The Adventures of Robin Hood
Designer & Artist: Michael Menzel
Time: about an hour per chapter
On the recommendation of friends, I added The Adventures of Robin Hood to my “interested” list and fortunately my husband Fraser was listening, and delivered with a Christmas gift. Since then, we’ve played it seven times, completing our first full play through.
Robin Hood is a cooperative, heavily story-driven game for 1-4 players, who take on the role of the notorious outlaw and his band of Merrie Men (including one woman, Maid Marian, ably played by my beloved, and Little John, played by our adult daughter The Bigster). It’s a highly scripted game that nevertheless gives the players a very open set of choices, and that offers some innovative gameplay features. I’m going to focus on three of them which, I find, make the game interesting as a set of mechanisms as well as as an unfolding story – the board design, the story, and the movement – before I talk about the game as a whole. There’s one spoiler about an advanced rule for subsequent playthroughs but otherwise I have been careful to avoid giving anything away.
The board design
The first novelty here is the design of the board. It’s a thick, double-layered board, with tiles set into it. As you play, you interact with the tiles, maybe flipping them over or removing to disable them or change their use. You put them back into the board at the end of each “chapter” and may be told to reset some or all of them when next you play. Some tiles might even “move” – or possibly allow you to move – from one place to another.
You interact with the tiles by referencing them in the hardback book that comes with the game; exploring tile 450, for example, means that you turn to page 450 (hint: there is no tile 450). This is one of the design decisions that really gives the game a luxurious, overproduced feeling. The book could have been an app – might even have, in some ways, have been better as an app – but if we associate Robin Hood with reading, the book is a reminder of that connection. Cleverly, it comes with two bookmarks – the gold bookmark marks your place in the story, and the red bookmark reminds you of any essential game mechanisms that you might need to check on later.
When you turn to the indicated page, you are presented with a chunk of exposition and (usually) a choice. In a multiplayer game, a player who is not taking the action should read the exposition text so as to avoid spoilers. For example, on entering a Tavern (there isn’t one, no spoilers here), you might read the following:
You enter the Tavern, which seems to have fewer customers than usual. Their conversation dies down as they watch you, apart from a few angry mutters. A stocky woman, whom you recognise as the town’s baker, stands and looks at you searchingly, then nods. Do you (a) greet the baker and ask whether you can be of assistance? (b) ask the baker for four loaves of bread to feed your fellow outlaws? (c) ignore the baker and ask the innkeep whether she has heard any interesting rumours lately?
The apparently obvious choice isn’t always the ‘correct’ one, and it’s possible that you might get nothing from an encounter. (That annoyingly squirrelly person that Maid Marian kept trying to bond with across seven games, for example). But it’s also possible that they might give you some valuable advice.
“Assistance?” asks the baker, “not I. But I heard that the schoolmaster might be looking for somebody.” She gives you a meaningful nod then sits down and drinks from her tankard again.
You’ll often be given game directions too, at this point:
Flip over the tavern tile.
In-game movement is clever too. In theory, the board has open movement – you can move anywhere except through walls, trees, rocks, or the river. Each player has five tokens – two standing figures, two ‘short’ movement figures and one ‘long’ movement figure. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, on Maid Marian’s behalf, that her movement figures have the best billowy cloak. You move by lining up your movement figures from the current location of your standing figure, then placing your other standing figure at the end and removing the movement tiles from the board. If you don’t use your ‘long’ movement, you can add an extra white success cube to the Bag of Everything. As a result, we spent most of our games trying to avoid long movement if at all possible. There was also some negotiation about exactly how much the figures had to touch a tile to be considered “on” the tile. Let’s just say, the game would have been a lot harder if I hadn’t been outvoted.
Putting it together
So … the Bag of Everything, huh?
At the start of each chapter, you stock the cloth bag with cubes (6 violet ‘failure’ cubes and 1 white ‘success’ cube for each player) as well as discs, which represent the players, the forces of Bad, and other actors and items that appear during the game. Turn order is determined by drawing discs and taking actions until they have all been removed from the bag, at which point they are returned and a new round begins. For additional randomness, a grey disc allows any player character to take a move and the white disc allows each of the player characters to take a move. Each player, therefore, gets two or three moves for every one that the bad guys take – which is good, because … well … Very Bad Things might happen otherwise.
[imagine a Very Smug picture of Disney’s Prince John here, if it wasn’t copyright]
The game is cooperative, which means that the players are left to determine who goes when with the white disc, and who gets to take the grey disc action(s). It’s also possible to pick up extra movements as the game progresses by *mumble mumble*.
When a red disc is drawn, evil stalks the land. First, the Hope In The Land sinks on the Banner of Hope – by one per player, which can be quite tense. This moves the Bard of Hope towards the Bad End (yes really, we kept calling it Bag End by mistake). I love a good Doom Tracker; if it ever reaches the Bad End then the news is not good for our Merrie Outlaws. Guards are added to the game – they are flippable tiles – and then attack anybody who is in the same area, in sunlight. Finally, an hourglass is removed from the Bad End, signalling that the players are slowly running out of time to achieve their mission. If you ever run out of hourglasses, you lose.
On their turns, players can try to defeat guards and other characters by pulling cubes from the Bag of Everything – typically, you get three chances but can increase this by using weapons and special powers. You stop drawing when you run out of chances or draw a success cube – so ideally, two violet and one white will help to position you for a win. This mechanism of course means that failure isn’t quite as dire as it could be – you’ve just helped to slim down the bag for the other players. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Defeating guards adds to the Hope in the Land, meaning that sometimes you have to be distracted from your overall mission just to keep hope alive.
Thoughts and concerns
We’ve played seven games, as I said – one full play through. The story forks at one point, so there are a couple of chapters that we missed that we intend to go through and play. The game is set up for at least two full replays, with alternate text for your second play through and ‘harder’ rules for the player characters. I played it and enjoyed it, as did Fraser, but it was our elder daughter Bigster who really loved playing the game, practically hounding us to play. “Let’s just play another chapter,” she would say – we played 3 in a row, one day – so we finished the last six chapters over 4 days of a long weekend. “Can we just leave it set up?”. Given that health constraints mean she can’t often settle in for long gaming sessions, six hours or so of games in four days was quite a commitment.
So let’s think about the game and where it might sit on the Banner of Hope. At the top – the Good End – is definitely the production quality. The board is beautiful – the art, the inlays, the little sleeve to hold the eight pieces in the box. The book is a quality hardback, although as something of a paper nerd I found the pages themselves to be a bit lower quality than expected. The wooden pieces are gorgeous, the cubes and bag adequate, the hourglasses totally adorable. Some of the frequently-flipped tiles, especially the guards and *mumble*, are starting to look a bit worn and might benefit from some spray adhesive before we play again.
Also at the Good End is the movement mechanism – I really enjoyed lining up my little dudes and checking how far I could get. We’d often plan out moves in advance like this, even before it was our turn. Can I get to the important tile or can you, Little John? And can we do it without using our Long Movement? Maybe I should try Warhammer 40K and invest in a good tape measure?
In the Middle End, I think, is replayability. As I said, we’ve played 7 times, for about an hour each. The first game is really a tutorial and subsequent games do a very nice job of introducing new rules – but just as you really feel you’ve learned all the rules, you finish the story. I wanted to be a frolicking outlaw in Sherwood Forest and go to all the places, but we’ve finished our first playthrough with quite a lot of unexplored areas. That’s intriguing, but I’m not sure we really have any reason to go there – is this just setup for possible future expansions? I gather there are a couple of expansions on the Kosmos website already, so hope that there will be more.
“Bread?” says the Baker, “The Sheriff of Nottingham destroyed my bakery and confiscated all my flour. If you fetch more from the Miller, I will gladly bake bread for you.” You can optionally travel to the Miller on Tile 450 and ask for flour, then return here for a reward from the Baker.
Also in the Middle End is the book. This is kind of at the Good End and at the Bad End; I’m so conflicted about the book. On the one hand, Robin Hood is a story so the book fits well. On the other, there’s a LOT of page flipping. To use the earlier example, to explore tile 450 you turn to page 450. There’s a little flowchart that says if you’re currently doing chapter 3, you turn to page 453. Then someone who’s not on turn needs to read that bit because you don’t want to be spoiled by seeing the different outcomes from selecting from the available choices. Then you take back the book to read on their turn, etc etc. It’s a weird and annoying process overhead that could be done by an app – which would also remove the issues of spoiler risk for solo play. And it’s particularly annoying when you go through all of that to try to talk to Maid Marian’s buddy who NEVER HAS ANYTHING USEFUL TO SAY EVER IN THE WHOLE GAME. Ahem.
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” says the innkeeper. Now flip over the tavern tile.
At Bad Bag End – apart from the lack of Hobbitses – is the book as well. This is kind of my thing, and I know it’s easy to criticise a major undertaking, but the translation is a bit lacking. It’s that usual issue where the translators probably never had a copy of the game to play, and may not even have been interested in doing that, which seems to lead to weird phrasings and some inaccuracies. Würfel translated as dice (here it should be cubes) is an issue that just shouldn’t be happening any more. I remember doing emergency repairs on a translation for this issue back in the late 2000s. Are they Würfel mit pips or Würfel ohne pips? It just annoys me because it should be obvious. Similarly, every time something is added to the bag, players are directed to “throw” it into the bag. I have a sense that the translators may not have been entirely familiar with English language Robin Hood stories, because there was some theming that just didn’t quite come through – not so much that the translation was wrong, but that it could have been so much better. (An old example of this – in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, there’s a statue called the Weeping Madonna. But when the game was released, this was translated back from German as the Crying Madonna. It doesn’t affect gameplay, but it seems … shoddy … thank you for listening to my 2006 translation grudge.).
Finally, the rule book. Players are explicitly told NOT to read the rule book because the rules will be explained – and they are – through the first games – but there was an opportunity to present the rule book as a straightforward reference. We felt that some information was missing – for example, were we supposed to reset the equipment board at the end of the game? There’s an implication that you should, but it’s not explicitly stated (spoiler: because in an advanced version of the game, you might be able to retain equipment) so we had a sense that we were putting ourselves at an unnecessary disadvantage while we played. We weren’t, turns out we just liked feeling that we were playing on the HARD setting. It was also unclear to us that there’s a countermix – or cubemix – limit on how many items a player can carry (I think this is clarified on an FAQ on the Kosmos website). A single reference manual might have made it easier to check this information.
There’s a question about gender here – do we really need another game with three men and one woman as characters? For me, the ‘accuracy’ of using known characters from the Robin Hood stories was more important than matching our player genders (both Bigster and I played ‘men’ and Fraser played the ‘woman’ character). There’s nothing terribly gendered about any of the character figures or narrative, so you could absolutely change this up if you wanted to. Robyn Hood and Wilhelmina Scarlett, anyone? I would have liked to see more woman NPCs though – there were three, compared to at least eight men, and two were more side quest opportunities than genuine opportunities to interact.
Lastly, and this doesn’t really belong at the Bad End, but is more of an observation: this is absolutely a cooperative game. For us, that meant that often one player had an important job to do and the rest of us just spent time pootling around in the forest beating back guards and being Merrie but not really feeling that we were contributing to the story beyond being (figurative) cannon fodder. Or we had an optional quest but chose not to bother with it because we were about to complete the main quest anyway. There was a bit of quarterbacking as well, at least from Little John who turned out to be a Very Bossy Men – and some suspension of disbelief that saw us all communicating quite perfectly via telepathy from quite distant parts of Sherwood Forest.
I found The Adventures of Robin Hood enjoyable, and it gets bonus points for just how very much The Bigster enjoyed it (unlike my beloved The Crew, sob). I look forward to playing it again, to finding out what is behind the *mumble*, and to exploring expansions. My verdict is still out on how replayable it is now that we’ve completed a full story.
Although it’s a simple game, I think this is a hard sell for casual gamers. I regularly do radio talkback, and am often reminded of how very difficult people find learning game rules – and anything out of the ordinary, like this, takes a lot of getting used to. It would be a great game to play with casual gamers, or a great ‘step 2’ game for a group to try after the usual suspects, but I think many casual groups and families would find the admin overhead of turning tiles, finding things in the book, stocking and restocking the bag, to be unexpectedly complex. If you do have family or friends who’d like to try the game, consider offering to act as the narrator (in person or, if you have access to another copy, over videoconferencing) and guide them in their use of the board. Similarly, people who like their games heavy with a side of heavy will find this frustratingly simple. We found it a nice intermission sort of game – good for simply enjoying spending time together, without needing to spend too long thinking about what to do or how to do it.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Fraser: What Melissa said, especially about Maid Marian’s “buddy”. This game feels like a very successful board game translation of a computer game or a choose your own adventure.
Casual gamers may well be a tad overwhelmed by the underlying driving mechanisms of the game, but like most games they could be guided through by somebody who had played it before or an experienced gamer.
Occasionally it did feel a little too scripted, i.e. in one adventure we knew we needed to go rescue [redacted], but when stopping off to talk to someone on the way to rescue [redacted] did they have anything useful to contribute? Generally not, they just told you to go “rescue [redacted]”, all except for Maid Marian’s “buddy” of course.
Dale Yu: I have now played six chapters, and honestly, I don’t think that I’ll be coming back to this one. To put this in perspective, I am a huge fan of the Menzel adventure games; during the pandemic, I was part of an online group that managed to play through the entire Andor series online (using some pretty sweet homebrew playingcards.io scenarios). We had a great time, and I was definitely looking forward to Robin Hood.
When the game arrived, we realized that it would be hard to play online due to very unique board – there was no good way to show this online, even with the Vorpal Board technology that we had used for other games. So, we played it in person. And… it happened. Unlike Andor, it didn’t feel to me that there was much of an adventure. It felt more like a choose-your-own adventure book that inevitably got you to the same point in the story regardless of choices. That is admittedly an unfair characterization of the game, as there are puzzles to solve and choice to make – but overall, it just felt that Mark Jackson was reading a story to me.
The board is super neat, and the way the book is constructed is nice as well. There is a bit of game in trying to manage your probabilities by getting white cubes into the bag and purple cubes out of the bag. But in the end, a lot of the game felt like it came down to having the right character ask the correct NPC how to solve the puzzle. When you did that, you moved forward. When you didn’t, you had to try the same thing again until you got it right.
I have seen others have a great time with it, especially those with younger kids. And I think that for the right group, this has the potential for a great game. I was hoping it was going to be the next Andor, and it didn’t meet that need for me. If I had young kids around, it would be a great way to get them to read a bit and learn how to play cooperative games. For my group of all 40-somethings, this isn’t the right game for us. It’s probably a case of “it’s me, not you” as a lot of other people have raved about the game (see the other reviews included here), but that doesn’t change the fact that it just didn’t click for me.
Simon Neale: Having played through and thoroughly enjoyed My City with my wife and daughter during the pandemic lockdown, Robin Hood looked like a good follow on game. How right I was – we are still working our way through the chapters and really enjoying the experience. Maybe due to our desire to explore everything and not immediately follow any hints given, each game has gone to the last draw from the bag! These knife edge endings have really added to the growing suspense during each adventure and I have a nasty feeling that our luck will eventually run out.
I have previously played through Legends of Andor with my gaming group and I can see elements of those games that Michael Menzel has incorporated into Robin Hood. I agree with Melissa and Fraser that this game is quite light and family friendly, but I’m still getting a great sense of enjoyment out of playing it.
Steph Hodge: Played the entire campaign and for the most part, really enjoyed it. I found it had a lot of unique ideas and I enjoyed the huge book to read from. I didn’t have a preset expectation for what I wanted to happen so I just rolled with it. The final chapter was the biggest letdown for me and in a way, ruined the game. I don’t regret the time spent, and I found the game worth the playthrough. It will be a game I think many people will enjoy.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! – Bigster (guest review), Simon Neale
- I like it. – Melissa, Fraser, Steph
- Neutral. – John P
- Not for me… – Dale Y