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Treasure Island Review – X Marks The Spot

In literature, Treasure Island is an absolute classic. Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and published in 1883, Treasure Island tells the story of Jim Hawkins as he joins up with a pirate crew in the search of buried treasure. Along the way he meets characters such as Billy Bones, John Trelawney, and the infamous Long John Silver.

For fans of the book, of just fans of board games or pirates in general, the good news is that Treasure Island is also a board game, designed by Marc Paquien (of Yamatai fame) with artwork by Vincent Dutrait. It is a fantastic looking game with unique gameplay and a tabletop experience that isn’t really like any other. Today, dear readers, let’s take a look at Treasure Island and the glory it holds.

Please note that the images in this article are using chalk markers rather than the pens supplied in the box. We’ll come onto why further down the article.

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This was taken the same day we got the chalk markers…

What is Treasure Island?

Treasure Island is an asymmetrical, semi-cooperative, one-vs-many, line drawing, storytelling game. There are a lot of different terms there, some of which I hope will become clearer through the course of this review, but for now let’s just look at the synopsis.

Treasure Island is a game for 2-5 players. The game sees one player play the role of Long John Silver, whilst the others play the parts of various pirates (each with their own abilities) as they hunt for Long John Silver’s treasure.

Treasure Island takes around 45 minutes to play.

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Long John in his Tower

How is Treasure Island played?

So how do you play Treasure Island – well, it is both deceptively easy and deceptively difficult at the same time. Treasure Island, as a game, takes place on a giant laminated map and is played over a series of rounds according to a calendar. Each day on the calendar can (although doesn’t always) start with an action from Long John Silver, before allowing for one of the player pirates to take one or two actions, depending on the day.

At the start of the game, Long John Silver stays off the board. He acts from a distance, imprisoned and only offering clues to the players, knowing where the treasure is by pre-marking its location on a mini map the same design as the main game board. These clues are according to cards that Long John can play, laying them down before putting a token underneath. That token, face down at first, denotes whether the clue was a truth or a lie. Long John can only choose to lie twice during the whole game, and only once the calendar has progressed past certain points. He can also only use certain clues if he has previously helped the other players out, forcing him to be as earnest as he is manipulative.

The pirates, on the other hand, have a different role they must fulfil. It is up to the players to, using Long John’s clues, find his treasure. Now, this is a far harder task as the players can only perform certain actions. They can move up to six miles, for instance (there is a ruler where a mile is approximately an inch), but that takes a whole action. They can choose to use their turn to reveal if a clue was a truth or a falsehood. Pirates can move three miles, and conduct a small search. By conducting a small search, they place a circular template on the map and draw around the inside. This gives a radius where they are searching. If the X falls within that radius they win. Alternatively, if they have done no other actions they can conduct a large search, using a bigger template.

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Small search template over the ruins.

Finally, the players can interrogate Long John Silver for a compass clue (a type of clue in the game using a large compass template) or they can use their own special ability.

The game continues until either a pirate finds the treasure or, at the end of the calendar, Long John Silver breaks free. If he gets to the treasure first, he wins.

Now, earlier on, I mentioned that the game is semi-cooperative. In theory it isn’t cooperative at all; however, everyone I know of who has played the game has ended up taking a semi-cooperative stance. Rather than every pirate for their own, it tends to end up everyone vs Long John, with just kudos going to the specific person who found the treasure.

As you go along, the laminated board acts like a whiteboard. Every player has their own pen and they can draw on the board. At the end of the game you end up with a board that looks like a cubist masterpiece.

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Mid-way through a recent game.

What is it like playing Treasure Island?

Wow, is Treasure Island a good looking game or what? The map is one of the best board game maps we have seen on the market, and the artwork is superb. From the tactile tools you have to navigate around the map to the physical board. These are incredible touches, and in mid-flow Treasure Island can become this amazing puzzle that needs to be solved – firstly, by the players, searching for the treasure, and secondly for Long John Silver.

Treasure Island is often a brilliant game that offers something a little bit different. Taking aspects from hidden movement games, but without the constant chase, Treasure Island has players frantically searching the board for a tiny and invisible cross that can easily allude them.

In much the same way games like Sudoku has the player using logical deduction to understand the numbers that exist within each row, Treasure Island encourages players to use a similar set of skills to find the treasure. You find yourself drawing patterns on your own mini map, trying to understand possible areas for the treasure. Where you know all the movements and search patterns that players can draw on the board, and you also know the clues that Long John has given, you don’t always know what players private clues are. This means you are having to play detective as well as pirate, trying to understand player movement, and figure out what they know that you don’t.

This makes Treasure Island a puzzle as well as a straight up race, and one that becomes unique and more interesting every single time that you play.

You find yourself questioning the board, hand on your chin, going “now I know the treasure is west of me, but it can’t be south of that point and someone has already searched there…so it must be in one of those two directions”. It’s great fun.

That game is, of course, radically different (and arguably harder) for Long John Silver. When playing Treasure Island it is Long John’s job to give the players clues, but they don’t always have to be correct. He can the watch the players and listen to their discussions to try and be as helpful or unhelpful as he wants. It’s kind of like the role of the forensic scientist in the, equally fantastic, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong – only, Long John doesn’t always have to tell the truth.

That being said, there are a couple of practical issues that do need mentioning before we go any further. Firstly, the pens supplied in the box comprise of some of the least effective pens in board games. Due to the fact that the board is so lavish and amazing, the pens don’t really show up and that is a real problem.

If you are going to play Treasure Island then our recommendation (coming from Semi-Coops recommendation, who we followed) is to do yourself a favour and purchase some non-permanent chalk markers. After our first game we found we had to buy some due to how horrible the pens were and we haven’t looked back. All of the images in this article are using chalk markers. They don’t always fit neatly in the tools but they are far clearer.

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Starting the game, using a white marker instead of the blue pen.

Secondly, the rule book is thin but it can be hard to get your head around. Certain aspects aren’t explained where you would expect them to be, or are explained less thoroughly than you would like, and it takes a lot of referencing during the game to try and figure out precise rules to do with clues or Long John etc. The rule book needs some tidying up.

Finally, there is one other aspect that needs to be explored, and that is the role of Long John as a character. It is difficult to win as Long John, and it is arguable that he should “escape from prison” earlier. There is very little threat from Long John until the moment he breaks free, at which point the game is practically over (depending on where he breaks out from) as there is then only really one turn left. Where this isn’t necessarily a negative, the game could be made more exciting by reducing the amount of time the pirates have to find the treasure.

That being said, leaving aside some of the components and taking into account the potential flexibility of Long John, Treasure Island is a superb game. It is a fantastically enjoyable game that is easy to keep playing, and play several games back to back. The artwork is amazing, the game play is like a beautiful puzzle, and it is a rewarding experience to play.

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A less chaotic board.

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Long John Silver

Like with all games we’re going to look at breaking down a few of the core points in Treasure Island – what we find good, what we find bad, and what we find neutral:

The Good:

  • Treasure Island is an engaging game that presents itself as a puzzle for both sides to solve. Gameplay becomes a strategic thought problem.
  • Treasure Island features new mechanics and methods of gameplay. The wipe-able board is a neat tool for making the game engrossing.
  • The artwork and aesthetics are fantastic.
  • The gameplay is open to evolution. Where it can be a game where all are against all, it also works well as an one-versus-many experience.

The Neutral:

  • In Treasure Island, we have found the game is harder to win as Long John Silver. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but the most experienced player definitely needs to start off playing as Long John to make it a fairer game. Reducing the time of the game could increase the excitement level.

The Bad:

  • The pens are atrocious. To make the game a less frustrating experience, we recommend replacing them with chalk markers.
  • The rule book is unclear on several core subjects and could be rewritten for far more clarity.

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Treasure Island Review Conclusion

So, there we have it – a breakdown of Treasure Island, the board game, and what it is like.

Treasure Island is not a perfect game, but the puzzle style gameplay and unique tools make it an interesting one. Treasure Island is an enjoyable experience and one that, with a few alterations (namely changing pens) we would recommend.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you enjoy Treasure Island? Have you played it? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments below.

4 Comments »

    • Hey Azazel! Yes, I would argue it does. We’ve played it with 2, 4, and 5 – at 2 or 3 players the rules have the pirates controlling more than one mini each, so the board is still busy, but they only get one special ability. They can move either pirate in their turn. That said, each player gets more information because fewer players means less information is hidden, if that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

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