Sunday, August 23, 2015

A single coconut tree

There are two things I think of when I think of surviving stranded on an island.  The first is a tiny hunk of desert with a single coconut tree on it, as is the standard for any number of cartoon jokes.  The other is Robinson Crusoe, which I read a bunch of times as a kid.

This past week while on vacation I played a bunch of a new cooperative game called Robinson Crusoe and I have lots of thoughts about it, particularly in light of the fact that I am building a cooperative survival game myself!  RC is complicated.  We watched an instructional video online before trying anything and spent a couple hours setting up the board and reading the manual.  There was an awful lot that we had no idea how to handle at that point but we muddled through our first game fairly reasonably, breaking the rules only maybe half a dozen times.  The game intrigued us for sure, and since I did play RC through four times I can't be too critical, but the game has some real issues.

The big problem with RC is simply the complexity.  I don't mind complexity of decision making... on the contrary, I love it!  However, RC has a lot of resolution complexity where figuring out what happens when you do a thing requires a bunch of rulebook lookups and experience.  We had three hardcore, experienced gamers who had put hours into trying to figure out the game and it was still a mess, though later playthroughs went fairly smoothly.  Even then though, the game is so big and cards do so many strange things that we ran into rules ambiguities quite regularly, enough so that you would need a huge collection of house rules to deal with all of it unless you are willing to hit up the internet multiple times per game.

Balance was also clearly not the designer's strong suit.  Each player has a class that can spend Determination tokens in unique ways and build a unique item.  The soldier is the absolute standout in this regard because the soldier can build weapons and palisades for only 2 Determination.  You can get 2 Determination from a single action, and in fact you can usually get more from that action in addition.  Any other class trying to build weapons needs roughly 3 actions to get it done, and palisades would take more like 5 actions.  It pretty much means that without the soldier you can't take those actions at all which basically rules out hunting as a viable strategy in the game.  Given that hunting is a fairly large component of the game I was disappointed to see that it was locked behind using a particular class.

The soldier's ability to build stuff with 2 Determination was so strong that all three of their other abilities were pretty much a joke - I could only imagine using them if somehow I were so flooded with Determination that I couldn't spend it all even spamming my build ability every turn.

While the game certainly put pressure on us we did win every time we played.  A lot of the time it was really close though, and I found that pressure to be quite reasonable.  However, the game includes a couple of ways to make it drastically easier.  You can bring along a dog which helps you take Explore or Hunting actions or bring Friday who is a native islander who will do whatever you want each turn, taking one action for you.  Using one of these extras will definitely help you, and if you are feeling especially cowardly you can use both.  That allows groups to really alter the difficulty level of their encounters, which means that the designers don't have to worry much about how hard each scenario is.  If they get it wrong, people will just drastically buff or nerf themselves to compensate.

I can't deny that the flavour and theme of the game was mostly very well done.  We certainly felt like we were desperately fighting off starvation and deprivation at all times, and the near death feeling persisted throughout.  The scenarios were generally fun, the cards had lots of neat stuff going on, and many of the mechanics told a story.  For example, some cards did things right away and then got shuffled into the Event deck to show up later as a consequence.  You could get a cold, then later have to deal with the fact that you made the entire group sick.  I liked that, and it was well done.

One thing that did rub me the wrong way is that all of the characters are white (adventurers or other thrill seekers from England, thematically) and that Friday was a black person who comes along as a servant.  That is obviously true to the RC source material, but still the white people having an adventure being helped by the black guy who the white folks don't even feed or allow to sleep in their shelter is very sketchy for obvious reasons.

So RC was fun, but I am not sure the longterm replay value is there to make up for the brutal learning curve.  It definitely feels like a game that will have pretty obvious plays after a couple times through and not a whole lot of variation on what you try to do.  Get a shelter, set up wood/food engines, then do your win condition.  This is something I feel is very important - games that have a huge amount of learning to play at all should have deep gameplay to reward the player for sorting it all out.

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