Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island (4th Edition) is a cooperative survival game for up to 4 players in which the goal is to survive being shipwrecked on a desert island. Battling nature itself, players must survive roaming beasts, storms and all sorts of unpredictable encounters on the island. While doing this, they must gather food, build shelter and explore the land around them.
Unusually, I bought RC (as I shall refer to it) without ever having played it; the general consensus among reviewers that have gone before me was that it is an outstanding game and one of the finest cooperative experiences out there. Having now played a few games, both 2-player and multiplayer, I can only add my voice to the clamour that says “this game is awesome”.
The game starts with a scenario called “Castaways”. This is the classic desert island scenario, in which the players must construct a large fire in order to be seen by passing ships, but the game comes with many more. There are scenarios in which the goal is to perform exorcisms on the “cursed island”, another where the aim is to build a raft to rescue other survivors from a nearby island, and even one where the players are the producers of a film that goes badly wrong! I’ve tested a couple of these out and they really do add variety and longevity to the game. Most people will want to start with the basic game, though.
To begin with, each player chooses a role in the party: Explorer, Soldier, Cook or Carpenter and takes the appropriate reference card. The roles all have different special abilities, such as being able to avoid negative building rolls, find shortcuts or fend off wild beasts. Each character can also build one “unique item” to benefit the group. They also have a finite amount of health which must be closely monitored. If a character dies on the island, it’s game over for everyone. If there are fewer than three players in the game, the group will be joined by Man Friday (the only nod to the book of Robinson Crusoe in the entire game) or Dog, depending on how many are playing.
After the initial setup of the game, which can take a while on account of the large number of pieces (superbly made) and decks of cards, each turn is played in phases. First up, an Event is drawn. This will have some sort of immediate effect, such as a hurricane bearing down on the island, fog descending or food stocks going bad, and a later lingering effect if the aftermath is not dealt with by the players. Next, the group’s morale is checked – this is a number that moves up and down throughout the game. High morale means bonus “determination” for the group, helping characters to perform special abilities and dig people out of trouble. Low morale means that determination is sapped, and gradually this hurts the characters and will lose the game quickly if not raised. A group that sinks into despair will quickly find itself in trouble on the island.
The third phase involves the production of food and wood from the campsite. Managing these resources is critical; food needs to be on hand to feed the group (else they lose health) but excess food is lost. Wood is needed to build shelter, weapons, items and fires to stave off the cold in winter. Choosing what to spend the limited supply on each turn is a big decision for the group.
Phase Four is where most of the action happens. In this phase, players can choose to resolve events, explore, build, gather, heal or try to raise the group’s morale by building up the camp by placing their tokens on the board. A player only has two “action” tokens per turn and this creates an interesting choice. Placing both tokens on an action guarantees success, but it means slow progress – what do you do when a storm is on the horizon and you have no shelter, but you also badly need to gather more food to survive the night? Placing only one token allows players to take more actions, but they then have to roll dice to see if they succeed; failure is entirely possible and can come with a nasty sting in the tail.
Exploring the island will reveal new resources and encounters. The encounters differ for each scenario – a symbol in “Castaways” might mean something very different in “Cursed Island” – and this keeps the game feeling fresh every time. No island will look the same from one game to the next. Through exploration, the group can also discover hidden treasure and useful abandoned items to aid their survival. They can also get torn to pieces by an alligator. Like everything in RC, it is a balancing act and about taking calculated risks. There is never a perfect solution to the scenario.
Building items is one of the ways that players can try to redress the balance in their favour, each of which represents some piece of equipment or everyday object that aids the group in their survival . Other than a core 9 items that are present in every game, the list of items that can be built changes in every game. All of them have a positive effect, or allow you to build other bigger and better items. The pot allows you to heal damage in exchange for food, for example, while the cellar prevents your food from going bad during the night. While you won’t get attacked by lions as you build a shelter, rushing building anything still carries its own risks of injury – and injuries are slow to heal when you have no medical facilities on a desert island. Often choosing what to build, and in what order, is one of the biggest decisions for the group to make. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to build everything you want, so choosing what to sacrifice becomes a very interesting mechanic. With winter coming, do you want to forgo a level of roof on your shelter and build some weapons instead?
The final phases in any turn see the players battle against nature as the weather for the coming season closes in on them. With a bit of luck, the group will only have to contend with rain (survived by having a shelter with a decent roof on top), but in the colder turns – as indicated on the scenario card – snow becomes a factor as well, requiring the burning of precious wood regardless of how safe the group are in their shelter. Finally comes the night in which all players must have shelter and food, else they suffer wounds. Deciding who gets to eat can be quite a fateful moment for the group. If they survive, the turn marker advances and, with a bit of luck and some good judgment, the group may have done enough to advance a little towards their scenario goal.
The pieces supplied with the game are all wooden, the most impressive of which are the food tokens shaped like bananas or loaves of bread. The board artwork is gorgeous to look at and clearly has very high production values – Portal Games should be proud of their work here. The role templates and various card decks are also of a similarly high standard, with plenty of cards having flavour text to give context and a sense of adventure to the game. In every respect, it rivals any other board game artwork and production values that I have seen. The only real query I have is over the name of the game itself. While I don’t suspect there are too many RC book fans who have been desperate to recreate Daniel Defoe’s 18th century classic in a board game, there is oddly almost no link to the eponymous book in the game at all. The items are not era-specific and the game is generic in terms of “when” it occurs. It doesn’t detract from the game in any way, but it’s an odd title for a game that then has nothing to do with the book it is derived from, apart from a token appearance from Man Friday.
I have loved every minute of playing Robinson Crusoe. The game mechanics are unlike any other cooperative game I’ve played and work really well together to ensure that all players are engaged at every moment in the game. There are no lulls in gameplay where players will be watching someone else do all the work – this is a true team game in every sense. There is a constant sense of doom and forboding, but this makes victory seem all the sweeter when it comes. Don’t get me wrong – this is a hard game to win, though not to understand – and rarely will a game pass comfortably with victory assured from an early stage. The game constantly demands negotiation among the players, teamwork and sacrifice. It is a battle for survival against the odds and is deserving of a place on any board gamer’s shelf. It may not be for absolute beginners, but in the hands of an experienced “leader” who can teach it to others, this would be a fantastic way of introducing people to cooperative games.
Robinson Crusoe is available from Portal Games and has an RRP of £49.99.