This game is innovative. I don’t say it lightly and anyone who’s played this wouldn’t find that statement controversial. But more importantly, Michael Menzel’s The Adventures of Robin Hood has provided the best gaming experience of my daughter’s eight years of existence.
And I cherished every second of it.
It’s a difficult game to really conceive through description. The puzzle board is gorgeous. It looks more like something that belongs on a wall than on a table.
Players work together, moving across this visual world and interacting with beggars, mushrooms, carts of hay, and dozens of other details. Doing so requires you pick up the hardback tome and read a couple sentences of narrative. Sometimes it prompts a choice, such as deciding whether to question the hermit about your goal or to request aid from the poor sod. All of this is done in service to a scenario, or chapter, of the classic Robin Hood adventure. Each chapter builds upon the previous body of work as you are reading a story through the act of play, melding assimilation with authorship.
And this is where it will lose some of you. This is a board game; it is not a novel. The bulk of your time will be moving around Sherwood Forest trying to poke different features as if you’re playing a point and click adventure. But the player agency is extremely limited. Strategy is light, so light that the game would be in danger of floating away if not for all of the wooden pieces and storybook weighing it down. Discussion mostly consists of “I will head towards the church and talk to the priest; how about you investigate that overturned wagon?”
There is some nuance of course. The main element of pressure – and really the only threat of failing a chapter – is the timer. This causes you to push relatively hard towards the goal. You will also assess danger and whether it’s worth taking the risk of exposing yourself to a guard. Let’s talk about movement and I will explain this in more detail.
I really enjoy the movement system which reminds me of Kevin Wilson’s Android. Here, you take little wooden silhouettes of your character and line them up conga style. At each point of connection you can rotate the angle slightly, allowing you to move in somewhat of a curvature. This is necessary because you are not allowed to move through trees, rocks, or buildings.
This is incredibly neat, although quite simple. It gives a physical sense of maneuvering through the terrain and stretches the dimensions of the board with an illusion of depth. What’s particularly fascinating is how it endows this sense of exploration, as if you’re physically entering the landscape. It’s like staring at an incredible painting and losing yourself in its depths, but in this instance your reverie is actualized in service to an ongoing story.
This is underscored by the game’s primary mechanism of flipping features. Almost all of those little and big details on the board are actually embedded tokens. You can pry them up and flip them over as the game demands. What this means is that the world changes. Characters disappear. Buildings that were fine a moment ago are now set ablaze. Danger arises out of seeming calm.
As an effect, this is stunning. The game leverages this mechanism with great creativity, offering layered surprises with each passing chapter. It’s like playing with a pop-up book as details leap into existence and shock.
But it also highlights the rough edge of innovation. Physically, this mechanism is a bit of a mess. Removing these tokens is difficult, often resulting in damage. I’ve torn pieces, scuffed edges, and struggled at times to pry them from the board’s grip. It feels like an idea that hasn’t quite materialized fully.
This bungle appears most often with guards. Throughout the game you draw disks from a bag to determine a random activation order for characters. Each round the sheriff’s guards will trigger forcing the table to collectively groan. It requires flipping several pieces on the board as they waffle between patrolling and absence. It’s slick conceptually, adding a touch of dynamic movement and presence, but it highlights the coarse token fit.
The guards’ function though is interesting. After the flipping is completed, any character caught out in the open with an active soldier is captured. This puts you in a bind, wasting time. Next turn you will need to fight them through a clever cube pull dynamic and attempt escape. But you can avoid arrest by sticking to the shadows. This simple yet evocative flourish extends the engagement of the board and further pulls you into its depths. This sense of immersion underscores the magnificence of this game and what Menzel was able to accomplish.
Another point worth discussing is the game’s length. Each chapter is roughly an hour, and you will progress through seven of nine included scenarios with a small amount of narrative branching. It may be worth revisiting the game as you pursue the other story arc, but there will be some repetition at certain points and I predict many will not find it worthwhile playing through a second time. However, publisher Kosmos has released an additional adventure online and there is promise of more to come.
This is not a legacy game and can be fully reset. It is a campaign game, however, and not particularly conducive to one off adventures. A large part of the appeal is seeing how the board evolves and is utilized across multiple chapters.
Everything feels strongly linked. The movement mechanism is woven into the conflict system, which is harnessed by the time pressure element. I’m not overly fond of this inorganic clock serving as impetus for action, but it’s necessary to create tension.
There are little decision points forced upon you, such as choosing whether to move quickly or more slowly, the latter of which allows you to toss a white success cube in the bag. Doing so improves your odds of defeating guards, but you often can’t afford a slower pace. This is about the limit of the game’s strategic depth.
While some may disagree, I don’t think this will succeed in your typical hobbyist group. This is not a title for someone that regularly plays Eclipse or Dune: Imperium. But it is one for my eight-year-old girl and her daddy who does play those games.
It’s one for a family that wants a narrative adventure which is absolutely gorgeous in both visual appeal and function.
There is something special happening here, where the form of board game transcends the medium. This is interactive literature. It’s interactive art. When played with a child it’s an evolution of storytelling, one full of engagement and wonder as words and imagination are reinforced through play.
My daughter knew nothing of Robin Hood. After the first chapter, she came home from school the following day and demanded we play that “Red Robin” game. I didn’t tell her that Nottingham axed bottomless fries years ago, but I did oblige her request.
And with each proceeding chapter we were astonished. We noticed new details on the board we had neglected. Then the game changed them. It evolved with our action and I sat there, marveling at it like a Rembrandt or Renoir.
There’s not much strategy in The Adventures of Robin Hood. There is fuss and annoyance as you maim a beautiful artifact. There’s also a bit of stumbling as you struggle with some of the oddly translated passages. The prose itself isn’t even noteworthy.
But this is a game unlike anything I’ve played. Neither of us will forget it.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.