This article is not intended as a review of the game but as a commentary on some design elements and the lessons that can be learned from them. You will find first a brief summary of how the game is played for the sake of context and then specific design elements that we as designers can draw lessons from.
Robinson Crusoe is a very thematic co-op game about surviving on an island as a band of shipwrecked survivors. There are several different scenarios that come with the game so the goals will be different depending on the scenario you choose to play. In the game you will be doing things like gathering resources, building a shelter, hunting, and exploring the island. Each player plays a different role like soldier, cook, or carpenter all of which have different abilities. Each player has two action tokens to spend each round and they all must decide together how best to spend them. If two action tokens are spent on a single action players are guaranteed success. If they spend just one action token on an action they must roll dice to see if they succeed if they take any wounds doing the action, and if they encounter an adventure while doing the action. Players must contend with beasts on the island, shortages of resources, and even the weather to survive.
Theme has such potential to draw players in a game especially if they are closely intertwined with mechanics that evoke that theme. When this happens a thematic game is born. Robinson Crusoe is very much a thematic game. The game allows players to immerse themselves in the experience of what it would be like to be stranded on an island. Let’s look a two specific mechanics that accomplish this immersion.
1) Adventure cards – As players do things in the game they have the possibility of going on little adventures. Theses are represented on adventure cards that players will draw as they do different tasks. The cards say things like, “On the way back to camp you find some fruit and eat it” which gives you an immediate positive benefit but also carries with it a potential future negative benefit. That Adventure card is mixed in with a group of cards that one is drawn from each round. If that adventure card is drawn in the future then the player who ate the fruit gets a stomach ache and must suffer a wound. This mechanic ties deeply with the theme of being stranded on an island and there are numerous different adventure cards that can come up.
2) Weather Dice – What is something else a person stranded on an island must deal with? Weather, of course! As the game progresses players will be required to roll more and more weather dice to see the intensity of the weather they are encountering. If their shelter is not strong enough they will have to spend some of their stockpiled resources to weather the storm. Makes complete sense to me. So, not only does the weather tie into the theme of the game it also provides a ramping up of intensity as you roll more dice as the game goes on.
Design Lesson: If your intent is to design a highly thematic game think of all the things a player will experience in that theme and try to express them mechanically in the game. Robinson Crusoe is an example of a kitchen sink design. There are tons of fiddly bits in the game but because of them you can experience things like weather effects, wounds specific to body parts, the level of determination your character has, etc. This can create a great thematic experience that players will want to come back to again and again. However, if your game is too fiddly it will also drive players away. Find that happy medium where your mechanics bring out the theme but not at the expense of shrinking your audience.
The theme of Robinson Crusoe is very well expressed in the graphic design of the game. The board is composed of maps and crates to store things in. It looks like you have all of these things sitting on some piece of the shipwreck and are gathered around it making your plans. Even though this helps immerse players in the theme of the game I think there are some issues, not in beauty, but in the function of the graphic design. Let’s look at 2 places this is a problem for the game.
1) Action piece placement – Players have two action pieces they can place on the board to do different things. The problem is, it is very difficult to tell where on the board these can be played. There is no consistent graphical representation of where to play your action pieces. As a result, learning the game is confusing especially for new to the hobby or just dabblers.
2) Text font and size – There are some places on the board and on player boards where the text font is very curvy and small. This might make them seem more theme-driven but it also makes them hard to read. Not a good thing. Both of these design decisions were probably made to keep things as theme-heavy as possible but they come at a high cost to functionality and, as a result, dramatically increases the learning curve of the game as well as the accessibility of the game to new hobby gamers.
Design Lesson: Form should never trump function in a game. Neither should function trump form in a game as highly thematic as Robinson Crusoe. Instead, as a designer, you need to find a good balance between the two to make the game as immersive as possible yet maintaining the ease of play and teach-ability. I am not going to pretend that this is an easy balance to achieve. It isn’t but it is something we must strive for.
Originally posted on BoardGameTheory.com