Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is a co-operative game in which players strive to accomplish the goals of one of seven different scenarios. All scenarios use the “Cursed Island” of the title as their setting, but each of them has a distinct backstory and flavour, as well as its own set of game-altering sub-rules and objectives.
During the game, each player will take on one of four roles: Cook, Explorer, Carpenter, Soldier. You'll work together to establish a shelter, with a roof to protect you from the weather, and palisades to keep dangerous predators at bay. You’ll craft weapons to fend off these beasts, or set out to hunt them for food and fur.
You’ll fashion crude but useful tools from local materials. You’ll explore the island, discovering different types of terrain, adventuring into mysterious temples, encountering traps and monsters, and plundering hidden treasures. You’ll travel to newly discovered regions to gather resources, or stay back at camp to rest, or boost the group’s morale by setting the camp in order.
To be clear though: this is no holiday in paradise. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is hard. Punishingly hard. You have a limited number of action pawns to deploy each round, a multitude of potential threats and disasters to fend off, and a laundry list of tasks you need to complete. Not to mention the strict time-limit: each scenario must be completed within a specified number of rounds, or the game is lost. You’ll only be able to do a fraction of the things you want to do.
Each decision to deal with one pressing problem will result in you neglecting, and suffering the undesirable consequences of, several others.
You’ll be battered by the weather, savaged by wild animals, beset by unfortunate incidents and weakened by injuries and hunger. You'll probably end up dying, and lose the game. Or you might just barely survive ... but then run out of time and lose anyway.
But let’s take a few moments to look at how Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island actually works, and then we’ll see whether all this misery and misfortune actually adds up to a satisfying game experience.
Playing Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
The island itself is represented on the board by a set of hexagonal spaces which start off empty, representing as-yet-unexplored terrain. One Island tile is placed down to show the area in which players start the game. Players gradually discover more of the island by using the Explore action to randomly draw new tiles and add them to the board.
Each Island tile indicates the type of terrain it contains and whether there are any beasts, sources of food and wood, or natural shelters in the vicinity. If there are beasts present, one Beast card is drawn and added to the Hunting deck, where it becomes a potential adversary for players who perform the Hunt action.
If there are sources of food or wood in the area, these can be chosen as targets for the Gather action or, during the Night phase, players can decide to move their camp onto the new tile, in which case they will automatically gain these nearby resources during the Production phase of each round.
Some Island tiles also contain Discovery icons, which allow players to gain various small benefits and perks, and Totem icons, the meaning and relevance of which differs according to the scenario being played. (In some scenarios the Totem icons have no meaning at all, while in others their discovery and exploration is fundamental to the game’s victory conditions.)
Events, Threats & Determination
At the start of each round, an Event card is revealed and the effect described on its top half is triggered. Invariably, this will be something bad, like predators consuming all nearby food resources, a tree falling on the shelter causing injuries to all, or a sickness caused by eating poisonous fruits. The card will then be slid into a two-slot track on the corner of the game board.
While on this track, the card represents a potential threat that can either be dealt with or ignored. To deal with it, players may take the Threat action and, as long as they have the required items or resources, they’ll usually gain a small benefit for resolving the problem.
For example, the fallen tree mentioned above can be removed via the Threat action as long as players possess the Rope (one of the many items that can be crafted during the game by taking the Build action).
By removing the tree the group gains one wood resource, and the player who took the action receives a determination token (which can be used to trigger special abilities unique to each character).
On the other hand, if one of these threats is ignored, subsequent incoming Event cards will eventually push it off the edge of the two-slot track, at which point a further negative effect will be triggered.
In the case of the fallen tree, if the problem isn’t dealt with, the group’s morale will be decreased. If group morale can be kept high, players will receive a small number of determination tokens each round, and may even have a chance to heal injuries. However, if group morale falls, players will start to lose determination tokens instead, or - if they have no tokens to discard - simply take damage.
Actions & Decisions
During the Action phase of each round, players decide which actions they want to take and how many action pawns to dedicate to each. Since each player controls only two pawns, the economy of action selection here is extremely tight. The Arrange Camp and Rest actions are fairly simple insofar as they only require one pawn to be successful. The Hunt action is more demanding, since it requires exactly two pawns. (A Hunt will automatically succeed if undertaken, but the lead player will need to fight a potentially dangerous critter, so having a decent Weapon level will be necessary to avoid taking a substantial amount of damage!)
Dealing with Threats may require one or more pawns, depending on the Event card in question. And finally, there are the Build, Gather and Explore actions. These actions pose the biggest gameplay dilemmas, since it’s up to players to decide how much time and effort to put in.
Dedicating two pawns represents the investment of sufficient time and effort to guarantee the successful and safe completion of the task. However, dedicating only one pawn represents a more hurried slapdash approach, which could turn out badly. To determine the outcome in such cases, the lead player rolls a set of three dice to show: (1) whether the action succeeds or fails; (2) whether the player sustains wounds due to the task being rushed; and (3) whether an Adventure card must be drawn.
Adventure cards are similar to events, often involving both an initial (usually negative) effect and a subsequent effect that will be triggered after they get shuffled into the Event deck and drawn later.
However, some Adventure cards pose a tough choice between discarding the card immediately with no effect, or taking a small benefit now at the cost of a potential negative consequence later.
Each round of the game concludes with the Weather and Night phases. Weather conditions vary according to the scenario, which determines how many, and which, of the weather dice players must roll.
The first die represents the possibility of rain, which could wash away your stored resources if your roof is not in order; the second represents the chances of snow, which might force you to burn wood to stay warm; and the third represents the possibility of predators showing up to either attack the group, damage the palisades, or steal your food.
Readying yourself for the potential onslaught of the weather dice is a major factor in most games (although, thankfully, some scenarios feature much milder weather conditions than others!). Finally, during the Night phase, players must take damage if there isn't enough food to eat - and yet more damage if the group hasn't yet established a shelter.
The Cursed Island
This island really does seem to want to hurt you! The threat of injury is ever constant. Every time you need to roll dice to resolve an action, there’s a risk of taking damage from both the Wound die and from drawing an Adventure card that dishes out extra punishment.
Effects triggered throughout the game require you to discard resources or decrease levels, and if you cannot meet any of these demands, all players must take damage instead. Running out of food, or failing to build or discover a shelter, means that you’ll take damage in the night. Running out of wood means that you’ll take damage if it snows. Rain might come and wash away your supplies … but wait, what's that? Oh right, you don’t have any supplies left to discard. Take damage instead!
Making matters even more tricky is the fact that each player's health track features morale icons at certain intervals, and when the tracker moves over one of these (as it inevitably will, due to all the incoming damage) group morale is reduced. So damage leads to low morale. Low morale leads to discarding determination tokens. And a lack of tokens to discard entails taking yet more damage. Even during a game where you think you're on top of things, the amount of damage the group is taking can very rapidly start to spiral out of control!
Final Thoughts on Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
Is the high difficulty level of Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island a problem? Not at all! You wouldn't want a co-operative game to provide no challenge for your group, would you? Where's the satisfaction of completing a scenario if you haven't really had to work at it? Without failing many times, the hard-won successes don't taste so sweet. Besides, the rule book includes plenty of optional settings for tweaking the difficulty level down a touch (or even notching it up, if you're a sucker for punishment!)
The game's components are solid and well-designed, with a sturdy board that is intuitively laid out and easy to navigate, despite being loaded with so many different tiles, cards, decks, dice and tokens that it might seem overwhelming at first.
With seven different scenarios to choose from, the game offers plenty of variability and replay-ability. The only potential issue I'd pinpoint is that the Event and Adventure cards might start to seem a little "samey" after multiple plays, since they mostly describe fairly mundane incidents involving the weather, the terrain, and the local wildlife. I find it hard to be too critical of this, though. The game is clearly designed to generate a fairly realistic and gritty experience of a knife-edge struggle for survival on a desert island. There are not going to be any exciting interludes featuring elves, cyborgs or aliens. Just rain, rain and more rain. And the occasional angry puma. And I can't fault it for that.
I suppose that one negative attribute of Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is that it may be on the verge of being eclipsed by its soon-to-be-released successor, First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet, which promises to build on the core game-play established by Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island and enhance it with additional modes (campaign and open-world modes in addition to scenario-based play) as well as an integrated app which should allow for the inclusion of a vastly greater amount of variable content, as well as aiding the development and release of additional digital content over time.
However, I think it would be a shame to neglect Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island just because of this. It easily stands up on its own as a tightly constructed co-operative game offering a highly replayable range of involving, immersive and satisfyingly demanding survival challenges.