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Cracked LCD- Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island in Review



When we talk about hybrids in terms of game design, what we tend to mean are American-style, narrative-focused and explicitly themed games that have accrued certain mechanical and design elements of the “Eurogames” sensibility. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, designed by Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek and published in the US by Z-Man Games, approaches the concept of hybridization backwards. Despite how it may appear on the surface, this title is really a “hardcore”, complex Eurogame. Paradoxically, it is also one of the very best adventure games that I’ve ever played. Its idiosyncrasy means that the design references Agricola more than Talisman, its genius is that it manages to create a tremendously malleable, modular survival story rife with life-or-death decisions, branching narrative paths, and a more complete sense of setting than many other adventure games are able to manage with reams of flavor text or illustrations.

For many gamers, the co-op trend has run its course and undoubtedly some will groan when they hear that Robinson Crusoe is another “us versus the game” title. This would be a grievous mistake. Mr. Trzewiczek’s design, which essentially has not so much to do with the Daniel Defoe novel as it does a general “stranded on a mysterious island” archetype, manages to create a stronger, more meaningful sense of collusion and codependency in its mechanics than other games in its class. Other gamers may balk at the fact that this title runs on a worker placement chassis, claiming that mechanical construct is somehow anti-thematic, but that again would be an error of prejudice. You can’t tell me that it doesn’t make holistic narrative sense to indicate by worker placement that the Explorer is spending the day hacking through the brush, looking for a river to build a dam across while the Cook is out foraging for wood and food sources.

One to four players take on the roles of these and other shipwrecked survivors, each with a number of special talents and each with a special invention that they can share with the group if they decide to build it. There are also options to include a Man Friday and a dog to aid lower player counts or to make the game easier for a full group. On a turn, players essentially place two pawns on the actions they’ll take for the day: dealing with event card-driven situations, hunting the native fauna, building accommodations or makeshift inventions, exploring new island tiles, arranging the camp to improve morale, or simply resting. The trick is that if you only place one pawn to perform the core building, foraging, and exploring actions then you’ve got to roll three dice to see if you succeed or not, if you get hurt doing it, and if you draw an event card. Bring along another player’s pawn or one of the helper pawns earned in different ways throughout the game, and it’s an automatic success. You really have to come together in a meaningful, thematic way if you’re going to survive.

This means that division of labor, situational awareness, anticipation of coming events or shortages, and keeping pace with each of the six scenarios’ timelines is essential to a successful group strategy. But then there are matters such as weather die rolls at the end of each round that may cause you to burn up all your wood if it gets cold or to discard your ruined food if the rain destroys the roof of your ramshackle shelter. Then there are the occasional booby-trapped ruined temples, in which treasure-seekers might find a useful weapon or tool and discoveries earned from venturing deeper into the island’s interior. Morale is a constant concern, and it worsens as players become injured and exhausted.

crusoe board

All of this detail comes at a cost. This is a quite complex game with lots of things to consider at any given time and one of the only complaints I have is that the rulebook isn’t the best at explaining it all and the cards create a host of potential FAQ candidates. The complexity and occasional confusion are absolutely worth it for the rich level of detail and story-building that this game accomplishes. I don’t even really care if the game tops four hours, or if someone spends too long trying to work out how we’re going to get an extra food to make sure someone doesn’t starve while also building a roof. It’s immersive in a way that few Eurogames have ever been. It all comes back to the stories this game is capable of telling.

The six scenarios are outstanding, ranging from a simple castaways setup to a really awesome one telling the tale of a failed expedition to exorcise a cursed island. The ship wrecks and the survivors that make it to the beach go about the task of building crosses on it while an ominous fog rolls in over the course of the game. There’s a Swiss Family Robinson- themed story, a rescue mission, and a pulpy volcano island setup focused on treasure-hunting. And then there’s one where the island is populated by cannibals- one of the more direct references to the titular source material. Player-made scenarios based on King Kong and the voyages of the H.M.S Beagle are already online. It’s just a matter of time before Lost and Gilligan’s Island ones appear.

The great storytelling isn’t just in these scenarios and the special rules that define them, it’s also written directly into the mechanics. One of my favorite elements of the game is how an event card will often offer the player a decision or create a lasting injury marker. These cards get shuffled into the main event card deck, and later in the game that gash you got on your head while digging a pit to store food might come back to reduce your health or morale later on- unless you and your mates spent some time to try to find the terrain type that unlocks the Cure invention. Or you may be offered some wood at an opportune moment- only to find out later those poor materials causes your roof to take damage. This is a brilliant way of maintaining storyline and making events have resonance throughout the game. It also creates immediate short-term goals to mitigate loss or damage.

crusoe soldiers

Beautifully produced, wonderfully illustrated, and atmospheric, Robinson Crusoe is also one of the best looking games of the year. It’s the kind of title that sits on your shelf and when you see it, you think “oh man, that game is really awesome”. Hands down, it is the best game that I’ve played this year. It’s a bona fide masterpiece of adventure game design- very modern, very evolutionary, and very innovative. I’ve played the game every day since I received my press copy from Z-Man, with other players and also by myself- it’s on track to become one of my favorite solitaire games. I find myself still wanting to go back to that island again to try different characters, different inventions, and just to see what happens as the stories unfold.


Pandemic Review

pandemic box

Pandemic was the co-operative game that launched a thousand flabby imitators. The genre became fashionable and designers and publishers started churning out identikit games to satisfy the kind of uncritical, rabid demand that only glaze-eyed, obsessed nerds can muster. Most were awful, and the few co-op games that really satisfied did so by breaking the mold and doing something different. And in the morass, Pandemic went out of print and kind of sank out of sight.

But now its back in a spanking new edition. New art furnishes the board and cards, and the wooden disease cubes have been replaced by transparent plastic in suitably lurid colours. The gameplay, aside from a couple of new role cards, has hardly changed. And we’re here to see if we can remember just why playing Pandemic made the co-operative model so appealing in the first place.

Each player gets a random special role such as scientist or dispatcher, and the team must pool skills and resources to travel the world attempting to cure four lethal diseases that have somehow arisen simultaneously to plague humanity. How this happened is not explained. Neither is why the governments of the globe have seen fit to fund no more than four individuals to fight this crisis. But this is a European-style game after all, so we’ll forgive that and get down to business.

The meat of the game is that players travel from city to city, trying to accumulate a set of matching coloured cards to find a cure for the disease of the same hue, while firefighting outbreaks by curing groups of infected individuals in places they pass through. It’s full of the sorts of checks and balances you’ve seen a hundred times before: the tug between accumulating or spending cards, a limited action pool with tons to do, co-ordinating board positions to swap resources.

Where Pandemic really takes off is its chillingly realistic disease model. If too much infection accumulates in one place, it spreads, increasing the amount of disease in adjacent cities. Which may, in turn, trigger the malady in that city to burst and splatter over its neighbours and so on, in a repulsively virulent chain reaction.

That’s bad enough, but naturally the game goes to considerably length to make this as likely as possible. Normally, each turn, a few cities get extra disease by flipping cards off the top of the infection deck. But the other deck, the player deck, is loaded with horrible epidemic cards. Draw one of these and the discarded infection cards get put back into the main deck. But here’s the kicker: you don’t shuffle them back in, but shuffle them and put them on the top so all the cities already diseased are in line to get another dose all over again.

These linked mechanics are what really sets Pandemic apart from its many imitators. They all share the basic concept of a situation that gradually gets more and more out of control as the players struggle to contain it. But in Pandemic, the problem doesn’t simply rise at a relatively gradual rate, it can suddenly and unexpectedly explode. The situation can transform from one of relative stability to utter chaos in the space of a single turn. And that means every card draw carries with it the delightful aroma of seat-edge terror.

pandemic cubes of luridity

You might imagine this would suck all the strategy out of the game, but it doesn’t. The fact that infections go back on top of the draw pile means card counting can make a big difference. As can doing your level best to ensure that cities don’t accumulate enough disease to cause an outbreak or, if that’s just not possible, at least make sure that adjacent spaces aren’t in a situation to kick each other off and spread like wildfire.

But then again, while player decisions do make a difference, it’s here that the game starts to fall foul of the problems that bedevil the genre. If the decks are loaded against you, you’re stuffed no matter how skillfully you co-ordinate your globetrotting mercy missions. Some people don’t mind this, but personally I find the idea that you might have lost before you’ve ever drawn a card rather off-putting.

Worse, the strategy isn’t really deep enough to avoid the dreaded alpha-dog syndrome in which the most experienced or skillful player just bosses the others around. And they agree to playing second fiddle because it’s in the groups shared interest to take the best option and thus the collective win. It’s an all too common situation in co-ops, and nothing is more guaranteed to suck all the fun and cleverly wrought tension of the game. Pandemic offers a feeble sop in the form of individual roles with their own powers, but it doesn’t really help.

Some of the more complex and varied co-operatives that came after managed to overcome these inherent problems basically by throwing in detail, variety and dice. When you’ve got a bigger number of interlinked decks, more decision points and the mechanics between them are mediated by un-stackable, random dice it gets harder both to see an unarguably “best” choice at any given point, or to believe that the starting situation is predestined for failure.

Pandemic, though, is a European style game through and through and that means it’s at pains to be as simple and quick as possible. And it is: it’s easy enough that my eight-year old could play it with me, and games play to conclusion in less than ninety minutes, sometimes much less once you’ve practiced with the administrative overhead of the game.

That is, of course, a sword that cuts both ways. While stripping back the mechanics means the game struggles to overcome the inertia inherent in the co-operative model, it does make it wonderfully accessible. And in happy coincidence, many of those people who might easily be turned off a board game due to perceived inaccessibility are also delighted by the idea of playing a non-competitive game.

And that’s Pandemic’s saving grace. It’s possibly the ultimate family game, easy to get into, difficult to beat and free from the acrimony that unfortunately creeps in to competitive gaming even in the most loving families. It’s even slightly educational, thanks to that clever chain infection mechanic and the geographically accurate board. If you’re gaming with gamers, and in it for the long haul, pick another co-operative game. For any other situation Pandemic is the original, and still the best.

Cracked LCD- Terra Mystica in Review

terra mystica 2

Terra Mystica, the new Z-Man title wherein players representing terraforming fantasy races attempt to change terrain hexes to suit their tastes and build structures on them, isn’t really about building civilizations. There is magic, but this is hardly an enchanting, mystical game. The subject matter is little more than a construct to codify its graphic design and nomenclatures. It’s a game more prone to victory point churning than charming you with its fiction with complex mechanics carrying the day over rich theming or a sense of setting. Terra Mystica is ultimately a game more about mitigating and overcoming restrictions or limitations and incrementally acquiring +1 bonuses that affect standard game procedures. This is a fairly common, high level design principle and it’s not particularly a fault of the designers to utilize it but since this is a mechanics-first game it’s immediately obvious and potentially off-putting.

If Terra Mystica, based on the above, sound very dry to you your impression isn’t far off from the truth. Despite appearing something like a kind of “Advanced Small World” with its Chaos Magicians, Dwarves, Witches, and Fakirs, it is a hardline Eurogame with minimal interaction, no hidden information, and zero luck. Theme is mostly relegated to a general gameplay concept at the highest level and a pair of special abilities or disadvantages for each player race. Conflict is abstracted to the point where friction is generated through four race-to-the-top tracks marking your race’s influence in four elemental cults or by its fixed geography where space is at a premium. High drama in Terra Mystica means plunking a building down on a spot before another player does.

As far as the latter goes, there is a neat mechanic that encourages players to build close to each other to receive a kickback by way of magic power. The magic system is particularly interesting. There’s three “bowls” for each player, and when you gain points you shift tokens into the next one. When they’re in bowl three, they’re ready to spend and cycle back down to bowl one. You can also just throw them out of the game permanently in a pinch. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the game, adding compelling incentives and offering some tough choices as to how to spend your power for maximum effect.

And you’ll be making those kinds of choices often. Overall, Terra Mystica is a heavy, brooding game where turns are defined by choices that fall into three categories: what you should do because of a net gain either in this turn or the next, what you can do but will net you less of a benefit, and what you can’t do at all because of a lack of resources. You’re always one worker, priest, gold, or magic point short. Part of the game is puzzling out how to spend wisely and not come up short or puzzle out ways to squeeze out the amounts that you need to accomplish short term goals.

Usually, those goals are connected to changing the landscape to suit your race based on a rondel-like schedule of terrain types. The further away it is from your desired land type, the more “spades” you’ve got to spend or have available to get it how you like it. Once you’ve turned deserts into forests or whatever, you can spend workers and money to construct a settlement, trading house, temple, sanctuary, or stronghold. Build the stronghold and you get an additional racial ability. Connect a series of four buildings with a total magic value of seven or more and you found a town. Granting, of course, points and a bonus. Temples and sanctuaries also grant you a favor when built, typically cult advancement and yep- a process modifying bonus.

terra mystica 1

There’s also this cult business going on, with four tracks representing different elemental cults. Plop a priest down on one of the spots and you move up three or two spaces. At intervals, cult advancement also gives you magic. Eventually, you have to have a town to get into the upper echelons of cult leadership and there’s only room at the top for one player in each.

There are other discrete elements, like a river system that screws with the adjacency required to terraform and build. This is another example of how the game uses limitations and how you’ve got to mitigate them. You can build a bridge or you can advance along a shipping track, ostensibly improving your race’s riverboating skills or whatever, and enabling them to build downriver. Your race can also improve their spades by spending resources. Virtually everything you do in this game nets points of some kind, and it becomes a question of what action will net the most points at any given time.

I do not like this kind of “Action 1= X or Action 2=X+1” gameplay because it lends itself to analytical, calculatory gameplay rather than fun, interaction, and drama. That said, I do think that Terra Mystica is a strong Eurogame with some interesting concepts. But that doesn’t mean that I necessarily think it’s a fun game. I’m not sure that it is, and I’ve fortunately played only with friends that I would have fun playing Cootie or Hi-Ho Cherry-O with. I cannot imagine playing this game with strangers at a convention, or with human calculators that insist on taking 15 minutes per turn to parcel out each action, running the numbers and scratching their chins while someone coughs softly in the funeral silence.

This is also a language-independent game, which means that there is minimal text on any of the cards or components. It’s a wise cost-saving measure for publishers that are looking to print games that are saleable in all regions without having to pay for translation services and different language printings, but for the end user it means figuring out rebuses. This doesn’t ease the learning curve at all. I’m usually not too down on language independence because it often is justified, but in a more complex game like Terra Mystica it can be grating. You will not play a first, second, or even third game of it without constantly having to go to the rulebook to decipher a cryptogram that could have been printed on the player cards.

Despite a definite break-in period before players will become competent enough to play an interesting game and decidedly very right-brain gameplay that won’t appeal to some gamers, Terra Mystica is a very well-composed game with some worthwhile ideas. It’s definitely not fluff, and it’s definitely a very well-considered, measured design. It has a brainy crunch, and those that find value in games with the kinds of decisions that this title trucks in will probably completely flip for it. But for me and my gang, it’s the kind of game I’ve seen often where we play a couple of times, nod affirmatively about its interesting-ness, and no one ever requests to play it again. There’s lots of game here, but not much heart or soul. That said, this would be a dynamite IOS game.

Cracked LCD- Clash of Cultures in Review

Clash-of-Cultures-game-in-playBack in 2010, Christian Marcussen essentially issued a stop work order to anybody developing a pirate-themed board game. Merchants and Marauders was and still is the best pirate game ever published, a stunningly complete expression of the concept that was dynamically open-world, filled with narrative adventure, and rich with both traditional economic game elements and exciting naval conflict. Late last year, Mr. Marcussen showed up on the “Civilization lite” scene and again pretty showed anyone working on such a game the door. Z-Man Games’ Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of judicious design, careful abstraction, and economy- it is the new standard by which all games descended from the works of Frances Tresham and Sid Meier should be judged. There’s never been such a fighting fit, slim and ready-to-rock game of civ-building.

The basics may as well have been written in cuneiform thousands of years ago. You start with a settlement and a settler, your fledgling culture at the precipice of seeing what’s over that mountain or beyond the forest. You send your one, lone pawn into the wild, looking for fertile land and hoping to avoid local barbarians. Eventually, you found another settlement, and then another. These settlements grow in population, technology, knowledge, and wealth. Your people develop skills, tools, techniques, and concepts that help them do things better or create new opportunities that weren’t there before. The general mood of the populace shifts, as can their mode of governance. Sooner or later, you’ll encounter neighbors, and eventually there will be conflict.

Of course, that’s hardly a rules explanation or description of flow. I don’t want to reveal all of the intricate ways that Mr. Marcussen has shorn this genre of so much fat, like tying population attitude and culture increases specifically to technology advances and using those resources to modify core actions. I want you to discover those things for yourself and to experience the kind of revelation I had playing this game, that you can make the epic manageable. The key is that for all of its carefully measured and metered rules, its stately sense of progress, Clash of Cultures never feels rules heavy, overly complicated, or bogged down in systems.

Yet this is not a simplified, toothless game. There are diverse mechanics at work, including a multilayered resource mechanic that depends on Settlers of Catan-like combinations to build assets and an absolutely brilliant (and simple) one that reflects how neighboring cultures influence and integrate with each other. When cities develop, you add on a physical piece to the existing site so that you can always see the level of development. Other, stronger cultures might exert their influence and change the color of one of your city pieces to their color, earning an endgame victory point. These city pieces also carry special benefits and are part of the technology game.

Everything makes perfect sense, from the tech trees to the basic dice-and-cards combat resolution. There’s never a point where you’re looking at a bloated, byzantine set of rules or structure propping up its epic theme- quite unlike some other recent botched attempts at condensing the civilization building game. By tying a lot of the detail to cards, it’s also a highly narrative game despite the degree of abstraction. Event cards affect famine, revolution, calamities, and good harvest. Objective cards give you multiple paths to victory, and at any time you might have anywhere from two to six different possible “suggestions”, so to speak, as to how to proceed with your turn to achieve these goals. Each action card offers a civil effect and a military one, imparting a sense of control and strategic planning in terms of hand management.

Clash of Cultures doesn’t attempt an “all of human history” scale and it remains, like the original Civilization, in the Classical era. Some may chafe at the lack of real-world signifiers like geography, specific player nations, or national advantages and I thought this would be a concern myself, but in play I found that I didn’t really care about that part. It was fat, and the goal of this game’s design is something leaner, fiercer, and tighter than something like Fantasy Flight’s fumbled board game version of the Sid Meier PC game. Tresham’s design didn’t have national powers either. This led me to realize that part of the genius of this design is in how it bridges gaps between the original Civilization board game, the classic PC game, and a highly modernized and hybridized ideal of the civilization building concept. Its linkages are clear, but in its wake are so much dead weight, extraneous detail, and superfluous mechanics.

Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of its genre. I regret sort of overlooking it at the end of last year. At the time of its release, I felt as if I didn’t really want to play another game that makes another mediocre stab at this genre, which isn’t necessarily burgeoning, but it’s a class of game where one or two great examples are all you really need on your shelf. I should have had more faith in Mr. Marcussen as a talented, insightful designer. This game’s approach and what it accomplishes are different enough from my other favorite civilization games, Mare Nostrum and Innovation, and it absolutely carves out its own space not only there but also among the best games of recent years. It’s a thrilling, spectacularly successful design that is fearless, maverick, and utterly exciting to engage with and play.