“It is never too late to be wise.”
― Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
That famous quote from Robinson Crusoe is a poignant in life, but it becomes a little less realistic in Ignacy Trzewiczek’s boardgame Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island when you only have twelve turns to keep yourself from starving to death. This is a game that requires you to make wise decisions early on, and punishes you dearly for making incorrect ones. It’s a game that lavishes you with a variety of options, but teases you with the inability to select more than a meagre handful of them. Practicing your wisdom a little too late is how you die on this breathtaking deserted island.
…but don’t let that stop you from having a good time! Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a richly thematic board game that brings you right down to ground level with the choices you must face as a castaway in a dangerous tropical paradise. It’s a place of beauty that’s heading into the terrible and ugly winter months. With weather, dangerous beasts, starvation, and declining morale threatening you at every turn… there’s very little to help improve your mood – but that’s what makes this title so fun.
What is it?
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a cooperative game from Polish publisher Portal Games for 1-4 players. Play time is suggested at 2 hours, which is probably about right, provided you have no distractions. My solo games have sometimes taken days as I plan, plot, execute, set it down to comfort baby, nap, and come back to it later… like an ongoing game of chess.
As you can see from the images, there’s a lot going on here… but the style and design of Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is gorgeous. The board is big and sprawling, but laid out in such a way as easily to walk you through the myriad of phases in a turn, and disguised as a table full of maps and notes.
How does it play?
The game comes with a number of scenarios (each one replayable numerous times) that dictate the length and difficulty of the game, goals, special equipment you can build, special weather conditions, and more.
You will use this information, and the custom abilities of your particular character, to explore and navigate the island, gathering resources, reinforcing your shelter, and hoping to make it just another night. It’s intense… and lovely. It’s like a big sandbox, with lots of possibilities, but each one tidily constrained within the structure of the overall game. Choices are legitimately tough to make. Do you spend your only wood building your palisade this turn, or do you hold onto it to make a hatchet next turn? You’ll agonize over these small decisions, knowing they’ll have a major impact very soon.
You can make some tasks easier on yourself by doubling up efforts. Either you focus a little more thoroughly, which takes both your action tokens (just like in real life) or you bring along Friday, or Dog. They can help too. If you instead decide to half-ass your action and only use a single pawn, you run the risk of failure. You roll some dice, see if you succeed or not, and determine whether you encounter any adventure whilst working.
While you normally feel like doubling up for instant success is always the best option, it’s an option that gobbles up valuable action tokens, taking away your ability to do more with your turn. It’s infuriatingly genius.
Game components are fantastic. Decks and dice and action indicators are all colour-coded to make it easy to remember what they are. Green is Exploration, and Red means Hunt. A jumble of wooden discs, cardboard tokens, and wooden and plastic cubes round out a tactile experience that’s bursting at the seams. Modular tiles make the island different each time you play, though if you explore the whole island, you’ll use up all the tiles. I asked Igancy if there would be more tiles added in the future, but he says the tiles are very precisely calculated in terms of resources, terrain, shelters, etc… so tinkering with that would throw a perfectly aligned game out of balance.
That gives you some insight into just how engineered this title is, and how solid it feels to play. I don’t just feel like I’m playing the part of a survivalist on this island, I feel like I’m documenting it in a dusty old logbook as I go along.
What’s bad about it?
Perhaps slightly less brilliant is the rulebook, which I found to be a bit confusing at times. It starts out fine, explaining the phases of a round, and breaking down what actions you can take in each phase, but by the middle it dithers and deviates through all sorts of subjects, sometimes seemingly rehashing rules already covered in earlier sections. I found this troubling when trying to hunt down a particular piece of information; like what to do with Adventure cards after resolving them. As it turns out, they get shuffled into the Event deck to show up later… but discovering this took some time.
If I was being really picky, I’d complain about the tiny wound track on the character cards (especially for Friday, who is printed on a regular sized playing card). The little red cube is a bit too big for that track.
Finally (and this is me being REALLY pedantic) I would point out a small handful of grammatical mistakes I found in the flavour text on cards. Normally, I don’t even read flavour text, but this game seems to beg for it, which is a shame when the text kind of trips and stumbles off the tongue. Not a deal-breaker, by any stretch of the imagination, but worth a mention.
That’s the extent of my criticism… and honestly, with the exception of the rulebook, I had to really scrape the bottom of the barrel to pull these together.
As a co-op experience, this game works well. Everyone strives to efficiently architect their limited actions, working together to squeeze the most potential from a bad situation. Quarterbacking doesn’t appear to be as much of an issue here as in Pandemic or Flash Point. Perhaps that’s because the choices here are less clear. You might feel like strengthening your roof is the best move, but this is a game that slaps you with new and unforeseen problems every turn, and then asks if you want some more. It’s extremely challenging and unpredictable.
You know that bad stuff is going to happen each turn, but sometimes you need to gamble on it, taking a little extra risk for those rewards. Sometimes that will work in your favour, and sometimes it will come back to haunt you.
Regardless, you’ll walk away from Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island with a story to tell, which is a bit of an anomaly amongst european style games. When so many are designed as nothing more than a pretty puzzle to unlock, it’s nice when you get to play a game that’s so bound to imparting it’s theme on the players. You can almost feel the chill of the salty night air in your lungs, or the warmth of your beach fire as you huddle together under the coconut trees. You imagine yourself rescuing waterlogged crates of food from the seaside, or struggling with a wild boar using nothing but a rusty pirate sabre.
This is a adventure storytelling at it’s finest. A game worthy of the name Crusoe.