The grind was real. One of the folks in my review crew commented: “Wait. We have to light FOUR of these things in order to find the treasure?”
It was late. Not late by a gamer’s standards—11 PM—but late by sensible human being standards. And we were grinding resources so that we could find enough stone and coal to build an altar which then needed to be set on fire, which took more coal and a little wood, in the hopes that rain wouldn’t ruin the fire that might let us—
JUSTIN. The game? What are we talking about?
Sorry. The game is The Treasure of Montecristo Island, by Good Nerd Bad Nerd Games. It’s a beautiful production built on some of the ideas I remember from the game Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, a legendarily tough adventure featuring an epic struggle to survive on every turn.
I’ll politely say that one game is better than the other.
The Struggle Bus
If your idea of fun is that you and up to 5 friends race around an island to gather resources to deliver them and get a treasure, I’m mostly with you: I love playing games with friends, even co-op games! Sounds fun! I love treasure! Yes, all of these things work for me. Let’s go; what are we playing?
The Treasure of Montecristo Island is a fully cooperative game. But, I haven’t told you everything. The game also has a Thief, which will spend about 90% of your game within striking distance of another player, with the ability to snatch all of one type of resource you might be carrying in your backpack. That Thief can also physically damage you on nearly every turn, and your characters have limited health tied to their available actions on a turn.
“Ooh,” you’re thinking, “that doesn’t sound as fun.” And you’d be right! The Thief will get in the way as your team of adventurers runs around the island searching for the treasure.
And to get that treasure—there’s only one in the game, so no random loot drops, or cool things to discover on the island—you’ll need to gather dozens of resources so that you can build four altars, which must be built on the four corners of the island. And after you build them, you’ll need to light a fire at those altars too. Don’t forget, that Thief is always standing around, waiting to take a share of your stuff.
“Four altars?” you blurt out. “Why not 2? Or 3?”
Sure, you could house rule this, and build fewer altars. And that would make the game shorter. That would be fun, right? Because otherwise, you’ll spend 2-3 hours running around the board trying to get just enough stuff to build everything you need.
Did I mention that at the end of every round (when all players have taken one turn), you need to eat? So, you’ll start with 5 food and 5 water, but you’ll need to constantly hunt for both of these resources, or you’ll start to lose a health point every turn. And the lower your health is, the lower your pool of action points is. When you are close to death, you’ll have less moves to gather stuff, and when you are incapacitated, you’ll only have a single action per turn to crawl towards one of the corner church/monastery points.
You’re still with me, right?
Oh, one more thing: after you spend your collective turns rolling dice to find resources, and then you get robbed (potentially) by the Thief, and after you spend more of your food and water to survive, you’ll get hit by a random event card. Sometimes, water, food, stone, maybe wood, will just fall from the sky and land in the backpacks of each player.
Many other times, though, event cards deliver bad news. You might get bitten by a snake. Or your surplus food will spoil. Maybe you’ll get diarrhea. I had the great misfortune of having all of these things happen in my first game of The Treasure of Montecristo Island within my first 4 turns. I took a turn, then lost 2 of my next 3 turns, while losing some of my food along the way before I could even eat it.
“Hey, listen, I’m not sure this game is for me,” you might say. “Maybe we could skip to the end?”
Trust Me, It’s Not Over
That’s the rub with The Treasure of Montecristo Island. The game is long. Two hours is not a lot of time to play a 3-player lightweight treasure-hunting game. But when you spend every turn doing basically the same thing, it really feels long. Un-fun, even. Building the 4 altars is a slog, so you’ll have to craft items like an axe to double your resource production and a satchel to carry all of that stuff.
If you are playing with 2-4 players, the “strategy” elements become strangely bland: you WILL ask one of the players to simply run in a circle near food and water spaces to ensure they have enough to survive each night, but also to keep the Thief in one section of the board (I’ve heard the term “kite” to describe keeping the non-player Thief character running in a loop). That means for about 2 hours, that player will essentially serve as a decoy while the other players just grind it out to build altars and fires around the 4 corners of the map.
And heaven forbid you get hit with rainfall, because rain and an unlucky die roll means that one of your fires (and all of your hard work) could literally be washed away. Re-lighting a fire only happened once in my plays, but let’s just say that didn’t go over well.
Adding players likely makes the game easier, but longer. The Treasure of Montecristo Island doesn’t scale to its player count, so a 3-player game still requires building 4 altars. This, and some of the other elements around resource collection, makes the game feel like a slog.
But That Artwork!
The Treasure of Montecristo Island really shines in other areas. The artwork is what drew me in when I spoke with the Good Nerd Bad Nerd team at PAX Unplugged last December. The artwork is great, and the playable characters are very diverse, and the sliders on the character boards worked well. The different shapes of the resources? Love it. The visuals of the spears, satchels and axes were all on point for me as well.
The board is simple, the available actions are clearly defined on the player aid and on the board, and the general treasure map look of that board will draw you in.
The backstories for each character in the back of the rulebook really worked for me too. And while the rulebook isn’t the best—it’s too long for a game that is so straightforward to teach—the marketing assets for The Treasure of Montecristo Island are so good.
Take the Pass Action
The design of The Treasure of Montecristo Island is such a miss; it’s a disappointment that the game is not a stronger opening act. The game is too easy, too long and too repetitive to recommend.
The game’s expansion, The Thief and the Purple Sapphire, fixes some of the issues of the base game, including the ability to make the Thief a playable character that doesn’t just blindly chase the adventurer closest to their position. However, the Thief now has a grind of his or her own: repairing their ship so that they can leave the island with the treasure when it is revealed. This all happens behind a Thief-specific player screen, so that the other adventurers don’t have a sense of how close the Thief is to finishing repairs.
This also means the expansion accommodates a whopping SEVEN players at its full count, which I imagine would turn The Treasure of Montecristo Island into an epic affair.
If you really want to play a tough survival game that drags a little more fun out of such dire proceedings, stick with Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. You are going to lose that game much more often than you are going to win, but the game evolves in a way that The Treasure of Montecristo Island never does.