Saturday, May 21, 2011
Survive! Escape From Atlantis - Less About Escape Than It Is About Genocide
I was in Dallas on a business trip, and I always look forward to it. It's not that I like to to avoid my wife or dodge my kids, because I honestly love to spend time with them, and it sucks to have to miss a moment. The reason I look forward to my trips out to Big D is that I have some good friends there as well as a few truly one-of-a-kind friends, and I always make sure to take an evening gaming it up with them.
This trip was beyond compare because not only did the business go well, my very dear friend picked up Survive! Escape From Atlantis (Survive) from Stronghold Games. One play in and I was hooked like a streetwalker chasing the dragon. We literally played 3 games in a row and then another game another evening, and that rarely happens with any other game than Heroscape. I mean, like never.
Ludicrously rare is the game that I've encountered that made me immediately want to buy, borrow, beg, or steal it. I'm a big time game skeptic who laughs viciously at the suckers that jump up to buy a game because of Board Game Geek buzz or the latest "unboxing" video. To me those folks are exactly like crackheads looking to get that high like they did the first time, not realizing it's not gonna happen. I'm the guy who waits and watches for six months or so to see what people have to say about it before plunking $50.00 down on something. It's the used car mentality.
Something very special needs to be put on my gaming table to make me take such notice that I actually consider selling off underutilized organs to fund a game purchase when I'm tapped. You can skip the rest of this article if you want because I'm just going to lay this out for you in two words: BUY THIS GAME RIGHT NOW, IMMEDIATELY, BEFORE YOU TURN YOUR COMPUTER OFF. The fact is that this game is simply one of the best games I've ever played, if not THE best, and my disdain for the Cult Of The New caused this one to slip right past my dragnet. My bad, Circus readers. The good news is that it's still available.
Survive is, according to the rules, a game about getting your meeple people off of a sinking island to the relative safety of one of four nearby sand bars. That being said, it's not really about that at all in practice. It's about jabbing your friends deeply and mercilessly in the eye with sharp, pointy sticks. While some "move optimization" exists, the optimization really boils down to choosing the method of execution of your opponents meeples and which meeple is going to have their shins bitten through, kicking their little wooden stubs to try to stay above the water, knowing that the arterial bleeding of wood filler will end their little pine lives sooner rather than later. Let's not forget about sending the dreaded purple headed sea monsters to kill at your discretion, shearing not only meeples asunder, but biting through boat hulls to do so.
It's about having giant squids squeeze your friends' meeples, from land or from sea, until their little wooden eyes squirt like caulk out of their tung-in-groove sockets. It's about pulling an Ahab Move and having a whale capsize their boatloads of little wooden immigrants to subsequently move the sharks into the freshly chummed water to feast on them like so many baby seals. I hate to use such overused words like "Epic" or "Cracking" so the only other word that can describe this game and not sound like a total hipster is "superdope". You can quote me on that.
To add a bacon wrap to the filet mignon that is Survive gameplay, the bits are absolutely outstanding. The art, done by the amazingly talented David Ausloos, is absolutely perfect for the theme, and it makes the board shine. The wee wooden meeples in four flavors are as good as any I've seen, with the added bonus of having point values etched into the bottom. The whale-eeples are easily identifiable as whales, and the sharks are ominous black, wooden fins. There are land tiles in three types which are randomly placed, and they depict sand, forest, and rock quite well. These tiles are also of varying thickness to depict height, so even if the art sucked, which it does not, it would be very easy to distinguish between types.
There's little wooden boats in the box as well, and while they're awesome, the only complaint in the whole game is that they sometimes cause the meeples within to tip over, which is a disadvantage in the game as the scores on each meeple is supposed to be hidden the whole time. That being said, they're perfect looking and aside from that tipping issue, they function flawlessly otherwise, carrying meeples to their safety, or to their death, in style. Beyond the sea of wooden tokens, boats, and tiles are the dolphins and the two dive dice. This group of items are used in a variant game, they are of the same great quality, and they also change the game enough that playing with them is a completely different game experience. The included rulebook only has four pages of reading, and its ridiculously well-written and clear to understand.
All in all, everything is top notch, and the final piece is my favorite. It's a red die that depicts whales, sea monsters, and sharks, and while it's nothing special to some, I love specialty dice with a passion and thus I love the little die dearly. The only gripe I have with the game besides the drunken boat people is that the blue meeples are such a deep blue that it is sometimes hard to make out the number on the bottom. It's not that big a deal, but a lighter blue would've gone a long way. To summarize, it's the complete package, and I was amazed how quickly I fell in love with it.
Now that you know what comes in the box and what the game is all about, in theory, let's explore how to play. It's fiendishly simple but allows surprisingly deep murderous strategy, and I'll explain how and why later. First, let's get to setting up the game.
Setup requires you to flip the land tiles randomly to the terrain side, and place them in such a way that the sand is around the edge, the forest is within that ring, and the rock is in the center. It's not mandated to place them in that way, and we've played with really funky setups and it works fine too. Once the terrain is set, you place the four sea monsters in their noted locations, which are right by the sand bars that depict safety, with the fifth being in the center of the island on an open water space. Once you've got those pieces set, you're ready to begin.
Each player chooses one of the four colors and takes their ten meeples of that color, as well as two boats. These meeples each have a value between one and six, and this is the score you earn by guiding the meeple to safety. Note that once meeples are placed, you may never look at the value of them again, so it's pretty important to your chances of victory that you remember which meeples are which, especially the four, five, and six valued meeples.Each player, in turn, places their chosen meeple, without revealing its value, on any unoccupied land tile. After all the meeples are placed, each player continues the rotation and places one of their boats on a space that touches any land tile until all the boats have been placed. Once that's done, the game begins.
On each player's turn, they may play a tile in their hand and then use three actions. More on playing tiles later. Actions can be to move one or more landborne meeples one space per action, move a boat, or move a swimming meeple one space over water. Boats can only be moved if they're not occupied, or if you have either parity or a majority of meeples in a boat, and the boats are extremely crucial because they allow you to move meeples up to three at a time over water, and they can move more than one space on the water, unlike swimmers.
After you've taken three actions, you have to take any tile of the lowest available elevation, one that is touching water, and remove it. One of the more fun aspects of this is dunking an opposing meeple into the water near a shark, causing that player to fear for their lives. The back side of these tiles is printed with an icon that performs many different functions. Some are kept by the person who uncovered it, allowing them to cancel shark or whale attacks, take extra movements, and other such things, but many are very nasty. Some cause a whale or shark to move or spawn, others are whirlpools which suck in all living things that are adjacent to them. The game can even end if the rock tile with a volcano is printed on the back, and the remaining scores are tallied to determine a winner. Playing tiles from your hand, as I noted earlier, happens at the beginning of each player's turn, with the exception of the cancellation tiles which are played on demand when you're being attacked by Jaws or Moby Dick.
After a tile is drawn and resolved, that's when the death and dismemberment happens. The active player rolls a die, and the die determines which creature you get to move and attack with. Each has its own target and movement rules, and each is deadly in its own respect. Whales may move up to three spaces and destroy a boat that they end their movement on. This is exceptional for dunking swimmers, not to mention that the boat that was destroyed is gone for good. Sharks move two spaces, and eat every swimmer in the tile that they end their turn on. It's incredibly satisfying when you pull a whale tile and use it to sink a boat, then roll a shark and send a Great White in to sever the arms and legs of meeples. The last monster is the dreaded sea monster who can only move one space, but it eradicates anything that it ends its turn on, be it boat, swimmers, or both. To top it off, any meeple or boat that travels through a space occupied by a monster cause the effect to happen immediately, allowing you to place them strategically to deny access to your opponents or clear your own path.
The strategy in the game is amazing because from the moment you set your meeples and boats down you have to really strive to put your meeples in a relatively safe position while allowing them access to boats. You can use boats and monsters to block sand bars as well as create barricades in the open ocean, as I mentioned, and knowing you have a shark denial tile in your hand to be played at a crucial moment, while never letting on that you have it, can make moments you'll be talking about for the rest of the night.
As I noted the game ends when the volcano appears, but it can alternatively end when everyone's meeples are either casualties or have reached salvation. Once either case has come to pass, everyone counts their surviving meeples and tallies the score. Now while I'm here, I should mention that there's two expansions available, one of which adds a deadly giant squid that closely resembles a characature of Squidward from Spongebob. The squid is activated by the whale tiles and dice icons, and it moves exactly as a whale does but it can pluck one unlucky sailor off of a boat or can crush one landborne meeple that it's adjacent to.
This expansion is a must-have, in my humble opinion, because it adds tremendous tactical choices let alone the fun of crushing an enemy meeple's head when the opponent thought they were safe. The other expansion adds the ability to field two more meeple colors for a maximum of six players, but I haven't played that so I'm going to reserve comment on it. I can only say that more squid and shark fodder is always good, so if you regularly seat six at your gaming table, it's a no-brainer. The really surprising thing about these expansions is that they're under eight dollars a piece, which is one hell of a value these days.
In conclusion, this is a must-have game for anyone. If you like brainburning Euros, this is for you. If you, like me, are an Ameritrash addict bent on violence and backstabbery, then this is for you. If you're a parent who has kids around ten years old or older, this game can be a great way to spend an hour with your kids, and kids love sea creatures, generally, so they'll be all for it.
I very, very rarely give such a strong recommendation for a game, especially one that I don't even own as of this writing, but I just had to tell you all about this one. It's phenomenal in every aspect of the word and this game would be a very, very solid TEN were it not for my gripe about the meeples falling over in boats. Get this game as soon as you can because this will eventually be out of print, again, and if you miss out, you're a sucker. Come this paycheck, I'm buying this and eating canned cat food if I have to, it's just that good.
What Makes Survive One Hell Of A Great Escape:
- Ausloos art, great components, and some of the best gameplay I've ever seen
- Depending on who plays, it can be a family game or a vicious game of cutthroat free diving
- Simple to understand with simple rules, yet surprisingly complex strategic options abound
- You get to bite the heads off of meeples with a shark; Charlie sheen was never so #Winning
Why Survive Should Be Held Underwater Until The Bubbles Stop:
- The boat design can cause meeples to topple sometimes, which can give away meeple values
This game is the stuff of legend. It may be an update of an old version, but everything has been updated, including the rules, so this is simply brilliant. David Ausloos art and premium components make this look wonderful on the table, and the gameplay will keep it on the table. I thought that it might get old, but I was dying to play again at 2AM after a fifth play.
It's addicting, and with a crowd with the right mindset it can be one of the best gaming experiences you've ever had. Even with a tamer crowd its still fun, with the downtime being minimal and outrageous due to each player egging the active player on to eat someone else's meeple other than their own. Add to that a six and eight dollar expansion, both of which add real value, and what else can I say other than, "Get this game".
You can read more about this game at the Stronghold site, where you can order it as well the expansions:
And speaking of expansions...
And this is what I picture in my twisted mind while I'm playing...