[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
When I introduce Tobago to new players, they often ask what it’s about. After all, “Tobago” isn’t exactly a common word that means something to everyone. When they do, I usually refer back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know that first scene where Indy is in some remote jungle, looking for some long lost artifact? Well, it’s kind of like that.
I have to be careful though, because the comparison really only goes so far. There is no adventuring or combat against natives; there are no traps to disarm. There’s not even really backstabbing to be had. But there is treasure. You get to that treasure by “deciphering” treasure maps, and there is an element of competition – whoever gets to the treasure first gets first pick of the litter. And there’s always the risk of encountering the infamous CURSED treasure.
A Quick Overview
Tobago is pretty straightforward. The board consists of a map made up of hexes representing various terrain types and surrounded completely by ocean. In addition, various landmarks – statues, palm trees, and huts – are scattered about. Finally, each player has a corresponding ATV – that’s All Terrain Vehicle – which they use to travel around and recover treasure.
Each turn, players have a choice between 2. playing a clue card and 2. moving their ATV. Playing a clue card helps narrow down the location of one of the four treasures, by adding a single logical rule – such as, “not next to a mountain,” “not in the largest lake,” or “within 2 of a palm tree”. There are rules in place to prevent players from creating logical contradictions, or eliminating all possible locations on the board.
Players can also move their ATV, which is required to retrieve treasure, or to claim special Amulets that can be used for extra actions or as protection against curses.
When a treasure is retrieved, every player who helped create the map to that treasure gets a piece of the action. Treasure cards range from 1 to 6, as well as 2 special CURSE cards which are bad. The trick is, each player gets to look at 1 of the potential treasure cards (1 for each card in the map, plus 1), giving them some insight into what is coming. If a player sees a CURSE, they know to take the first treasure they can get, and run. If they see a 6, they know to hang on and maybe pass up on some tempting 3’s or 4’s to snag the gold. Curses, when revealed, immediately end the treasure collection phase, and cause any involved player to lose the highest Treasure card they possess, unless they have an Amulet to discard instead.
The game ends when the entire Treasure deck has been used up.
My first impression on opening the box was simply, “wow.” Tobago is a beautiful, beautiful game. The colors pop with vivid brightness. The ocean is a deep bluish-green, which practically sparkles in the imaginary sun. The forest is a bold green, the mountains treacherously grey. It all adds to up not just a colorful board, but one that enhances the theme of a mystical, remote island with curses and treasure.
And then there are the 3D pieces. Oh those little 3D pieces. Sure, there are the standard cubies, which are simply used to mark the possible locations of a given treasure. But beyond that you have ATVs for each player, tall green palm trees, little round huts, and little stone statues. These pieces are amazing. Simple but effective, with attention to little details that make people exclaim “oh, cool!” when they notice. The ATVs have windshields and headlights painted on – simple, but effective. The little huts have jagged edges on their roofs, as if they were made of sticks and straw – like you might expect to find on an island of this sort. The trees are tall and neatly carved. Best of all, the statues are made of some material that is solid and rough to the touch – they feel like they are actually carved out of stone, down to the little mouths. Who knew such personality could be imbued into a board game token!
The set-up is simple and fast. Instead of all hexes being separate, the board is split into 3 large pieces. These pieces are double sided and fit together in any configuration, with 3 “puzzle” pieces that lock the whole thing into place. Then you can place the various landmarks – palm trees, statues, and huts – anywhere you like, following only limited rules. The end result is an enormous variety of setups that take only a few minutes, which is excellent – one of my biggest complaints about variable-map board games like Settlers of Catan is the time it takes one to set up before even getting to play.
The design of the cards is very well done – all the icons are fairly self explanatory, and the game includes a helpful “cheat-sheet” for anyone who has trouble interpreting the cards. Rarely do people need clarification on a particular icon more than once, though, in my experience.
Tobago is simple and accessible, but there’s definite room for strategy. With 4 treasure piles and having to choose between moving and playing clues, you definitely have to make some decisions. Do you narrow down a treasure and let someone else pick it up, or do you stretch your cards as far as they will go across the 4 treasures and let the other players narrow down to one location for your convenience? Do you take a decent treasure card or hold off and risk something mediocre so you can be the last person to take a treasure card on a particular dig, thus allowing you to freely place the first clue card on the next treasure?
There’s a lot of room for imagination here, with the bare-bones but core thematic element. Hunting for treasure on a mysterious island? What could you possibly be encountering? Where could these clues be coming from? What do the curses mean? The theme allows your imagination to play, but doesn’t delve into hardcore fantasy or sci-fi which might turn off more casual players.
The mechanic of dealing out a number of cards to each player involved in recovering a treasure so they get an advanced look is an interesting one. It gives each player a chance to know something that the other players dont. Do you take that tempting 4-point treasure, or hold out for the 6 you know you saw? Or maybe you luckily got dealt the Curse card and know to take the first treasure card you can and run.
There are a couple frustrations I have with the game though. It’s not all sunshine and a lazy tides.
First of all, there is no end to the frustration of getting dealt a 6-value treasure card to peek at (the highest value treasure card), but knowing you’ll never get to keep it since you’re the 4th in line for treasures. Even if the cards you see are both valued at 2, if you’ve got first choice you have no reason to take those (unless you suspect a Curse is in play), because even if every other card is a 2 you can’t get worse. But then, that is part of the game, and part of the strategy is to circumvent that effect by playing clues on treasures to narrow them down right at the end, or by rushing to pick up treasures so you get first choice.
The worst thing about the game, in my humble opinion, is the handling of CURSES. Now, let me interrupt myself here – the inclusion of CURSES is great. I love the tension, the thrill, of going after a treasure with the risk of running into a CURSE and losing out. That being said, I get very frustrated at how CURSES seem to play out every single game.
You see, invariably, consistently, without fail, the Curse always comes up in the treasure in which I have the MOST tokens involved in. It also always seems to come up early in the distribution. The problem here is, even though I made sure to pick up an amulet to protect myself, I still lose out heavily. Because the Curse immediately ends the distribution of cards for that treasure and clears the map, it’s more than just losing an amulet or a valuable treasure card. It’s losing out on the treasure cards I should have gotten. Even as I try to spread out my clues evenly among the 4 treasures, it always seems to hit me in the worst possible way while other players escape with a few scratches. With only 2 CURSE cards in play, it can be pretty tough getting hit by one, especially if you’re the hardest-hit. If you get hit twice, it’s game over. Sometimes both curses show up in 1 treasure, which doesn’t make that particular treasure any worse, but after hitting you hard it leaves everyone else free to stock up on treasure without worry for the rest of the game. I would almost prefer to have a lot more, less devastating curses, but it’s hard to see what the best solution would actually be.
I still enjoy Tobago. It’s fun building up treasure maps and racing to uncover the treasure. It’s a simple enough game for the whole family to enjoy but strategic enough for a gamer to have fun with. It’s got colorful, truly easy-on-the-eyes art and incredibly high quality pieces, and it only takes about 45min-1hr to play. Simple to set up but with a variety of results, I’d say Tobago is at least a decent family game.
I love Tobago. Hunting for treasure is a blast, and this is one game where the theme really comes through for me. As Wolfie mentioned, the pieces are beautiful. It is a good sign when the first thing you see on opening the box is that the production company cared about this game.
I don’t share any of Wolfie’s frustrations with the game, though maybe that’s because curse cards don’t hate me. I think dodging the curses is possible by not investing too heavily in any one map. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to run into curses the more clues the map contains (since one treasure card is dealt for each clue in the map). I think the curses even out the treasure map sizes and even out the payout. It forces players to be careful and not too greedy (*ahem* take heed, Wolfie).
When I read other reviews about how simple Tobago is to play, I expected it to be dry or boring. But Tobago offers a surprising depth of play, and even if you keep getting cursed, at least you’re on a beautiful island. This is one treasure hunt you don’t want to miss.