Design by Alberto Corral
Published by Passport Game Studios
1 – 4 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
From my childhood I remember the old television series Swiss Family Robinson, which portrayed the adventures of a family stranded on a remote, uncharted island. I would be thrilled by the many dangers they faced, and marveled at the creative and imaginative inventions that helped them to survive in a hostile environment. The series kindled a fascination in me for survival stories, and the “stranded on a deserted island” theme resonated with me then, and still does so today. I was irresistibly attracted to the Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away (although was admittedly a bit disappointed by it), and recently reread the novel Robinson Crusoe, which I also remembered from my youth.
So it comes as no surprise that I am attracted to boardgames using the “stranded” theme. Much to my delight, two such games — Castaways and Robinson Crusoe — were both published about the same time. Both are cooperative games, with players working together in attempts to survive without most of the tools, accoutrements or conveniences of civilized society. The theme is certainly rich, and the atmosphere truly does permeate the affair. But, is this an island worth visiting?
Castaways is an abundant affair involving lots of cards, counters, cubes and more. Fortunately, the game itself is not that difficult to play, although the rules are sorely in need of more detail and examples. Indeed, there are a few aspects of the game wherein we had to reach a consensus on how they were supposed to work, as the rules were too ambiguous or painfully unclear. Searching various internet forums for official answers proved fruitless. This is more than just alarming; it is pretty much a condemnation. I’ll explain this in more detail shortly.
There are three boards upon which various actions will occur. The Main board primarily depicts the various actions that players can perform, with space to place player pawns by these actions. The Camp board is a depository for more actions and tools that players can utilize, while the Exploration board depicts a path along which players will move to explore the island. It is here where the most fun (and most confusion) actually occurs.
Each player receives a character card, of which there are six types, each with a special ability that can be useful the group. The Camp board is seeded with five “base camp” cards, but more can be added as objects are found during the exploration of the island or wreck of the ship. A starting supply of wood and food is placed in the storage bin on the Main board, cards and tokens are sorted, and the struggle for survival and hopeful rescue begins.
The ultimate goal is to collect numerous objects, accomplish various tasks (light bonfire, spell out an “S.O.S.” sign in the sand, etc.), explore the island and reach the mountain pinnacle. At that point, players hope to have collected the required items and accomplished the needed tasks in order to signal a passing ship and be rescued. Of course, along the way they will have to deal with various events, handle a wide array of encounters, construct shelter and gather enough food to survive. Life on a deserted island isn’t easy.
Each turn, players will deal with an event, then take actions (usually two apiece). Each card will affect the weather (which can range from storm to scorching; mid-range is preferable) and possibly the Shipwreck space, where players can search for useful items leftover from the wreckage of the ship. Of course, the card may also cause unforeseen obstacles or hindrances that the players must cope with during that turn, or perhaps even provide some beneficial items. The flavor text on the cards helps enhance the game’s theme and atmosphere.
Players then alternate taking two actions apiece. In addition, the start player receives a special white pawn, which must be used to utilize one of the cards on the Camp board. To perform an action, the player places one of his two meeples on either the Main or Camp boards, placing it on one of the available spaces for the action he desires to take. Multiple players can take most actions, but a single player cannot take the same action more than one per turn. Some spaces require the expenditure of energy, which is tracked on each player’s character card. Conserving energy is important, particularly for exploring, and can be replenished by resting.
There are numerous possible actions, including foraging for food, gathering wood (for the campfire, building shelter, etc.), salvaging items from the damaged ship, building shelter, lighting the campfire, exploring, writing in one’s diary (earns story points), resting and more. A few actions require players to combine their efforts by expending energy; these tasks can be accomplished over the course of several turns.
The most exciting part of the game is exploring. All players taking the Explore action on a turn join the same party, and each player may take one action during each exploration round (there can be multiple exploration rounds during a turn). A player can either explore, or opt to return to camp. To explore, the player draws the top card from the appropriate deck (based on the party’s current location) and reads aloud the scenario, which describes an encounter or occurrence and usually presents the party with several options. Sometimes players must overcome certain challenges with a strength roll, which can be increased by possessing specific items. For example:
“Vines. I saw some vines, thick as my thumb, hanging from the trees. Maybe I could weave them together to splice a rope…” The players may collectively spend two energy to gain a rope.
“No Trail to Follow. My legs were wrapped in vines and bushes. I yielded to the humidity of the jungle and the stifling heat.” Each explorer decides whether to lose 2 energy or receive 1 injury.
Encounters can be beneficial, providing players with useful items or food, or harmful, resulting in injuries or depletion of energy. There are over 125 different plot cards, some of which trigger other cards to take effect, often depending upon the choices made by the players. Thus, the encounters players face will be mostly different each game.
Exploring is essential, as often needed items can be found. However, players must ultimately make it to the top of the mountain, which is located over 20 long steps away. Players move along this track by successfully revealing encounters that have the “foot” symbol, which is a matter of luck. Sometimes an encounter will also allow the party to move forward. Other icons may be present, which can make it more difficult for the party to return to camp or allow the player to draw a Story Point counter, which equates to victory points.
As player progress further along the track, they move into different sections of the island and draw cards from the appropriate deck. Generally the further the party dives into the interior, the potentially richer the rewards, but also the more dangerous the encounters. Further, the longer a party explores, the more difficult it will be for them to find their way back to camp. Players may individually abandon the party to return to camp, but it is usually wiser to remain together. Returning to camp requires a successful dice roll, which must be greater than the level of the “return to camp” marker (which progresses regularly when exploring). Players can expend energy to reroll the dice, but this can be costly with no guarantee of success. Certain items can also aid in the party’s safe return.
If a player or party fails to return to camp, they are considered lost, and on subsequent turns may only try to make it back to camp on the next turn. Further, they cannot share in the food resources of the camp. Lost is a status not to be desired.
After all players have executed their actions, players must consume food. Food is generally gained from foraging, but sometimes items can be found that will supply sustenance. If a player fails to eat any food, he loses 1 energy and gains 2 injuries. Injuries are tougher to heal and can often turn into trauma. Players must also make sure to keep the campfire lit each turn–which requires a steady supply of wood–or they will lose yet more energy. A lit campfire is quite restorative, allowing players to gain energy each turn.
If the group is fortunate, a player or party will reach the pinnacle of the mountain located at the end of the path on the exploration board. The group then consults all event cards remaining in the deck to see if they have obtained and/or constructed the items (2 – 4 will be indicated) listed on the bottom of any one of those cards. Thus, the quicker a party can reach the pinnacle, the more choices they will have, increasing the likelihood of their success. If they are successful in doing so, the survivors are rescued.
Unlike most cooperative games, if the party is rescued, there will be an individual winner. Players draw a number of Story Point tiles based on their progress on the exploration track. The value of these tiles (which ranges from 2 – 4) are added to previously acquired tiles and those granted by certain items. The player with the greatest tally has the most exciting adventure to tell the world, thereby winning the game.
Castaways is an intriguing game. The theme is certainly enticing, and the game is designed to help strongly evoke this “deserted island” atmosphere. Most of the actions players perform certainly are relevant to the theme, but it is most prevalent and pronounced through the little stories and encounters found when exploring. These are certainly evocative and can help players immerse themselves in the experience.
While each character has a special ability, none truly pigeonhole a player into a certain role or action. This is one of the game’s strengths, as many other cooperative games (Flash Point, Robinson Crusoe, etc.) find players “forced” to perform the same role or action over and over due to a character’s particular strength. This can grow repetitive and boring. Here, some characters do have an incentive to perform a particular action, but their special ability isn’t so powerful as to lock them into that action each turn.
I also like the concept of players earning story points, which will ultimately determine an individual victor. This does force some interesting and often heated haggling over various items, and it does force players to regularly explore the island lest they lose out on earning those points. In reality, though, the process doesn’t work quite as smoothly as hoped, as if one player is perceived to be too far ahead (the value of acquired story point tokens is kept secret), players may often grow fatalistic, preferring to see the entire group perish as opposed to a single player winning. That is certainly not part of the definition of a cooperative game.
Castaways had me intrigued. I said “had” because after several playings I ultimately soured on the game, mainly due to its lack of development and ambiguous rules. The most glaring error and seemingly outright oversight are the rules pertaining to movement along the exploration track. The rules call for the exploring party to move forward one space along the exploration track whenever a “foot” symbol is depicted on a card. However, only players located in that particular section (or an earlier one) from which the card was drawn move. Sounds fine, but when you add-up the number of foot symbols on the cards, it is impossible to actually reach the end of the track! We searched and searched numerous forums for clarification on this to no avail. Eventually we adopted a house rule that made reaching the end of the path possible. I am hopeful we overlooked or misinterpreted something, because as is it is simply impossible to reach the path’s end.
The cards themselves can also be confusing, and certain combinations or appearances can actually break the game. Many reference other cards, which must be found in the deck and applied. Some cards can be ignored, but then revisited later. Some mention items or effects that have not yet been encountered with no further explanation. Some do not fully explain the use of an item that has been gained. Again, this just smacks of poor or incomplete development.
Castaways is a game that I give high marks for theme, atmosphere and potential. With a bit more work and a bit more development, I think it could have been an outstanding game. Most of the tools are present; they just need to be more finely tuned. This won’t bother some, as many folks can overlook a game’s flaws and/or enjoy adopting house rules to bridge rules gaps or enhance one’s experience of a game. I, however, have always been a firm believer that a game should be ready to go when published. I am a harsh critic of underdeveloped or poorly developed games. So, while Castaways is close, and contains many elements that entice me, it falls short due to what I consider some major flaws.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Patrick Brennan: Semi coops just don’t work, and it doesn’t here either. The moment one player does something aimed at winning the game individually over helping create the winning condition, then all players effectively get permission to act selfishly instead of selflessly, dooming everyone to a loss. The game is too easy to find a perfect path as a straight co-op (where if you win, you can combine your scores to compare to your previous group best) so that doesn’t work long-term either. There’s the normal worker placement aspects – get food, wood, build shelters, etc. Whereas Robinson Crusoe tried to add fun and theme into the flipping of cards when you tried to do this stuff, Castaways makes action resolution pretty cut-and-dried and chooses to add its fun by having the players go off and do exploration instead of hunting and gathering. And the exploration bit has all the card flipping theme. Much the same experience therefore, but adding more surety on action success meant we found it less frustrating than Robinson Crusoe and more fun. Even if it was substantially longer, which is a downside. I want it playable because of the theme, just not sure how to fix it for our group yet.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it):
2 (Neutral): Patrick Brennan, Greg Schloesser
1 (Not for me):