A Few Acres of Sand: A Review of Tobago

Released in 2009 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Bruce Allen. For 2-4 players.

It’s my turn. From the pieces of the treasure map that my rotten opponents and I have put together so far, I know that there’s a treasure in one of two locations near me. What’s more, I have a clue in my hand which would solve the mystery once and for all – a map piece which says the treasure is next to a palm tree.

But I have only one action per turn. If I add the piece to the map, that’d be it – meaning one of the miscreants I’m playing with could steal in and take the treasure from under my nose. Heartbreaking.

However, I have an amulet (a magic amulet, no less), and a big choice to make about whether or not to use it. The amulet, if surrendered, has the power to give me an extra action – so I could spend it and then head off to pick up the treasure myself. However, the amulet also acts as protection against curses, which have a chance of turning up when treasure is being divvied up and doing BAD THINGS. If I use up my amulet to get to the treasure site, then I’m unprotected during the distribution of the treasure.

I tell myself to go for it, because I’m lagging behind, and it’s worth the risk to get back into the game. In my heart, though, I know I’d be just as reckless whatever the situation; if I were winning, I’d tell myself I could go wild because of my safe position.

I like what a simple game can make me understand about myself.

In this case, there’s no curse, and I make off with a wicked haul – three valuable treasure cards. The pleasure isn’t so much being back in the game, as having the rogues around me cussing. They’re not my friends again until the game is over.

Board before the start of the game

The board before the start of the game

Tobago gets called a deduction game; that’s not really accurate, it’s induction – the locations of the various treasures in the game are undetermined until players contribute cards to create the map. If I play a card to say a given treasure is in the forest, then it will be.

But then, that doesn’t really get to the core of the game either. Tobago, at its heart, is an investment game. An investment game dressed in a very snazzy, man-from-Del-Monte suit (Victor Boden’s artwork is great, and Rio Grande’s production is OUTSTANDING – the statues ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE STATUES) – but an investment game nevertheless. Consider the following.

For each card you contribute to a treasure map, you are rewarded with a share in the treasure. Start a map which other players want to contribute to – perhaps because the location of the treasure is near their vehicle on the map – and you’ll rapidly see the treasure discovered, and your contribution will have brought you fruit quickly (though other players will also have gained something). On the other hand, if you build a treasure map with no incentive for anyone else to help, you might eventually be able to take home a good deal of treasure yourself, but you’ll not get much help in finding it. Balancing how cooperative to be is where a good deal of the strategy comes in. Not that this is high strategy; older children shouldn’t take too long to get a sense that they need to work with their opponents a certain amount in order to win.

Yellow about to collect a pair of amulets

Yellow about to collect a pair of amulets. Note the splendid Moai-style statue (Not to be seen on the real Tobago)

On top of this, the treasure distribution in Tobago is a game in itself. In addition to players being proportionately rewarded with treasure cards for contributing to the map, the player who picks up the treasure (by moving to its location) receives an extra piece.

A treasure card might have between two and six gold pieces (victory points) printed on it. Two out of about forty cards are cursed.

Treasure cards earned are not simply distributed randomly. All players are given the chance to look at a number of treasure cards equal to their contribution. However, these are then shuffled up again, together with a single card which nobody has seen. Then the cards are revealled to all players one-by-one, and offered in turn to those players who were involved in the discovery (the player who visited the treasure location has first refusal, then the player who added the last map piece, then the person who added the penultimate piece, and so on backwards). If, say, the same player discovered the treasure, and contibuted the second-last map piece, they then get first and third chance to take a given piece of treasure. The player who accepts the treasure also withdraws from the given position in the turn order (so if a player first and third in the treasure division takes treasure from the third position, they will still have the first chance to take the next piece, and the player who had been fourth becomes the third).

Map Cards

Clue Cards. The little chits denote which player added which clue (the last is for the player who collected the treasure on the board) and show turn order in collecting treasure. When a player takes treasure they remove the respective chit

The result is that players attempt to bluff and suss out one another, competing to take better cards than those they were shown. If, for example, I was shown cards with two and three gold pieces, I’d jump at being offered one with four on it. This in turn would give a clue to a player who had seen cards with five and six gold pieces on. The game is often won and lost here.

And the curses? The pesky things can mess everything up. When one is revealled, treasure distribution immediately ends, and all players with treasure still to take must surrender an amulet if they have one, or the best treasure card they’ve collected in the game if they haven’t.

It hurts. But it’s that chance of being hurt which produces the game’s biggest decisions. Often this is linked with collecting and spending extra-action amulets (three of which turn up on the coast of the island after each treasure is discovered). There’s always the temptation to spend that last amulet, which the curses are pushing you to keep in reserve.

Red discovers a treasure

Red discovers a treasure

Overall, Tobago offers a great experience, putting a rich, approachable theme onto its essentially economic mechanisms. Some players might be uncomfortable with how the game-within-a-game often trumps the significance of the map-building and treasure hunting which takes the lion’s share of play-time. If an early curse card emerges when treasure is being divided, it can blow a player’s chances of victory out of the water if he or she had a large investment. But running at just under an hour (in my experience, this is true with two, three or four players), the luck is worth it for the excitement this game can generate. I highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “A Few Acres of Sand: A Review of Tobago

  1. Pingback: A One Year Progress Report, One Month Early | Painted Wooden Cubes

  2. Pingback: Revisions December 2012: Tobago, Jaipur and Onirim | Painted Wooden Cubes

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