There’s treasure hidden all over the island and you’re in a race against other explorers to find the most gold while avoiding curses and potentially perilous terrain. Can you beat the others to the top prize? Grab your compass and the keys to your jeep and find out in Tobago!
A Note On The Theme
Tobago is a great game – I’ll say that up front. But before going on to talk about my thoughts in more detail, I want to deal with the elephant in the room at the very beginning. A lot of the components in this game, while well made, are stereotyped. And that is a bad thing. I visited Tobago about 15 years ago, and I can assure you that stone statues of giant heads are not littered around the island. These statues more closely resemble those from Rapa Nui culture found on Easter Island, a mere 4,200 miles away.
The game itself is only 15 years old, and Tobago isn’t some mythical, unvisited part of the world. It’s a bustling environment, generally considered to be part of the wider West Indies, and it’s portrayal in the game is frankly lazy, as is the use of magical amulets to ward off curses. In a game about a fictional island in a fictional place, then maybe this meets the bar for excitement and adventure. Choosing to name a game after a real-world country, and then reducing it’s culture and heritage down to outdated or misappropriated stereotypes is poor and should be called out for what it is.
The rest of this review focuses on the gameplay and components without repeatedly referring back to this and I’m choosing to review it as if it were set in an entirely fictional place and time, and I would encourage you to read it as such.
The first thing to do when playing Tobago is assemble the three pieces of board in any configuration. Each piece is marked with an upper and lowercase letter (A,a – B,b – C,c) and you can create any AbC style combination you like, with 32 different configurations possible. For a first game, the “abc” setup has fewer island spaces visible, making for a shorter and easier game. Use the three clamp pieces to lock the board into place. These will also be used to store cards and tokens during the game.
You’ll then place huts, statutes and palm tree tokens on the board. These can be pretty much placed wherever you like, as long as similar pieces are at least four spaces apart (e.g. two palm trees must be at least four hexes away), and statues cannot be directly adjacent to the ocean and must face one random edge of the hex. This is a fun aspect of the setup as it really allows for different gameplay every time.
Create the treasure deck by randomly shuffling the treasure cards, then adding two curse cards into the bottom portion of the deck – this gives you some time before bad things happen. Place your All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) piece on any random hex space and take the 15 compass pieces matching the colour of your ATV.
You’ll then separate out the black, brown, white and grey cubes into piles of 17 each. Each player in turn draws one clue card from the shuffled deck and sets it out under one of the piles of cubes and places their compass token on it. This is the beginnings of a treasure map. Now deal each player four clue cards face down (or six in a 2-player game). The remainder of the deck goes on one of the map clamps.
Playing The Game
On your Tobago turn you can take one of two actions:
- Play a clue card
- Move your ATV
At any time during your turn you may also raise a treasure and/or play any amulets you may have collected – these do not count as one of your actions.
The map in front of you has six different types of terrain (beach, jungle, river, scrubland, mountain, and lake). Regardless of how you’ve set the map up, there will always be one single largest area for each terrain type, defined by the largest number of contiguous hex spaces. This will be important for creating and following treasure maps.
The main objective is to create treasure maps with your fellow explorers, placing clue cards under different piles of cubes to narrow down the number of spaces that the treasure could be in. Once you get to a low enough number of spaces, you can add the cubes to the map to narrow down the options.
Different colour treasure cubes can occupy the same spaces, and you may event find two (or more) lots of treasure in the same space. It’s worth noting at this point that while it makes sense for the treasure cubes to be totally different to player colours, making them black, white, brown and grey can make them difficult to differentiate on the board at times.
It works a little like a logic puzzle. Say that the first clue card is “next to a beach space”. That’s quite a bit of the map, but you’re off to a good start. Perhaps one of the other players adds a clue card to that map saying “next to the largest jungle” – as there’s only one ‘largest’ area of each type, that’s probably narrowed the narrowed it down quite a bit. Then on your turn you play “next to a statue”, and given how all the pieces are played, that leaves only one cube that can satisfy all three of those clues. Now you’ve just got to race your ATV to that space and dig up the gold!
As you can imagine, there are some rules about adding clues to treasure maps. Each clue must reduce the number of potential viable spots for the treasure by at least one. It wouldn’t be much of a clue if it didn’t make it incrementally easier to find the gold. Secondly, you can’t play contradictory clues. If one clue says “next to the largest lake” you can’t play “in the largest lake” – you’ll never find the treasure that way!
Now you’ve got to get there and dig up the bounty! Your ATV can move in three legs on your turn. Any time you cross into a different terrain type, that counts as one leg. But you can move any number of spaces through the same type of terrain. At times this feels quite freeing – barreling your way through the scrubland (one leg), only to come to screeching halt when you cross into a lake (two legs) and then immediately into the jungle (three legs).
You’ll obviously want to be playing clues that minimise how far you need to travel if you can, but also be plotting routes across the island to get there as fast as you can. As you can take either the clue or ATV action, there can be some benefits to moving partway through difficult parts of the map, playing clues every few turns to narrow the choices down to be right where you happen to be.
Raising The Treasure
So you’ve figured out all the clues, got to the dig site first and you’re ready to raise the treasure. This is how you’ll score points throughout the game.
Every player in Tobago who contributed a clue to the map you’ve followed gets a treasure card for each clue. As the person who found the treasure first, you get an extra card, and first pick! Each player looks a their treasure cards which contain between two an six gold, then they’re all shuffled together along with one extra card from the deck. You know what you’ve seen, but has someone else maybe spied a better stash of the riches?
Starting with the intrepid explorer who found the treasure, cards are turned over and offered to that player. If they accept, you move back up the list of clues (so those people who helped narrow it down are rewarded first), offering gold each time. You can choose to decline, allow that treasure card to be discarded, and hold out for something better, potentially also punishing other players who won’t get to choose anything if you continue to hold out for a larger share.
This can be quite a clever strategy, but feels unduly mean, and in practice we’ve never resorted to doing it.
After the spoils have been shared, each of the stone statues is turned 60 degrees (or to face the next edge of the hex they’re on). You follow the eyeline of the statue to where it means the ocean and place an amulet on the shoreline ready for the next turn.
Collecting an amulet (by passing over its space with your ATV) gives you a few options as you continue your search for gems and jewels. On your turn you can spend an amulet to:
- Take any cube off the map, reducing the number of available options for where treasure could be
- Play an extra clue card
- Exchange all your clue cards – particularly helpful if you can’t add to any of the maps
- Move your ATV again
Protect Yourself From A Curse
Back when you set the game up, you added two curse cards into the treasure deck. If you reveal one of those whilst dividing up the gold, everyone who cannot discard an amulet token, instead discards their most valuable treasure, and the rest of the gold is immediately discarded. Nobody said digging up forgotten riches was risk free!
Having an amulet in your back pocket (or perhaps more securely on a chain around your neck!) is a critical element of the game as you get towards the end. The cursed cards are towards the bottom of the deck so you have time to collect some protection, but you’ll never be exactly sure when you need it.
Naming The Victor
Play continues with clues being added to maps, players tearing across the island, and new maps being started (and hopefully finished). Once you’ve raised a treasure of one colour, you can immediately start a new map by placing a first clue card under that pile of cubes.
You’ll continue until all the treasure cards have been shared out or discarded, and then players count up their gold, with the wealthiest person being crowned the winner!
I said at the start this is a fun game, and it really is! There’s cautious teamwork going on in Tobago as players cooperatively play clues out to locate various treasures, before you all turn on each other to be the first to get the goods.
It has a little bit of everything go for it, with a neat twist on deduction that means there are absolutely no fixed points and anything could be anywhere each time you play. The modular board is really fantastic and has a great presence on the table. The map components are great quality, with the statues having a real stone feel to them. Dividing up treasure almost feels like some push-your-luck as well, waiting to see if you can get a larger pot of gold without unleashing a curse.
The real downsides come in two areas. Firstly how the game is themed, which I’ve talked a lot about up front. Secondly, the clue cards are incredibly icon-heavy, with different symbols with six different types of clue, and pictures representing all manner of terrain and components. There’s a handy page in the rulebook that summarises most of them well enough, but it can slow the game down a little if you’re frequently explaining or clarifying what all the clues mean.
Overall, Tobago is a lot of fun, and playing on the smallest map configuration could see you getting through a game in under an hour. It’s probably my favourite deduction game that we own, and the modular board is a really good feature. It loses points for carelessness of theme, but shines well everywhere else.