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Not Cardboard Children: Tobago

Table Dancing

Last week at least a couple of you complained that it's been ages since our weekly Cardboard Children column covered a board game you could reasonably be expected to take home to meet your mother or non-gamer friends. Something that didn't feature goblins anywhere at all. Not even in an expansion.

Have you all really bought Survive! already? Well, here's another one anyway: Tobago. A game of archaeology, buried treasure and open betrayal.

Tobago allows one to four players to step into the sandals of... well, maybe archaeologists isn't the right job description. If it is, then you all must have gotten your archaeology degrees at Melton Mowbray Polytechnic and were drunk the entire three years.

What you guys really are is treasure hunters. The board shows a tiny tropical island (built from three randomised segments) containing lush jungles, gently curving beaches, mountains, plains and even lakes. On this you spread out plastic palm trees, wooden huts, the wooden ATVs that represent each player and three stone heads made out of actual stone that are, without a shadow, the single nicest board game component I've ever seen.

Luckily for those of you who aren't likely to buy a game based on the quality of the stone heads, Tobago has another fat selling point. By happy accident, this a game that you can learn as you play it without being at a disadvantage. The tiresome rules explanation that's the first hurdle when coralling friends or family into playing a new game? It's just not here.

All you need to do before starting a game of Tobago is sit everybody down, pour them a caipirinha, crank up the bossa nova and explain the raw basics. Each player's objective is to loot this tidy paradise like the desperate, first world burglars that you all are at heart. Whoever ends the game with the most buried treasure wins. Simple. How do you find the treasure? I'm getting to that, Steve. Drink your caipirinha. And move the glass away from the board. Further. Further. There we go!

Next to the board sit four treasure maps. No, we can't turn the music down, Judy. On your turn you get to move your tiny ATV, but you also get to add one card from your hand onto one of these treasure maps, cards that all hold clues ranging from "Not within sight of a stone head" to "On the biggest beach".

So, altogether the map above reads "Not in a mountain, not on some plains, next to a jungle and within sight of a hut". Since nobody can place contradictory cards or ones that mean the treasure isn't on the island, eventually the treasure map will point to a single space on the board.

Stripping away a lot of exhausting mental legwork are the four sets of teeny coloured cubes, one for each treasure map, so that when you've narrowed a treasure's location to about two dozen spaces you can start placing lots of coloured cubes on the map to point those spaces out. That way, each time somebody places another clue you get the very human satisfaction of picking away all the cubes where it can no longer be. Eventually there'll only be one cube left, and somebody will rumble over and dig it up, giggling their head off. Everybody got that? We're off.

This is very, very cute design. Each turn that everybody takes is a simple puzzle. First off, can you complete a map? If so, can you get to the treasure before anyone else? And if not, what can you put down that'll be of minimal use to the other players? These are brain-teasers of such basic clarity that they'll hold anybody's attention like a mug holds a cup of tea.

And then there's how you divvy up the treasure, which you only need to explain once somebody's standing over it, breathing heavily, dirt under their nails and Girl Fom Ipanema ricocheting around their heard like a fly in a jam jar. That's when Tobago's clean-shaven front end becomes a dangerous, greedy little sub-game.

Every clue that somebody placed on the map entitles them to one piece of treasure. Yes, sis, you have to share the treasure even though you're the one who dug it up. Being the players who digs up the treasure also entitles you to one piece of treasure - no, calm down sis, there's more - and you get to start the new map by placing a single clue, so in the long run you'll get two pieces of treasure.

For each bit of loot a player is entitled to, that player draws a card from the treasure deck. This is their sneaky glimpse of what's inside the chest. You then take those cards back off everybody, shuffle them, and offer the top one to each player in turn, starting with whoever placed the first clue on the map and ending with the digger himself. Once a treasure card is claimed or the last person sulkily turns it down, you offer around the next card.

Let's say your glimpse inside the chest told you there was a card with six gold pieces on it. Holy shit! That's the maximum, the motherlode. The deck is shuffled. A card with three gold pieces on it comes up first. The guy who gets first choice turns it down, and it's offered to you. Do you take it?

Think carefully now. If that six does come up, the guy before you is going to take it, and you might have to grudgingly accept a two or something. But if the next card is a four, the first guy might take it, giving you first choice when that six comes up. Just how greedy are you feeling?

Acting as arsenic in the ointment are two curse cards. These skulls and crossbones sit in the treasure deck like cardboard landmines, and when they're drawn and offered to someone, the rest of the treasure evaporates and everybody who was still waiting for their share of it has to discard their highest value treasure card. Misery. Of course, the thrill of catching sight of the curse card is amazing, since it gives you a chance to get the Hell out of there by accepting everything that gets passed your way, and then laugh and laugh as the rest of the table cries.

Anyway, once you've divided up your first chest and everybody's chattering excitedly, or brooding over their take and mumbling disgusting sexual slurs about your mother ("DAD!"), you reach over to the board. You place three golden amulets that have just washed up on the island's shores, and rotate each of the stone heads clockwise.

Grinning, you explain that the island has awoken. Each time somebody digs up some treasure, a golden amulet will wash up wherever each head is gazing, and these amulets have magical powers ranging from letting you move twice, to protecting you from a curse card, to letting you drop two clue cards in a single turn. Then you watch the faces of your opponents as they gaze in wonderment at these new amulets, this new sharp twist in the game. You'll almost hear their strategies being clumsily shuffled around in their heads.

And there you have it. That's Tobago explained in its entireity. It's not the simplest of games, but you'll have got everybody playing with all the speed and smoothness of a jet fighter taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Perfect.

If you want to buy Tobago (and why wouldn't you? It's a beautiful, quietly flawless game you can play with your family that takes less than an hour, and you've already bought Survive!, right?) FindYourLocalGameShop.co.uk is, as always, your church, priest and best man in this unity of gamer and game.

Until next week!

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About the Author
Quintin Smith avatar

Quintin Smith

Former Staff Writer

Quinns was one of the first writers to join Rock Paper Shotgun after its founding in 2007, and he stayed with the site until 2011 (though he carried on writing freelance articles well beyond that). These days, you can find him talking about tabletop board games over on Shut Up And Sit Down, or doing proper grown-up journalism with the folks at People Make Games.