The Dry-Erase Smudge Marks the Spot
Tim Curry has been captured! His treasure lies buried somewhere on the island. Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat, and that bemulleted blonde kid — professional pirates all, a real festival of conviviality — are racing to figure out Tim Curry’s clues and unearth the gold. That’s right, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book that I’ve absolutely read. And in cardboard form, it may feature fewer musical numbers than the original, but it’s also a sublime deduction game.
Most of the time, anyway.
For those who’ve
seen read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the premise of Marc Paquien’s Treasure Island will be immediately intuitive. One player is Long John Silver, the peg-legged devil who buried the treasure all those years ago, while everyone else is a selfish pirate who wants the gold for themselves. Long John doles out clues, the others chase them.
But despite the recognizable setup, it’s a game of twists. The most far-reaching is that, unlike many deduction games that pit a team of searchers against a single secretive figure, the aims of Treasure Island’s pirates aren’t exactly aligned. Oh, they all want the treasure, naturally; there aren’t hidden objectives or anything like that. Rather, they all want the gold. For themselves. These are pirates, true to life, and every single one of them intends to escape with the booty all by their lonesome. As the pirate saying goes, “Shared booty be sloppy booty, yarr.”
The other appeal is more immediate, in that Treasure Island is stonking gorgeous. The game is played on a vibrant dry-erase board, managed with chunky plastic rulers and compasses and even a mapping caliper that seems superfluous until you need to draw a six-mile circle around a pirate. When Long John utters a clue, thick black lines slash across the geography, marking areas out of bounds or within range of the treasure. When pirates travel or search, colorful lines keep a record for all to see. Within five minutes, the board is as marked-up as any sun-bleached nautical chart.
And good thing, too, because without this record of the game’s most important information, the clues would be impossible to keep straight.
Doled out at intervals by Long John Silver, these clues are one of Treasure Island’s greatest highlights for a couple of reasons. First, because the game isn’t played on a grid, the treasure can be hidden almost anywhere. In the forest, sure. In a ruin, yes. But also beneath some unremarkable shallow water, or within the crook of an impassable mountain, or shoved right up against the map’s edge. It’s possible to search somewhere, whether drawing the smaller circle after traveling or the larger circle when a pirate didn’t move that turn, and miss the treasure by a millimeter. And that isn’t the exception. Expect to miss the treasure by a smidgen, over and over, until at last somebody prods that sliver of space in between previous searches.
It’s maddening. Infuriating. Sometimes annoying. At times it feels too nitpicky, although the rulebook insists that in ambiguous cases the treasure should be considered found. But it’s also the core of how clues and searches operate, because most of the time, the clues are enormous.
How enormous? Let me give you an example. The island is divided into eleven districts, and at the outset everybody learns, in secret, one district that the treasure cannot be found in. One of the possible clues sections off two more districts — which means everybody knows, the instant that clue is spoken, that thirty percent of the map isn’t even worth considering.
Other clues also follow this template, often providing huge quantities of information. There’s the clue that lets Long John Silver name the pirate who, at some point during their journey, passed closest to the treasure. Another designates it as buried within a certain distance of a geographical feature, like the volcano or the ruined temple. Another places a plastic compass over somebody’s miniature and designates three possible directions. The Bermuda Triangle clue literally triangulates the treasure’s location between two of the map’s towers and one of the pirates. Regardless of which clue is being offered, they’re all a far cry from the generic “located to the east” hints offered by many other deduction games. They feel like genuine directions, the sort of thing a reluctant captive might divulge to keep his fingers intact.
As I said earlier, however, Treasure Island is a game of twists, and two factors prevent the clues from ever providing too much information.
The first is that clues tend to lose their shine as the game progresses. Early on, every whiff of the treasure is a massive portion of the island locked off. Later, Long John Silver can usually figure out clever ways to tell his captors very little, usually by farting out a clue that only provides near-duplicate information. It’s rare that a clue will communicate nothing at all, and Treasure Island smartly divides clues into two escalating sets so that the available information will sharpen over time. But while an early Vast Expanse clue speaks volumes, something deployed later on — such as Instinct, which reveals that the treasure was only a hop away from a previous search — serves to provide focus, not a massive hint.
And then there’s the uncomfortable detail that Long John can lie.
This is easily the best thing about Treasure Island. Most of the time, Long John Silver is forced to give truthful clues. Over time, however, he unlocks two “bluff” tokens, little wax seals that he’s free to place underneath a clue rather than the usual “truth” token. This enables him to spin a story, sending everybody scurrying in the wrong compass direction while he prepares for his own eventual escape and pursuit of the treasure. Of course, the pirates aren’t without their own devices, possessing one-time abilities that let them peek at whether a clue was true or a bluff — which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean the clue was false — or perform other tricks like searching from afar with a monkey companion, galloping clear across the map, or twisting additional clues out of Long John.
The way these tricks play off each other is wonderful to behold, portraying every single character as treacherously competent in their own unique way. Long John Silver tells a lie, which confounds some of his captors, only for another pirate to secretly reveal that the clue may have been false and continue to narrow their search. Long John delivers another clue, but one that favors somewhere other than where the closest pirates are searching. Someone gallops across the map, or seems to zero in on something, which spooks the others and sends them off in pursuit. Eventually Long John wriggles free of the tower where his fellows have imprisoned him and makes a beeline for the treasure — or heads away from it to give them the wrong impression, parlaying for time.
Every single play features moments like this, startling reversals of expectation or sudden realizations, whether you’re piecing together Long John’s clues or stitching them together as the one-legged villain himself. It’s enough that even the game’s weaknesses, such as that aforementioned fussiness, seem relatively minor.
For some, the bigger issue will be that Treasure Island seems to contain finite plays. In its current form, every telling recounts largely the same tale, one of broad strokes gradually sharpening to a cutlass edge, clues outed as spurious or surefooted, and usually culminating with a race between Long John and his former colleagues. It doesn’t suffer from the unfortunate flatness of something like Cryptid — far from it — but my short handful of plays saw my enthusiasm losing some of its sparkle.
But only some. Certain stories are classics for a reason, and this one excels in the telling. It does a handful of things so exceptionally well that it may have spoiled certain aspects of map-based deduction games forever. Between the brilliance of its clues, its delicious lying mouthfuls, and the mounting trickery between Long John and his pirate crew, every hint uttered hereafter by a competitor must either be uncommonly clever or it will earn a contemptuous under-the-breath yarr out of me. Like Long John Silver himself, there aren’t many that do it better than Treasure Island.