Robinson Crusoe Review


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Posted by Kyle on Mar 20, 2015

**Please Note: Review is of Robinson Crusoe (First Edition).**

In most worker placement games, the primary source of conflict is action denial, which can be a turn-off for some. In Robinson Crusoe, designer Ignacy Trzewiczek has taken the core of a worker placement game and dropped it in the middle of a brutal cooperative adventure. Of course, instead of denying each other’s actions, you’re forced to interact by working together: accompanying your partner’s hunting party, spreading out to cover more ground or teaming up to rebuild the hut that nasty storm knocked over last night. This subtle shift makes all a tremendous difference. While the game can be downright sadistic, it’s a delight to experience.

The setup is familiar enough. You have what is effectively a board of available action spaces, which will let you build or repair your camp, go hunting, gather resources, trade resources for inventions with special powers, rest or explore a new tile for additional options in a future turn. Experienced players won’t have any trouble with the clear, quick phases that throw events at the team, provide resources, let you place workers and then possibly harm the island’s survivors if they haven’t gathered enough shelter or sustenance for the day. It’s a simple, clean turn structure.

There is definitely an element of luck, so it isn’t all just about planning and executing plans to keep everyone alive. The design allows you to take each action with a level of risk with which you’re comfortable. If you need an action to succeed with no risk whatsoever, then apply more workers to it, and it’s done with no reliance on Lady Luck at all. If you’re stretched thin and need to make a big push for 4 or 5 different things to get done this round, then gather up your luck-mitigating determination tokens, scatter your pawns across a half-dozen action spaces, and say a prayer as you roll the dice.

Sometimes, your action will succeed but you’ll encounter a setback, such as wounds or a nasty event card that usually has a negative effect. Often you’ll even have a choice: take a few resources or other helpful tokens now, but then shuffle the card into the once-per-round event deck. That event card- the one that was a benefit- becomes a problem with negative consequences later on. It’s really a neat bit of game design, smoothly integrating some meaty risk/reward analysis with flavorful, thematic island survival plot points. Even the negative events often come with a benefit if you dare risk it.

This game doesn't forget. And it does not forgive. You neglected to collect a bit of wood for the fire? Take some wounds as your character begins to experience hypothermia and feel the early pangs of lethal starvation. Oh, what’s that? You ate meat from a dead, sick goat in the middle of the jungle? I hope you dug the latrine pit a good distance from the camp. Ignacy boldly offers players a choice: they can play a game full of landmines, daring risks, and ticking time bombs, or they can play it safe and potentially fail to gather enough resources to cross the finish line. It marries the very best of wild, thematic adventure games with engine-building, cube pushing worker placement.

From a value perspective, there’s a lot to love here. The solo game is on par with the multiplayer experience, giving the solitaire adventurer a bit of a break in the morale phase and a couple extra pawns to use, but otherwise remaining faithful to the core game design. The half-dozen included scenarios will bring enough punishment to last many, many games, until you’re finally ready to check out the many free ones to download online. Honestly, the first scenario alone is enough to keep a group occupied for several plays before they’re ready to try some more of the crazy situations, like escaping an exploding volcano, investigating a cursed fog, or seeking out ancient relics hidden deep in the jungle.

It is a shame then that the very beautiful production is marred a bit by one of the more baffling rulebooks of modern origin (and this is coming from a guy who’s waded through some of the worst offenders). Some key bits of information are tucked away in callouts and captions, spelling errors abound, and some poorly worded segments just scream poor translation. There’s also a strange mix of wood and plastic cubes in the Z-Man printing, but that didn’t bother me too much. Overall it’s a very fine package with a gorgeous map, clearly laid out tiles and cards, and simple, easily understandable icons.

If you like cooperative games at all, Robinson Crusoe is worth a look, no matter where your gaming loyalties lie. It offers a very interesting take on how players deal with luck, risk, or lack thereof, and it takes players on a very different exotic adventure each time. Just be ready to take a beating a few times before the island finally smiles upon your band of weary adventurers.