Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island

Plays: 1Px4, 2Px4.

The Game

Robinson Crusoe is a game I have read many good things about, so I was very much looking forward to it. It is a cooperative game, loosely based on the original story of its namesake. Players are stranded on an island. They need to survive, and they need to achieve the objective of the scenario that they are playing. The game comes with 6 scenarios, and each tells a different story. In the first scenario, you need to stockpile enough wood and start a fire to attract a passing ship, and while you are at it, the weather will get colder and colder, and you must get off the island before the end of the 12th round.

Every round there are many things you can do, and you need to decide which to do. Every player has two pawns, representing time and effort. You can use you pawns to do two different things, or do the same thing twice, or for some of the more challenging tasks, you can spend two pawns to make sure it gets done, or spend one pawn but risk failing. There are no player turns. Everyone discusses how the pawns should be used, and then the pawns are assigned, and actions resolved. You can explore the island, discovering goodies, finding new sources of food and wood, discovering natural shelters, encountering traces of wild beasts and triggering story elements of the scenario. You can build a shelter and improve it to protect you from weather and wild animals. You can make tools. Tools available vary from game to game, and every tool has some prerequisite, e.g. requiring wood, requiring another tool to have been made, and requiring a certain terrain type to have been discovered. You can hunt if you have discovered traces of a wild animal. You can collect food and wood from other parts of the island. You can choose to address threats. Every round one or more events occur, usually bringing bad news. They also leave behind threats, which if not addressed in time, will trigger further bad effects in a later round. Sometimes you just need to rest and heal your wounds, or be a clown and cheer up the group (improve morale, in game terms).

The first round of a game. Only a beach tile is revealed on the island.

The explorer is one of the four player characters that you can play. The row of hearts at the bottom is the health bar. If your health marker reaches the skull, your are dead and everyone loses. Friday and Dog are supporting cast. They give additional pawns. You use Friday in solo and 2P games. You use Dog in solo games, and it is recommended for 3P games too.

Lots of markers! This looks very intimidating at first, but once you understand them, they are mostly just useful reminders. You don't really fiddle with them much. The only type of marker you handle a lot are the Determination tokens (brown stars).

Brown, green and grey dice are to be rolled when you attempt Build, Explore and Gather actions with only one pawn. The dice will tell you (a) whether you succeed, (b) whether you suffer any injury, (c) whether an event occurs (usually bad). The red die is for wild animals invading your shelter. The white die and the orange die are weather dice, white having mostly snow and orange having mostly rain.

Right off the bat, survival is already a problem. With no shelter built or found, players will take wounds for sleeping in the open. There's also the constant threat of hunger. You take two wounds for eating no dinner - the only meal of the day. Also food cannot be preserved unless you have built specific tools, so any food not eaten will spoil overnight. Weather conditions, which are defined by the scenarios, also threaten survival. If your roof is not strong enough to protect you from rain or snow, you lose food and wood. On top of that, snowfall forces you to burn wood to keep warm, even if your roof is strong enough. Sounds like a game for masochists? Wait till you see the scenario-specific problems that the game also throws at you. That's where the fun begins.

Do not despair. There are things that help you. The tools are very important. In addition to the 14 possible tools you can make in every game, you also have two free random starting tools which are always helpful. Some scenarios and events give you treasures, which are usually very handy tools or one-shot powers. Each character has special abilities too. The scenarios have scenario-specific tools, which are usually crucial for completing your objective. Some are the objectives - you need to make those tools to win.

Fourteen tools are available to be made in every game. Nine of them (with arrows on both sides of the names) are fixed, the other five are randomly drawn. The upper half of the cards depict the requirements, which can be terrain types discovered, resources, or other tools. The lower half is what you get. E.g. to make a bow you need to have rope, a knife and also spend one wood. Once made, you increase your weapon level by three.

There are quite many rules details, and there are quite a few exceptions and special cases to remember. Don't be surprised to miss a few rules in your first few games. For this game, rereading the rules after the first few games is definitely worthwhile.

The Play

So far I have only played solo games and 2P games. The first few games were simply brutal. I learned the hard way about food-wasting. I happily went hunting, and gained a lot of meat. But I had no means of preserving it, and it all spoiled. What a waste. I also learned the importance of planning early to build a strong roof. Losing food and wood due to heavy rain and snow was painful. In these first few games, stockpiling enough wood felt downright impossible. The game was punishing, dealing out despair incessantly. It took a few games of learning from my mistakes before I gained a decent grasp of how to survive. I eventually won Scenario 1, using the Carpenter character whose special abilities include improved chances of successfully making tools and building things with less wood.

In this particular game, I had a headache and also injured my arm (brown broken-heart tokens). I was in bad health, close to dying. Friday too. Dog doesn't die though (no red cube - health marker). The card on the right is a treasure I found on the island. It is called Boxes, but it is effectively a fridge - my food doesn't spoil anymore.

This is bad... I had many events that caused food and wood sources to exhaust (black cubes covering the sources). Both food and wood sources at my camp (tent token) were exhausted which means I gained one food and one wood less every round. There was even an event that caused one of the previously explored tiles to become inaccessible (the one flipped over). I lost this game rather badly. In hindsight, I should have put more effort into addressing threats.

This was a game that I won. I found a natural shelter upon my first exploration - the mountain tile in the middle, and promptly moved camp and occupied the cave. That's basically a free shelter, saving me two wood. I also managed to build two tools that gave the free food and free wood tokens. Hunger was no longer a problem. This was a solo game so I only needed one food per round.

The carpenter character gave me my first win. I suspect this is the most useful character in the game, because tools are very helpful.

In the game I won, I managed to make 7 tools (bottom row, and rightmost tool in the middle row).

The scenario card. It specifies how many rounds are to be played, and when the beast and weather dice need to be rolled (top section). Four discovery tokens in the game have various red patterns. They mean different things in different scenarios, so the scenario card also specifies what they mean (middle left section). Scenarios usually have two scenario-specific tools that players can make (bottom right section). In this particular game, I successfully stockpiled enough wood.

When I played the second scenario for the first time, as a solo game, it almost felt too easy. I was helped by reasonably good luck - the treasures I obtained from the scenario-specific event all fit my purposes quite well. I fully exploited the scenario - I only explored four more tiles, because I only needed five tiles on which I could build wooden crosses.

This is Scenario 2 - Cursed Island. The objective is to build five crosses (each requiring two wood). The white cubes are mysterious fog which appears when certain event cards are drawn and when the third totem pole (and onwards) is found. Fog makes collecting resources and building crosses harder. The blue markers are the crosses.

I won Scenario 2 using the cook character. I gained a total of six treasures in this game. Three were because of a scenario specific totem pole event, the others were due to generic events. I was very lucky. Treasures don't come easily.

The scenario card for Scenario 2. Some scenarios have specific meaning associated with each totem pole discovered when exploring. Some tiles have a totem pole icon.

The two other treasures which I had used up, a beast I had hunted down, and the two starting tools that I had used up. The treasure Candles and the starting tool Hammer and Nails gave me extra pawns for building, and this was what allowed me to get so many tools made.

My first four games were solo games. The next four were 2P games with my wife Michelle. We started with the first scenario. We lost quite spectacularly twice in a row. Michelle immediately agreed when I suggested we make the game easier by adding Dog to the game (extra pawn which can only support an Explore or Hunt action). Two player games feel a little different from solo games. In the solo game, there is a free morale increase every round, which helps you get more Determination (required for triggering character special abilities), and makes the Arrange Camp action (improve morale and gain Determination) much less useful. Also you only need to feed yourself, so the fish source on your starting tile is already sufficient. Even if you want to move camp, as long as you move it to a tile with a food source, you won't need to worry much about food. I guess these adjustments are necessary because you have fewer pawns at your disposal. Else the game would become impossibly hard. But it does mean there is less variety.

When I played with Michelle, I tried not to guide her too much and not to help her decide what to do with her pawns. I reminded her about the threats we were facing, but I let her decide how she wanted to assigned her pawns and how much risk she wanted to take. She was a little discouraged by the initial losses, but once she had a better grasp of what worked and what didn't, and she won for the first time, she was more enthusiastic.

This was a game that I played with Michelle. We lost very abruptly when an event forced us to fight a beast which we were completely unprepared for. It turned out to be a bear, one of the most ferocious beasts in the game. I was promptly eaten. The bear choked on my bones and died too, but we lost the game (in game terms, when you hunt, you always succeed, and it is only a matter of whether you get injured and whether your weapon gets damaged).

In another game, we were killed by weather - one rain cloud, two snow clouds, and one animal attacking our palisade.

The Thoughts

Robinson Crusoe is a challenging game of risk management and crisis management. While you try to survive on the island, the game system keeps throwing new problems at you, and sometimes new opportunities too. You are constantly forced to make choices. Which threat do you address and which do you ignore? Among those that you need to address, which should get priority? Do you build a tool now so that you will benefit from it for the rest of the game, or do you try to eliminate a looming threat first? For many actions, you also need to decide whether to spend two pawns to guarantee success, or to use your pawns on different activities hoping you'll be successful in both and thus get more work done on the same day.

The game tells a convincing story. There are many event cards, treasure cards and mystery cards, so there is a lot of variety. The story elements are just various encounters you might have when stranded on an island (e.g. bad weather), or when you are building something (e.g. you hit your finger with a hammer), and so on. So they don't feel disjointed like how it can be in Tales of the Arabian Nights. Many events have a follow-up event, because after taking effect, the card is shuffled into the event deck, and the second effect takes place in a future round. E.g. you start getting headaches. If by the time the same card is drawn you have not discovered any cure, your headache develops into a full-blown migraine and you are out of action for one full day because you need to rest. There is no long plotline in the basic mechanisms, since it is just random events thrown at you, and many having a second delayed effect. However the scenarios do provide story arcs.

The game feels quite different between solo and 2P. I wonder whether it will feel very different again with 3P.

With cooperative games, one of the biggest questions is whether it will have the alpha gamer problem - will the game end up being one experienced gamer telling everyone else what to do? Before I answer that, one thing needs to be clear - the alpha gamer problem is a gamer problem, not a game problem. That said, I do think in Robinson Crusoe if you have an alpha gamer problem in your group, it will manifest more easily. There are no player turns. Each round is players discussing together how to assign pawns, and then the assignment is done simultaneously. There is no hidden information like cards being held by players. There is some complexity (e.g. player's unique abilities) that makes it harder for an alpha gamer to keep track of and remember everything, but once he is familiar with the game, these complexity elements won't stop him. If you are reading a boardgame blog, beware that you have a higher likelihood of being the alpha gamer in your group. :-)

Another big question is: is this game winnable only when you are lucky with the card draws and die rolls? I do think that sometimes when you have terrible luck, it is impossible to win. And sometimes when you get very lucky, the game feels a bit too easy. There is enough randomness in the game for both situations to be possible. What I feel is there is enough in between these two extremes to make you feel your effort is worthwhile and your decisions matter. The randomness in this game provides replayability, and sometimes creates interesting and even unexpected stories.

I think this game can work well as a solo game - not the basic solo game with one player character plus Friday and Dog, but solo games where you play two or more player characters. I think the game will present different challenges with different numbers of player characters.


Andy Kaizar said...

"If you are reading a boardgame blog, beware that you have a higher likelihood of being the alpha gamer in your group"

This made me LOL :))

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

because it is very true! :-D