Periodically I look at my game shelf to see if there’s anything I feel I could part with, either in a sale or in trade. It’s a way for me to ensure that games I don’t play don’t sit gathering dust. Whenever I do this, I’m a little surprised to see that yes, I still own Tobago. It’s not that Tobago is a bad game. Actually it’s pretty great, creative and accessible. But it sometimes feels like it was released, enjoyed for a while, and then largely abandoned. Once or twice I’ve toyed with moving it off of my shelf and on to someone else, but then I play it again and remember why I own it in the first place.
In Tobago, each player is a treasure-hunting explorer. At any given time there are four different treasures that players are seeking around the board. The clues to the treasures’ whereabouts are contributed by the different players, who each have a hand of cards containing clues. On your turn you can choose to either drive your ATV around the board, or to add a new clue and narrow down where a treasure is. For example, the first clue might say that the treasure is in a mountain range. A player might then play a card saying that the treasure is within two hexes of a tree, while still being in the mountains. So clues begin to stack until there’s only one possible place where the treasure can be. Then it’s all about who can get there first to dig it up. The loot inside is divvied up among all players who contributed clues in proportion to how many cards they put in. Of course, there’s a chance you might dig up a cursed treasure, which means that everyone who still needs their share is out of luck. Whoever gathered the most treasure at the end wins the game.
I’m not sure I did it justice in that brief description. Once you’ve played games for a few years, it’s easy to look and recognize where all of the different mechanics came from. It’s not a problem to borrow design elements at all, but Tobago’s central mechanic of adding clues to narrow down a location is to my knowledge unique. The closest I have seen is in FFG’s mammoth Android, where you’re actually planting evidence to indicate who committed a crime. But even that’s more of a majority-rules kind of thing, where the most evidence shows who did the deed. This is more like reverse deduction, true clues that are used to steer towards an intended outcome. There are times where you’ll want to make sure the treasure ends up near your ATV so that you can dig it up. Other times you may not ever need to actually dig things up, because you’ve contributed enough clues everywhere that you’ll get a cut of every treasure that is found. There’s a real treat to playing a game and realizing “I haven’t seen this before!” To the game’s credit, it never feels ostentatious. It’s not some clever mechanic that then gets embellished endlessly by needless crap. Nor is it a one-trick pony, a mechanic in search of a game. It’s one of those rare games that is inventive, easy to explain, and still engaging for more seasoned players.
Packed in a lovingly illustrated box, Tobago is one of my favorite board game productions ever. Everything about it looks lush and well-executed. The board sports an eye-catching triangular shape. Separated into three sections, it can be configured into 32 different maps, which is plenty for a game of this caliber. The cards are all language-independent, but not in the obnoxious way where the player struggles to know what they can do. Rather it’s a way to keep text to a minimum and allow players to know what they need to at a glance. The illustrations here are wonderful as well. But the most impressive element are the landmarks, including huts, trees, and little statues. These look just terrific. They give a real sense of place and substance. The statues in particular are great, mostly because they are actual little statues. Like many games by original German publisher Zoch, it’s a good game made even better by terrific components.
So if Tobago is this good, why do I keep forgetting about it? Well, it’s definitely a genre of game that simply is not as popular in the hobby as it used to be. It’s pleasant and light, unafraid of luck or simplicity. Most of its philosophy is from The Settlers of Catan, in spirit if not in actual mechanics. For many people this simply will not do. We’ve come to a point where we expect our games to yield to Chess-like scrutiny, when really their intent was just to be games to be played casually. I’m guilty of this myself, desiring games in which I can lose myself. It’s not that I don’t like this kind of game; quite the contrary. It’s that the way we play games is increasingly less hospitable to stuff like this.
It’s too bad, because these kinds of games weren’t always so foreign to us. Indeed, Tobago feels like something that should have come out in 1998. It’s the kind of game that people discover through friends, and that shows them that there is life past Yahtzee. We need more titles like this one, if only to keep us from becoming so darn serious about competition. Tobago is a great example of something I want to recapture. It’s one of the few games that I always feel comfortable playing with my parents and my in-laws. I guess that’s why they call them “family games.”
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.