Day 1: the storm tossed our ship, the Meeple’s Merit, onto the rocky outcrops surrounding the island. The hull is shattered, we’re wrecked here. I’m writing this with a tiny rest of ink in the back of the Meeple’s log, both rescued at considerable risk. We, that is three other survivors and me, are headed for the islands interior in search for food and shelter. We have to prepare for a long time on this island, being as far from regular shipping routes as we are. If you find these pages with not a living soul around, then we did not make it. Please, stranger, take word of what happened to us to our families.I’ve said it before, Ignacy Trzewiczek has a tremendous repertoire in mechanics as well as in settings. Where many other game designers have their favourites, he’s more “hey, I have never done this before, lets see what it will become”. This time, it became Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, a scenario-based, cooperative adventure game. Of the six scenarios included, only the first is the classic Robinson Crusoe story, but all of them leave you stranded on a more-or-sometimes-less uninhabited island with a task to fulfill and pretty much nothing but your torn clothes and the skills on your character card to do it.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Robinson story if the island and its inhabitants weren’t doing their best to kill you before you get anywhere close to success. And they’re all trying hard. You have to deal with the climate – from “regular” exposure at night slowly eating your health away to rain and snow – by building shelter and a good roof. You have to deal with wild animal attacks and hunger as well as a wide range of random events the game throws at you by means of event cards drawn at the start of each round. Those include more bad weather, more wild animals, some diseases and everything else that makes it clear you’re not stranded on a tropical vacation resort. Remarkably absent are the cards “Friendly islanders give you a gift” and “You find a herd of dumb and trusting but very tasty animals”. It’s not enough that the fecal matter hits the fan when you draw the card, either. Most Event Cards leave you with a problem to deal with within the next few rounds, using one or more of your precious actions, or something related to the original event will happen again, only harder. That’s one of the core mechanics in Robinson Crusoe, the game spins a story with lots of foreshadowing. Something happens, and from that you know something else will happen soon, just like events in an adventure story don’t usually happen out of the blue. We’ll see more of that in a bit.
Before you get to fight back and do things, two more phases happen. At first. you look at the Morale track. If your morale is good, the start player receives Determination Tokens, the fuel for your special abilities. If Morale is low, on the other hand, the start player loses some of them. (That’s the most important function of the start player token, by the way.) If you have to pay tokens that you don’t have, you lose health – that’s true for everything in Robinson Crusoe, if you have to pay something you don’t have, you lose health. Unsurprisingly, losing health is a Bad Thing and leads to further loss of morale and, ultimately, death, which leads to immediately losing the game. You read that right, you can die from lack of morale and determination. Ouch. The next step is less dangerous, you receive the resources your camp location produces – wood and/or food – for free, without any hooks attached. Don’t get used to the game being this generous, though.
Day 4: We made camp in forest clearing some way away from the coast and built a crude shelter to keep the cold out at night. The men have been tinkering with all manner of things to give us a chance to survive here, coming up with ways to make fire and to chop wood. We have to try and make weapons soon because on our exploration we saw tracks of leopards and bears – God knows how they can both exist on the same small, tropical island. It would need a steady influx of stranded sailors to keep them fed. Isn’t nature fun?
Finally, you get to do something. Robinson Crusoe abolishes the idea of player turns in favour of a shared planning phase where all players discuss the plan and place their two action pawns each on the various actions, all to be resolved in order afterwards. You always have many options to act – usually too many, the big challenge in Robinson Crusoe is not to lose focus with all those options, because if you try to do everything, you will not survive on the cursed island. Action resolution starts with the actions on the event cards – averting disaster may take one or two action pawns and gets rid of the events looming secondary effect. Next comes hunting, which always takes two action pawns. In a way, hunting in Robinson Crusoe is a safe thing to do: you will always catch something and you will reliably get food and usually get fur from it. In another way, however, hunting is unsafe because most animals, especially the big predators, will wound you quite severely before you kill them – and you don’t know in advance what you will find.
The next three actions – Building, Gathering and Exploring – share a common mechanic, and it’s one that, in my eyes, makes the game: you choose to play it safe, assign two pawns to any of these actions, and get it done with no risk whatsoever. Or you assign only one pawn, run the risk of failure, wounds and worse, but you can use the other pawn to do something else. Get more done, or get one thing done safely. This decision has lead to more heated discussions around our table then the decision what to do in the first place – and heated discussions in a coop game are a good thing, right? If we all agreed on the best course of actions, the whole thing would be boring.When taking an action here with one pawn only, you roll three dice. The first shows if you succeed at all – but if you fail, at least you get two Determination Tokens for it – the second shows if you receive a wound and the third if you have to draw a card. Each action has it’s own pile of cards to draw from and some of them actually have a beneficial effect. Most don’t. And most also get shuffled into the pile of event cards, to come back later with a secondary effect. Yet more foreshadowing, and it works well to create tension. You cut yourself while Building, you are fairly certain the wound will become infected, but you don’t know when the infection will strike. You do know, however, that by the time it does you really want to have the Cure invented because it will reduce the damage.
Anyway, what to do with those actions? Building is the most versatile, there are many things to build. Shelter and Roof keep the weather out, Palisades help against animals and Weapons make your hunting trips safer. All these are paid in wood or fur. Besides that, you can and must also build inventions from the selection of Invention cards. Some of them, like Fire or the Shovel, are always available, but other inventions are randomly drawn at the start of the game. These actually have a huge influence on the way you can deal with problems, replaying the same scenario with a different set of inventions makes a big difference. Inventions may also require resources to make, but many have prerequisites as well: you either need another invention first, or you need a certain type of landscape discovered. Once you made an invention, you gain its benefits for the rest of the game – better weapons, better production, additional actions and sometimes additional action pawns that anyone can use for one type of action. Exploring and Gathering are less versatile, one lets you fetch one type of resource from a field adjacent to your camp, the other allows you to turn a new landscape tile on an empty space. Some tiles have additional effects when discovered, giving you bonus resources or finding a wild beast to Hunt next round.
Day 7: The island is not as deserted as it first appeared. We discovered what looks like a pirate’s hideout in a cave by the shore – currently empty of people, but well stocked with supplies. We helped ourselves to everything we needed, but now we must pray the pirates don’t return while we are here, for surely they would not look kindly upon our theft.
Finally, before bad things happen again, the two final actions are quick to resolve: resting restores health, arranging the camp increases morale. Yep, cleaning up makes everyone happier. It’s like my mother had a hand in creating this game. Then, inevitably, bad things start happening again. First, the weather hits in the form of dice – which ones to roll depends on the scenario and what round you are in – and both rain and snow have ways to make you lose resources or health. After that, in the Night phase, every player takes damage if you didn’t build shelter yet and all players need one cube of food or they take more damage. Being stranded on this island is brutal.
All of the above is true across all scenarios, but the challenges you face vary widely, making your hard-earned wisdom from one almost useless in the next. For example in Castaways, the original Robinson Crusoe scenario, you’ll spend most of the game desperately scrambling to gather wood and raise your shelter and roof, because the weather in this one is a killer. And at the same time, you need more wood to build a signal fire. In contrast, on Cannibal Island you won’t bother building your camp beyond the basic shelter, instead you need – NEED – weapons to destroy the cannibal villages. The other scenarios have different demands again when you try to exorcise the demons of Cursed Island, escape with your life from Volcano Island or raise castaway kids in Robinson Family. For even more fun, there is a seventh scenario available for download where you take the role of the film crew on King Kong’s island. All those options, combined with the difference approaches that come from the available inventions, create a lot of replayability. One small disappointment, for me, comes from not having more player characters available. When playing with four people, you always have all four of them – Soldier, Cook, Carpenter and Explorer – and thus do not get even more replayability from trying different team setups. But that’s a small thing, really.
A bigger annoyance, although not a game breaker, are the questions and ambiguities that arise every time we play, even with the 20 page FAQ available from the game page. Things like this: we have to reduce our roof level by half, but our roof level is zero. Do we get to dance around happily because we didn’t lose anything, or do we lose health because we couldn’t reduce our roof level? We went with option one on that one because it seemed more like the spirit of the rules – and because option two would have killed us. All those situations are resolvable – especially because we all play on the same side – but interrupting the game for a rule discussion does break the immersion that Robinson Crusoe does such a great job building with its foreshadowing story telling technique.
Rules discussions aside, however, it’s a great game. In a way, Robinson Crusoe is the opposite to many other coop games. Where those give you a small set of options and the task to solve your problems with them, Robinson Crusoe drowns you in options and your job is to focus on those that will help you survive and complete the scenario. It feels very different from a Pandemic, for example, but it does build a very tense experience and tells a real story of a gang of castaways fighting for their lives.
Day 23: It is a miracle that we are still alive. After the rain and the snow, I almost don’t know how we held one. But after 10 days of constant cold, the weather finally calmed enough to build a fire in our camp. Even as I write these lines, meat is roasting and my cold bones are warming up. If we can fix the roof before the next rain, we may yet live. I fear that our chance of rescue is slim, however, the signal fire we build on the beach to attract ships, should we spot one, is so wet that it will take weeks before it can be set aflame. None of us is in a condition to collect fresh wood to build a new fire, even if there was dry wood to be found. Even the Pirates would be a mercy, if they were to return here. But as it stands, we can only pray for salvation of one kind, or the other. May God have mercy on our souls.
P.S.: My apologies for not making a single Tom Hanks / Wilson joke this whole review. I realize it’s a chance that will not come back in a hurry.