I’ll be updating the annual boardgame rankings (that links to the 2011 list) in about two weeks, so as a prelude to that I’ll post reviews of the half-dozen or so new games I’ve gotten this year, some as far back as Christmas. First up is Bruce Allen’s Tobago, ranked #226 on Boardgamegeek’s master rankings and #27 on its “family game” rankings, which sounds about right – it’s a fun game, not that complex at heart, with two twists that make it a little more interesting to play, yet simple enough for younger players to learn without having to pore over the rules.
Tobago is set on an island containing several different terrain types across its hexed map, as well as three kinds of objects on certain hexes (palm trees, native huts, and statues). Players attempt to look for buried treasures on the island by narrowing down the treasures’ locations using clue cards tied to the terrain types. Clue cards may say a treasure is on a specific type of terrain, or next to a hex with a statue on it, or on the largest lake or mountain range – or they may say the treasure is not on a certain kind of hex. Once a treasure has been limited to no more than fifteen possible hexes, players place colored cubes on all possible locations for that treasure to know when its location has been identified.
There are four active treasures at any time, and each card added to the column under one treasure type narrows the number of hexes that might contain that treasure. Once enough cards are in a treasure’s column to guarantee that the treasure is on a specific hex, any player can move his vehicle to that spot to raise the treasure, after which coin cards are distributed to players depending on how many clue cards they added to that column. Coin cards show between two and six coins; the player with the most total coins at game’s end is the winner.
The distribution of the coin cards represents the game’s first significant twist. The deck of coin cards contains two curse cards, which, if revealed, can cost any player who was involved in that specific treasure hunt his/her highest remaining coin card. Coin cards for a raised treasure are distributed via a sort of draft format: The player who raised the treasure gets first crack at a coin card, followed, in order, by the players who placed each of the clue cards in that column, from the most recent card to the first one. One additional coin card is added to the stack to be distributed for a treasure.
For example, in a two-player game, if Player A placed the first clue card under a treasure, Player B placed the next two clue cards, narrowing the treasure to a specific hex, and Player A raised the treasure, Player A would get the first option to take a coin card (or pass), Player B would choose (technically with two chances), and Player A would get the final one. Once a player takes a coin card, he’s removed from the queue for that treasure, so if Player A took the first coin card to appear, then for the next coin card, Player B would choose first, followed by Player A. If a Curse card appears, that treasure hunt is terminated.
The second significant twist to the game involves the statues, which produce tokens called amulets every time a new treasure is raised. These amulets appear on the edges of the game board, depending on where the statues are located, and may be picked up by player vehicles in the course of their turns. A player may use an amulet to ward off a Curse card, or may use an amulet for any of these additional moves:
• Playing an extra clue card beyond the one allotted per turn;
• Moving his/her vehicle up to three hexes or terrain areas;
• Removing a single treasure cube from the hexes that might contain that treasure, possibly reducing a treasure’s possible locations to a single hex;
• Exchanging all of his/her clue cards for a new batch.
These amulets can be hugely valuable as the game goes on, especially due to their power to circumvent the clue-card process. For example, a player can put his/her vehicle on a location holding a treasure cube, then use amulet tokens to remove other cubes so that he’s occupying the hex that must hold the treasure, allowing him to raise it and get one more token in the coin-card queue.
The lone obstacle I could see to family play here would be the logic required for placement of clue cards. Some plays are illegal because they would eliminate all possible locations for a treasure; others are illegal because they don’t add any information and thus don’t reduce the possible locations at all. (One such move: adding an “on a lake” clue card to a column already containing the “on the largest lake” card.) The actual mechanics of Tobago are really straightforward – on each turn, you play a card or move your vehicle, perhaps supplementing your turn with an amulet – and the game involves no text on the board or cards, so even younger players can follow along with just the images. The game also plays well with two players; the BGG forums show some complaints from players who found they couldn’t make a legal card play in two-player games, but we’ve never run into that issue. Gameplay takes about 45 minutes for two players, an hour or a little over that for three; we haven’t tried it with four, which is the maximum. Tobago also offers added replay value because the board itself comprises three reversible pieces that may be connected in different fashions, allowing for 32 distinct game boards. It’s a good chance of pace if you’re a fan of Stone Age or Small World but want something with simpler mechanics and less strategizing.