There are many storytelling and narrative games on the market, but I would argue, none that offer as smooth or elegant an experience as this new release from Kosmos Games. The Adventures of Robin Hood is designed and drawn by Michael Menzel, the genius behind Legends of Andor and this game very much has flavours of that, in its look, design, and rules. If you were a fan of that game, I think it is highly probable you will love this one too.
Before I start, I want to make clear this is a spoiler-free review.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood. Riding Through The Glen!
The game is set on the edge of Sherwood Forest, next to Nottingham Castle and its surrounding village. The board is a beautiful piece of art that starts with minimal icons, words or images other than the drawings themselves. It instantly grabbed me in its simple beauty but has so many hidden treasures buried within.
The game gracefully introduces you to the mechanics of movement and your available actions in the first level tutorial which you will be playing within minutes of opening the box for the first time. There are no rules to learn bar the clever movement mechanic, you just start playing. Each character has five pieces to it. Two miniature figures, two short movement pieces and one long one. When you want to move to a new position on the board within the forest, castle or village, you cannot simply pick it up and move it like most games.
There are no spaces on the board to traverse between. This is more of a real-world experience, where you can travel as far as your character can manage energy-wise. You lay out your movement figures, avoiding any tree, character, building or obstacle, and reposition your figure as far as you can get it physically. This is not a real-time but a real-geography movement game!
With that learned, you now know enough to start the first game. Inside the box, along with the character figures, beautiful board and various wooden pieces is a hardback book. It looks like a leather-bound Robin Hood novel and will be your go-to for learning, playing, and experiencing this game.
Every part of the board that you interact with has a number associated with it. Then, depending on which chapter of the game you are playing, you will turn to the appropriate page in the book and read out the next part of the story, often giving you a choice to make in this branching adventure. It all works like clockwork and plays out like a wonderful winding campfire adventure. A tale that you are very much part of.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood. With His Band Of Men.
At the start of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, you make a choice as to which hero you will play. Robin Hood himself. Little John, Maid Marrian or Will Scarlet. In a two you can easily play as two characters each, and it is also possible to play all four in a solo. I played most of this in a three, using all four characters. The game has a very good mechanic for leveling out the difficulty and balance depending on the number of characters in the game. As such, I didn't play with four characters when only three people were playing to make it easier.
It was more as I was determined not to miss any of the story. I liked the idea of having more characters to do more things, but there are some stories that seemed to only happen when certain characters were in the game, and it was this that lead me to play with all four characters.
There is no real difference to the characters other than their colour and the odd specific task for one of them as directed by the book. But no matter who you play as, you will be involved throughout. And each decision should be undertaken in a cooperative manner anyway. This is a group game. All trying to achieve the current chapters task.
Each game follows a chapter in the book and continues the story following on from the previous one. There will be a specific mission and objective for each chapter, which once completed ends that particular game. You will be trying to achieve this against the ticking clock of the game which sets a certain amount of turns for each player count. This is managed excellently through one single bag.
In this bag will be a mixture of different things. I don't want to go into it too much for fear of spoilers. But they are all different sizes and shapes so easily identifiable when rummaging in the dark. One of these things will be disks specific to each player. Drawing these out one by one determines who takes the next turn. But there will be other coloured disks that will enact the AI of the game. Part of this will be the ever-reducing time. Complete the objective before the final hourglass is removed and you are victorious. Each chapter offers you two main attempts to complete it, with a clever mechanic and specific wording in the novel adjusting depending on whether it's your first or second attempt at the chapter.
Feared By The Bad
On your turn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood, your main options other than moving, are to interact with a specific thing or person on the board, give things in your possession to other players, or to fight! This is done through the simple act of removing small cubes from the bag. You have three attempts to pull a white cube, from the mix of white and violet ones. This becomes increasingly more difficult as way more violet cubes are added to the bag as the game progresses. But failure has no major effect other than a wasted turn, and will at the very least, removed three violet cubes from the bag. Thus, increasing your odds for the next attempt.
When you defeat a soldier, you will flip over their image on the board to show the reverse side, generally empty land. You will then place a sand timer over the top of where they were, to show they cannot immediately reappear. Things like this make you think how clever this game is. This feeling is a regular one in this game.
At certain points, you will flip over a part of the board to reveal a certain character or object. This could perhaps have moved from another place on the board. As such, another tile will flip to show it disappearing and something else being left in its place. The whole mechanic is so clever and works so well, and like an advent calendar, offers constant and exciting surprises for you to reveal as you play the game.
The initial board I think looks beautiful. Like a work of art. But it is quite empty. This is because, hidden within it, in multiple places, are small, medium-sized and large tiles, waiting for you to flip them over. By the end of chapter four, the board will look totally different to when you started. And there will be a lot more surprises and stories to come.
Loved By The good
All of which brings me to the reason why I love this game so much. The story is absorbing. The art is sumptuous. The mechanics are smooth and original. But what makes this game stand out is the absorbing way in which the game draws you into its clutches. From minute one, I found myself entirely consumed by this game and what it was trying to show me. There has been so much thought and care put into the design of this. As a player, you cannot fail to appreciate it. The best way I can describe this is by comparing it to a theme park. Bear with me!
If you have ever been to one, a good done, you will know what I mean. Looking around and seeing the attention to detail that has been put in all around the place. Seeing those little finishing touches in the queue, fence, signpost, or pavement that makes you think how much love has been put into every last little thing. It makes the overall experience better. It is why we have theme parks and rollercoaster parks. There is a difference. One just wants to you enjoy the ride. The other wants to wrap you up in a theme from your first step and make everything you do feel special. It's not that less focus is put on the ride itself. More than more attention is put on the overall experience including the ride. This is what this game is doing. This is how it feels when you play it.
Imagine a game that teaches itself to you? Well, this is that game!
Robin Hood. Robin Hood. Robin Hood.
After my first game of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, I rated this as a 10/10. I knew I was too quick to make any significant judgement, but I felt strong in my belief that after completing it, I would not feel that different. Having now played the game multiple times, in different player counts, and trying out different story arks and methods, I can safely say that my initial judgment has been confirmed. This game feels special because it is special. OK, maybe I was a little caught up in the first game hype, but it is certainly close to a ten for me.
Some people may not like the simplicity of the game and overreliance on the story. Which I would respect. But if you want a great story telling game then this could be one for you. What it does with the board, rules, and a few other surprises, are all excellent. But it is the story at the end that will make you either love or hate this. And I for one am ready to join Robin and his band of merry men (and women) and have many more adventures. I am confident this game will see multiple expansions as Andor did. And the second they are out I will be buying them. This truly is an excellent game.