Saturday, February 15, 2014

Story in a Box

And now, the rare boardgaming post...

Last night, I got together with my friends and played my two newest boardgames, Robinson Crusoe and Tales of Arabian Nights. In short, both games were excellent.

Here's a little summary on Robinson Crusoe. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know about the game:

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a cooperative boardgame for 1-4 players (yes, that's right; only one player is necessary, as the game can be played solitaire with only a few minor adjustments, detailed in the rulebook). In it, each player is a castaway on a deserted island. Working together, the players must build shelter, hunt animals, craft tools, and brave dangerous adventures in the wilderness. The game comes with six different scenarios of various difficulty (with more available free on the internet, including a blank template for creating your own), and the exact win conditions are different for each scenario. If one castaway dies, the whole group loses the game. If the group doesn't meet it's scenario-specific win condition by the end of a certain number of rounds, the entire group loses the game. 

I don't feel Crusoe got its fair share of time in the spotlight. Due to some critical mistakes in interpreting the rules (typical, first-time newb fumbling on everyone's part, especially mine since I was the only dude who read the rules), the game ended prematurely, in horrible, screaming death for our intrepid castaways. It should be noted that Crusoe has a pretty good reputation across the community as being one of the hardest co-op games out there, and I can definitely see that after one play. The game will punish you merciliessly for your mistakes, and any kind of resonable chance of success requires a lot of teamwork and a rapid understanding of the game's many intricacies. For example, our group spent a lot of time casually exploring the island and making tools, ignoring critical tasks like building shelter and weapons. That last one proved especially rough, as a disasterous attempt to hunt a cougar, followed by a tiger attack, nearly single-handedly cost us the game.

Arabian Nights got a far fairer shake. Following is the perfunctory explanation graph, followed by my thoughts:

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a storytelling boardgame for 2-6 players. In it, players travel the ancient world of the Arabian Nights stories as characters from those stories, like Ali Baba, Aladdin, or Scherazade. You begin the game with a quest card that gives you an overarching story and an objective to accomplish. Each turn, after your character moves, you encounter something...a genie, a beggar, or some bandits, for example...and you have a number of options as to how to deal with that particular encounter, such as trying to trick the genie, or beat up the bandits. You make your choice, and the player to your left turns to the appropriate paragraph in the massive Book of Tales included with the game and reads aloud your character's fate. It's slightly more complicated than that (for example, you have skills that can alter the events of your story; a die is rolled to determine certain variable facets of the story, like if the beggar is wise or mean; and you can acquire literally hundreds of different statuses, from becoming a prince to having a sex change, that affect how you interact with a story), but that is the general gist of it. Each story can generate story points and destiny points, as does completing your quest. The first player to get 20 points spread across story points and destiny points can return to Baghdad and win the game.

Prior to the game's purchase, I did a lot of research and discovered a lot of people....even people who were admittedly not that into the gameplay...really fanatical about it. After this first playthrough, I can see why. The game is breezy and light, but with enough heft to make you feel like you did something epic. There's very little strategy to speak of, but the decisions you make are meaningful and often have far-reaching impact on your journey throughout the world. This is one of the few family-friendly, anyone-can-love-this boardgames in my collection, and judging by my friends' reactions to it, probably will see a lot of time at the table.

But I, personally, am drawn to Crusoe. The game is challenging and engaging in ways I've never seen a co-op game be before. Don't get me wrong; co-op games like Pandemic or Ghost Stories are extremely challenging...but their gameplay is pretty straight-forward, it's just a matter of properly reacting to the shifting conditions on the board (yeah yeah; easier said than done, but you get my point). Crusoe is a complex co-op game. You can lose a game of Crusoe just by not understanding the rules, even before the board has a go at you. Imagine a game of Pandemic where your plane could crash while traveling across the world, or your scientist could suddenly suffer from one of the viruses you're trying to cure. That's not quite the same as what's going on in Crusoe, but you get my drift. Despite the short and brutal game we played, I find myself really, really looking forward to the next time I can bring this to the table.

Overall, though, it's pretty clear what my trend is for boardgames, I think; story-driven experiences. I just cannot get into an abstract game of pushing cubes and wood/plastic bits across a table. Now, I love a game of Puerto Rico or even Settlers of Catan as much as the next dude (maybe moreso), but if I'm calling the shots, we're playing games with a story cooked into them. The more detailed, the better. Whether it's exploring a haunted house in Mansions of Madness, fighting off Wu Feng and his hoards of evil spirits in Ghost Stories, or, now, flying across the world on a magic carpet in Tales of Arabian Nights. It feels good when you manage to lock in some poignant detail about yourself, especially when you're a dude like me who's always looking at the next Thing to occupy your time. So here's one detail I definitely know about myself now: I love playing a good story.

1 comment:

  1. Of the two I liked Arabian Nights better, but I really want to play Crusoe again. I liked how challenging it could be. A better understanding of the rules will go a long way.

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