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Subject: Castaways: A fun but flawed adventure rss

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Michael F
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This year has seen an interesting dynamic between two games: Castaways and Robinson Crusoe. Both games have been released in the U.S. at about the same time, and the question on everyone's mind seems to be which is the better of the two. Well...while I haven't played Robinson Crusoe, I did manage to snag a copy of Castaways at my FLGS, and I wanted to share my experiences with it. While I had initially decided to go the route of Robinson Crusoe, at $40, I couldn't pass this up.


Gameplay


Castaways is a semi-cooperative game where you and other players find yourselves shipwrecked on an island. Each player assumes a role from those available. On your turn you can do a variety of things, including fishing, foraging, gathering wood, searching through salvage, building, exploring, and writing in your diary. You're mainly working at keeping enough food on hand, building a shelter, keeping the fire lit, and progressing along the island to the top of the mountain. Exploring is the main part of the game, while the rest is pretty basic worker placement to help you and the other players survive. There are three stages of the island to explore, and as you get further up the mountain, things become much more risky than they are rewarding. Still, you must progress along this track, because only once someone has reached the top of the mountain can you all be rescued. You have to be careful though...explore too much and you risk getting lost in the jungles for the night.

There are other details to the game, such as dealing with the changing weather and injuries that can drastically affect your character's energy levels. The main thing you are trying to do, however, is reach the top of the mountain while gathering objects that will lead to your rescue. These include a giant HELP sign you make on the beach, a spyglass, a captain's log, a bonfire, and other things that you may find throughout the course of the game. Once you have fulfilled the requirements to get rescued and have reached the top of the mountain, all castaways that aren't lost will be rescued within a turn of making it to the summit of the mountain. It's also important to note that this game is semi-cooperative, meaning that only one person will win. The person who wins is determined by who has the story tiles and items giving the most story points at the end of the game. Story tiles are acquired through various ways during the game, and each has a random point value on it.


What I Liked


Strong Emphasis on Theme - This game oozes theme. Everything from the basic actions you take every turn to what you encounter as you explore is everything you would expect from a game about being stranded on an island somewhere. Again, I can't compare this to Robinson Crusoe, but you're definitely going to feel like you're on an island in the middle of nowhere. If I could make an observation about the two games, Castaways will probably have less replay value in the long run due to there only being one scenario compared to the multiple ones found in Robinson Crusoe. That isn't necessarily a bad thing though. I prefer having one scenario that can have a variety of different things happen. Not to mention this game seems much more streamlined. But I digress...this game has a lot going for it in the thematic department. You won't be disappointed here.

Choose Your Own Adventure Storytelling - Much like Tales of the Arabian Nights and Agents of Smersh, there are a lot of random situations that come up that you will have to deal with. Even though this game just uses cards for the events, it does so in a very clever way to make the game different each time. At the beginning of the game you will put 8 random cards in the standard encounter decks that sort of act like "seeds" that will eventually grow and branch out into different arcing events. For instance, you may find an altar that, once disturbed, will anger the natives of the island. You may get a bonus for disturbing the altar, but you will have to deal with the natives later on. If you're a fan of TotAN and AoS, you'll definitely want to check this out.

A hybrid of mechanics that work really well together - This game has a little something for everyone. There's worker placement, dice rolling, storytelling, and a Pandemic-like survival struggle that is constantly going on. None of it feels like it outshines anything else either, so if you're looking for a game that does a good job of combining a bunch of different mechanics in one, Castaways does that very well.

Character roles are powerful, unique, and useful - No matter which character you decide to be, you're going to feel like you have a pretty powerful ability over the other players. Being able to occasionally heal people as a medic is going to feel just as powerful as the amateur hunter's improved ability to return to camp from exploring. Some may feel overpowered, such as the cook's ability to turn perishable foods into non-perishable foods, but even without those characters you don't feel like you're at a large disadvantage. It just may require you to alter the actions you take on your turns a bit differently. I also like that there is a male and female version of each role included in the game, so nothing feels gender-specific.


What I Didn't Like


The English rulebook is very poor - I have read some pretty bad rulebooks before, but this game's rulebook totally omits certain things that are vital to understanding the game. It encourages that you use common sense for topics that aren't covered, and to settle subjective disputes by rolling dice, but there shouldn't be anything in this game that the rules can't easily clarify. It isn't a heavy game by any means. For instance, there are numbers along the exploration track that aren't discussed at all in the rulebook. Come to find out from the helpful folks here on BGG that they give you extra story points at the end of the game depending on what number is on the space you end the game on. There are other examples, but just be prepared to have to search around for rules clarifications a bit.

Gameplay is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of theme - This isn't a huge complaint, but I've encountered it on a couple of occasions with this game. For instance, one of the items you can possibly recover from the wrecked ship's salvage is a copy of the Bible. It states that if you don't take it that you must suffer a bunch of different consequences, but taking the item only gives you a minor ability called "pray" that the rest of the castaways can share. I can see this card being pretty confrontational in certain groups, which is why I have thought of omitting this card from my games. Not that it's a huge problem for me, but it seems kind of presumptuous on the designer's part to assume that religion will be such a major component to survival...more specifically Christianity.
There is also a card that has every player "make a wish," and whoever wins the game will have their wish come true. While this is a nice sentiment, it doesn't really add much to the overall gameplay. Again, this point should be taken with a grain of salt, but it was something that bothered me about the game a bit. It's not something you'll encounter very often, but I feel it's worth mentioning.

Storytelling via cards is noticeably inferior to a "Book of Tales" method - This is probably the most obvious drawback to this game, but it's worth mentioning since the variety of encounters is quite a bit less than seen in something like Tales of the Arabian Nights. Not only that, but you're well aware of how each choice will play out since it's printed on the card. For instance, there is one card that represents a pool of quicksand you must overcome. You have the choice of wading across or finding another way around. If you wade across, you run the risk of being stuck. However, if you find another way around, you go backwards one space on the exploration track. I'm toying with the idea of having someone besides the exploring player read the cards, so that your decisions won't be influenced by what you have to do on the card. This causes there to be a lot less suspense in what decision you make. Sometimes you may want to take an unnecessary risk just to see the story branch out in a different direction, but otherwise there usually isn't a very good reason to wade through that quicksand. Especially since the odds are spelled out right there for you on the cards.

Semi-cooperative nature - This was the one thing that kept me from playing Legendary, and was my only real reservation to this game. I fall into the camp of where a game should either be cooperative or competitive, not both. Even if you decide to play this fully cooperatively, which you can do for the most part, there are a few cards and events that will being out the competitive nature of the game. This game is plenty difficult enough to where competition isn't really needed. It isn't super difficult, but difficult enough to where competition can really hamper your efforts. This may be another example of where gameplay is sacrificed a bit for theme, but I guess it depends on what your opinion is on semi-cooperative games.


In Conclusion


Castaways is an extremely fun game. It definitely deserves the hype that it gets. Whether or not you're a fan of the semi-cooperative aspect, you can take steps to eliminating the competitiveness to this game and make it a straight up co-op. The one thing that I found myself thinking about after playing this game a few times was Pandemic. Pandemic is a game I never really cared for that much. I appreciated it for what it was, but it never wowed me like so many other games before and after it were able to do. In my opinion, Castaways is everything Pandemic wishes it could have been. You have the player powers, the push your luck aspects, the puzzle of how to balance everything that needs to get done, and an ever-present time limit that you have to adhere to. But don't misunderstand this...Castaways is not another cooperative, Pandemic clone. It just simply does a lot of what that game did in a more enjoyable and thematic way. The only two possible things Castaways is lacking compared to Pandemic are replay value and difficulty levels. Replay value is limited due to the card-driven stories, and while there are some suggestions to up the difficulty, none really feel like they make a huge impact to the overall game.

Castaways isn't going to win any game of the year awards, but it is a solid thematic game with a variety of game mechanics mixed into it. Am I glad I got it instead of Robinson Crusoe? Yes...for a couple of reasons. First, it was a much cheaper option. Secondly, this game feels much less fiddly and more approachable to non-gamers. For those reasons, I suspect it will be played more than Robinson Crusoe would be.

If you want something that's a mixture of Pandemic, Agricola, and Tales of the Arabian Nights, this is a great choice. It's pretty solid in the medium-weight category, but is definitely approachable for non-gamers. If you can get past the rulebook and sometimes overly-thematic elements, Castaways is a wonderful game that should appeal to a wide variety of people.
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Nick Stables
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Hi Michael, Thanks for the review, especially pointing out your experience with the Storytelling mechanic.

From watching the video reviews I was concerned the exploration aspect may be long winded for the player(s) (who don't join the exploring party) to sit and watch. With your comment: "I'm toying with the idea of having someone besides the exploring player read the cards", this may at least address my concern for the thumb twiddler(s).

Cheers
Nick
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David Hoffman
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One of the things that appeals to me about this game is the use of cards as opposed to a "book of tales". It may just be that the abject randomness of Arabian Nights turned me off -- do your decisions matter? Not especially -- but for me that's a plus with this game.
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Michael F
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pusboyau wrote:
Hi Michael, Thanks for the review, especially pointing out your experience with the Storytelling mechanic.

From watching the video reviews I was concerned the exploration aspect may be long winded for the player(s) (who don't join the exploring party) to sit and watch. With your comment: "I'm toying with the idea of having someone besides the exploring player read the cards", this may at least address my concern for the thumb twiddler(s).

Cheers
Nick


Yes, this is something that happened when my wife and I played. She would go off exploring while I was left there wondering what my next turn would be about. You can potentially go through at least half of a storytelling deck during one exploration without too much risk while everyone else just sits there. I think having someone else read the cards would make it more interesting for all those involved. Plus it adds to the semi-cooperative nature of the game, since eating some berries you found somewhere may not always yield the best results.

Thanks for your feedback
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Michael F
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ohbalto wrote:
One of the things that appeals to me about this game is the use of cards as opposed to a "book of tales". It may just be that the abject randomness of Arabian Nights turned me off -- do your decisions matter? Not especially -- but for me that's a plus with this game.


That's a good point. Decisions certainly do seem to have more of an impact here. But be aware that there are still a good number of encounter cards that will cause you to lose energy and/or receive injuries no matter what.
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Glenn Darrin
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It seems the cards would be much easier to deal with logistically as compared to flipping through pages of a book. The problem, I believe, is sacrificing depth of storytelling through the cards rather than the book.
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Michael F
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Clammy721 wrote:
It seems the cards would be much easier to deal with logistically as compared to flipping through pages of a book. The problem, I believe, is sacrificing depth of storytelling through the cards rather than the book.


I hadn't thought of that. The only thing is, even though it doesn't flat out tell you to do so, whenever you add a card into a deck (Thus setting up the possible conflict of the next stage of a given storyline), I always shuffle it so it will be randomized each time. Otherwise you're basically drawing those new cards right off the top of whatever deck they were added to each time. It's still probably less tedious for most than going through a book though.
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Einmal ist keinmal
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newkillerstar27 wrote:
The English rulebook is very poor - I have read some pretty bad rulebooks before, but this game's rulebook totally omits certain things that are vital to understanding the game. It encourages that you use common sense for topics that aren't covered, and to settle subjective disputes by rolling dice, but there shouldn't be anything in this game that the rules can't easily clarify. It isn't a heavy game by any means. For instance, there are numbers along the exploration track that aren't discussed at all in the rulebook. Come to find out from the helpful folks here on BGG that they give you extra story points at the end of the game depending on what number is on the space you end the game on. There are other examples, but just be prepared to have to search around for rules clarifications a bit.

I don't think you're being fair to the rulebook here. With the exception of some card clarifications (and the rules admit this), most things are covered. Even your example:

The first thing under "Final Scoring" states
Quote:
First, draw a number of SP tiles equal to the number listed next to your marker on the exploration track.


As to your latest post,
Quote:
The only thing is, even though it doesn't flat out tell you to do so, whenever you add a card into a deck (Thus setting up the possible conflict of the next stage of a given storyline), I always shuffle it so it will be randomized each time.

Yup. It states this as well (p.VIII)

Quote:
If the card says to add a card to another deck, that deck should be shuffled (unless the card says not to).

It's even bolded for you. shake
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Thibaud Dejardin
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Everything is in the rulebook, but that's hard to figure everything out. It's not the worst rulebook i've ever seen, but it's not one of the best, for sure.

Things are only said once, and are rarely where you intuitively search the information.

People claiming the rulebook is poor are not malevolent or stupid, they only give their feeling, usually based on the comparison with many other rulebooks.
That doesn't mean the game is bad, but claiming the rulebook is good won't make it any better in reality.

That makes perfect sense in a review to warn a future player he will need to read some threads or FAQ before playing.

Quote:
With the exception of some card clarifications (and the rules admit this)

That's nice to admit something, but it doesn't make any good.If the man writing the rules knew it lacked something, why didn't he add it up?
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