|Medium Light [2.16]
There’s something about Friday that just rubs me up the wrong way. I think it might be the art. It’s certainly better than anything I myself could draw, but it just has a lazy and half-hearted aesthetic that makes me feel nobody cares about the way the game comes together. It’s art that makes me feel constipated in direct proportion to how obviously Robinson Crusoe needs to take a powerful dose of Imodium. If the art is evocative of anything it’s how long it’s been since Crusoe had a satisfying bowel movement. Every single time you see him he’s grimacing into the camera like you just caught him in the middle of a frustrated and futile attempt to relieve the constant pressure on his intestines. I dislike Friday, perhaps in part, as a kind of sympathetic magic – a spell cast by my own disdainful sneering when I deal myself out a hand of ugly, unpleasant cards.
Still, it’s an interesting idea for a game – a solo survival simulator where you play Friday trying to keep Robinson Crusoe hale and hearty. Friday is a game you play alone, which at least means you don’t need to convince anyone else to look beyond the aesthetics. You take the deck of cards, each of which represents an opportunity or an asset depending on to which deck it belongs. You deal out a couple of possibilities, the difficulty of defeating or aquiring each being modified by how long you’ve been stuck on the island. You deal yourself out a hand of your assets, and you spend those to overcome the obstacles that the act of survival puts your way. You’ve got health you can and will expend in the effort, and as you overcome your challenges you’ll add new, (semi) powerful cards to your arsenal.
Some of the cards have a few more nuanced effects, such as letting you heal, destroying problematic cards you’ve dealt yourself, or rearranging your resources in a way that makes their effects more conveniently predictable. There isn’t much else to it.
A round of play goes like this.
You deal yourself out the hazards. You need to make sure they’re oriented with the ‘bad side’ facing up.
As already mentioned, each these has a difficulty that is defined by the current ‘stage’ of the adventure, and every time you make it to the end of the adventure deck you move that stage on a level. At the end, Crusoe has to fight off a bunch of pirates or some other nonsense in order for you to ‘win’ the scenario. Unfortunately as time goes by you’ll also add ‘aging’ cards that represent Crusoe’s descent into lonlieness, despair and ill health. It’s hard to care though when Crusoe just pops up in the standard deck of cards like Wilson on an unaired episode of Home Improvements.
Seriously, what is up with that fence? Is he nude from the waist down? Are we staring into his privy? If so, I really don’t like that he’s occasionally making uncomfortable eye contact with us on a regular basis. Do your dirty business with the shame God intended, Crusoe.
Anyway, having selected a hazard to face you deal out the appropriate number of ‘free’ cards from your deck – that’s determined by the challenge we picked for ourselves. ‘With the raft to the wreck’ (what?) gets you a single free card, and exploring the island gets you two. However, the number of cards you get is always going to be proportionate to the difficulty of the task and Robinson Crusoe is, to put it mildly, a useless waste of human skin. His base level of competence is so low that he’s in imminent danger of being made Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. You’d think someone facing wild animals would find the psychological werewithal to keep at least a certain amount of terrified focus on the problem at hand. Not our Crusoe though. If I were to describe Robinson Crusoe with reference to the mechanisms that drive his activities I’d say ‘Maybe don’t play because some people aren’t really worth the effort of saving from themselves’.
After you’ve dealt your free cards, you need decide how much of your limited pool of life points you’re willing to expend. Each of these gets you a new card to draw. You need to hope you draw something vaguely useful because you need to get ‘fighting points’ that sum up to at least the danger of the hazard. That’s tremendously difficult with your feckless and disobedient deck. In the case of the draw above you take a weak Crusoe who is somehow simultaneously focused and distracted and find that the sum total of his exertions is a big fat zero. Come on. Let’s just leave him to die on the island. No-one would ever know.
Notice what I mean about the art though? Can you tell that he is weak, or distracted, or focused? As far as I call tell the difference between one extreme to the other is the direction in which his weird head listlessly lolls. That gormless mouth too. I honestly don’t care if this man lives or dies, and that’s a difficult barrier to cross in a game that is entirely about saving him from his own crushing solitude.
The basic problem here though isn’t the art. It’s that you never make any genuinely interesting decisions. In a good deck-builder, the numerical capacity you build is secondary to the special effects your clever construction and curation can enable. For example, in Star Realms you can double down on ships that let you get rid of bad cards to gradually develop an intensity that can overwhelm an opponent through synergistic effects. In Dominion you’re looking to create a slim, precise deck that lets you chain together actions for maximum effect. In Clank you’re looking to balance speed with silence, and relating that to the spatial complexity of a game board. You get a little flavour of some of these in Friday, but not enough to really make it the puzzle a deckbuilder needs to be. Some cards give you life. Others give you – a different amount of life. Some let you draw a free card. Others let you draw two free cards. There are other card effects but again – none of them are clever. One is a card that temporarily nullifies a negative card that you have drawn into your hand. One lets you copy an ability (and bear in mind, none of them are interesting enough to copy), and one lets you double the fighting value of a card. That sounds like it could be neat except, no, you can’t double previously doubled cards. And Don’t think you can chain that copy action to do something fun. Friday isn’t here for you to enjoy yourself.
It’s a roster of abilities that isn’t so much slim as it is emaciated. Every time I look at it I expect a helpline number to be superimposed along the bottom with instructions for famine relief.
The result of this parsimonious offering is that your entire job in Friday can be automated by a poorly coded AI bot. You don’t have interesting options or techniques here. All you do is try to make the numbers better. At their core, all deck builders work on that basis but they usually try to offer you something else to you can be doing at the same time. Even stranded on a desert island, someone should have more tools to work with than this. Friday does offer you a way to turn loss into personal gain, by letting you spend life points to remove cards permanently from your deck. That feels like a band-aid, though – a weird mechanistic quirk that is designed to compensate for the utter lack of imagination in the cards themselves.
The core innovation in Friday is in the way it lets you pick between hazards, and that has the potential at least to be interesting but it’s never actually rises to the possibility. Your limited pool of life points makes it foolish to take risks because the rewards are never really worth it. Do you want to get food (no fighting points, but +1 life) or a fighting card that lets you slip a played card to the bottom of the deck? Well, it’s going to depend on the difficulty of the hazard more than the desirability of the reward. Friday encourages you to take a path of least resistance, which inevitably makes everything feel dull. It’s like a narrative arc that never dips and troughs.
That could have been great though had the special powers been more interesting and offered more chances for clever synergies. Imagine, you deal out a pair of hazards and the most difficult of those has the exact card you need to perfect your deck. You look at your supply of life points. It’s risky. It’s very risky. The other reward is okay, but if you get that first dangerous prize you’ll be able to work marvels. You look at the card. You look at your life points. You weigh up the risks. You weigh up the rewards. You look at your life points once more. ‘Screw it’, you say. ‘Go big or go home’
You don’t get that in Friday because ultimately every card is approximately equally worth having once you take into account the resources you must expend in the gathering. That ‘one below the pile’ card might be great If drawn at the right time, but that +1 life card is always going to be useful. It’s six of one and half a dozen of another. What a miserable choice to offer a player – one that evokes nothing but profound disinterest. You look at your deck. You look at your life points. Regardless of what’s on offer, you go for the hazard you’re most likely to be able to beat. There’s no epiphany when you see the critical missing piece of your engine dangled in front of you. It’s as if Indiana Jones wandered into the Temple of Doom to find a Sankara stone guarded by giant flying cobras that breathe flame and shoot lasers from their eyes. He wisely decides that maybe he’d be better off marking term papers, and turns around. Then he sees another Sankara stone easily accessible down a set of stairs that are slightly slippery because they’d been recently mopped. For which do you think a sensible archaelogist would go?
At best, at best, what you can say is that you are somewhat incentivised to go for riskier hazards because in overcoming them you remove them from the future things you’ll need to encounter. That’s not a convincing reason to make the attempt though because if you fail, it’s still out there and in the future you’ll be running on empty and thus less likely to be able to face it with confidence. Especially when you take into account the wounds you’ll sustain in the failed attempt.
And yet, this is also a game you’ll repeatedly fail because it’s very difficult to win. Your starting deck is rubbish. You’ll be confronted with choices like ‘Pick up an awkwardly shaped seashell’ and ‘Throw a coconut directly through the heart of God’. You’ll draw cards that are the equivalent of ‘Scratch your arse and stare into space’. As such you’ll end up failing even a simple pickup, somehow managing to send that awkardly shaped seashell into your own eyeball. Uncertainty associated with workaday actions can be fun – look at our review of Blood Bowl for an example of that. Friday though is a game where you fail not because you played badly, but because the deck is transparently and vindictively stacked against you from the start. Oh look, you’ve got two choices and they’re both ‘be mauled by wild tigers’. Luckily you’ve got that apple you found earlier, I’m sure you’ll be fine.
Friday then is not as clever as it needs to be in order to be fun. It’s not as creative as it needs to be in order to be interesting. It’s not as well designed as it needs to be in order to feel fairly challenging. When you look at it like that, the terrible art is probably the least compelling of the reasons why you shouldn’t play it.