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Tabletop University Play Report: Robinson Crusoe

Your forehead and palms drip with sweat as you stand on the beach. Behind you is the ocean, stretching on and on until it hits the horizon. To your right and left lay the remains of your ship, the one that crashed the night before. Before you, just a few yards across a stretch of hot sand, sits a dark and forbidding jungle. You hear sounds from within that are unlike any you’ve ever heard. Some are pleasant, most are not. Your comrades stand beside you, but none of you speaks. All of you just stare, unsure what to do next.

Finally, one of you sighs and starts for the trees with the dog in tow. This spurs the others into motion. One begins to gather scraps of wood on the shore to construct a makeshift shovel. The other strikes off into the forest in an entirely different direction, intent on foraging for food. As they cross the tree line, you realize you are the last one. The dark clouds forming off in the distance tell you that a storm is brewing. Your group needs shelter, but there isn’t enough wood to build one. You could go hunting; you have some weapons at your disposal to better your odds, but do you chance running into something truly nasty? You could attempt to build a tool, but are your hands up to the task?

With so many possibilities to choose from, each one seemingly just as important as the last, what do you do?

This is what it feels like when you plunge into Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island. Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, it is a cooperative worker placement game of survival for 1 to 4 players. Players must work together to gather food, wood and other resources to give them a chance to survive another night. Each round constitutes one full day of in-game time. Players must decide how best to spend their time within that day to ensure their survival. Along the way, you’ll encounter natives, both hostile and friendly, powerful jungle creatures, hazardous terrain and deadly plants. The elements also play a factor as torrential rain and devastating tsunamis can wreck your carefully laid plans. Not only that, but you must manage the morale of the group; let it drop too low, and you may find yourself in the clutches of severe depression. Basically, everything is out to kill you.

However, simply surviving is not enough.

At the beginning of the game, players choose from one of six scenarios to tackle. These scenarios give the players a goal to achieve and determine how many rounds the players have to accomplish their objective. Scenario one tasks players with constructing a massive woodpile that when lit can be seen for miles in hopes of catching the eye of a passing ship. In the second scenario, players must remove a curse plaguing the island, but a heavy fog makes the going slow. Other scenarios include rescuing a damsel in distress, escaping a volcano whilst carrying as much treasure as you can and battling a vicious cannibal horde. There is even a scenario that mimics Swiss Family Robinson where the only goal is to survive until the very last round; no small feat, lemme tell ya! Accomplishing the scenario is how players win the game. If just one of the players dies, or if they are unable to meet the scenario’s goal(s) within the prescribed round limit, they lose.

But, fear not. If you and the rest of your team play smart, take calculated risks and have a little luck on your side, you might just make it through. And when you do, the taste of that victory is oh-so-sweet because you will have had to overcome hell to reach it. If you play video games, this is the Dark Souls of board gaming (well, this and Ghost Stories, but we’ll save that for another day).

Theme is where this game really shines. The randomness and desperation of weathering the dangers of the island can be felt each step of the way as you try to build up your resources and make it through the night. The rules are robust, but have a tendency to be somewhat complicated. Despite this, they have a logic of their own that makes sense in the context of survival and only serve to add to the theme. Once you’ve played several games, the flow becomes natural. Even with this, games tend to run at least 90 minutes, but usually go longer. So, settle in.

Each day or “round” is broken into six phases:

  • Event (crap happens)
  • Morale (this can be good or bad)
  • Production (where you get food and/or wood, the nicest of the phases)
  • Action (where you do stuff)
  • Weather (where crap happens from the sky)
  • Night Phase (where you sometimes have to decide who gets to eat and stay warm, and who gets the shaft; also, other crap happens)

The Action phase is where players will spend the majority of their time. It is where, by their choices, they enable their survival or bring about their downfall. The various actions players can take include:

  • Addressing an event
  • Hunting animals
  • Build items or shelter
  • Gather resources
  • Explore the island
  • Rest
  • Arrange the camp

Okay, that was a quick and dirty overview of the game. Now, on to the tale of misery and w— I mean the play report.

We had two games running. Gregg ran one while I ran the other. Here were the players at my table:

  • Abi – Orange
  • Ben – Blue
  • Jeff – Black
  • Sam – Yellow

After a preamble to the group discussing the game, we dove right into Scenario 1. As previously stated, the goal of this scenario is to build a large enough bonfire by gathering wood before the end of the 12th round. One catch: even if you build the bonfire quickly, you can only win during Round 10, 11, and 12 (this simulates the arrival of a passing ship). This means that the group must survive on the island for that many turns before they can be rescued. Since the other three players had little to no experience playing the game, I figured it best to allow the use of both Friday and Dog. These two characters act as additional pawns to support various actions. Dog can only be used to hunt and explorer. Friday is more versatile and can take on actions by himself (within certain limitations).

Our first turn was all about exploration. For this scenario, only one tile is available to you. When more terrain types are discovered, it allows more inventions (or tools) to be built. While we took advantage of the first event card and gathered some extra food, our immediate goal was to make more of the island was available to us. By doing this, we found more animals to hunt (this became key to our survival in the mid-game), discovered a natural shelter which allowed us to hold off constructing a more permanent one and revealed a plethora of discovery tokens to aid us. Discovery tokens simulate random items picked up during exploration.

The first night, two of us went hungry, losing two health in the process, but these kinds of sacrifices need to be made for the group to succeed. The next couple of rounds were spent building early priority tools that gave us bonuses to resource production.

We also made sure to begin preparing for Round 4, when the Weather die began rolling. The Weather die simulates, you guessed, weather that sweeps over the island. Unless you have a roof, your group will be miserable under the sway of the elements and will lose health. Luckily, we managed to build up our roof enough to withstand the weather. My character, the Carpenter, specializes in building items quickly and cheaply and proved useful in accomplishing these goals.

Meanwhile, Jeff, our resident Soldier, began taking the dog on hunts. The tactic proved sound as round after round, he brought back fresh meat and fur, both items key in making sure we had enough to eat and enough raw materials to build up the shelter, respectively. Using the dog also freed one of his actions up to support others or take on other tasks.

As the Cook, Ben focused on making sure we had the right kind of resources to ensure our survival. Many of the tools he focused on help restore heath and bring in extra wood and food when our main supply fell shy of our needs.

Abi, our intrepid Explorer kept hacking her way through the jungle, drumming up more discovery tokens and flushing out animals for Jeff to hunt. She also chipped in with the Carpenter to help build and the Cook to gather resources.

Therein lays the heart of Robinson Crusoe: teamwork. Just as with real-life island castaways, unless your group works in harmony within their strengths and weaknesses, you have no chance of survival. We had our setbacks. Several times, we lost resource supply areas, limiting how much food and wood we could gather. When the snow and beast dice began rolling in addition to the weather die, we took quite a bit of damage, had parts of our shelter broken, and lost food when we really needed it. We even had to weather a hurricane in one of the rounds.

This group of players worked very well together, and we avoided any one player becoming an “Alpha Player.” Since I had played the game a lot, this was something I personally had to make sure I didn’t do. While it is common to have one or two players act as leaders, a game with an Alpha Player struggles more to survive due to the limited number of ideas put out on the table.

A great example of good teamwork occurred during the second-to-last round. In those last few rounds, when it becomes a mad dash build the bonfire, Ben felt we really needed to gather extra wood during one particular turn, just to make sure we would have enough. It turned out to be a good thing; a snow storm swept in, and we had to use some of our wood to keep warm. Had we gone with the original plan, we might not have made it. Because of Ben’s idea, we had just enough wood to finish building the bonfire on Round 11 and get off the island.

All in all, an excellent game well played by everyone. Next time, we’ll up the difficulty and take away Dog and Friday.