I am stranded on a remote island with very little food and a mountain of harsh realities. It’s brutal and hellish, and I’m not talking about a board game. I am traveling out of state for the week and it is seriously no fun.
Well, okay, there’s a little fun, because, you see, I am not alone on this island. I have friends – namely, random board game groups I found on meetup.com in the area. And so it was that I went to one of these groups last night to find myself playing a simulation of my experience for the week, also known as Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island.
Was that analogy laying it on a little thick? Well, I’m sorry, but you clearly don’t understand how miserable it is here…aside from the board games. Board games make everything better.
I walked into the game night hoping to get some play testing of Forge War done, but being new to this particular game night, I figured I should first play along with whatever the regulars wanted to do. Robinson Crusoe was a recent purchase of a very nice husband/wife couple, and I’d been eager to try it out, so I happily joined in for a 4-player co-op game.
Explorer, cook, carpenter or soldier? Well, I do love cooking…but, no, someone else just grabbed that, so I guess I’ll take carpenter? I suppose I’m a bigger fan of carpenting(?) than I am of soldiering or exploring? Oh, but, hey guess what? It doesn’t really matter too much in a 4-player game anyway, because there are only 2 things that differentiate the characters:
Special actions: You collect determination points throughout the game and can use them on your turn to make certain aspects of your life easier. As a carpenter, I can do things like save a wood during construction, or increase my chance of successfully building something by rerolling a die. I only actually received 3 determination points throughout the entire game, though, so I used them once to guarantee the success of one of my builds (by adding a brown worker to it). Yay…
A special invention: Each character has an incredibly useful invention that only they can build, so picking the right roles to include in the game can…oh, wait, that’s right, with 4 players, you use all the roles, so you can easily get all the super-powered inventions and not really worry about who is playing whom.
And that’s really the core of one of the main issues I have with the game: the characters don’t really feel unique and individualistic. Very occasionally, you’ll get to use a special determination power, but for the large majority of the game, every character plays exactly the same as everyone else. And this leads to a large issue which I will discuss in a bit.
But first, seriously, why not have more than 4 roles to choose from? If you are making a 4-player game where everyone gets to pick a role, there should be more than 4 roles so that you can have some variability in play! So I can get the desire to sit down and play it again trying out a different combination of roles. This is like Game Design 101. Or maybe 201 at the worst.
Okay, so, anyway, here I am as the carpenter, washed up on a beach with these other unfortunates, tasked with keeping ourselves alive and building a nice, big bonfire to get rescued. We’ve got a list of inventions we can try and build, but most of them require prerequisites like other inventions or different terrains to discover. Starting on the beach with nothing, the only thing we can really do is build a shovel.
But the shovel is actually pretty great, because it leads to the pit, one of the random inventions that doesn’t appear in every game. And the pit is great because it gives you a 2/3 chance to get an extra 2 food every day, which is a big deal with 4 mouths to feed.
So day 1 is a bit obvious:
There’s single-action exploration on all 3 adjacent tiles,
Someone goes out to the shipwreck to get that extra food,
I build a shovel
And the explorer also uses an action to increase our morale so we can start getting some determination points.
You see, the main way to get determination points is that the leader (which moves clockwise every turn) gets some amount based on our group’s morale (we never got it higher than 1), but since there are 4 players and only 12 turns, you’ll be lucky to get 2 out of that, given all the decreases in morale from 4 different people constantly getting wounded trying to build shovels and the like. (Seriously, how does someone injure themselves making a basket?)
At night, one of us goes without food and we don’t have a shelter, but we explored a wide range of terrain, so a lot of new inventions opened up, plus we found a natural shelter, so taking more damage from the elements became a smaller issue. We suffered a bit to begin with, but already things are looking up.
So, I’m not going to do a full play-by-play here. The gist of it is, we got the pit out on turn two and proceeded to never roll a failure with it, giving us 2 extra food every round. We got the snare out pretty quickly, too, pretty much erasing all our food concerns. I’m guessing food concerns are probably one of the major issues of a 4-player game (since you need 1 food per person every day, if your camp is on a spot where you get 1 food automatically every turn, in a 1-player game it’s a non-issue, but with 4-players, that’s still 3 food you have to find), because when we didn’t have to spend all those extra actions gathering food, the game became rather easy. We could focus solely on wood – first to build up our roof to protect us from the incoming bad whether, and second to build up the fire that eventually won us the game on turn 11.
Yeah, we won the first time out. It really was no big deal. I guess there are some pretty nasty event cards, but we didn’t see any. And when we had the time to build up inventions like the hatchet and the basket and the shortcut, gathering wood became super-easy, too.
Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by the whole experience. I mean, I loved the theme, and even though the mechanics of my carpenter didn’t actually differentiate him from the other players, I still embraced the role and took it upon myself to do the majority of the building, while the explorer explored, the soldier made weapons and hunted and the cook filled out the other roles. It was like I was on board for the adventure, but the adventure didn’t really fully deliver. After the second turn, the stakes never really seemed all that dire. It felt more like Survivor, having fun and playing games on an island, eating rice provided to you by the producers and being in no real danger of dying.
But that’s just my own personal experience with that specific session. Obviously chance was on our side with the pit and the easy event cards. Certainly things could have been much more difficult, but let’s get back to the real issue here: there’s no built-in sense of individualism.
You don’t even have little pawns to place on the island so you can say, “Oh, look – that’s me, the carpenter!” There’s just a camp site. One congealed group of people – a single entity. And it becomes very easy to embrace that in your play style – the idea of a single decision-making process. It stops being, “What can I do with my 2 actions?” and becomes “What should we do with our 8 actions?” I’ll say it one more time: there is absolutely no barrier to one player making decisions for another player. A single person could just as easily play a 4-player game as 4 people could. This is bad.
The cook of our group came in skeptical of this co-op game and she definitely did not have very much fun, mainly because all of her concerns about co-op games were very well founded in Robinson Crusoe. She was struggling a bit with the strategy of it, and it became very easy to just tell her what to do instead of letting her think for herself – and that’s a very annoying position to be in.
The designer, Ignacy Trzewiczek, says there are barriers based on the idea that there are so many choices, one player’s idea of the best solution will be different from another’s. Yeah, I call bullshit. This game is not that complicated.
Scenario 1: build up a food engine and get some sort of basic shelter to mitigate damage from starvation and the elements, then start gathering wood both for the fire and to build up your roof and eventually palisades to protect you from the badness of the weather dice. That’s it! How you do that exactly isn’t that much more nuanced than that single statement. In our game, it was rushing the pit to get a food engine, and finding a natural shelter early helped, but even without that, you could rush the snare or the shortcut and assign one action to gathering every round. And exploring early is always good because you get so many bonus tiles, so by day 2 or 3, you’re almost guaranteed to find a shelter. And once your basic survival needs are met, finding a way to get lots of wood is pretty, um, basic.
Look, I had fun playing the game, and I’d like to play again with a different scenario, but I feel like I had fun largely because I wanted to have fun (I was, after all, stranded on a lonely island myself), not because the game itself was super-great.