Runnin’ Through the Forest
The first Advent calendars were crafted by German Lutherans to count down the days to Christmas and had Bible verses behind their windows. Two centuries later, Michael Menzel, best known for designing Legends of Andor, came to the conclusion that it would be much cooler to hide board game stuff back there.
For unto us The Adventures of Robin Hood is born.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is so replete with charm and playfulness, so full of good ideas, that it’s surprisingly hard to list them all. As soon as we have a list, another detail springs to mind. Even limited to its most basic descriptors, Menzel presents a game that’s equal parts storybook, navigation puzzle, bag builder, and Advent calendar. Not that this should be mistaken for a jumbled mashup like Free Radicals. The Adventures of Robin Hood is, above all, an elegant and streamlined game, deceptively simple in how it offers bite-sized turns that almost seem too slight but are in fact perfect examples of how to do pacing. It’s a gimmick game where the gimmick has been examined to its utmost depths. It is a jewel.
Let’s begin with those turns. Arrayed before you is a board scored with Advent calendar-like windows. Most of these are unimportant at any given time. A few, however, are marked with stars or question marks, indicating that they can be flipped over. Your characters, stars of lore such as Maid Marian, Will Scarlet, Little John, and the original Hood himself, move by laying out diminutive measuring sticks. There are three per character: two that represent walking and a third that’s a little longer and can be used to sprint. By placing them end to end, your characters can dash from one location to another, turn corners, and avoid obstacles.
Except right away Menzel throws a curveball. In addition to being all the other things listed above, this is also a stealth game. Your characters are at their safest when they’re sticking to the shadows, a merger of artwork and function that’s both brilliant and so obvious that one wonders why it hasn’t been smuggled into a hundred other titles. If they’re caught out in the open when the baddies’ turn rolls around, your characters are immediately captured — provided, of course, there’s a guard around to do the capturing. This prompts players to behave exactly like Merry Men should. In the Sherwood Forest, bounteous shade gives you the run of the place, letting you dart from cover to defeat intruders or rob noblemen. In town, you’re stuck lurking in the shadows of blacksmiths and churches and the castle wall. Because turns are drawn at random from a bag, you’re always wary that the nearby guard might catch sight of you as you tiptoe up behind them.
For those who might otherwise default to bum-rushing every guard in sight, Menzel even provides the proper incentive for tiptoeing. Turns aren’t the only thing drawn from the bag; so are the cubes used for defeating enemies or successfully mugging the rich. Most cubes are worthless purples. Only a few are white. But when you reach a guard or a nobleman, you’re given only three attempts to draw a white cube. Fortunately, every time a character elects to “walk,” using only their two shorter measuring sticks for movement rather than adding the longer option, they can toss a white cube into the bag. The result is such an intuitive concept that it doesn’t require belaboring: by conserving your energy, you have more to expend on walloping. Like everything else in The Adventures of Robin Hood, this is a game system employed at its bare minimum — bag-building, but to such a slight degree that it might escape one’s notice.
More importantly, it’s absolutely perfect. Add this to the game’s disordered turns and the narrative begins to take on a life of its own. Where most games struggle to make their rules stick in the memory through shallow applications of setting, The Adventures of Robin Hood flawlessly evokes the exact sensation that defines so many Robin Hood stories. You’re on a heist, always one wrong breath or misplaced step away from being caught. Barely an inch from a nearby guard, you step on a loose floorboard. Creak. Uh oh. Now you’re grappling with that guard, turns spent on nothing but drawing cubes and hoping to break away while your pals continue the job without you.
We haven’t even talked about the Advent calendar aspect of the game. Legends of Andor folded much of its iconography directly onto its map and character boards. The Adventures of Robin Hood does something similar, but with an additional two layers to the board itself. When a guard or nobleman appears, an empty patch of grass is flipped over to reveal the offending foe. When defeated, the proper rewards are hidden in the recess beneath the token. The same goes for other spaces: characters appear when they have relevant information to share, ropes dangle from high walls, buildings are removed to reveal a cross-section of the interior, scaffolding is erected about the forest to permit secretive movement, trees are felled to block carriages, passing carts “move” by having successive spaces flipped, secret entrances and shortcuts reveal themselves. If a new board game represents a world yet to be discovered, here’s one that extends that feeling to the ground beneath your character’s feet.
Menzel doesn’t stop there. Over and over, you think you’ve witnessed everything the game has to offer, only for another surprise merger of setting and system to once again redefine how the game is played. It isn’t a stretch to compare the proceedings to a legacy game. Nothing is destroyed over the course of play — apart from the fingernail wear that accompanies the tiles that are most often pried up and replaced, like vinyl flooring installed by a buffoonish amateur. Yet the feeling is remarkably similar. Much like a legacy game, there’s always something new to discover, some new trick up the designer’s sleeve. Unlike some legacy games, it doesn’t stick around like an awkward guest. A full campaign consists of seven brisk chapters, including branching decisions.
If there’s any one weakness, it’s the game’s secondary gimmick, the measuring of distance that dictates movement and attack. When the rules instruct you to not cut corners, how literally should that be taken? At what point does the artwork end or begin? What constitutes an “obstacle”? Can a character stand, say, partially behind a tree, if from an isometric perspective they would be standing on empty space? When a character is standing on a tile that’s flipped over, where precisely should they be placed? These are quibbles, but they’re the sort of quibbles that arise when a game is built more to explore a concept than to facilitate careful play.
Or, to put it more baldly, I spent a whole lot of time policing slightly ambiguous rules that probably didn’t matter given the smallness of each individual turn. Yet those small differences often accumulate enough to matter, placing characters a crucial millimeter beyond something important. This is one of those games that relies on a generous interpretive spirit over careful lawyering.
Which is appropriate, since Menzel has imbued The Adventures of Robin Hood with a generous spirit of his own. As narrative games continue to swell outward, there’s something to be said for a game that’s so restrained. One big map rather than an entire spiral-bound booklet, a narrative with one major branch instead of dozens, the world’s most compact bag-building instead of sprawling systems regulating fatigue and inventory and moral character. The result is a certain coziness. Instead of upping the stakes, Menzel draws them around the collar like a fur-lined cloak. What a lovely and comfortable tale.