Tobago – Can You Believe This Yahoo Is Comparing It To Android?

One of the first things I realized about deductive reasoning games is that there are very few that I really like. I’m a big fan of Clue, but the problem with other games that employ the mechanic of deducing something from little clues is that you are pissing into the wind for a good portion of the game until you can slowly remove suspects enough to nail down a couple of strong leads. Tobago, from Rio Grande Games, is a different sort of deduction game because instead of looking for a murderer, the location of a Battleship, or the elusive Mr. X, you’re looking for treasure, and the treasure isn’t really so much “hidden somewhere” as much as “needs to be hidden by players”. The difference between this game and so many others in the genre is that the players are the ones who control the actual locations of the treasures, of which there’s four; Players have direct control over where the treasures are, yet are tasked with “finding them”. Imagine Battleship where instead of putting white markers on your side of the board to indicate misses, you place them to indicate possible locations, and you can remove them by playing cards with Tetris-like patterns, allowing you to whittle away the pegs until there’s only one possible location. That’s what Tobago is, kind of, plus a little more.

Maybe it’s the beautiful little Easter Island statues or the palm tree pawns, or perhaps it’s the idea of hidden plunder, I’ve always wanted to play this. I finally got it on the cheap, and it sat here for six months or more, waiting to be played, because I loaned it out for a while, then I finally got it back, but now my wife an I are preparing our house for sale. That, and there was always something that I perceived to be “better” on my shelves. Well, last night I finally played the last game of Tobago with my daughter, and I’m not entirely sure that it will see the light of day again at the Circus, or at least at my house. It’s not a bad game, and the most apt word that I heard said about it after beginning to poll players was, “It’s funnish”. That about sums it up: it’s fun, in a not so fun, brain burning kind of way. 

The most interesting thing about the design is that it only allows players two options on a turn: move, or add a card to one of the treasure maps. You’d think that such a minimal amount of choices wouldn’t cause the “brain burner” syndrome, but there were some really long turns of “analysis paralysis”, which is very uncommon at the Circus. If anything we get “Highsfuk Syndrome”, where players are too inebriated to be playing; rambling on for 20 minutes about a drunken tryst in the Philippines, debating the grammatical correctness of the use of the phrase “more perfect” in the U.S. Constitution preamble, or the superior feel of a Lucasi cue versus a McDermott. In other words, it’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we get distracted in conversation, at least normally. With Tobago, we were all kind of slow in taking turns because of the nature of the design.

Tobago has beautiful and plentiful bits, from the treasure and clue cards, of which there’s probably almost one hundred, to the cast statues and trees, to the wooden vehicles and huts. As a beautiful final touch, the windscreens and headlights are even painted onto the jeeps. It’s a very pretty little game, with nice art throughout, and if you were to judge it on its bits alone, it would probably score quite strongly with people. The best part of the game, at least in my opinion, is the rule book and reference card, which made the game easy to learn and play, which would otherwise be a bit hard to understand because it’s quite the odd bird. 

Anyhow, in my view, Tobago can be compared to FFG’s Android in some ways, which I was attempting to do at a game night, although it was met with vociferous caterwauling and a great gnashing of teeth. In Android, you’re not looking to find a suspect as much as you’re trying to frame a suspect. This is the same in Tobago, because you’re not trying to find the treasure as much as use cards to remove possible locations, but the players are ultimately in control of where the treasure is through the use of clue cards to establish the treasure maps. In short, you’re both looking for treasure and placing it, simultaneously.

The treasures start with a clue card that tells everyone at the table one thing, such as that it’s “within two spaces of a river”, or “it’s not in the largest mountainous area”, and then as the game goes on, players place new clues to create each map and narrow down the choices. Players have a vested interest in creating all of the maps rather than just sticking to one, because when a treasure is finally revealed, no matter who recovers it, anyone who contributed to the map gets a share of the treasure, although the treasure distribution is done via a sort of bidding mechanic that has a dash of press-your-luck. Some treasures are cursed, and when a cursed treasure card appears, any treasure cards remaining in the recovered treasure go away, and anyone who passed on previous cards is screwed out of the loot. Furthermore, anyone who did not claim treasure but partook in the map making for a cursed treasure has to lose their most valuable card, or use a recovered amulet to block the curse.

“Amulet”, you ask? That’s right, like so many Euro games, the designer gave players a way out of bad shit happening to them. When treasures are recovered, the little statues place amulets at the furthest point directly in front of them, along the beach. These things are the “Knight Card”, allowing you to ignore the curse by discarding an amulet you recovered simply by driving over it and stopping. The not-so-Euro aspect of the thing is that you can also use the amulet to do other things, such as discard and redraw all of your clue cards, play a second clue card on your turn, take an extra move, or remove one cube from the board. It’s most certainly an interesting little nugget, but the truth is that in all of our games, people had two or three in their pile of stuff, meaning that they went unused and were taken primarily for insurance against the cursed treasures, which is funny because there’s only two curse cards in the entire deck.

Now, there’s one truly fucking horrible design aspect that every single person who played it decried: the cube placement. The idea is that you place these little cubes in possible treasure locations, but you can’t always do it when there’s only one or two cards, primarily because there’s not enough cubes to put on every possible space. So, what ends up happening is that players have to spend too much time imagining the spaces, then look through their hand of four cards (six in a two player game) to figure out what would reduce the possible locations. This is where the “brain burning” comes in, and it’s not really that bad, but it’s also not a whole lot of fun. The game ends when the thirty treasure cards are depleted, which takes about an hour with two players and a little bit more, but not much, with four.

One of the best design aspects, if not the bits, is the board design. There’s three double sided boards which are set up so that no matter what permutation you choose, there’s always a “largest area” for any given terrain type, a feat to behold on its own, but that also gives you 32 or so different ways to set the board up. On top of this, the bits that get placed are always placed randomly using some no-go rules which makes every game very unique and really does afford the game a lot of replay value. It’s like playing Scotland Yard if every time you played, the board setup was wholly different, disallowing “favorite strategies”.

I’ve played it with two players, three players, and four players, so I’ve got a good grasp where the sweet spot is, and I think it’s with three. With four players, it’s a little too crowded and there’s a little too much shit going on. It becomes a bit of a race, to a degree. With three, there’s enough room to roam around without being beset by other players in an area. If there’s one overarching praise that I feel needs to be heaped upon Tobago, it’s that it has no “kingmaking” in a three player game, which is incredibly hard to do. The game seems player-neutral, and by that, I mean that there’s no apparent leader, and no real way to beat up on the leader. 

The one overarching complaint that I, personally, have about this game is that there is zero player interaction, either direct or indirect, except in the treasure capture phase, and even then, it’s simply taking or passing on a given treasure card. It doesn’t seem to hurt the game any, and few people in my group mentioned it, but to me, it’s a very “multi-player solitaire” kind of game; every player pretty much just plods along and “plays their own game, on their own terms”, so to speak.

At the end of the day, Tobago is a surprisingly interesting little game of treasure hunting, with a small dash of truly exciting moments. For instance, my daughter moved her car onto a space for no apparent reason, but the next turn she dropped a clue that removed all the cubes from a treasure, leaving her on the exact location and allowing her to immediately recover it. I never saw it coming as she had been moving randomly for a few previous turns, or so I thought. There was a simultaneous sense of both pride and dread because while she was sneaky enough to pull a fast one on dear old Dad, she was sneaky enough to pull a fast one on dear old Dad. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, and I know I’ll be watching her a little more closely at this point.

Why Tobago Is A Nice Place To Visit:
– Great components and art make this look very nice on the table
– Clever design allows you to play this daily for a month and never see the same map
– One of the more interesting deduction games we’ve seen
– The amulets allow for some sneaky little gambits that nobody will see coming

Why I Wouldn’t Want To Live There:
– A little too much brain burning regarding the cubes, at least for our tastes
– Zero player interaction makes it a solo adventure, but with others
– How Moai statues got onto a Caribbean island, I’ll never know
– Very few “gotcha” or exciting moments make this a very, very dry game

I really am kind of mixed on this game, as were some of my comrades. On one hand, you have a really slick deduction mechanic that makes the game very interesting, but on the other you have this very dry, Euro-style game with very little interaction between players. I guess the only word that I can use to describe it is that of a 12 year old little girl: “funnish”.

3.25/5 Stars

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