Illness, work *slash* family obligations and an almost laughably-poor track record of bad weather on Wednesday nights have really wreaked havoc on Game Night. In fact, prior to last week, we hadn't gotten together as a group in over a month!
But last Wednesday everything finally came together. While Mike, Dean and Chad battled it out in a three-player game of Eclipse, Kris led Andrew, Jonathan and I through a session of the latest cult of the new darling: Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island!
Although I'm a sucker for co-operative games, many of them fall short when it comes to thematic richness. Well, leave it to Stronghold designer Ignacy Trzewiczek to come up with a game that's not just challenging it tells a riveting story in the process!
So sit right back and you'll hear a tale...as told by the game's North American publisher Z-Man:
"Take on role of one of four characters from the ship crew (cook, carpenter, explorer and soldier) and face the adventure. Use your determination skills to help your team mates, discuss with them your plan and put it into practice.
"You will build a shelter, you will build palisade, weapons, you will create tools like axes, knives, sacks, you will do everything you can to… to survive. You will have to find food, fight wild beasts, protect themselves from weather changes…
"Search for treasures. Discover mysteries. Follow goals of six different, engaging scenarios. Start from building a big pile of wood and fire it to call for help, and then start new adventures. Become exorcist on cursed Island. Become treasure hunter on Volcano Island. Become a rescue team for a young lady who’s stuck on rock island…"
Hey, Z-Man Games, you know I love you guys and all but *wow* who the hell does your game descriptions? This reads like a press release for Survivor as written by a member of the Politburo circa 1963. Well, at least you can make it entertaining by reading it in an exaggerated Boris Badenov voice. "In Soviet Russia, board game plays you!"
Seriously, guys, call me. My rates are competitive and I can at least make it look as if you know how basic sentence structure works. Jesus.
Anyway, if you wanna read the full rules, use your l'il electronic spyglass to peep out the full details right hur.
By all accounts, Kris did a great job explaining how the game works, despite the fact that the rules are slightly less impenetrable then Daniel Defoe's original novel. After setting up Scenario One ("Castaways"), he encouraged us to hand-pick our characters and within little while we were all swimming to shore!
Image source: http://boardgamegeek.com/image/1449141/robinson-crusoe-adventure-on-the-cursed-island
Striking out boldly from our sea-side camp, Andrew split his Player Pawns between two different regions, looking to cover as much ground as possible. The gamble worked perfectly and Andrew revealed the first two adjacent locations. The first was a Grassland/Jungle region netting us a Discovery Token and a Treasure courtesy of the Mystery Deck. The second hex turned out to be a Mountainous terrain region bearing another Discovery Token and a potential new place to move our camp. We decided to do this right away, assuming that it would make it easier to explore the interior of the island.
Unfortunately the latter site was also home to some sort of anonymous Wild Beast. True to form, Andrew charged into the underbrush, hoping to flush out a Deer for some easy F&F (I.E. Food n' Fur). Unfortunately the creature turned out to be less Bambi and more Peter Pan. Eventually Andrew managed to wrestle the 6-Strength Alligator in submission by inserting his thumb up its anus Steve Irwin style, but it came at a terrible cost. Since our Weapon Level was still hideously low, it inflicted five Wounds on him and gave us only three Food and no Fur. D'oh!!!
After gathering up some Food I took an "Arranging The Camp" action in order to procure some badly-needed Determination Tokens. I wanted to whip up "Grandma's Recipe" and heal Andrew for two points of damage but by the time I got all of my ducks in a row, everyone was beat up. Suddenly my curative efforts were akin to holding back a tsunami with a roll of Bounty paper towel. As such, I held on to my healin' prescription for an even more dire occasion, which prompted Andrew to take a Rest Action in Camp to regain a Wound.
At first my Player Pawns were divided between some clearly-beneficial effect (such as "Food Crates" in the Threat Action Field) or trying to avoid some terrible crisis that would ruin us if not addressed. Damage control became even more of a diversion as the weather turned increasingly sour towards the end of the game. To make things even more difficult my initial Resource Gathering rolls were no-where near as good as Andrew's, which forced me to use my "Scrounger" skill on at least two occasions in order to re-roll failures.
Inspired by Andrew's initial success, Jonathan played to his namesake and attempted to explore two Island Tiles at once. Unfortunately his luck was a bit spottier, drawing some "Unsuccessful" die results and a few Wounds in the process. Eventually he experienced a breakthrough and mapped out a Mountainous region dominated by steep canyons and cliffs. Of course this new tile was also home to another Wild Animal which would likely chew our collective faces off if given half a chance.
Things weren't all grim, however. This new tile also contained a Food Source, a Discovery Token and another Treasure! This mysterious artifact turned out to be a Barrel which allowed us to Heal some Wounds and store away two perishable Food items for safe keeping. Jonathan decided to press on to a new tile but promptly got "Lost" when his exploration attempt forced him to deal with a mandatory Adventure card. He took more damage that night from hunger but the following morning we all got a positive Morale bump when finally found his way back to camp.
Speaking of Morale, every time one of us dipped below the Decrease symbol it caused our collective Morale to drop by a point. This, in turn, cost us Determination Tokens and if we couldn't pay it, the excess manifested in more Wounds. The really cruel thing is: even when we managed to claw our Life Track score back up above the decrease hurdle, our Morale stayed the same! Seriously, Ignacy, do you really hate the world and everything on it that much?
Like me, Kris spent a lot of time putting out fires. After acquiescing to the dictates of mob rule, he set about moving our camp further into the interior. This made future expeditions easier as predicted but it did sweet fuck all for our resource production. Plus the camp was wide open to Wild Animals, which had a habit of wandering past our sieve-like defenses in order to pilfer our Food and/or take a l'il nibble on our alluring and tasty jugular veins.
Kris did what he could to strengthen our Roof and/or Palisade Level but just as soon as he was done, a Disaster, a Ravishing Windstorm or a Diseased Yak would bomb in and break our shit like the Tazmanian Devil strung out on bath salts. As a result we were ill-prepared when the game's difficulty level went up (!) and the weather started to turn particularly sour. Even after using my special ability to goon everyone up on "Hooch" to ignore the crappy weather, Kris was forced to take a Rest action in order to prevent himself from dying.
We also weren't doing so shit hot when it came to Inventions. Discovering Mountains and Grasslands right away meant that we had the potential to develop certain things like a Cure and a Basket but what we really needed was the Pot which would allow me to convert Food to Health on a one-for-one basis. This required that we find a location with Hills so Andrew and Jonathan kept hammering away at exploration. Unfortunately, the next two tiles turned up Plains, which did feature a total of five Discovery Tokens, a Food source, Wood production and, hey, what the hell...two more Wild Animals! Yay!
About around that time Kris picked up on a glaring omission.
"Um...I knew I missed something," he confessed sheepishly.
"What?" we all demanded.
"Well, we're all supposed to start the game with an Invention," he replied, taking up the appropriate deck of cards.
"I was wondering why it said 'Spear' next to my character card!" Andrew declared.
After Andrew claimed the thematically-appropriate weapon, Kris took a Snare, I was given a Fireplace and Jonathan was handed a Shortcut. This inspired a rash of Inventions, including the prerequisite Rope, Knife, Dam and Fire. In order to facilitate the discovery of that all-important Hill Tile, Jonathan fast-tracked the development of a Map. Unfortunately the next two tiles he and Andrew turned up were River Tiles for a combination of four new Discovery Tokens, two Food icons, a Wood resource and, yes, another Wild Beast, this one coming into the game with a +1 Strength chip. Rawr!
Now armed and considerably more dangerous, Andrew ventured back into the underbrush where he skewered some Birds. Unfortunately a coupla scrawny macaws didn't provide a whole lot of good eatin': only two Food and a pile of useless though admittedly colorful feathers. On his third attempt he finally hit the jackpot, taking down a Tapir for two Food and, finally, a Fur! Meanwhile I used our Bible to take an "Arrange the Camp" action to gain a point of Health and three Determination tokens. Somehow I suspected that I was gonna need it.
We now had a surplus of four hides which Kris was keen to use to improve our shelter. Unfortunately our lumber production was slim at best, so he spent one Wood to Invent the Hatchet, giving us a +1 Wood production bonus on our home tile. Just as Kris started to get to work on shoring up our Roof and Palisade, he managed to give himself a special lingering Wound which kept cropping up from time to time to haunt and annoy him.
That's when we all realized that we only had about six turns left to complete the scenario's required woodpile! Hastily we filled up the first two tiers before we were rocked by a series of crippling catastrophes. First up a Puma armed with a can opener snuck into our camp and made a dent in our nonperishable Food supply. Then Andrew diced up another truly horrendous Weather roll with a side order of freakin' snow. Snow? I though this was a desert island! Ugh! This forced me to blow all three of the Determination Tokens I was squirreling away in order to minimize just one of these nasty results.
Unfortunately all this really did was prolong the inevitable. On the very next Night Phase, after paying our hefty Morale penalty, we quickly realized that all we had left to eat was a small tin of Vegemite, some peanut butter smeared in a playing card and a roast beef sandwich from Arby's. Obviously, when faced with such heinously unpalatable prospects, we all decided that the most logical course of action was to just to give up and starve to death.
Let's face it folks: we got absolutely pwned by Robinson Crusoe. We didn't even make it past the sixth round, few Crissakes! Yes, it might have been slightly easier if we had our specialized items right off the bat, but I'd be lying to you if I said that this was the cause for our abject failure. Granted it would have been nice to find that damned Hill tile and construct some really practical items, but once again, I can't blame our poor showing on this alone.
- Invent shit as quickly as you can since increasing your efficiencies can really stave off Morale drain. Man, just look at that final photo; we didn't do jack shit!
- The jury's still out on whether or not we should have moved out camp so early. When the option came up right away we immediately went for it, probably fearing that investing in our first location would be a waste of effort if we had to move later on. Sure this helped facilitate our future expeditions but we also really could have used the extra Food produced by our starting tile.
- For the love of everything holy, make sure your Weapon Level is cranked up a little bit before you goad your team-mate into Hunting. Not only is it difficult to find Food, it's even harder to Heal so those Wounds you suffer at the start of the game might end up lingering forever.
- Once you've settled on a permanent camp, you really need to build up your Roof and Palisade Levels as soon as possible. Food and Determination Tokens are scarce enough without needlessly burning through them just because you haven't invested in some basic infrastructure.
- Splitting up your Player Pawns might seem like a good idea at the time but failure at a critical juncture can really put you behind the eight-ball. I'm pretty sure that we defied the odds with all of our failures and the game makes you pay for this through the nose.
- There's no question that exploration is critical to opening up the inventory, but I also think that it's wise to take some time to invent some stuff that will increase your odds for sucessful exploration. KnowwhutImsayin'?
- Do whatever you can to keep your Morale buoyed up, lest you start sinking into what Kris accurately describes as a "death spiral". Remember: as soon as Morale starts to dip into the -2 / -3 range you either going to be burning an equal amount of Determination Tokens or sucking up what's left in Wounds. And trust me, if you don't have a constant surplus of Determination Tokens to fulfill your Character's most basic functions, then you might as well try and swim to safety!
- The game's physical properties are just about perfect. The board itself looks like a series of charts spread out on a table, which kinda made it blend in perfectly with Dean's gaming table! A plethora of gorgeous bits abound including customized dice, wooden cubes, colorful chits, durable location tiles and a bad-ass Wild Animal Deck. Particularly notable is the evocative and makeshift artwork which conjures up images of Wilson in Cast Away.
- Some games claim to be co-operative but this one really delivers on that promise. In order to have a hope in hell of surviving, y'all really do need to work together. As you might expect, this encourages an incredible amount of quality table-talk.
- Even after deciding on a general course of action, individual players are still left with two or three choices as to how to go about doing it. As a result, Bossy Veteran Syndrome™ is kept to a minimum.
- Unlike many other co-ops, Robinson Crusoe tells a clear and interesting narrative by the time it's over. Even if your vitals end up giving a Tiger indigestion.
- The story is fulfilled by a myriad of game variables provided by Inventions, exploring Island Tiles, Character Skills, Threat Actions, Adventure Cards, Items and Camp Arrangement. This translates into a lot of possibilities, even when replaying the exact same scenario.
- Designer Ignacy Trzewickek has done an excellent job simulating in board game terms what it would be like to try to survive on a dangerous desert island. There's nothing worse then beating a co-operative game on your first try. No fear here, BTW.
- The scenarios all look to be varied and challenging in their own unique way. Plus: major props for including a King Kong-flavored challenge!
- The game's rulebook is about as comprehensive as an episode of Gilligan's Island played backwards, upside down and in Latin. As I mentioned, Kris did a pretty decent job getting us all up to speed but in order to do so, he had to seek out, print and then review an extensive FAQ document that's about as long as the rules themselves. For me, this is a huge demerit. Z-Man really needs to include a vastly-improved rule book in all future printings!
- The game is an inordinately cruel and unforgiving mistress. When things start to go sour, it isn't just a matter of watching victory slip away, it's a relentlessly-punishing, grueling odyssey of misery punctuated by minor accomplishments that actually make you feel like dancing naked on the table. If the group suffers an inordinately cruel series of setbacks right away and Morale bottoms out it's gonna be pretty tough to dig yourself out of that deficit.
- Honestly, I have no clue why there's a correlation between the availability of certain inventions and the discovery of new terrain types. I'm sure there's a logical reason behind it, but for the life of me I can't make sense of it.
If you're looking for an intensely-social game featuring plenty of tough choices, an uncompromising level of difficulty and a harrowing tale of survival, then you seriously need to take a look at this game.
***Is Pandemic too pussified? Does Flashpoint lack a point? Do you just wanna see Forbidden Island sink into the sea? Well then click on the link below to order a copy of Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island and help this blog survive!