Gaming Unplugged: Tobago

April 11, 2010

Fans of logic puzzles will probably find Tobago (published by Rio Grande) to be a treasure, although you don’t actually need to be able to solve one of those to enjoy it. Featuring a modular board and some awesome bits, this game will quickly catch your eye before it grabs your mind.

The three sections that make up the board are double-sided and can combine in over 30 ways to create distinct layouts for the island. Additionally, ten landmarks (three statues, three trees, and four huts) are placed on the map in nearly random locations (they can’t be within 6 spaces of an identical object and statues can’t be adjacent to the ocean/edge of the map) to further make each game unique. Players (from two to four) each place their ATV pawn anywhere they wish, and then the treasure hunt begins! 

Initially, each player in turn draws one map card and places it next to one of the four colored piles (white, black, brown, and grey), with each player seeding a different pile (with less than four players the unseeded piles just start out that way). Each map card lists either where the treasure is or where it is not; one card might say “adjacent to the largest forest”, while another might exclude any space within view (one or two spaces away from) a hut. The map cards use a symbology that is both universal and requires no actual reading. No single card will ever be able to pinpoint the exact location of a treasure, so once the initial cards are played each player draws four and the actual game starts.

On your turn, you can either play one card to one pile or make a move with your ATV. A card can only be played if it reduces the number of potential locations by at least one hex and does not create an illegal situation; if the treasure is already known to be “on a beach” you can’t then say that it “is not adjacent to the ocean” because there is no such space in any configuration of the boards. If you play a card, you indicate that it is yours with one of your colored claim markers and then draw one to keep four cards in your hand at all times. An ATV move consists of up to three “legs;” a “leg” is defined as either crossing from one terrain type (forest, lake, beach, plains, mountain, river) to another or moving as far as you want within your current terrain. Picking up an amulet (which I’ll get to in a second) ends your leg; unearthing a treasure ends your move.

Once enough cards have been played, the number of potential locations for each treasure will narrow. As soon as it reaches the point where you can place the provided cubes on the potential spaces you should do so, as this will help to visualize what is and isn’t a legal card to further play for that treasure. A treasure must be reduced to only one potential location before it can be raised via ATV move.

The player who raises the treasure makes one final claim on it, and then each player is dealt one Treasure card (valued form 2 to 6) per claim they have on it. After looking at these cards, all of the dealt cards are mixed together, one unseen card is added from the deck (to keep things interesting), and the cards are revealed one at a time. Starting with the player who raised the treasure and working back to the first clue, each player gets to either take the card or pass on it. When a player takes a treasure card he places it face down in front of him and then removes the claim marker that actually took the card (e.g., if the claims are 3-1-3-2 and player 3 takes it on his second offering, the next card will be offered in the order of 3-1-2). If a treasure is passed up by all players it is discarded. Once all claims are satisfied (or once the available cards run out) the player who took the last card begins a new hunt for that treasure by using one of the map cards from his hand, with the last remaining card (if any) being discarded.

There is a danger to claiming treasure, however; somewhere after the first dozen cards in the Treasure deck lie two Curse cards. When a Curse card is revealed, all remaining cards in that treasure are immediately discarded and anyone who still has a claim on that treasure instead loses their highest-valued treasure from their collection. This is a potent threat that encourages players to not invest too heavily in a single treasure in case they get completely screwed by a Curse, but sometimes the risk can be worth it. Fortunately, the treasure-loss effect of curses can be avoided by possessing a magic amulet, which possess other powers as well. 

After each treasure is finished, the three statues will “fire”, depositing a magical amulet on the edge of the map directly in front of them before rotating 60 degrees clockwise (the manual even insists that you make a creaking/grinding noise when you do this). Anyone who picks up one or more of these has access to the following abilities in addition to the curse protection: they may play an additional map card, they may make an additional three-leg ATV move (although they may not pick up any amulets with this bonus move), they may discard their map cards in hand for four new ones, or they may eliminate one potential location of a specific treasure. Using any of an amulet’s powers causes the amulet to be discarded, but there is no limit to the number of amulets you may use in a given turn. The later stages of the game will almost certainly be decided by shrewd use of amulets, so plan accordingly.

The game ends when the final treasure card is passed out; if the last treasure requires more cards than there are left in the deck then the discarded cards from previous treasures are reshuffled to provide the remaining ones. The player with the highest total treasure value is the winner.

Tobago is quick-playing, with a session  rarely taking more than an hour (after setup). The symbology on the map cards can be awkward and/or arcane at first, but the reference page is a big help and eventually you will pick it up. The logical aspect of Tobago’s treasure hunt is very unique, although it can be frustrating to have no legal plays in your hand and have to waste your turn moving your ATV for no real reason. I love the presentation of the game, which in many ways reminds me of Taluva, another tropical island Rio Grande game and one of my favorites.

Image by GamerChris