Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 60-120mins
Play Time (Goof): 90-180mins
Producer: Portal Games
Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek
A few years back, I created a Dungeons and Dragons campaign about a mysterious island, filled with dangers and strange natives called Hobart (anyone from Australia is probably sniggering right now. I know I was). I love this whole island survival thing. It reminds me of the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks from my childhood which I would watch really late at night and traumatize myself with. To this day I can’t meet a guy named Wilson without flashbacks to a huddled up little goof crying under a blanket.
I knew about the board game Robinson Crusoe awhile back, but I never got around to getting myself a copy. Now there’s a second edition, I figured it was time to jump on board so I could be washed away.
I want to be really clear with this right up front (well you know… after the intro bit):
ROBINSON CRUSOE IS FUN!
It’s one of the games I’m enjoying at the moment without looking like I’m going to stop anytime soon. It’s a two to three hour game and we’ve played it a bunch since I’ve got it. It’s one of those thematic games which ties its mechanics in so beautifully to the feeling and settings you’re experiencing.
But lawdy is it complicated. I don’t think we’ve had a game yet where we haven’t made some tiny mistake somewhere. Certainly not enough to alter the experience but enough to frustrate an OCD gamer like myself. Complexity in games should not be feared. But you have to ask yourself why the complexity is in the game. In this case, it’s there because it’s thematic, it’s part of the challenge. To juggle so many competing interests: How badly do you want to eat that night? What’s the weather looking like? Is your shelter prepared to take it? Should you start developing medicine? What about the new curve ball the island has thrown you? And can you make a shovel without hurting yourself? (Nope!).
When you start, your first priority is not dying. Yet even this simple concept is not without choosing your priorities. In a multiplayer game you’re not going to start with enough food to feed everyone. So the choice between shelter, food, exploring the island, and getting other precious and much needed resources is vital right out the gate.
Every time you take an action, you have to make a decision between dedicating time (in this case actions) to the chore to get things done, knowing time is something you’re short on as it is, or rushing a job with the chance to get hurt and have some potentially catastrophic event take place. This makes for some fascinating and clutch decision making.
The crucial decision making means even when you lose, you feel like there are areas you can improve. In one of our earlier games we kept failing to make the hatchet which would allow us to generate an additional wood each turn. So in a later game we dedicated extra time to get it right the first try. This resulted in a significant amount of extra wood throughout the game, and freed up those otherwise wasted actions on other things. Sometimes you take the risk, but you have to make the determination between whether it’s super important to get it right this turn. Do you focus on getting a couple things right and not spreading yourself out too thin?
And then there’s certain areas where the likelihood of success is so high it can be worth taking the risk. For example, you have a 5/6 chance of successfully exploring a new section of island. This makes sense, because it’s pretty hard to fail at walking in a straight line (although I’ve seen my sister struggle with this concept in the real world, earned her the nickname Ziggy in our youth). So I often spread myself out and explore the island at a faster pace. It can cause a few random events and I tend to hurt myself a bit in doing so, but it also provides us access to moving our camp to a more suitable location, extra places to gather resources, and discovery tokens which have made a huge difference in our success. What I’m trying to say here (before I got side tracked talking about my strategy), Robinson Crusoe provides for some excellent luck mitigation in multiple different ways, and all sorts of different variables to keep you entertained.
Each character feels unique. And when you’re deciding on tasks, it makes sense thematically and mechanically who does what. The carpenter is the best builder, able to access abilities to reduce the amount of wood required to be used and even reroll a building dice. The cook is best for gathering food and ensuring everyone is fed (good ol’ rock soup has kept us fed on more than one night). I’ve looked into getting some of the other characters available in this game because they all feel so damn unique. And props to Portal Games for allowing each character to be male or female. I prefer playing as a male but I ALWAYS prefer there to be a choice where possible. A rant for another time.
I’ll say this for the play time length, a lot of it is taken up in discussions and planning. So the more players you’ve got, and especially when you’re learning the game, it’s reasonable to expect a three to four hour play time. Even when our first session went this long and you’d expect a certain level of player burnout, we were super excited to go again.
Like any good cooperative game, Robinson Crusoe is hard. Very hard. The balancing of different tasks, the numerous combinations of random events, the struggle to meet everyone’s basic needs and the overarching tasks on top of it. It makes for a hell of a fun time.
Pros: ++Mechanic and Theme Synergy, +Challenging, +Interesting Decision Making, +Luck Mitigation, +Unique Characters
Cons: -Overly Complex Rules
There’s this real sense of immersion with Robinson Crusoe which I haven’t encountered in many other games. To the point where a friend and I were discussing actually taking some type of island survival adventure in the future (with a clear backup plan because we’ve proven decisions we make tend to get us killed in these situations). Games which can give you this sense of adventure, this readiness to take part in the world they’ve created. They’re why I love thematic games so much, and Robinson Crusoe is a cut above the rest.
An element of the game which might seem insignificant for those who haven’t played, is the value in non-perishable foods. The fact meat, fruit, and other perishable foods don’t keep is both a massive pain and yet somehow super engaging. To think about where everyone’s meal is going to come from each day, it’s such a fascinating reoccurring challenge. And when you find non-perishable food which doesn’t have to be eaten on the day (food is sparse, when you find something you often have to immediately eat it) it can actually provide you a with a sigh worthy breath of relief the next day to allow you to work on an excitingly beneficial but maybe not crucial invention. You could use this game to talk through hunter/gatherer society with young teenagers. Really get them to understand how spending so much time looking for food impacts on a person’s ability to contribute to society in creative ways. I could rant about this point of Robinson Crusoe alone for several thousand words, but we might save it for another time.
I have purposely avoided reading events which haven’t come up in game yet. So there’s some I haven’t seen, but this mystery makes the event deck all the more appealing and exciting. It’s really where the narrative of the game comes into play. For example (with minor spoilers finishing off this paragraph), while exploring the island I found a goat which had died of unknown causes. Knowing we were going to starve in the evening at this stage, and a pelt would help with fixing our lack of roofing before the weather came in, I decided it was worth the risk and brought it back to camp. A few days later, we were missing modern plumbing.
When you make a decision to do a certain task with an event card, you may have to shuffle it into the event deck, meaning something may come up later. It’s an excellent mechanic which I absolutely adore and want to see in other games.
The storytelling aspect of Robinson Crusoe is beautifully done. Look the game is hard. It’s really hard. But even when you lose, it can still tell a good story – one of our early games had us in a position to win, but the weather tore through the night, knocked our mast over and extinguished our fires. The ship never saw us, and we died on the island. It’s one of those randomly tragic yet almost cinematic experiences and I freaking loved it.
I’ve never really been one for games about recreating specific stories. I mean sure, I love Firefly: The Board Game. But the game itself is more of crafting your own story in their universe (an argument can be well made, but back on topic). For me, gaming is at its best when I connect with what I’m doing. When the real world dissolves away and I can suspend disbelief and imagine I’m some badass warrior or a ruler of a nation. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, an Explorer struggling to survive.
I guess my point here is as someone who has a quite limited knowledge of the tale of Robinson Crusoe (we read it in school some decade or so ago) I never felt myself shocked back to reality by having to look up the name of a character or item. Although in a two player and solo variant, Friday kind of takes me out of it.
I get why they used Friday, he’s recognisable even to people like me who can barely remember the story. And from a marketing standpoint using such a recognisable setting is probably worth a lot of financial gain. It just feels like everything else in the game is crafting my own adventure, or an adventure with my friends. Each character is identified by their role, Soldier, Explore, Cook, Carpenter… even the Dog is called Dog! Then there’s this bit which sticks out like a sore thumb to me (and not just after I fail a roll to make a shovel). This character which belongs in someone else’s story.
I’ve never been much into playing games solo. I’ll play against an AI on an app while I’m on the loo, but when it comes to setting a board game up the truth is I’d rather play a videogame. There’s a certain social quality which I need in my tabletop experience, otherwise it can feel just a little bit lonely.
But you know what, I’ll be damned if I’m ever accused of not try to cover all angles in a review. So I threw on The Islander by Nightwish and cast off onto the cursed island adventure.
And you know what, between the game, the music, and the freezing cold air conditioner unit I had stupidly set up underneath (and was way too lazy to turn off), I really felt this sense of isolation and a will to persevere.
Pros: ++Makes me want to go adventure!, ++Narrative, +Thinking about meals, +Craft your own adventure
Every part of Robinson Crusoe is deigned to throw you headfirst into your adventure. From the rustic drawings, to the journalistic scratchings all over the board. It gives you the vibe of being adventurers in colonial times. I think I fell in love with the game the moment I looked at it (and then proceeded to have anxiety about the stickers which were in the box. Please stop giving me stickers, especially with choices. I lose sleep over trying to work out which ones to put on and what to do if I mess it up).
Every element of Robinson Crusoe’s production is bloody beautiful. It’s really clear the amount of love and detail which has gone into the look and feel. I cannot harp on about it enough (we have taken an excessive amount of pictures this review).
Robinson Crusoe comes with seven scenarios. Each which change the game in their own way. Some of the discovery tokens change, there are scenario specific conditions/inventions/goals which add their own interesting challenge and/or spin to the system. I mean, the first scenario – Castaways. Is literally enough for me to say “this game is fantastic. And feels complete”, but the other elements? I mean way to go the extra mile portal games! Not to mention the freedom this gives your community to create content such as scenarios for people to try. I tip my Pith Helmet.
I’ll admit not every scenario is my cup of English Breakfast. Which is totally fine. I will say I take issue with the second scenario as some of the challenge feels incredibly luck based and we started to throw up our hands in frustration letting the scenario have its way with us. It honestly feels there is nothing you can do in response. We’ll get there. And I’m not subtracting points. It’s just worthy of mention because I was so frustrated after the second loss I wanted to chuck the box out of the window.
The card backs! I mean look at those photos. It’s impossible not to feel this sense of rustic adventure when you look at them. The animal deck is a personal favourite of mine. But after staring at the different action event decks, you realise the question mark has different symbols used as a part of the symbol. It’s a nice touch.
Portal Games, can I call you Portal? In the last few months you guys have started to become one of my favourite game publishers. Cry Havoc is a masterpiece, and if you’ve read the above you’ll know I really love your games. But Portal, you need to learn to create rulebooks damn it!
I’m not saying I could pull it off. Your games are detailed and full of strategy and options, and just the right amount of luck. It would be an insane struggle to fit all of it into a rulebook which is simple to read and cohesive to learn. But the amount of bloody walkthroughs and YouTube videos I have to watch, and then sessions of your game I play which lead me to getting rules wrong every game… it’s frustrating. I love you man, but face it you’re a mess! If you need to hire a professional rulebook writer, do it! If you need to post your rulebooks online and beg the community to edit and modify the books so they make sense, then you get on your knees and grovel.
Pros: ++Board is so Thematic, ++So much content, +Card Backs, +Beautiful
Cons: –Awful Rulebook
I mean what I said about Portal Games, they are fast becoming one of my favourite game publishers. And Ignacy, you’re an absolute legend of a designer. At the risk of people reading this tracking me down and burning me alive, Neuroshima Hex left me with a bit to be desired. But between Cry Havoc, Robinson Crusoe, and with 51st State in my near future, I’m feeling the Trzewiczek (I’d like to buy a vowel?). And Portal Games are publishing Alien Artefacts which I’m super excited for. Sorry… game crush over.
I give Robinson Crusoe:
Highly recommend this one. And with an expansion on the horizon, I look forward to talking about it again in the future.
I got my copy through Tabletop Wonderland
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