Contrary to common belief, watching Netflix all day is not the best way to socialize during the current pandemic. For those of you living (and self-isolating) with family or housemates, board games are a far better and more interactive solution. Here’s one game of old-school adventure you should take into consideration. Who knows, you might even learn some basic survival skills in the process!
In our current times of growing anonymity and collective anxiety, fuelled by all sorts of virtual illusions and obstacles, board games certainly offer a brilliant social exercise and a tremendous opportunity to flex one’s brain muscles (as well as to simply have fun). But what some of them do quite extraordinarily – and what seems to not be emphasized enough in mass media – is to make players use their imagination in speculative situations, thereby boosting their creativity. There are games that put you in the shoes of master-sleuths solving laborious criminal cases, others turn you into businessmen trying to make their names during the British Industrial Revolution. And then there is Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, a near-perfect blend of everything that this hobby can provide. Made by the Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek, the game started the next chapter in co-operative board gaming, and, despite being published in 2012, it still sits in 15th place on BoardGameGeek’s coveted list of best thematic board games of all time.
Deservedly so. Robinson Crusoe uses Daniel Defoe’s magnum opus as the framework for a cut-throat survival game of epic proportions for 1-4 players. You (a carpenter, a cook, an explorer or a soldier, each with a different skill set) are washed ashore on an exotic, mysterious island which, as you soon realize, will do everything to stay unpeopled. Wild beasts roaming around your makeshift camp, vicious natural traps, a lack of food, exotic maladies, extreme weather conditions – these are just several of the numerous ways in which the game will hit you. Imagine: you are doing quite well, you have food and wood, you have built a strong shelter, you are staying healthy… and then a savage hurricane hits your camp, followed by a torrent of rain that forces you to move to an adjacent spot where you sleep without a roof over your head. You take wounds, you are too weak to gather resources efficiently, your morale drops below a critical level. Then you catch a fever, start to fight one another, take more wounds. Then the snow hits, reminding you that winter is approaching. You lose wood, you do not eat enough, depleting your health even more. And so on.
In two or three rounds, everything you have achieved becomes insignificant. One of you dies. The end. For this is a truly co-operative game – you either all survive, or you all lose. And you know what? Even if you don’t make any mistakes– if you use every opportunity to make the most of what you have – the game can still kill you. Sometimes this happens at the very last moment, when your burning pile of wood has already attracted the attention of a ship on the horizon. This is owing to Robinson Crusoe’s randomness: half of the time you suffer from bad dice rolls, while many damages and tragedies occur as a result of drawing cards. It can be goddamn frustrating and compel you to rip the game to pieces, but it also makes Robinson Crusoe shine and provide players with countless opportunities to use their analytic skills. You see, most of the time you are able to foresee problems ahead of time and simply have to decide what to do to avoid them, or at least make their impact less brutal. Who said surviving on a deserted island would be easy?
Oh, yes, beating Robinson Crusoe can be a truly fulfilling experience, especially if you decide to use this powerful imagination of yours. The castaway aspect is strongly integrated with the game mechanics, thus you need to really think through each decision. Let’s imagine that you need to invent fire to light the pile of wood you are struggling to gather to escape from the island. In order to do so, you need to explore the surrounding area and discover a mountain. The terrain tiles are drawn randomly, thus you can instead discover hills, plains or rivers. Let’s say you did find some mountains. They also give you an opportunity to craft a knife, which will enable you to fight wild beasts more efficiently (in order to collect food and fur). Having the knife, you may want to build a bow, though it requires inventing a rope – and you can make that only when you discover plains. Unless you struggle with bad luck, having rope is very rewarding as it enables building a snare, a raft, a shield and a corral, each providing new ways of fighting off the island’s attacks.
You start the game with two randomly drawn pieces of equipment (say, the Bible and a pistol, each very helpful in its own way, each to be used only twice in the game), and the rest is basically up to you. You need to eat food each and every round – if not, you suffer wounds. You need to build a permanent shelter as soon as possible – if you do not have it when night comes, you suffer wounds. Most of your limited moves force you to draw cards that can easily make you lose resources and/or suffer wounds. Some of the cards – and associated threats – need to be drawn each round and make you… well, you know the drill. You win the game with your sweat and blood. Because the clock is ticking, you never have enough time to do everything you planned. Wonderful, isn’t it? To make it even more appealing to people who like emotional and intellectual challenges, the above description fits the first (and the easiest) of seven scenarios available in the base game. Others include rescuing a damsel in distress, fighting bloodthirsty cannibals, building crosses for exorcisms, or going on a treasure hunt near a ravaging volcano.
Every scenario is based on the same mechanics, with enough differences and interesting tweaks to make each of them a great board-gaming experience over and over again. There are also two brilliant official expansions and a number of free fan-made scenarios, while this year will possibly see dozens of new challenges funded through Kickstarter. Considering the modular tile-map, randomly chosen cards, randomly drawn wild beast cards, and a number of other factors that change from game to game, Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island seems infinitely re-playable.
But do remember, this is truly a beast of a board game that will make you laugh, scream and cry (mostly tears of sadness and frustration from lives being lost). A game with a steep learning curve and a rulebook filled with rules and micro-rules that may change the way you play. A game that rewards patience, creativity and boundless imagination. A game that explodes thematically, but requires several plays to fully immerse yourself in what it has to offer. It is a true beauty – nothing else comes close to it.