A common refrain in videogame reviews is that some videogames are released in need of a patch, or maybe more testing, or extra work on stability issues, or polish, or however you express that it wasn’t quite ready for release. Robinson Crusoe is like that. It’s a really lovely little game. That isn’t quite done. It should be an object lesson in both how to make a game and how not to release a game.
After the jump, which game would take you to a deserted island?
One of the most immediate facts about Robinson Crusoe is that it is saddled with some of the worst rules I’ve ever read in a boardgame. The artwork in the documentation doesn’t match the pieces in the box. Crucial information is scattered haphazardly around several pages. At times the text is absolutely nonsensical. I defy you to figure out how the aptly named mystery cards work, because there is literally no way to know what was intended from the written rules. There’s an official FAQ available here, but it’s similarly haphazard. Even the map itself is unclear. I must have played five or six games before I discovered the shape of the island, but only because I read about it online. It always consists of the same ten hexes, despite the fact that the board includes phantom hexes that you’re not supposed to use, with no indication that you’re not supposed to use them. It takes quite a game to not even establish where you play it.
A clearer rule book would help, or perhaps a more careful translation from the original Polish version. But even then, it suffers from interface issues. There are cards that contradict rules, rules that contradict cards, and a general lack of meaningful effort to communicate the rules to anyone who doesn’t already magically know exactly how to play. The scenarios, which are the framework for each and every game, are a mish-mash of imprecision, half-assed verbiage, and just plain bad design. Part of the problem is obviously a localization issue, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve played plenty of games created by people who speak other languages that don’t have this problem. It’s particularly disappointing considering it’s published by Z-Man, a company that’s been around long enough and published enough great games to know better.
For instance, Z-Man doesn’t host the FAQ, but they have posted a third party quick start guide, written by someone who includes a couple of comments about not being sure how something works. Why wasn’t that cleared up before the guide was posted on the official site? It’s as if a game publisher hosted a patch with patch notes that sort of shrugged and admitted they weren’t sure how to fix an issue because they weren’t sure how the game worked. I get that Z-Man is just the publisher, but they’re exhibiting the sort of stunning lack of support I thought we only got with videogames.
This unconscionable sloppiness is one of the quickest ways to kill off a good design, and that’s certainly the case with Robinson Crusoe. This design — what I like to think I eventually figured out as well as it can be figured out — is good. Very good. When it works. It’s like trying to play Battlefield 4, but then the server crashes. You’re playing Robinson Crusoe, but then some inscrutable and poorly written rule or card or term brings it all crashing down, like a beast bursting into your carefully arranged camp. Even if you studiously read the rules — especially if you studiously read the rules! — you’re going to run into issues at the table. Prepare to do some research, and perhaps even some judicious house ruling where publisher Z-Man or designer Ignacy Trzewiczek couldn’t be bothered to do the work they should have done. I have no idea whose fault it is, and frankly I don’t care. Someone dropped the ball.
And this is a real shame given that it’s such a lovingly themed co-op game about a topic popular in so many videogames. Robinson Crusoe, which has no direct relevance to Defoe’s story other than the appearance of Friday as an optional helper character, is a classic survival game. You start with pretty much nothing. Maybe a crate of supplies from your smashed ship and two random items like a broken bottle, or a Bible, or a flask of rum. You then explore an island, scrounge supplies which always seem a few cubes too few, and craft items to help you survive. This clever survival system comes with six scenario cards to give the system an overarching structure, but some of these scenarios are flat-out broken and have little replayability once you’ve figured out how they’re broken.
Although it’s a co-op game, this is one of those co-op games that might as well be solitaire. It’s certainly a grand time figuring out with your friends who should do what when and where and with whom. But given the occasionally brutal difficulty and the way you’ll get better the more you play and therefore the more familiar you are with the systems, it’s a game that calls for careful choices and even a bit of min/maxing based on insider knowledge. Having newbie friends along will just make it more difficult without adding anything beyond the social element. That’s the worst kind of co-op: where you’re penalized for playing it co-operatively.
The event system is one of my favorite things about the design for how it creates a choice-and-consequences story. Every scenario begins with a set of cards equal to the number of turns. Each turn, you’ll resolve an event and then watch it slide towards an even more perilous secondary effect unless you head it off. That’s nothing unusual, as plenty of co-op games do that. But there’s an additional “creeping doom” effect in Robinson Crusoe as certain actions lead you to draw adventure cards. Some of these are immediate effects and some are time bombs shuffled into the event deck, often if you take an immediate benefit. This means you make choices that affect what’s coming. That dead goat you chose to eat is going to give everyone diarrhea. You raided that bird’s nest a few turns ago because you needed food, and now here’s the mama bird wreaking havoc on the hut of roof. Your scratched arm has turned gangrenous. Here comes that tiger you saw lurking in the bushes earlier. You did spend the intervening time sharpening your weapons, didn’t you? No? You have only yourself to blame. It’s one thing to throw a tiger card at the players. Robinson Crusoe understands the art of suspense and storytelling by first showing you the tiger lurking in the bushes.
The production values are really nice, although it’s a very very fiddly game, with probably about 50% more moving parts than it really needed. But when it gets up and running, before it catches on some rules hitch, it’s really gratifying to see where the dice and cards take you. This can be a brutally hard game or surprisingly easy game because of all the randomness. Some of the scenarios fold in really cool concepts, like lava swallowing the island, an evil fog slowly rolling forward, or cannibal villages standing in your way. The most ambitious scenario has you and the other players raising your Robinson family. Don’t starve! But without a better set of rules, without better designed scenarios, without more of the kind of stuff that gives a boardgame clarity and longevity, it’s not exactly the type of game you’d take to a deserted island.
Robinson Crusoe takes the players to a deserted island where they'll play the parts of shipwreck survivors confronted by an extraordinary adventure. They'll be faced with the challenges of building a shelter finding food fighting wild beasts and protecting themselves from weather changes. Building walls around their homes animal domestication constructing weapons and tools from what they find and much more awaits them on the island. Will they manage to discover the secret of the island in the meantime? Will they be able to figure out the rules? Will they get bored of the included scenarios? Would they rather play Battlestar Galactica?