Tobago may just be the most attractive looking board game I own. It feels like a deduction game, since players are narrowing down the possibilities to find the location of treasures, but the locations of the treasures are actually determined by clues played by the players.
I like Tobago a lot, but it isn’t one of my very favorite games because it feels a little repetitive (narrow down clues to treasure, race to treasure, dig up treasure, repeat). However, when I played most recently with Sean and Josie, they both said Tobago is one of their very favorite games that I own. So it is pretty appealing!
Sean got Tobago for me for Christmas a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve played it with groups of four, three, and two. It works pretty well with all of those numbers, but I think I prefer it with three or four. It works just fine with two though.
Basic stats: 2-4 players, 60 min, ages 10+
Tobago was not particularly easy to learn from the rules. I read the rules, but when I tried to explain it to a group of four for the first time, a couple of the members of our group thought it sounded too complicated. After we got into it, it became simpler. But it is the kind of game I’d rather learn from someone else who knows how to play rather than from reading the rules. It’s totally do-able to learn it from the rules, but if you have any impatient players, it may be challenging.
Since then, Sean and I have taught the game to a few other friends and to my sister Josie, and that always went pretty easily, since we understood the game well enough to answer their questions and explain the basic strategy.
The game pieces and board for Tobago are very nice. The only game I own that I think compares in adorableness is Survive. In Tobago, each player gets a little wooden jeep meeple, or jeeple, to move around the island.
The Tobago game board can be set up in variety of ways that change the look and shape of the island. The island is divided up into different types of land, including beaches, rivers, lakes, mountains, jungles, and scrubland.
Depending on how the board is set up, for example, there might be a large beach in one area and a smaller beach in another, or there might be a large jungle in one area and a couple of smaller jungles in other areas.
There are also certain pieces that you add to the board as landmarks, including palm trees, huts, and statues. Setting up the game is part of what makes it feel complex at first, because there are rules about where to place the various pieces on the board and how to set up the deck of treasure cards.
Each player gets a collection of small cardboard compass roses in the color matching his/her jeep. These compass roses are used to mark the clue cards played by this player. They show the amount of stake the player has in a particular treasure. This matters later when the treasure gets divided up.
There are four treasures available at any given time. They are colored black, white, brown, and gray. You set the wooden cubes of those colors in separate piles near the board. At the start of the game, each player gets to assign the first clue card to one of the treasures.
The clue cards are used to narrow down the possible locations for that particular treasure. For example, a clue card might say that the treasure is in the largest jungle, that the treasure is not in a river, or that the treasure is within sight of a hut.
The clue cards are cleverly designed with visual representations of the clues, so they contain no text. The first time you play, it takes a few minutes to figure out what each symbol means, so you may want to keep the cheat sheet from the rules handy.
After the game is set up and each player has added a clue toward one treasure, any player can contribute a clue toward any treasure on his/her turn. The only rules about this are that the clue card must not contradict any of the previous clue cards on that treasure, and it must help to narrow down the possibilities.
For example, if one of the clue cards says the treasure is in the mountains, you can’t play another card on that treasure that says it’s in the jungle. Or if the clue cards already say that the treasure is on the largest beach, you can’t play another card that says the treasure is on a beach (because we already know that).
On your turn, you can choose whether to play a clue card or move your jeep. Or, if you really hate your clue cards, you can use your turn to discard all your clue cards and draw new ones.
If you move your jeep, you have up to three moves. This does not mean three tiles on the board. The movement options for the jeep are a bit tricky to understand at first, but basically you can move as far as you want within one type of terrain for one move, and moving from one type of terrain to another costs you another move. After you are in another type of terrain, you can then move anywhere in that terrain for one move.
As you get closer to narrowing down the possible locations for a treasure, you start marking the possible spots for the treasure with the wooden cubes. Then, as the possibilities narrow further, you remove cubes from the board until there is just one possible location for the treasure.
After you know where a treasure is, it’s a race to get there first and dig it up, since the person who digs up the treasure gets first dibs on that treasure and will also get to add a new clue card to the next round of treasure.
The person who digs up the treasure gets to add a compass rose to the end of that treasure, and the people who added compass roses to the treasure most recently will get higher priority in selecting treasure cards from that treasure.
Treasure cards vary in value from 2 to 6. The players who contributed toward the treasure get sneak peeks at parts of the treasure before it is revealed. The person digging up the treasure deals out cards to each player who contributed to that treasure. For example, if I contributed two clue cards toward that treasure, I get to peek at two of the treasure cards. Nobody else gets to preview those two cards.
After peeking at the cards, the players hand them back to the person who dug up the treasure. That person randomly mixes the cards together and adds one more random card that nobody peeked at.
The player who dug up the treasure then flips over the first treasure card from the pile so that everyone can see it. The person with first dibs (the most recent compass rose) chooses whether to take that card or pass. If the player passes, then the player with the next compass rose chooses, and so on down the line. If a player chooses to take the card, the player takes back his/her compass rose, the dealer flips over a new card, and the process continues until all of that treasure has been distributed or passed.
It’s possible that a player with first dibs might pass on that card with his/her first compass rose but then decide to take that card with a later compass rose of lower priority. This would mean the later compass rose gets removed but the player keeps the first dibs priority on future cards.
Since there is just one extra card in the treasure, it’s okay for all players to pass on a card once, but after one of the treasure cards is discarded, the players don’t have the luxury of discarding another card, or the last player in line won’t get a card for that compass rose. So after one card has been discarded, the last player in line pretty much has to take whatever card the others have all turned down. Otherwise, there will be no treasure card left for that last compass rose in line.
There is one further challenge to the decision-making process–there are two curse cards in the deck of treasures. When a curse card comes up in a treasure, that card curses all the players who have compass roses remaining in that treasure. Those players then either lose an amulet (if they have one–more on this in a bit) or lose their highest value treasure card.
The early peeking at the treasure cards can help a lot with decision-making. For example, if you peeked and saw that there is a treasure worth 6, and you have early dibs, you may want to pass on most of the 3 and 4 value cards to wait for that 6. Or if you peeked and saw a curse, you will want to get the heck out of that treasure as fast as possible so you don’t get cursed.
After a treasure is dug up, that treasure gets restarted. So if it was the gray treasure that the player dug up, the gray treasure then resets and the player gets to add the first new clue card on that treasure.
After a treasure is dug up, something magical happens on the island. Amulets are raised from the sea and added to the game board. They are raised at the point directly straight in front of each of the statues that is closest to the water. Then the players turn the statues in a clockwise direction, with a “grinding sound”, according to the rules, which is fun.
A player can collect an amulet by driving his/her jeeple to that location and stopping in that location to pick up the amulet. The amulet can then be used in the game as protection against a curse or as a way to take another turn. A player can play an amulet to get to add another clue card or to move a jeep again. But the player can’t use the amulet jeep move to collect more amulets.
At the end of the game, the players add up the values of their treasures, and the player who collected the most treasure wins.
When Josie, Sean, and I played recently, the winner was Sean. But we all had a great time. It took us a little over an hour, I think, but we took some breaks to get drinks and snacks.
- Attractive board and pieces; satisfying to play with them
- Medium to light thinking required, not too taxing on the brain but does require thought–more short-term tactics than long-term strategy
- Light-hearted silliness in driving jeeps around and turning statues, etc.
- Design of clue cards is very clever
- Fun and satisfying to narrow down the possibilities for treasure locations (in fact, just writing this review is making me want to play Tobago again!)
- Sean and Josie both rate the game very highly, so it’s popular with some of my most common opponents
- It can feel repetitive with the never-ending cycle of narrow down the treasure location, race to treasure, dig up treasure, repeat–although there is something satisfying about the process, too
- No direct interaction with other players; you can’t steal treasure from someone else or push their jeep in another direction, etc.–which you sometimes want to do in this game!
- The setup and rules feel more complicated than it seems like they should at first
- Takes a little while to figure out how to interpret the clue cards