being hunted. Clue cards are restrictions which narrow down the possible locations of the treasures, e.g. a clue card may state that the treasure is within two spaces of a river, or that the treasure is not in a forest, or the treasure is next to the ocean. Every player has a hand of such clue cards, and he can choose to play one on his turn. Each contribution entitles the contributor to a share when the treasure is raised. When the treasure is raised, every contributor draws and looks at a number of treasure cards according to his number of contributions (raising the treasure is treated as one contribution too). All these cards, plus one extra card which noone has seen, are then shuffled, and the loot splitting begins. The shuffled treasure cards are revealed one by one. Each treasure card is offered to one contributor after another, priority being given to those who contributed most recently, until it is accepted, and that contributor removes his contribution marker. Treasure cards have 2 to 6 coins, so when presented with this take-it-or-pass-it-on decision, you need to decide whether to be contented with the card offered, or to hope for a better one later.
One twist is the curse cards. If one turns up during loot splitting, the loot splitting ends prematurely and all contributors who are still waiting to claim treasures are penalised by having to discard their highest valued treasure card. Those who had contributed and had already collected their share of the loot do not suffer from this penalty, so some people may settle for less because of the fear of curse cards. One way to protect yourself from curse cards is to pick up amulets. These mysteriously appear every time a treasure is raised. They can be used for other purposes too, e.g. taking an extra action.
Every player has a jeep (called an ATV - All Terrain Vehicle - in the game), and to raise a treasure or to collect an amulet you need to drive to the right spot to do so. Every turn you are normally either piecing together treasure maps to narrow down possible locations, or driving your jeep around the island to where the treasures or amulets are.
The game ends when the treasure deck runs out. You total up your treasure cards to see who wins.
I played a full four-player game with Allen, Dennis and Heng. Both Allen and Dennis had played before, but only online. Dennis confidently declared this a 30-minute filler. It turned out to be a one-hour (or so) game. Playing on the computer made things much faster because the computer handles all the rules details. In fact Dennis and Allen realised that they didn't really know the rules, since when they played, the computer did all the hard work of determining legal placements and movements. Heng and I were both new to the game.
Most of the time we were adding clue cards to one of the four treasures, trying to contribute as much as we could, so that we could share the treasure when it was raised. Some treasures took many cards to determine their final location, some just four or five. Due to the game rules, the more clues required, the bigger the treasure. It was always good to have a monopoly or near-monopoly of a treasure, because it meant you'd see a large number of treasure cards when it came to loot splitting. As we played clue cards, we tried to narrow down the locations to where our jeeps were, to give ourselves better chances of raising the treasures. I found that the cards that you draw can restrict your choices quite a fair bit, so the option of spending a turn to discard all cards and redraw is important. There are quite a number of things you can do. Play clues to "book a seat" to share treasures, go digging, go collecting amulets, and use the amulets in various ways.
My cards were not very good, and I didn't manage to contribute to as many treasure maps as I wanted. However I was luckier than average when it came to loot splitting. The fear of the curse cards played an important role. All of us were cautious and remembered to pick up amulets just in case. Eventually most of us were indeed struck by a curse, and all had an amulet to ward it off, except for Dennis, who had unfortunately gambled on not getting hit, and had spent his amulet on something else.
The end game was quite exciting for us. At any one time there are always four possible treasures to be discovered. Towards game end when the treasure card deck is running low, you'll know there will only be one of two more treasures that can be dug up before the deck is exhausted. This is when things get interesting, when players race to "complete" the treasures that they have bigger stakes in.
When our game ended, Heng the first timer and non-rule-reader-and-teacher (which would be me) won the game at 35pts, 5pts ahead of the second place. He had contributed much to the treasure maps and thus had many treasure cards.
Tobago is very much a family game, but probably not for completely-non-gamer families. It's far from as accessible as Ticket to Ride is, but I can see why most gamers feel it is simple. It is simple, to gamers. Components are excellent. Gameplay is interesting and refreshing. There is a fair bit of luck in the game, but you do feel like you can always do something to improve your position. There are opportunities for clever play, and that is satisfying. It gives you a little light mental exercise.
I didn't expect Tobago to be something I'd be a fan of. I was keen to try it to see whether it's something I can buy for my 6-year old daughter. Now that I have played it, I think it's a little beyond her. Maybe one or two years more.
Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: in stock (at time of this post).