Designer: Ignacy Trzewickzek
Publisher: Z-Man Games
This game was provided free of charge for review by Esdevium Games.
(Single-Player is a new series designed to review tabletop games that can be played solo, as well as with friends. While I do talk about playing the games with friends, these reviews will primarily focus on the single-player experience.)
Robinson Crusoe is the kind of game that scares people away with its collection of tokens and cards and tiles that contribute to a tabletop experience that’s actually quite easy to understand once everything clicks. You’ve got to make it through the rulebook first, though, which spans 20-pages and isn’t great at explaining how everything works, leaving a lot of ambiguities that must be waded through. It’s worth the effort, though, as this is a thematic and very well designed game that places you into the role of a person stranded on a mysterious island who must survive the random events that will befall you every turn while trying to make good decisions about building shelter, hunting animals, creating items, gathering resources and exploring the island.
Unboxing a game is always something of a serene moment for me, as geeky as that sounds. It’s the same when I open a new book for the first time and just take a moment to revel in the smell and the feel of fresh pages, or enjoy the feeling of ripping off cellophane from a new blu-ray. There’s something pleasurable about opening up a large box and finding heaps of quality components inside, and Robinson Crusoe oozes quality from its dice to its cards and its thick island tiles, although the resource cubes and player pawns are somewhat generic wooden fare. It has some lovely artwork that adorns the board, creating the illusion of many documents scattered across a crude table alongside a beautiful map. Indeed, this is a beautiful game to look at. It’s a bit of a shame that storing all this beauty is troublesome, though. The thick card box contains two large compartments and some plastic bags but it’s not enough to properly pack away the many components, especially the multiple decks of cards. C’mon, Z-Man Games, you guys can do better than this.
Thematic immersion is clearly one of Robinson Crusoe’s primary objectives, a task that is actually rather helped by playing the game solo since you can take on the role of a lone castaway trying to eek out a life from the basic resources afforded on a turn by turn basis. There’s not a mechanic in here that isn’t designed to try to mimic survival in one form or another, and while of course a board game can never even come close to actually being stranded on an island Robin Crusoe still does a good job at immersing you into the experience. Shelter must be built, roofs patched up, food gathered, creatures hunted for meat and fur and beachballs talked to, although I could be thinking of Cast Away. But luck can get in the way; devote a morning to the construction of your shelter rather than the entire day and in the rush to get it finished you might smash a few fingers, a minor problem that could potentially have serious repercussions down the line if the injury becomes infected. It’s a game where there’s a lot to do, and never enough time to actually do it all, but amidst the decision making there’s always a story being told.
First you need to actually get to the point where you can enjoy the theme, however, and that’s a bit of a challenge. Setup time isn’t huge once you get the hang of it but there is quite a bit of stuff to get sorted out before settling down to play. The big hurdle is the game’s rulebook; there’s a considerable number of rules to keep track of in Robinson Crusoe and I’d say it’d take all but the most experienced gamers at least two or three play throughs to become comfortable with how everything works, but the book doesn’t do a very commendable job of explaining it all. Take Mystery cards; these are aptly named since the rulebook never once mentions when they come into play. As it turns out they are drawn when certain other cards demand it. Information is spread around awkwardly so that you have to flip madly through the rules to find the relevant piece of text and it’s incredibly easy to miss important bits of information. Other things are left ambiguous or otherwise unanswered. Quite frankly you’re better of watching some YouTube videos and then downloading one of the many cheat sheets available that breakdown each turn in a far more succinct manner.
Once you’ve gotten everything in place and wrestled with the rules it’s time to pick a character. The game ships with four different characters to play as and in a nice touch each character card can be flipped over to show either a male or female portrait. This makes no difference to the game mechanics, but it’s appreciated nonetheless and is an idea I’d love to see implemented in other titles. Every character comes with their own unique skills that are used by spending determination tokens earned during the game, so the Carpenter, for example, can use less wood when constructing something, can reroll construction dice, come up with new invention ideas and can even add an extra pawn to building tasks. Each character also has a unique item that can be built which provides handy benefits. Playing solo you can only pick from three of the available characters, however.
Driving the game are scenario cards that typically introduce special rules and effects into the mix, as well as explaining what needs to be done to win and the amount of turns in which you have to complete the objective. The first scenario, for example, gives you twelve turns in which to construct a huge bonfire that can be lit to signal passing ships for help, while another scenario has you stranded on an island of cannibals that want to consume your wobbly bits. Having just six scenarios in the box feels a bit lackluster, but thankfully the gameplay mechanics bring a lot of replay value to the game so that even a scenario you’ve played half a dozen times will manage to feel different enough to keep you hooked.
Each turn begins with the drawing of an event card which must have its first effect, normally bad news, resolved immediately. You may, for example, draw a card and discover that a hurricane has decimated part of the island, exhausting all available food and wood resources on one of the tiles. Horrible insects might render your entire store of wood useless, or you might hear a loud scream and thud during the night and investigate, only to discover a crashed balloon and two dead bodies, lowering your morale. The event card then gets placed in the rightmost of two slots on the board, getting displaced to the left space if another event card is drawn and resolved. Should an event card have to move left and can’t then it leaves the board entirely and the text at the bottom of the card called the threat effect is resolved, which again tends to be something negative. In the case of the wood-eating insects, for example, you might have to discard even more wood because you didn’t get rid of them. However, you can stop these secondary negative effects taking place by resolving the Threat Effect before the card can leave the board. For example with hurricane provided you have a shovel and spare a pawn you can rediscover the lost resources and then discard the Event card, otherwise if you simply let the card leave the board the Threat Effect resolves and the resources stay lost forever. Likewise with the crashed balloon you can search the wreckage, or the card will eventually leave the board with no ramifications Most of the time the Threat Effect is a penalty, though. The bear attack card, for example, wrecks your camp and if you don’t choose to repair the damage before the card leaves the board then morale takes a drop because of it.
The next phase is a simple one; you take one resource from each source on the tile where your camp is located, with the camp being something that can be moved around at the end of every turn, albeit with a cost. At the start of the game that’s the beach tile, so you’d get one food and one wood automatically which serves fine for the first while, but quickly becomes too little to sustain you. Wood is of course used for construction of new items and for building a shelter, roof and palisade for defense against wild enemies and the weather. As for food you need to have one food for every person in the game to eat during the Night phase or else starvation will strike, wounding a character.
Next up is the Morale phase where you need to consult the small meter toward the top of the board and then either be rewarded with tokens if morale is high, which are used to power your character’s special skills, or lose tokens if morale is too low. Interestingly playing solo lets you automatically increase morale every turn for simply being happy to be alive, and through this I rarely found morale to actually be much of a problem. This is one of the very few times Robison Crusoe seems to abandon its thematic obsessions for just a brief moment, because to my mind being alone on an island would probably be far more detrimental to morale than having human company.
The meat of the turn is the Action phase where you must choose how to spend your day, as represented by two pawns per character. Constructing something, gathering food or wood, exploring, hunting the local wildlife or just generally tidying up the camp are your choices. For three of these – namely constructing, gathering and exploring – opting to assign two pawns to the task, bearing in mind that more than one player can contribute one of their pawns, is the safest option possible option because it guarantees success, at least in most instances as there are some exceptions to the rule. Assign a smaller portion of time in the form of a single pawn and you run the risk of something potentially bad happening to you through negligence. Think of it like building a shed; take the entire day to complete the job and you can be more sure of having done a good job, but attempt to put it up in a single morning and it’s more likely that you’ll make a mistake. For any of these three tasks with a single pawn assigned to it a set of three dice must be rolled to determine the outcome, with each die having success icons, wound icons that means you take some damage, and a question mark which forces you to draw from the correspondingly coloured Adventure deck and resolve whatever is written there, which is, of course, usually bad. Interestingly most Adventure cards have an effect that is resolved immediately and then they are shuffled into the Event deck, whereupon if they pop up again a second effect activates that relates to the cards theme. You might be constructing your shelter for instance, and draw an Adventure card that states it looks a little weak before shuffling it into the Event deck. A few turns later it pops up at the beginning of the turn and half your shelter collapses.
Aside from using the construction action to toss together a shelter, roof, palisade or some weapons you can also use to build inventions, of which you start with fourteen. Nine of these inventions are pre-determined and available in every scenario, and the other five are randomly selected. To actually build an invention you need to quickly check its requirements; some need a certain type of terrain to have been discovered, as shown on the island tiles, while others might need a different invention to have already been created, like rope or a shovel.
What I love about the game is how the event and adventure cards all successfully combine to tell a story, bringing with it a great level of replayability because even though the scenario is the same different things will occur every time. A sudden storm might leave you with a food shortage, or perhaps you run across a tiger and have to choose between hiding out for the night in freezing conditions so that it can’t follow you back to camp or risk the card being shuffled into the event deck and having to fight the deadly beast later. Or you might spy a storm on the horizon while exploring, and then begin the slow wait for it to pop up in the event deck, tensing with the knowledge that it’s going to come along and wreck your shelter. Snippets of text provide some extra flavour, too, helping you form the story in your own mind. The game is fantastic at creating a constant sense of desperation because there’s never enough time to complete the objective or to hunt for food or to gather wood or construct a shelter, and so inevitably you need to make hard decisions and deal with the consequences. Because of that it can be a gruelling game, and luck can of course leave you hurting badly.
As for exploring the island its handled through tiles that make up the land, a new one being added every time you successfully execute an exploration action. These tiles will include food or wood resources, or may have a creature icon that indicates you should draw a card from the hunting pile, and add it to the board to create the hunting deck, which is where you draw from when you want to track and kill some prey. Speaking of which we really should tackle the concept of hunting, which can only be done by assigning two pawns to the task, assuming that you’ve located some beasts to hunt by exploring the island first. When you go hunting you simply flip over the top card of the hunting deck and then run through the process thusly; first compare the animal’s strength to your current weapon rating, and for each point lower take a wound. Weapon level can be increased through simply using a construction action, or by several other means, including things like treasure cards or discovery tokens. Since wounds can be tricky to heal in Robinson Crusoe its best to only go hunting once you’ve gotten a reasonable weapon strength built up. Once you’ve dealt with that the next stat on the hunting card tells you how many weapon levels you lose during the fight, replicating something like your makeshift spear snapping while fighting off a tiger. The final two numbers tell you how much food and furs you get for hunting, with furs being usable to construct a roof, shelter or palisade instead of wood and being useful when putting together certain items.
Other icons and things pop up during exploration, too, such as the type of land which is used for certain inventions as we’ve discussed. You can also earn exploration tokens that grant bonuses and mystery icons might also be revealed that do different things depending on the scenario.
Once you’ve figured out what to do for the day and probably managed to just make things worse the Weather stage arrives where you need to roll one, two or three different die depending on what the scenario card dictates. Two of the dice directly correspond to the weather, and for every winter cloud rolled you must discard a piece of wood to keep yourself warm throughout the night. After that every cloud on the die or dice rolled must be added up and compared to the level of protection your shelter’s roof provides. If the total amount of clouds is greater than the roof’s current level then one cube of food and wood each must be discarded for each cloud that you aren’t protected from, and for every cube that cannot be thrown away you suffer a wound. The final die is red and is simply called the Hungry Animals die, which has several crappy effects; destroying a cube of food, ripping your palisade apart by one level and forcing you to battle a beast of a certain strength.
Finally the Night phase closes out the turn. At this point one cube of food must be discarded per player or else starvation strikes, and then any leftover foods spoils and also must be discarded unless you’ve managed to discover a way to store it, such as a cellar. It’s at this point you can opt to use any method of healing you’ve acquired.
It’s impressive just how well all the mechanics tie together and loop into each other, slowly building across the course of the game. You urgently need more food to feed yourself because the harsh icy weather has been destroying the single cube worth that is produced by your camp each turn, so you begin exploring the land to uncover potential prey, but that leads to more problems, plus you require wood to craft more weapons in order to successfully battle the creatures of the island. With extra food available you realise you need to able to store it so that it won’t rot overnight otherwise it’s just being wasted and a proper stockpile would be handy, so you head off to construct a cellar, but that means more exploration and putting together a shovel. Meanwhile the primary objective lies forgotten about so you quickly rush to try to complete your goals, and that inevitably leads to more things going wrong that need to be combated. It’s always a balancing act, and that means something normally has to go unattended.
Robinson Crusoe is one of those rare games that honestly feels better as a solo experience, primarily because with a group of people it becomes easy for a single voice to dominate over anyone who hasn’t played before or has lesser experience with surviving the island. Playing alone also feels a little easier than playing with a group because the basic one cube of food you earn per turn can potentially keep you fed for most of the game, depending on whether you get some bad luck that exhausts resources or harsh weather wrecks your stuff. With a large group food demand is significant straight away. Playing solo also means morale jumps up one every turn, so before long you’ve got a large stock of tokens with which to fuel your character’s powerful abilities. There’s also other benefits in the form of Friday and a Dog, both of which provide extra pawns to utilize during tasks, although the dog can only be used for hunting and exploration. Neither of these characters requires feeding, so that’s a bonus. Indeed, surprisingly playing alone Robinson Crusoe wasn’t as challenging as I initially thought, and it only managed to beat me twice over the course of eight games.
That’s not to say it isn’t fun with friends, though. There’s no set player turns here, rather everybody has to decide what to do in each phase together before assigning pawns and whatnot, so it fosters strong teamwork.
Really, then, my only issues with the game stem from the rules. There’s plenty of stuff that I had to go and look up because the rules simply didn’t explain things clearly or that I simply made a homebrew ruling for and rolled with it. Once this hurdle was surpassed, however, Robinson Crusoe is a wonderfully designed experience that works fantastically with friends and as a singleplayer game. Indeed, it’s arguably one of the few board games that doesn’t feel like it loses a little luster when played alone, and instead feels equally enjoyable with or without pals grouped around the board. That’s quite the achievement.