Otters can go to hell. These little bastards ruined not one, but two games of Robinson Crusoe for me. That sentence, and the knowledge that this board game comes with a forty page plus manual, should be enough to determine whether you want to continue reading this review.
Robinson Crusoe is a 1-4 player cooperative worker placement game designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek. In it players are helplessly trapped on an island destined for death. Or are they? With your help they can overcome the weather, wild beasts, food shortages, and otters to live and see the birth of their grandchildren. Did I just raise your morale? Because surviving the island is unlikely to happen, so shed a tear for those poor grandkids as we maroon ourselves on the island that is Robinson Crusoe.
How to Play
There’s a lot going on in this game, and I’m going to try and make this section as succinct as possible. Meaning I’ll miss a lot of details, but if I finish in less than ten pages, I’m doing well.
First off, during setup you select what scenario you’ll be playing. These provide your victory conditions for the game, as well as some other rules and items. If you don’t manage to complete the victory condition in the designated number of rounds, you lose. You also lose if anybody dies. Except for Friday, the native islander. Funnily enough, this is the origin of the phrase TGIF.
Next, I’ll introduce the different trackers around the board. These include: round, morale, roof, palisade, weapon, character health, and of course the urinary track. That last one is not a real thing, I mean it is and you should look after it, just not in this game.
Each round has five phases, beginning with the first phase: The Event Phase. Skip this phase in the first round, but otherwise draw a card from the event deck. This card has an immediate effect that gets activated, and then gets placed onto what I like to call the conveyer belt from hell. As cards get put on this conveyer belt, it pushes previously placed cards off. Once off, the second part of the card activates, usually kicking your butt in the process.
The second phase is the Morale Phase. Having high morale awards determination, but usually your morale will be low forcing you to give them up instead. If the leading player has no more tokens to give then the price is blood; they receive a wound for every missing token.
The Production Phase, my favourite phase, then takes place. This is the safe phase. All that happens is that you collect all the food and wood produced by your camp.
The fourth phase, and the meat of the game, is the Action Phase. This is the worker placement part of the game, meaning that there’s many actions around the board, and to do them, you need to place your worker tokens on them. However, there’s a trick. For the three most important tasks – exploring, gathering, and building – if you only place one worker on either of these tasks you must roll the dice of destiny. These die determine what eventuated from your task: if you got wounded, if you completed the task successfully, or if you pulled a Bilbo Baggins and went on an adventure – causing you to draw an adventure card.
The actions you may perform:
- Threat Action: We talked about event cards before, each card has a cost to remove it from the conveyer belt of death. Generally being one of your workers, sometimes more.
- Hunting: After finding a wandering beast, you can use this action to fight it. You have no idea the type of beast it is until you flip the card over. This is a great source of food, fur, and surprise tigers.
- Building: Lets you build different items around the board. Including the shelter, roof, palisade, weapons, and most importantly all the inventions.
- Gather Resources: Gain a resource of the location you put your token on.
- Explore: Reveal a new section of the map, and get some sweet, sweet discovery tokens in the process.
- Arrange the Camp: Gain two determination tokens and/or a morale.
- Rest: Heal a wound.
Once all actions have been plotted and carried out roll the weather dice to begin the Weather Phase – the number of dice indicated on the scenario sheet. There are three types of weather dice, and they all suck. Total the number clouds you roll, subtract from the level of your roof, and then pay a food and a wood for each remaining cloud, remembering that each missing resource will cost the team a wound. Additionally, if you rolled a snow cloud, you must pay additional wood for that. Then the beast dice has its own awful range of things that can happen as well.
The final punch in the sack is the Night Phase. In this phase you can move the camp to an adjacent tile. Then all players must eat one food token, mmmm nutritious, or take two wounds instead. Then if you haven’t built or found a shelter, you also take a wound. Afterwards, as if that wasn’t enough, all your perishable food goes rotten.
With dawn a new round begins. Continue through these phases until you’ve either won or lost the scenario, died, or just forgotten the rules and given up.
The best thing about the game is how thematic everything is. For instance, the otters came into my camp and ate all the fish from a map tile, meaning I could no longer go to that tile to get fish, because there was none there. This thematic reasoning is applied to everything throughout the game, creating a real sense of story. It also makes for awesome session reports, and game debriefs.
In terms of decision making, there are a lot of agonising choices sprinkled throughout. There is a great mechanic on some of the adventure cards which read: get something good now, but have something bad happen later. This is a fantastic mechanic, not only is it a thematic choice, but it adds that layer of short term gain vs long time problem. Allowing you time to prepare for that future eventuality.
This is something Robinson Crusoe excels at, putting a similar mechanic on the threat cards as well. It lets you know what’s going to happen in the future, and what you need to do to deal with it. This leads into the real main mechanic of the game, triaging. This board game is an open fire hydrant of bad times, and it’s up to you to decide what’s worse at any point in time. This is a decision you’ll have to make repeatedly throughout: what’s worse, taking a wound now, or not building a shelter so that you’ll take wounds every turn? What’s worse, losing one morale now, or not having enough food for the night? Having to set the priority of each of the five different tracks, along with dealing with any serious and not serious threats is this games bread and butter.
It’s not all about dealing with what’s going wrong though, you also need to plan ahead. Robinson Crusoe allows different paths to victory. You can have games where you focus on hunting, and levelling up your weapons, or games where you focus on having a roof over your head, or games where you have lots of inventions. This freedom of choice is great, because it lets you play how you want to play. It also prevents the board game from going stale, as you can mix up your strategies between games.
The interplay between exploring and building is neat. With some inventions requiring players to venture forth on the island, it doesn’t allow the you to tunnel into only one mechanic.
The next big boon for this board game is the feeling of growth. When you first start on the island you start as a young boy who couldn’t tell apart his ass from his elbow. However, by the end you’ll have a shelter, a roof over your head, a food source, several well put together inventions, and a full chest of hair. In the space of an hour or two you get a real sense of journey going from helpless to helpful.
Robinson Crusoe has the Dark Souls effect. Since it’s so difficult to win, when you eventually get a victory your endorphins party like it’s Mardi Gras. This is something you get from other cooperative games, but rarely on this scale.
Away from the gameplay the second edition is a godsend. The rule book alone is worth rebuying this game entirely. Despite being forty pages long everything is clearly laid out, with examples given for every scenario you can think of. There’s no question in my mind that this is the best rule book I’ve read, and something that all game designers should aspire to. The second addition also adds stickers to the worker tokens, which should help anyone suffering from colour blindness.
Lastly, there is a lot of content in the box. Aside from the Castaways scenario that I’ve based this review on, there are also six other scenarios. Each one plays differently to the previous, so you can have a few games and find the one which you enjoy the most.
A couple weeks ago I accused Deep Sea Adventure of being too punishing. Robinson Crusoe took one look at that review and said: hold my bananas. This board game defines punishment, in that bad stuff happens constantly, and unpredictably.
In a tight game where you have an extremely limited amount of actions, and a lot of systems needing those actions. It forces you into a position where you need to separate your workers, therefore requiring you to roll dice to determine if your action was successful. This is the worst game mechanic I’ve seen in a long while. It’s just not fun. Worse still, it ruins the balance of the game. Was the game balanced around you always rolling a success? Always rolling a failure? Somewhere in between? If so, what happens when the player rolls either side of that magical number? At this point Vlaada Chvatil would say, you’ve lost control of your game.
Here’s an example of how brutal it can be: I tried building the Shortcut invention and had to roll the three dice, instead I took a wound, didn’t build it, and drew the Broken Tool adventure card forcing me to remove my previously built Map invention. So instead of building something that would have brought me closer to victory, I’m now two turns behind where I was. My game was over like that.
Rolling of dice aside, there are many other extremely punishing mechanics throughout the game. The weather dice are notorious for this, they will eat through your supplies faster than a plague of locusts. Then there are the random events at the start of each round that are equivalently evil to drawing two epidemic cards in a row. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine that the game is punishing, however, for me to keep playing it should be perceivably fair. Robinson Crusoe positions itself as a thinky strategy game, and for that to be true, it means that for the majority of plays there should be a conceivable path to victory, given enough time and brain power. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as no matter how good you are, you require both a lot of luck, and pin point strategy to make it alive at the end. Which begs the question, how much punishment is too much? And at what point does it go from being enjoyable to removing fun from the game?
The next thing I want to take aim at is the number of systems. There are just too many. Some are only there for the punishment aspect – palisades anyone? These could be streamlined, but I feel like they weren’t because the game, to its detriment, wants to be open to multiple scenarios. As it is, there’s a lot of bookkeeping being done, for essentially one or two decisions per round.
Digging deeper, we can see that not all actions are created equal either. Of the three main actions, exploring, building, and gathering. Gathering seems rubbish. For exploring you uncover new areas unlocking inventions, and getting a bunch of discovery tokens providing any number of bonuses. For building you get mostly permanent increases to your efficiency, or other strong abilities needed to survive. For gathering, you get one wood or food. This imbalance makes players less inclined to use this action, disregarding it even when it may be their only saving move.
Ok, we’re taking a timeout from this review to talk about something that happened as I was writing this review. I’m pretty stressed out because we have a newborn in the house, and even a Tibetan monk could not keep his cool. My gorgeous wife was helping me out by playing this board game, clearly against her wishes, but doing it for me. She’s amazing. Anyway, we got halfway through this game, and had this conversation:
“Yeah, we are.”
“It’s because you’re not playing it correctly”
And if we can get passed the fact that I’m a degenerate scumbag, there’s a couple things to unpack here. First, the correct way to play isn’t intuitive, there’s a lot of questions to ask, and if you haven’t read the forty plus page rule book you’re not going to have a clue what those questions are. The second bit, is that the game suffers from the quarterback problem. All the information needed to run someone’s turn is out in the open. While that’s not a problem for us because I’d never tell my wife what to do, it did mean that I could analyse every one of her moves. Combined with the experience of several games under my belt, and my invested interest to win, it ultimately lead to this explosion.
We finish up this section with some lighter criticism, and to be fair, it’s not even criticism. More something you should be aware of, and that is table space. This is quite a big board game, so make sure you have the space to play before you buy.
It’s weird, I played Robinson Crusoe when it came out and I enjoyed it then for what it was. Now that I’ve come to review it, I dusted it off the shelf, spent my week off reading through the rulebook, before eventually sitting down and playing through it a couple of times. The first time I played it my face lit up, the decisions I made were impactful and it created this wonderful narrative about a man struggling to survive in the wilderness. It was fantastic, innovative, whimsical, a Critical Hit for sure. Then I played it again. That’s when it decided to punch me in the stomach with the Broken Tool card. Then the more I played it, the more frustrating an experience it became, to a point where it was less a man struggling to survive, and more a simulated experience of making out with a cheese grater.
Do I recommend Robinson Crusoe? The way the theme is woven in with the gameplay is second to none, and I’m happy to have played it. However, after a long and spirited debate with myself in the shower, I came this conclusion: I do not recommend it. Whether you’ll like it or not is strictly determined by how much punishment you can endure, and whether you’re willing to sacrifice enjoyment for thematic value. Personally, I’m not. Therefore, I think this is a good board game to study, the theme and how it’s integrated is unmatched by any board game I’ve played, but how punishing it is and its blatant disregard of whether you’re having fun, with addition of the unintuitive learning curve for new players, for me, puts it in the not recommended category.
The key takeaway from this review, if anything, is that my perfect game would be Robinson Crusoe, stream lined, less punishing, and put in a new environment. Maybe on Mars?
This is my longest and most ambitious review to date. Did I get it right? What other games have you played that have produced such a thematic experience?