I am a sucker for deckbuilding games. If you aren’t, move on, because despite not really looking like one on the surface that’s what Friday is. A solitaire game that captures many of the card culling and card combo tricks that make more complex games like Dominion and Thunderstone so varied and interesting. The game is named for its lighthearted backstory of Friday trying to help a hopeless Robinson Crusoe get into shape so he can get him the hell off Friday’s island. Cartoony art adds to the playfulness. It is all a lie. This game is brutal, especially while you’re learning how all the cards interact. And once you get over the initial learning curve there are three more levels of difficulty to hurdle.
PLAYING THE GAME
Despite the name, you feel more like you’re playing the role of a hapless Crusoe who gradually gets stronger and more cunning. There’s a draw deck representing Crusoe himself, and each card has a number on it that contributes to overcoming challenges. Some also have special abilities that are useful on their own and can be combined into powerful combos. At the beginning of each turn you draw two challenge cards from another deck and choose one to tackle, discarding the other. Challenge cards are split in half, with the challenge on one half and a Crusoe card on the other. The challenge side has a number on it indicating how many free cards you can draw from your Crusoe deck to try to overcome it, and another number indicating the total number of points you need on those Crusoe cards to win the challenge. Winning the challenge lets you add that card to your Crusoe deck, using the Crusoe side when you draw for the rest of the game. Those are the basics, but there are many clever twists that elevate this design to a level where any solitaire aficionado should go ahead and order it before reading the rest of this review. The first is that you start the game with 20 hit points, represented by wooden tokens (you start with less in the more difficult games). These are easy to spend but difficult to get back, and you are constantly tempted to use them. During challenges you can spend them to draw additional cards from the Crusoe deck to augment the ones the challenge lets you draw for free. And if you lose a challenge you lose hit points equal to the difference between the combined total of the Crusoe cards you played and the number printed on the challenge card. That sounds terrible, except losing challenges on purpose is a key strategy. For each hit point you lose, you get to permanently remove one of the Crusoe cards you played on that challenge from the game. Your starting deck is watered down with Crusoe cards that have 0 or -1 values, so it is crucial to purge that poison so your draws let you defeat the bigger challenges to get the best cards. Only you don’t want to go too far, because there’s another deck of cards I haven’t mentioned yet: The Aging deck. Each time you draw the last card in the Crusoe deck you add one of these to it before shuffling, and they hurt. Badly. For example, one of them has a -5 value (doesn’t sound like much, but just you wait). Some have devastating abilities (activating them is mandatory) that do things like prevent you from drawing any more free cards. Worse still, if you lose a challenge and want to get rid of them they absorb two of your lost hit points for each one that is removed. The Aging deck is so nasty that you want to make sure you aren’t culling Crusoe cards too aggressively, as you cycle through a thin deck faster and have to drop a big stinkbomb into it every time you shuffle. If you spend all your time clearing out cards and not pushing your luck to win the challenges that put superior replacements in your deck, God help you. The main reason Aging and other cards with 0 or negative values hurt so much is that the game ramps up in difficulty each time you cycle through the challenge deck. At first you use the number in the green circle on the challenge card, which often require only a few points to overcome. Once the challenge deck is cycled you use the number in the yellow circle, which is dramatically higher. Then you use the number in the red circle when the deck is cycled a third time, and it makes you want to throw things. If you manage to survive those three cycles you are rewarded with the privilege of fighting two pirate ships to get off the island. These are drawn randomly at the beginning of the game, are loads more difficult than the challenges, and hit you at the end of the game when your hit points are likely to be distressingly low. To give you an idea of what you’re facing, defeating the Cannibal card (the toughest in the challenge deck) requires you to meet or exceed 5 points in the green round, 9 points in the yellow round, or 14 points in the red round. Pirate ships have numbers like 35 or 40 or 52, and often wreak more havoc with special abilities.
IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?
With games, solitaire or otherwise, three things matter most to me:
ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?
Always. Choosing between the two challenges requires both knowing the capabilities of your deck and knowing if the Crusoe half you could win is important. Then you must decide if you should gamble with hit points to try to win the challenge or lose them on purpose to cull cards. You must decide what order you will activate special abilities to get the most out of them, and figure out what cards are most important at each stage of the game. You must also take the pirates you drew into consideration because ultimately your deck must beat both of them.
IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?
Definitely. You either get Crusoe off the island or you fail. Beyond that there is a scoring system to let you know how good or bad you did relative to previous games and scores others post.
IF THERE’S A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?
Surprisingly, yes. Crusoe starts the game like the shipwreck survivor he is, weak and unwise to the ways of the island. As you overcome challenges he gets tougher and smarter, but the challenges themselves become harder, and the aging mechanism throws curveballs at his plans. It’s also neat that his hit points are used to take damage and expend extra effort during tough challenges. Island survival is exhausting work.
This is a stellar solitaire design, particularly if you like deckbuilding games. I’ve heard it’s solvable, but I’m guessing anyone who isn’t a computer will get a dozen or two plays out of it before it becomes routine. Can’t ask for much more than that from an elegant, clever, portable gem like this.