Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, Ignacy Trzewiczek is my favorite game designer and I have had some interactions with him. I'd like to think I'm on a first name basis with him, but that's just because I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce his last name.


The Overview:


The box cover.


Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a scenario-based cooperative game about survival on a harsh island. Each player takes the role of one of the castaways on the island and beyond just survival, each of the six included scenarios gives other objectives that must be met. Objectives range from gathering enough wood to create a signal fire, to rescuing another of your shipmates trapped on a rock, to battling cannibals on the island.

The game is for 1-4 players and plays in about 2 hours. Number of players will decrease or extend time a bit, but this is primarily just from more discussion between players. The game is played out on a modular board and with a different assortment of available resources (starting items and inventions that can be built), which offers a lot of variation and replayability on each of the scenarios. However, the specific scenario will determine the specific objectives for each game.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

Each player chooses a character out of the four included (Cook, Explorer, Carpenter and Soldier), although the Soldier isn't available in games with two or fewer players. Each of the characters has four special abilities that they can spend Determination (an individually gained resource) to activate and each also has a specific Invention that they alone can build to assist the camp.

Set up may vary slightly depending upon the scenario, but typically each scenario gives the player nine standard Inventions that can be built for the scenario to aid the players. Then, five additional Inventions are added at random from the deck. Finally, two items are drawn from the Starting Island deck. These represent limited resources that were salvaged from your sinking ship. Each has two uses and once they are used, they are gone for good.



Some of the inventions that can be made. Missing is a radio made from coconuts. 


The starting Event Deck is created by forming a deck that consists of half of the cards with an Adventure Icon and half of the deck with a Book Icon (more on those later). The castaways begin with no Shelter, though it can be built during the course of the game. Also Roof levels and Palisades for the camp begin at level 0 and can be built during the game to protect from weather and wild animals respectively. The players' Weapons level begins at 0, but can also be built up during the game. And the Morale of the camp is set at 0 as well, and can increase or decrease throughout the game.

Play then begins. Each turn is broken into six phases, which are resolved in order.

1. Event Phase: The first player draws the top card of the Event Deck. Each Event Card is broken into sections. The top of the card dictates the Event's effect that needs to be resolved immediately. And Adventure Icon on the card means a mandatory Adventure Card will need to be resolved for the action type depicted later in the turn if the action is taken. A Book icon has specific scenario effects depending upon the Scenario. Once these are resolved, the card is placed in the Threat Action field. The bottom half of the card depicts the action that needs to be taken during an Action Phase and the needed resources to complete it. It also depicts what bad effect will occur if the Threat listed on the card is not resolved in time. If there is already a card on the Threat Action field, then it is slid to the next space on the field. If there was already a second card there, it drops off the track and the negative effects of the card are resolved.

Morale Phase: The first player then checks the current Morale of the Camp. If it is high enough, he or she gains a number of Determination listed, or even possibly heals one wound if it is high enough. However, if the Morale is too low, the first player loses the number of Determination tokens listed. If he or she cannot pay, then they take a number of wounds equal to the amount they cannot pay. Note: This is a common theme of the game. Whenever you cannot pay a specific resource, either you or everyone in Camp takes a number of Wounds equal to the resources you are in deficit.

Production Phase: Players gather a number of resources based upon the tile their camp is on. This will usually be one Food and one Wood, but it is possible to move your Camp to tiles that produce fewer resources. Also, certain Inventions can increase the what is gained. For example, creating a Snare increases Food Production by one on the Camp's tile. Events and Adventures can also modify what is gained either temporarily or permanently.

Action Phase: The Action Phase is broken into a Planning subphase and a Resolution subphase. Planning is essentially just placing each player's pawns on their intended action space. Each player has two pawns (actions) to place during this phase. After all of the pawns are placed, then each of the actions are resolved. The seven actions that can be taken are:

1. Threat Action: Remember that Event Card you drew at the start of the turn? Well, you have the option to take actions to try to resolve it. Sometimes this action will provide a minor boon, but usually this action is taken simply to discard the Event Card from the Threat Action field , otherwise if it drops off of the Threat Action field during the Event Phase the negative Threat Effect is resolved.

2. Hunting: If there are any cards in the Hunting Deck, a player can place two pawns on this space to hunt. They flip over the top card of the Hunting Deck and resolve it. Hunting is always successful, but can easily result in wounds. The Beast's strength is compared to the Weapon level of the players. If the Beast's strength is higher, the Hunter takes the difference in Wounds. The card will then indicate if the players lose any Weapon levels (if it cannot be lowered by this amount, the player takes the amount in Wounds that it cannot be lowered) and how much Food and Furs they gain from the beast.

3. Building: A player taking a Building Actions places their pawn (or pawns) on the Invention or Structure of their choice. With this actions, Shelter can be built, and levels can be added to the Roof, Palisades and Weapons for the Camp. If two pawns are placed on an item or structure it is automatically built, but at the cost of an extra action. If only one pawn is placed on any item or structure that is to be built, then three dice are rolled to see if it is successful and if there are any further events. The first die is the Wound die. Succeed or fail, if a Wound marker comes up on the dice, the player takes one Wound. The second die is the Success die. If a success is rolled, the Item or structure is created and the appropriate resources are discarded (if any). However, if the action is unsuccessful, the Player instead receives two Determination. The third die is the Adventure die. If a blank facing comes us, nothing further happens. If the Adventure icon comes us, then the player draws a card from the appropriate Adventure Deck and resolves it. These are circumstances and situations that occurred while performing the action and each action type has its own deck, so the Adventures are fitting and thematic. They are also usually bad for the players. Sometimes good effects can happen, but often bad things happen. Many cards give a short term boon, but instruct that the card is then to be shuffled into the Event Deck. When it comes up and is drawn, a bad effect is then resolved.

4. Gathering Resources: A player taking the Gathering Resources action collects one resource from an adjacent tile for the camp. Like Building, if two pawns are put on the Resource to be gathered, it is automatically successful. If only one pawn is on the action, the action dice must be rolled to see if it succeeds and sees if a wound is taken and resolves an Adventure Card if the dice indicate that it needs to be done. If a player wishes to Gather Resources past the adjacent tiles, they will need to expend more pawns to travel further.

5. Exploration: A player taking the Exploration action explores an adjacent empty space and places a tile drawn from the stack onto it. As with the other actions, two pawns means an automatic success, while one pawn means dice will need to be rolled to determine success, wounds and Adventures. A revealed tile shows a number of things. First is the terrain type. Certain Inventions can only be built after the proper terrain type is discovered. It also shows any resources (Food and/or Wood) that can be gathered from the tile. Some tiles have a symbol indicating that an animal of some type has made its lair in the area and you need to add a card to the Hunt Deck. Discovery Tokens may be listed on the tile, which would result in the player drawing that number of tokens to return to Camp with. The Discovery Tokens provide useful benefits and boons to the camp, some of which are Scenario specific. Finally, there are Mystery Icons on some of the tiles. If one is present, then the Scenario must be referred to in order to see how they are resolved.

6. Arranging the Camp: A player taking this actions gains 2 Determination and increases the Morale level of the Camp by 1.

7. Rest: Anyone taking the Rest action recovers one Wound.



The weather dice are unforgiving to the unprepared. 


Weather Phase: Each Scenario describes which of the weather dice need to be rolled during each turn. There is a Rain Die, a Winter Die and the Hungry Animals die. For the weather, the icons and number of clouds are important. For each snowflake rolled, one wood needs to be discarded (to keep warm). If there is not enough wood, each player takes one Wound per wood they are in deficit. Afterward, the total number of clouds are added together and compared to the Roof level. If the Roof level is higher than the number of clouds, then the Roof was sufficient in protecting the players from the elements. However, if there are more clouds than roof levels, then the players must discard one food AND one wood per Roof level you are deficient (as the players need to stay warm and healthy as they are rained upon). For each that they are unable to discard, everyone takes one Wound.

The Hungry Animal die has several results. The players may lose one food (as the Beast stalks the camp and steals from it), lose one Palisade (everyone taking one wound if the Palisades are already at 0) or Fighting a Beast with a strength of 3 (each player gets one wound per Weapon level they are below 3).

Night Phase: During this phase, the players need to eat. One food is discarded per player. If there is not enough food, then the players have to decide who does not eat that night. Anyone without food loses two health. Also during Night, the players may opt to move their Camp to an adjacent tile (perhaps for better reach of resources). However, moving Camp means the player loses half of their Roof and Palisades in the move, so it is usually wiser to move your camp early unless you absolutely have to. If the players have not built Shelter yet, they each suffer one Wound from being out in the elements. And finally, unless the players have an Invention or something else to protect their extra food, any extra food is discarded from the Camp as it spoils. The players will have to gather food all over again the next turn.

The first player token is then passes to the left and the turn marker is moved forward one space.

The game ends immediately if the players fulfill all of the Scenario's objectives and the players win. However, the game ends immediately if any of the players die or if the last round is completed and the Scenario goals are not completed.


The Theme:

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is dripping with theme and, moreover, gives an excellent narrative. The game tells the story of the castaways trying to survive on an unforgiving island. As a word of warning: the game is difficult, so often that story ends in the death of the castaways. However, each and every time, you will have a great and engaging story being told before your eyes.

One of the things that I love most about the game is the characters. Each are made to feel very different for a number of reasons. First of all, each character sheet is reversible to either a male or female side. This has no impact on abilities or stats, but is such an easy way to make one's character more relatable and therefore makes it easier to draw you into the story to make it feel more personal.

Each character's abilities are designed around a specific role (the Carpenter, for instance, has abilities focused on Building), however, it requires determination to use these abilities. Regardless of if you have Determination to use your abilities or not, you will still find yourself arguing over what actions should be taken. There is something innate that when you are playing the Soldier, even if there is nothing to Hunt at the moment, you argue against using your actions to build a lowly shovel.

We played one Scenario three times (trying to beat it) with three players. We used the same three characters and rotated after each game. It was funny that when I was the Carpenter, I would argue against the point of wasting my actions to build weapons and would rather build a Snare or other trappings for the Shelter. However, when I was the Soldier, I adamantly argued for the effectiveness of raising our Weapon level instead of building the other things that now looked like comforts instead of necessities. The game made us perceive our characters through their roles. This is the sign of a well-crafted theme. It didn't matter which of the three of us was the Soldier, weapons seemed like the best idea. The Carpenter was always more worried about Roof levels and Inventions to use in Camp and our Explorer always argued that exploring and finding Discovery Tokens might give us an edge for the upcoming threats.

Finally, all of the characters have the same health, however, as a character takes Wounds, it may drop below a Morale point. If it does, the Camp's Morale is lowered by one as the character begins to complain about his or her Wounds and brings down his companions. This is another wonderful touch. The Soldier and Explorer are more hardened and have fewer Morale drops. However, the Cook is a whiny little bitch. This doesn't mean that the Cook isn't useful--the character's abilities may just be the only healing and extra food sources you may find. But it is something else that differentiates the characters and you'll see the Soldier try to take Wounds to defend the Cook if, for no other reason, so as not to hear him bitch about his pain and misery back at Camp.


Learning the Game:

The downside of the game is that in order to create such a dynamic and changing story that tells so many things, the game is fiddly. Very fiddly.

The English version of the rulebook is a little scattered and sometimes a little less than intuitive to follow. This seems to be mostly an issue with translation being a little weak from the native Polish. However, Z-Man games has the US release and reprint license, and I imagine that they will touch up the language of the rules to make it more clear.

The first game will take longer as you will need to figure out some of the icons and get used to all that is going on. However, after a couple of games all of this melts away and you see the intuitiveness of what you are doing as everything really does make sense as far as what the mechanics are doing to tell the story.

The rules make the game seem more intimidating and overwhelming than it really is. I would suggest reading my summary before reading the translated rules as it might help get an idea of what is going on before reading deeper into the technical aspect. But again, the mechanics make sense, so it is easier to remember. Not enough food for everyone to eat? Whoever doesn't eat takes Wounds. There is a snowflake on the Winter die? We need to keep warm and burn a wood.

Games that have abstract mechanics to make a challenge against a game make these rules harder to remember. However, the theme of each of these mechanics tells a narrative and it makes them much, much easier to remember.


The Components:


The board is beautiful and functional.



Tokens for the game.




The characters are the same on either side, except for the sex.




"You feel like in London..." Personally, I find some of the clunky translations charming.




Example of a Scenario. Our late Navigator unfortunately misread the map and thought this was Cannibus Island. 



The artwork for the characters is beautiful. It makes me wish that there was more of it throughout the game. The tiles have a bit of iconography on them, but it is kept to a minimum, allowing the top half of the tile to show scenery reflecting the area found.

The tokens are a little flimsy, but sufficient and the wooden bits to track resources are wooden bits. They're fine. A few more black markers and white markers for tracking scenario effects or unavailable resources would have been nice. Hopefully, Z-Man Games will add a few more into their release. Ultimately, however, it isn't a big deal.

The board is beautiful. However, more than that, it is a combination of beauty combined with effectiveness in design. Once you are familiar with the game's structure, everything that you need to know is right there on the board, even numbering each of the Phases to walk through the turns from the board. The only complaint that I have with the board is that it is thin. The cardboard itself is fine, but the material along the back to allow for folds is thin and mine tore, so I now have my board in two segments. Again, this is something that I hope Z-Man Games will fix in their release.

Lastly, the cards also carry some of the awkward translation from Polish. Personally, I find a certain charm in it. I smile to myself when I read aloud the Storm card which says, "Ocean is in a bad mood today." The effects of the cards are very clear, however, the flavor text shows a little difficulty in the nuances of English. It doesn't affect gameplay at all and I find it a charming quirk of the game. Still, it is something that I think Z-Man should definitely fix.


Playing the Game:


Play in progress; seeing the components working together.


The first time I played the game it was just my wife and I. Like most first games, it was broken up with a few breaks to look up rules and a little hesitation and confusion on how to actually accomplish our objectives efficiently. As a result, the narrative wasn't fully felt with the pauses and we lost terribly. I wasn't certain how I felt about the game. We cleaned it up and we went on with the evening.

However, as I ate dinner that night, I started to think, "Maybe if we try to stockpile wood earlier, we could get enough to get us in a better position before the harsher weather hits." Then when I was getting my daughter ready for bed, I thought, "We should've probably explored more quickly and moved our camp to the center of the island to give us more gathering options." And while in bed with my wife that night, well, I thought about her. But then when we finished I thought, "Maybe if we go for a quick hunt and suck up the Wounds, we could get fur to make a roof and that would leave us more wood for our signal fire."

When my wife got home the next day, the game was set up and she barely had time to take off her coat before I asked her to play again.

And, thus, my uncertainty for the game was gone. I spent the entire evening afterward thinking about what we needed to do. If it wasn't obvious then, it was once I started to play the second game with a better idea of what needed to be done; I loved this game. We still lost in our second game. But not as horribly. Just... almost as horribly. But we started to learn the structure of what needed to get done. We beat the scenario on the third game.

Feeling confident, we started the second Scenario. And we lost horribly. We had to approach it with another way of thinking. We eventually introduced the game to another friend of ours and played three player and the game was completely different again. It took a few tries and we finished the first Scenario and moved onto the second with him, trying new paths each time.

And one of the nice things about the game is that there are different valid avenues to complete what you need. The Soldier will argue for the effectiveness of hunting for food and fur, but the Cook will argue for a more reliable Gathering attempt to get what is needed. I don't think that the game eliminates the problems with an alpha player in a cooperative game, but the different avenues of success make it feel less puzzle-like and more natural as you decide as a group what to do.


Scalability:

The game plays from 1-4 players. The scaling is just a hint clunky, but ultimately still offers a challenge without changing gameplay. With two players, you'll only have 4 actions a turn, so you have an NPC (Friday) who can lend a pawn to assist, giving the group 5 pawns. It costs fewer resources to build Shelter and the Roof and Palisades. Also, the Soldier is restricted in the two-player game. Three players seems to be the intended number and really is the game's "sweet spot". Nothing alters in the three player game. Four players increases the resources needed to build Shelter and such further and also lowers the effectiveness of the Arranging Camp action a bit. I haven't played the game's solo variant, but you draw one character and have extra pawns by adding Friday and the Dog and your Morale always moves up by one at the start of a turn. I might instead play a solo game and control three characters.

However, I don't think I'll play it solo. First of all, I'm not much of a solo-gamer to begin with. But secondly, I think this game really thrives on playing with multiple people. It doesn't feel like a puzzle, so the fun isn't in "solving" it. The fun is in the narrative. And, as I said, something innately happens where you become your role. There's something to be said about everyone arguing over why they should be the one who gets to eat tonight.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She likes cooperative games. Don't get me wrong, she's subtlety cutthroat in competition, but there is a special place in her heart for cooperative games. That being said, she really enjoys the game. You may not know it from watching her play. She's essentially the C-3PO of our gaming group as she'll cry out, "We're doomed!" by the end of turn two and constantly point out the most pessimistic result that could happen by any actions we plan out. Normally, it isn't that bad to get around. As she recites that if I only put one pawn on my build action, there is a 1 in 3 chance that I'll fail and not build the Shovel. I can just grab the dice and grit my tell and tell her, "Never tell me the odds". It just stinks when I fail because, unlike C-3PO, my wife has "I told you so" programming.

But, pessimism aside, she really does enjoy the game and she'll eagerly suggest it for an evening game before I have a chance to.


The Pros:

*Immersive theme that has a distinct and strong narrative in its storytelling.
*Challenging cooperative play that doesn't simply feel like you're solving a puzzle.
*Mechanics all make sense; there are no artificial mechanics to increase difficulty. Everything you do, you do for a reason and it makes sense why you do it.
*Character cards have a male and female side it increase immersion.
*Difficulty can be altered for any player level (adding Friday in a three-player game, drawing a random set-up card, etc.)
*Beautiful artwork and a beautiful board that is completely and intuitively functional.
*Roles have an effect on gameplay, making each feel different.
*Tons of replayability; each scenario plays differently, plus the random set up and nature of the game create a situation where you may play the first Scenario multiple times, but depending on what Inventions are drawn, your approach may be different each time.


The Cons:

*A few minor component issues and wording issues that will hopefully be cleared up in the Z-Man US release.
*Elegance is sacrificed for fiddlyness, but with the gain of storytelling narrative.
*English translation of the rules is clunky and some of the card narratives show a lack of understanding of the nuances of the language (again, Z-Man should fix this).
*The game's scaling is a little clunky. The sweet spot is three and all other variations are adjusting the game to the three-player difficulty.
*While there is replayability for each Scenario, only have six still feels light.
*You risk anyone making a Gilligan's Island reference or quote at any moment while playing the game.


Overall:

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Curse Island is without a doubt, the best cooperative game that I have played. Unlike many cooperative games, it does not feel like a puzzle, nor do you feel like the actions required are dictated by the events before you. There are valid arguments at any time for any number of different routes to take to get what is needed or what must be done. The narrative is immersive and everything happens for a reason. After each game I find myself thinking about what we could have done better. This is exactly what I want in a game: one that immerses me while I am playing it and one that makes me think about what I did afterward.


9.5/10

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