One Mechanic Review: Robinson Crusoe

One Mechanic Review: Robinson Crusoe Hot

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Gary SaxGary Sax   July 14, 2015  
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Robinson Crusoe Board Game

Robinson Crusoe, its Event Deck, and Consequence

I've decided to start a series where I take games in my collection and think about them via the one mechanic I think defines them.  I'm starting with Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe is a great game for a number of reasons, but the defining theme of the game is consequences.  I believe it's the first co-op game to really get consequences right, therefore making it the best game in the genre.  At its heart, Robinson is a card flipper, like many co-ops, but the addition of foreseeable (and often preventable) consequences to choices sets it apart.  You can see this in Pandemic, via its seeding the top deck, but I argue it is perfected here.

No part of the game embodies the theme better than the event deck mechanics.  The event deck has two characteristics that introduce "what goes around, comes around" choices.  First, event cards suffered during adventures are taken from their decks and reintroduced into the event deck after they have been resolved.  This introduces some critical pacing into the game and specifically defines wildly varying subnarratives, unique to each game, in addition to the metanarrative defined by the overall objective.  Will the beast that attacks me come back?  Will the rickety shack I built with bad wood fall apart before I leave the island?  The key part of this mechanic is that sometimes the answer to those questions is no.  Designer Ignacy Trzewiczek wisely made the player shuffle these cards frequently, and introduced the possibility that these cards would not resurface by ending up at the bottom of the event deck.  The player needs to decide whether to prepare, take their chances, and how to gamble on when the consequences will strike.  By making these issues a risk/reward proposition tension becomes palpable.

Second, all plot style events have an instant effect and a later preventable effect if left unattended.  The instant effect is the same mechanic you know and hate/love from games like Arkham Horror.  The genius of the system, however, is to make all later events preventable and, furthermore, give you a reasonable but tight several turn timeframe to ameliorate them.   Again, this introduces subplots into the game below the metanarrative of getting off the island or confronting cannibals.  Furthermore, virtually all of the preventable events tie into the invention system.  Preventing future problems is not just a question of spending valuable time (worker placement), but, in fact, often demand multiple turns of scrambling to create the proper invention before solving the problem with a worker.  You can always tell someone who has not played the game before by seeing if they build the shovel in the first two turns.  Juggling multiple immediate vs. long term goals makes Robinson Crusoe a richer co-op game than any I have played and facilitates additional player input and creativity regarding the order and method that problems are tackled.

By playing with consequence through its novel event deck mechanics, Robinson Crusoe constructs narrative without inflicting that narrative on players arbitrarily.  It instead builds narrative and tension over time, giving the player agency in their own story.  It also gives each game multiple story threads running underneath the overarching goal, enriching the game considerably.

Posted: 14 Jul 2015 13:50 by Michael Barnes #206240
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Nicely done- this mechanic is one of the coolest ones ever, such a smart- and simple- way to create narrative _continuity_, which isn't something you tend to see in games outside of campaign systems. It's such a neat arc-decision point, immediate effect, possible long-term consequence. Great stuff. I'm going to play this tonight.
Posted: 14 Jul 2015 14:52 by bfkiller #206248
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Great idea for a review series. I'll be keeping my eye out for future installments.

I agree that this is the defining mechanism of Robinson Crusoe, even though the players spend most of the game conducting worker placement actions (shared worker placement is also quite unique, I think.) Most of the fun and drama enjoyed by the players come from those card decks, so they're what I think of when I think of RC.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 11:46 by Feelitmon #206314
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I agree, this is a nifty idea for an article series, and Robinson Crusoe is a cool place to start it.

One thing that I wonder about is how other games might have benefitted from the same mechanic. For example, imagine Dead of Winter using a Robinson Crusoe style "crisis stack" instead of a new crisis card that is drawn and resolved every round. Maybe certain crossroads cards would get placed into the crisis deck for a lingering effect. It would certainly be interesting, I think, and as Michael says above it would improve the game's narrative. But would it make Dead of Winter just a bit more gamey than it ought to be? Perhaps. Dead of Winter benefits from its simplicity and punchiness, and I would bet that the designers stripped away a lot of fluff over the course of the game's development.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 12:04 by Shellhead #206315
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I have only played Robinson Crusoe once. It's an attractive game, with a good theme and setting, and the event deck mechanic is a great innovation. But we struggled with the rulebook. It feels like this game could have been a more straightforward design while retaining the charm of the event deck.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 14:00 by KingPut #206322
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Nice write up. Total agree with what you said here. Even people who hate worker placement games and co-op seem to dig this game.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 15:08 by Michael Barnes #206324
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I played this solo twice over the night/morning- the first scenario as a refresher and the volcano island one. It's been a while - man, this game is complicated! I think it just toes the line of too much so, but the complexity buys a LOT of unique narrative and a highly detailed setting.

The consequences are just so well done. You get some extra wood, but later on you feel uneasy about the construction and lose morale. You can take the eggs out of the nest, but later an angry bird comes and rips the roof off your hut. Ignore the growling out in the woods by your camp and the next turn there's a tiger barreling through your palisades. But it's deeper than that. Do you invest time in making the Cure invention or discard it when you have to lose some items off the display? But then later, something happens and you might be wishing you had kept it. The game requires you, in a way that few do, to roll with the bad decisions because that's how it creates its specific storyline each game.

These event cards are really the #1 thing that other designers need to take away from this game. There's a lot of smart design in them beyond the creation of continuous cause/effect narrative- they way they key to scenario effects and create potential timed crisis situations works so well.

It's a damn, damn good game. I think that of the post-BGG, post-Hybridization "ultra complex Euro" era, it is likely one of the best and likely to be one of the most timeless designs.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 15:16 by Shellhead #206325
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This mechanic might only work well in co-op games. In a competitive game, there would be an incentive to always choose options with future consequences, because the odds are equal or better (depending on number of opponents) that opposing players will suffer the consequences.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 16:43 by iguanaDitty #206331
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I think it being a coop is part of why I don't mind that it's worker placement. In the competitive worker placement games I've played it seems like half the game is jockeying for turn order, or looking ahead to when jockeying for turn order is important.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 17:06 by Shellhead #206333
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iguanaDitty wrote:
I think it being a coop is part of why I don't mind that it's worker placement. In the competitive worker placement games I've played it seems like half the game is jockeying for turn order, or looking ahead to when jockeying for turn order is important.

That makes sense. Normally worker placement games are primarily exercises in cockblocking, and I hate cockblocking so much that I stopped going to the bar scene with certain friends. In Robinson Crusoe, the worker placement serves an entirely different purpose, which is to prevent players from focusing too much on specific activities at the expense of others. I also like the worker placement in Sons of Anarchy, because there you get to punch the cockblockers.
Posted: 15 Jul 2015 20:42 by Gary Sax #206337
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I'm at a lake with no internet, but it sounds like a lot of you agree on this one! I'm actually playing the cross scenario with my wife up here right now.

I think the Cure which Barnes brings up is essentially the perfect single example of this whole thing in Robinson. It is an invention that had no obvious purpose save the dynamic purposes it is given in contingent events. Unlike a traditional card flipper, though, RC lets you know you may need the cure and gives you (potentially) TIME to get the cure. Is it worth it? You actually get to make choices to decide. Unlike, say, the AH Silver Twilight Lodge membership which you may get and a card will check whether you have it. But the mechanic never works because the game doesn't tell you "in the rest of this game you may need the silver twilight membership!"
Posted: 16 Jul 2015 11:37 by Gary Sax #206362
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PS THE RULEBOOK SUCKS
Posted: 16 Jul 2015 17:33 by wadenels #206379
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I made a one-page aid that covers the sequence of a game round in Robinson Crusoe. It helps with learning the game but doesn't cover all the little fringe rules for tokens and things so you'll still need the rulebook until you internalize that stuff. Same location as always.
Posted: 03 Aug 2015 10:43 by Gary Sax #207803
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Looks like Portal is rereleasing Robinson, probably without Z-man this time. I like this game enough that I'll buy a reprint, but I'm very curious to hear about the changes they'll make...
Posted: 10 Apr 2016 01:48 by craniac #225638
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Robinson Crusoe is back in stock. I can get it for $62 shipped. Someone talk me into this. Can I play it with my kids?
Posted: 10 Apr 2016 02:51 by Frohike #225642
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FYI, there's a revised "GOTY" edition coming out that includes some of the extra promo scenarios and a presumably less sucky rulebook (not sure I trust Portal's skill at revised rulebooks since they weren't all that successful with Stronghold 2nd Ed) and a ... less rectangular box.

I've played this with my 12 year old son and my wife and they both enjoyed it, though my wife found it to be a bit "roleplay-ish," which is an interesting commentary both on the narrative feel of the agency in this game and her own tragic allergy to RPGs.
Posted: 10 Apr 2016 11:06 by craniac #225650
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How important are the promo scenarios? Any idea what it will cost? Maybe the rulebook will be available online...
Posted: 10 Apr 2016 11:19 by SaMoKo #225652
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Nice insight in this review!

Love Robinson Crusoe. The benefit of the way narrative is handled through the cards in unexpected ways leads to far more longevity than in other co-op games. There are some oddball scenarios that pop up here and there, like instant-loss situations when vital invention cards are discarded in the Crusoe Family scenario, but we just ignore these burps and draw a new card lol.
Posted: 10 Apr 2016 14:54 by Frohike #225661
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craniac wrote:
How important are the promo scenarios? Any idea what it will cost? Maybe the rulebook will be available online...

I've never bothered getting the promos since I still haven't gotten through the content in the base box. It has plenty, IMO. No idea on the cost of the next edition. It will include all of the extras that have accumulated over the years, including some new wood tokens (rather than cubes). Basically most of the stuff that can be bought as add-ons now, which adds up to a pretty good amount of money, so as long as the new edition is in the $70-80 range, it should still be a good value:

portalgames.pl/shop/en/robinson-crusoe--...the-cursed-island-7/

Ignacy has retracted a statement he made several months ago that there would be an "upgrade pack" for folks who had the Z-Man edition, probably because they're re-doing the cards or some other component incompatibilities.

It feels like a similar situation to the Pandemic reboot, where the stuff currently available for the first edition is plenty for most players, but those who are looking for future expansions beyond the Voyage of the Beagle will probably need to get another copy of the base game. I'm kind of Ok with this, since Portal taking over the publishing means the game will stay in the supply chain (unlike with Z-Man) and will continue to get new content.

I'm also not sure when this new edition is coming out, but unless you plan on playing the hell out of the game between now and I'm guessing... this Xmas, I'd wait for the Portal edition, personally.
Posted: 11 Apr 2016 09:52 by Columbob #225680
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craniac wrote:
Can I play it with my kids?

My buddy played it with his daughter when she was 8-9, they had lots of fun. She even stayed up a bit on a game night to watch us play. The game being coop lends itself well to play with kids I think, as long as their interest is up.
Posted: 11 Apr 2016 09:55 by Columbob #225681
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craniac wrote:
How important are the promo scenarios?
Base scenarios offer plenty of play and replay value as it is. I don't think you'd be missing anything without them, they'd just offer even more variety. That King Kong scenario sounds fun. IIRC, you can download and print them from BGG anyways, there's nothing more to them than the scenario special rules.

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