You can find a video version of this review here!
Robinson Crusoe is a survival-themed game about staying alive on a tropical island as shipwrecked survivors. I’m a big fan of survival video games, so it stands to reason that I’d also enjoy a survival board game. As it turns out, I do.
Robinson Crusoe is a strange game because if I were to play it strictly as intended, I actually wouldn’t recommend it at all. The thing is, it is a cooperative game for 1 to 4 players. But the three other players not only feel unnecessary but actively detract from the experience. I found Robinson Crusoe to excel as a purely solo game and not just using the built-in solo variant.
That’s because it suffers from what I like to call, the Pandemic Effect. Which I should probably rename given the events over the last couple of years. I named it after the game that transitioned me from a casual hobbyist into a board game enthusiast, Pandemic.
It was also the game that nearly turned me away from the hobby. Because, like Robinson Crusoe, in it I couldn’t justify the presence of other players. It felt like a solo game being split up between four people, and when I first entered the board game sphere, that confused me.
I’ll explain what I mean alongside all the ups and downs of the experience, but first, let me run you through what actually comes in the box.
Robinson Crusoe comes with a nice folded cardboard map, four playable characters, and 7 scenarios. There is a wide range of cards; from events, mysteries, beasts, inventions, and equipment. Alongside them, are a variety of different tokens that represent anything from food, wood, pelts, or injuries.
The map and character boards are sturdy, but the actual map tiles feel a bit fragile. That causes me a lot of anxiety since they need to be shuffled every time you want to play. The cards are also on the flimsier side, and the cardboard tokens look and feel low quality. If you want the game to last, you do need to be somewhat gentle with it.
Many of the tokens look plain and dull, though the specific ones such as pelts, and food look nice. The artwork is an acquired taste. It’s not bad by any means, and it does match the game’s theme quite well. Mostly consisting of sketchbook style lines and iconography, it doesn’t have a great table presence.
Nothing about it is very eye-catching, and I’m not sure I’d even recognize it if someone were playing it as I walked by. The green, gray, and brown adventure cards look particularly generic, with simple question marks on the backside. Though the custom dice are neat and there are a few different kinds.
The game is more delicate than I would like. The cards feel flimsy and need to be shuffled several times each game. However, the amount of components is comparable to other games of the same price, even if I wasn’t particularly impressed with the visuals. It also manages to pack in a lot of highly re-playable content, even if I do wish there were more playable characters than four.
As Primitive As Can Be
The basic gameplay boils down to worker placement. You place pawns to generate resources, build inventions and explore the island. I usually find the concept to be dull. But Robinson Crusoe manages to play into its survival theme to twist those mechanics so that it never actually feels like you’re just placing pawns.
The game is brutal, and you always start on the back foot. There is never a moment where you feel on top of a situation, and each victory will be a narrow one. The constant tilting of scales makes the game far more thrilling than you would expect and really keeps you on the edge of your seat.
I’ve had shaky hands more than once in the second half of a scenario while deep in thought about how to proceed. A single mistake could cost me the game, and the victories felt that much sweeter. It’s rare for a worker placement game to invoke that kind of emotion. Especially a sandbox-style co-op like Robinson Crusoe.
One of the strongest aspects is that no two games feel the same, even if it’s the same scenario. In some games, you might struggle for food. While in another it’s morale or the weather kicking your ass.
It feels less like a puzzle and more like an intense chess game against the island. You constantly match and react to an ever-evolving, but always threatening situation.
The game isn’t nearly as complex as I expected either. It more or less really boils down to placing your pawns and then resolving what happens.
If you set two pawns to action, it’s an automatic success. If you place only one, you have to roll some dice to see if you succeed, acquire wounds and possibly draw an adventure card. One of the challenges is simply deciding what you critically need, and what you can take a chance on. Each character only gets two pawns under normal circumstances.
Spreading yourself out to accomplish multiple tasks can get the things you need much faster but carries the risk of danger or even failure. While focusing your efforts means fewer tasks get done, but you are guaranteed to get them. Every moment of the game presents you with choices you have to live with, and it often weaves in a procedural story by doing so.
For example, adventure cards often present you with a choice of gaining something, at risk of it biting you in the ass later. Suppose that you find some fragile wood. You can choose to take it, adding precious wood to your storage box. You then have to shuffle that card into the event deck, and if it comes up, the roof of your shelter collapses because the wood was bad.
Adventure cards always require you to draw another card until you hit a regular event. So you can get into situations where you have several adventure cards stacked in a row as the consequences of your choices snowball, usually at the worst times.
It’s never a right or wrong choice either. That wood will come in handy, and you may never draw that card again. You have to weigh the risks of short-term gain versus potential consequences that may never come to pass.
The whole game follows this kind of principle. Do you need to strengthen the roof, or risk it against the weather dice? Can you safely hunt an animal for food and pelts, or is it too dangerous? What inventions do you need? How much should you explore? Who eats, and who takes wounds for going hungry?
Each character has special abilities they can activate that can have a massive impact. From the cook providing food in a pinch or canceling out a bad weather effect, to the Carpenter’s ability to use less wood when building. The catch is, gaining determination tokens requires you to take direct action to do so. It’s just one of many factors you have to weigh in on. Characters require determination tokens to use those abilities.
There is a lot of randomness in Robinson Crusoe, between the dice and events. Yet, I don’t feel like it’s luck-based at all, and there is a difference. The dice probabilities are laid out in the rule book, with different actions having various amounts of risk. It’s always your choice to risk those rolls or not. I’ve never lost a single scenario that I felt was unwinnable. I could trace a bad move to each and every loss.
It’s difficult to realize that early on, however, thanks to the horrendous rule book. The core of the game is fairly simple. But since each round has several steps and there’s a lot of iconography, it can be hard to grasp at first, and the rule book is no help.
Single actions are laid out over multiple pages as it describes every, single potential esoteric complication of that action before it finishes telling you how to perform the action in the first place.
You have to parse through half the book before learning how to resolve a single round. I really feel like you could condense the basics on a page or two and then have a rules reference in the rest of the book for specific instances.
I had to turn to Rodney Smith and Watch It Played for it to click. It was only then, that the book made any sense. It was simply information overload for each action and step when I had no context to what the rule book was even referring to yet.
A Crew Of One
To some degree, part of the challenge of learning Robinson Crusoe might be linked to trying to learn it together with other players. My partner and I only served to complicate the situation. It was like two people trying to walk in one pair of pants while following different directions.
Here comes the hot take. I think Robinson Crusoe is a terrible co-op game. It has special rules for playing alone where you control a single character and limited side characters, Friday, and The Dog. That mode is enjoyable, but frankly, the game feels best when you simply play more characters yourself, even all four.
The truth is if you step back and look at how the game is designed. It’s a game with four characters that have a pool of 8 pawns to use for the same choice of actions. There is no secret information. Each character follows the same core mechanics, it’s just pawn placement and decision making.
Adding players just takes that pool of 8 and splits it up. Most cards don’t even refer to specific players at all. Equipment, treasures, and bonus pawns are nearly always able to be used by ANY player at any time.
Imagine you were playing Scrabble. Instead of having a bunch of letters to make a word, you had two letters, and each of your friends had two letters. Together, you had to make a word that you could still pronounce. Oh also the house is on fire, a tiger is eating one of you, and a hurricane is going to hit in the next 10 minutes while you do it. That’s Robinson Crusoe in a nutshell.
In that event, one of you is going to come up with a word, and the other three are just going to place the letters down. I would be willing to bet that nearly every single game of Robinson Crusoe ends up with only a single person playing anyway. You might argue that quarterbacking is a player problem, not a game problem. It certainly can be, but they aren’t always exclusive.
It’s a co-op game, you’re meant to communicate. A player with more experience or a knack for strategy will dominate the game just by suggesting courses of action. “If you do this, we will get this” or “If you do that, this will happen”, or “we need to worry about this”. Those simple gestures are all it’s going to take to steer the entire table. After all, each player is just placing two pawns, and the actions affect everyone.
Everyone shares the same food, wood, and inventions. If a single character dies, the game is lost. There is never any reason that a player would shun a suggestion unless that person knew better, in which case they would be doing the suggesting. The only way you could avoid it is to not communicate at all. That would destroy the point of playing cooperatively in the first place.
Robinson Crusoe just doesn’t have legs as a multiplayer game. However, take all that strategic decision-making and pool it into your own hands, and you have something magical. An intense ever-changing, and highly replayable survival game with a dash of procedural storytelling.
The bookkeeping for the game is minimal. Sure, each character has separate abilities, but they are easy to remember since the mechanics remain the same between them.
Each scenario completely alters how the game feels. In one you’re prepping for winter, in another, you’re fighting cannibals. Others have you escaping from an erupting volcano, or even trapping King Kong. The game has insane replay value right out of the box between the scenarios and its procedural randomness, but you add even more when playing alone.
That’s because each character count also changes how the game feels. If you play with one character with the solo variant, food and morale are almost never an issue. You will rarely ever hunt animals, instead, the challenge with one character lies in completing the scenario objectives with a very limited pool of actions.
If you control four characters, the dynamic changes. Starvation and morale become ever-present threats that will challenge you despite the extra pool of actions. The sweet spot for me was controlling three characters. It hit a nice balance that required me to account for every aspect of the game, without any single mechanic overwhelming the rest. At the same time, each character is handcrafted to tackle certain problems. So I always had a gap in my team to compensate for, and I enjoyed that.
Assuming you are playing solo, there is fun to be had with a variety of character setups. Each one offers a change of pace. In multiplayer, I never felt like I was controlling a character. Alone, I feel like I’m guiding a team of survivors in a brutal but thrilling survival story.
Robinson Crusoe is a satisfyingly brutal game of strategy that nails its survival theme. The mechanics work together in a fashion that the simple act of placing pawns on a board is an exciting experience. Every round presents you with high stake decisions that will test your ability to weigh the odds of pushing your luck or playing it safe.
There’s never a moment that you will have everything you want or need, and the game leans into that fact hard. It constantly forces you to make difficult choices to survive. Every victory or loss is a procedural story woven from the fabric of your decisions, in spite of the fact that Robinson Crusoe isn’t a story-focused game, at all.
The game also offers an immense amount of replay value as every game plays out differently alongside the incredibly varied scenarios. However, its brilliance only really radiates when playing alone. The multiplayer is like cutting up a famous painting and handing it to four different people. They might be able to appreciate an aspect of its beauty, but the true meaning is lost.
That said, solo games have increased in popularity, even before the pandemic, but especially after. I am a huge advocate for games that play well at low player counts, including solo. If you’re looking for a brutal challenge that will test your wits, you can’t go wrong with Robinson Crusoe.
You might want to watch a video on how to play though. Unless you consider diving through a convoluted mess of a rule book to be part of the experience. Seriously, I was ready to hire a cryptographer.
You might also enjoy my review of Spirit Island
- Fantastic survival mechanics woven inside a worker placement game
- High strategy and intense decision making is a thrilling combination
- Difficulty settings are present in the rule book
- 7 Scenarios that drastically alter how the game feels
- Enjoyable randomness that doesn’t feel luck based
- Very high replay value
- A fantastic solo experience
- The rule book is a headache inducing mess
- Some of the cards and components feel cheap and flimsy
- A terrible multiplayer experience
- Only four characters is a bummer
- Poor table presence with generic visuals
Note: This score reflects my recommendation as a solo game. I DO NOT recommend Robinson Crusoe as a multiplayer game at all.