“Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
Treasure Island–the game–is inspired. As a story, it’s one we’ve fallen in love with. Long John Silver has buried the stolen treasure and his crew are putting the screws to him. Greed and duplicity form the central themes and they’re woven into cardboard deftly.
This is a one-versus-many game that pits the many against each other. It’s a tangled web of deduction as a single player parcels out information, narrowing the search perimeter for the buried gold. The rest scheme away, gleaning bits and pieces as each pirate stumbles down the prism towards glory.
The success of Treasure Island is two-fold. The first is in the role of Long John Silver. This person is playing an entirely different game than the rest of the scalawags. They’re delicately weighing a hand of cards, figuring out which will hurt the least. These cards produce clues in many creative and interesting ways. This forced drip of information is painful to Mr. Silver as your only shot at winning the game is by delaying. So you attempt to plant a false scent or push the group in the wrong direction as often as possible.
These clues are the lifeblood of the experience. They will have you drawing large concentric rings on the map, letting the players know the treasure lies in the void between their boundaries. Other times you will draw two circles with an intersection, narrowing the expedition quite rapidly. Still others will offer just words, words such as “Both Jeremy and Ben moved closer to the treasure last round.” As the search parties creep ever closer, your heart thumps away like Neal Peart throttling his double bass kit.
Yet, you often get to laugh. The twist is that you’re afforded an occasional option of providing false information. As you play each card you pair it with a token denoting the veracity of the claim. So, “Both Jeremy and Ben” may really just be “Jeremy moved closer to the treasure last round.” The players may secretly examine the token and suss out the truth, but they are limited in actions and this means foregoing an opportunity to search.
There’s a deep psychological layer to the game as you try to get in the opposition’s head. Clever play may make a substantial difference and the payoff in either delaying the players or finding that little X on the big map is beyond gratifying.
Equally satisfying is the playful nature of this design. Those circles I mentioned? They’re drawn with these huge wooden calipers. Pirates get to place this gnarly compass around their miniature, asking what direction the gold lies. When you search you place a ring around your scoundrel. Most of these involve actually marking up the board, which is literally a big colorful treasure map, and this evokes a sense of wonder and discovery. It feels as though you’re hunting lost Spanish doubloons and tracing routes on a tattered artifact.
You’re also marking up miniature versions of the map behind your screen. Note taking is not heavy, but it can certainly help. Players can deduce information not only from John Silver, but also from actions their fellow pirates take. Information gained can be private, so there’s always a sneaking suspicion that if you could overlap your information with the scurvy-afflicted nob to your right, you could prevail.
And this is where Treasure Island nails Treasure Island. By offering a series of puzzle pieces to each of its protagonists, it teases with the notion of full cooperation. If only you could get everyone to parlay, then Long John would never have a chance. Yet, this is a tale of betrayal and consequence. We are mean sons of bitches and we will not grip hands and collaborate. Screw you and your parrot, I want that damn gold and I will have it.
I adore this game despite a couple of problems. The map is gorgeous and this is one of the most dapper games I’ve seen, however, the experience demands you mark up this mural with a mound of colored dry-erase pens. This is fine, except for the fact that green is nearly invisible across the patches of jungle. You can flip the board and go to the sepia tone image of the island, but this is sore on the eyes and has its own marker issues.
Likewise, all of those gnarly tools are imprecise. The calipers will occasionally slip and the circle will look like my five year old free-handed the thing. It’s good enough, mostly, and they’re still extremely pleasant to fiddle with.
The roles are equally enjoyable to play and the Long John Silver fella doesn’t need to hold back. In fact, this game boasts the opposite problem of most one-vs-many designs in that it seems almost impossible for the one to win. Perhaps my crew is too clever for its own good, but every play has seen a pirate nail the buried treasure just in time. If the process wasn’t such a joy this would be a ding worth noting.
All of these concerns are fodder for the buzzards. They’re sediment at best; ready to be stomped on with a rotting boot as you make your way across the beach and towards the bounty. That moment when 40 minutes of interrogation and doodling culminate to you spotting the needle in a stack of needles, it’s sheer elation.
This game is thrilling and captivating in the best of ways. It’s the type of design I could play over and over again in short succession as it embodies a distinct characterization of fun that is singular. Robert Louis Stevenson would be proud, as Treasure Island is one of the best board games of 2018.
“Drink and the devil had done for the rest yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”