During the winter months, I am often away from home on business. The coldest, wettest, darkest time of the year is also my busiest. After a long working day, spending the evening alone in the latest in a series of uniformly drab chain hotels with only more work or bad television for company is, frankly, a miserable experience.
Brightening up these evenings has long been a challenge I have attempted to overcome. So perhaps it is fitting then that Friday, the fifth game in my board game journey, purchased specifically for these long evenings by myself, is all about being (mostly) alone and overcoming challenges. The fact that the games’ setting is somewhere warm and sunny is by the by (sob!).
In the game, Friday, you play Friday, the character from the novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Robinson himself has been shipwrecked and washed ashore on your island. He is blessed with little common sense, few survival skills and is generally busying himself by disturbing the peace of your idyllic tropical paradise. The only way to return to tranquillity is to help him survive long enough to develop the skills needed to escape the island.
This is carried out over the course of three rounds. During each round, there are multiple turns wherein you draw two cards from a ‘hazard’ deck. These hazards are the challenges that Robinson faces as he spends time on the island. Will he explore the island or look for supplies on the shipwreck? Maybe he will encounter wild animals or a tribe of cannibals. You choose one of these challenges per turn to face. Each card tells you how dangerous the hazard and, in neat and economical fashion, the experience and skills gained from defeating it. Experience that can then be used to fight later, more difficult, hazards.
On each hazard card is also a number signifying the how many ‘fighting’ cards that can be drawn when facing it. This is a separate deck containing the skills, ideas and abilities that Robinson currently possesses. The worth of these is presented as a points value and if the points total on these cards is equal to or greater than the value of the hazard you overcome the hazard.
Now here’s the interesting part: not all these fighting cards help you. Some are downright debilitating. This represents Robinson’s inexperience and general uselessness at bush craft. If you do not have enough points to beat the hazard card value, then you lose against the hazard.
However, this does not necessarily mean the end of the game. One thing that Robinson does have is an abundance of health. Presumably a result of his comfortable pre-shipwrecked lifestyle. If you have enough health points you can use these to pay the difference between your fighting card points and the hazard card points and survive to fight another day. If you can’t pay the difference in health points then you lose the game and Robinson never leaves the island.
The really interesting part: you can deliberately lose against a hazard. So long as you draw at least one fighting card you can acknowledge you are beaten and run away with your tail between your legs. This is a good thing. By losing in this way you can remove, ‘buy off’ if you will, the weaker fighting cards from your hand. This thins out them out and increases the odds of winning next time. The theory being that by doing this Robinson will eventually hone his skills to the point where he can face all challenges with ease. Plus, if you lose against the hazard but feel that Robinson really needs to learn his lesson you can pay life points in order to draw more fighting cards until you do eventually beat the hazard.
Each round this becomes more difficult as the hazards become more dangerous but that’s OK because as Robinson first thins out then rebuilds his fighting deck he gains ‘special abilities’. Ideas, foresight, cunning; abilities that show him at one with his environment. A true survivalist able to turn his calloused hand to art of thriving in the wilderness rather than just merely surviving.
Unless, of course, he gets tired.
As time passes, Robinson ages. As he ages, he gets forgetful, tires easily and sometimes just wants to sit down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake (probably).
Ageing cards represent the passing of time on the island and are added to the fighting deck each time it is reshuffled. These are a way to prevent Robinson from becoming too comfortable on the island. A way to ensure that he still has the drive to leave. He will need it. When the hazard deck is depleted for the third time, pirate ships appear. A final pair of hazards for Robinson to face. Ones for which he will need all the skills you have taught him if he is to survive and escape the island. Presumably sailing away into the sunset on his newly commandeered vessel. At which point you can congratulate yourself on a job well done.
Friday is a clever little single player game with enough complexity and variety to keep it interesting plus enough humour to prevent what is a challenging, maths orientated game from feeling like, well, maths homework.
You are basically drawing cards, trying to reach a certain points target, over and over and over again. Adding points here, doubling points there, subtracting somewhere else. Judging on the balance of probability whether you are likely to be able to beat a hazard total with the cards you have left in the fighting deck before you have to put another ageing card in there and reduce the odds of winning again.
Yet, for the most part, it doesn’t really feel that way largely thanks to the kooky, cartoon-y, art. A high value fighting card may be represented as a genius idea. A low value card might be Robinson getting hungry.
As you draw cards against each hazard you can build up a little story…OK, there are some wild animals on the horizon and Robinson is feeling good. A quick bite to eat leads to moment of clarity and then, oh no! He gets distracted and does something stupid and…and…run, Robinson, run!
There is a lot I like about Friday. The way you slowly thin and rebuild your deck of cards. The subtle choices needed. Do I try to beat this hazard or lose and hope for better next time knowing that if I use up life points now I will have a stronger fighting deck sooner; yet a low health value is difficult to recover from. Luck and strategy are both ever present. Finding the balance between the two is difficult and I like that, I really do.
I enjoy the artwork and being able to imagine the story of how this pretty useless individual slowly becomes a force to be reckoned with. The component quality is good. The wooden leaf shaped life tokens give the game a more tactile element and the addition of a set of three player boards to store the card decks on during the game is a particularly nice touch.
However, there are also things I don’t like about Friday. The fighting cards and the ageing cards look the same. I can understand this for the back of the cards as the two need to mix together in one deck. What I understand less is why the ageing card symbol is not clearer. Originally, I thought the ageing cards were missing so similar are they to the fighting cards.
The game also feels a little long. Three times through a fairly large stack of hazard cards can start to drag by the time the pirates show up. And those pirate cards! Some of them really do start to feel like maths homework by the time you have added and subtracted and doubled and halved your way through almost the entire stack of fighting cards in order to beat them. It’s hardly flow mechanics, however, you do have to be in the mood for sums.
Assuming of course that you even get as far as the pirates. This game is difficult even on the easy set up. This is not a problem by itself. However, it can feel a little anti-climactic when, halfway through the second round you suddenly realise you don’t have enough life points left to pay the difference and have lost the game. Bad planning on my part, perhaps. But not an exciting way to end the game; part way through the journey. It’s like dying in a computer game mid-level rather than during a fight to the death with the boss monster.
Overall, Friday has far more good points than negative ones. It was bought for a specific purpose with a specific place and circumstance in mind: to help me pass the time when away from home on business. It does this excellently. I’m actually typing this post after work, in a hotel room, having just played and thoroughly enjoyed the game. I take this game with me almost every time I stay somewhere on business. Purely in terms of number of times played, few games in my ever expanding collection come anywhere close to Friday.