Welcome to Board Games With OB, a somewhat profane, possibly semi-regular feature where OregonBeast gets a board game he likes and briefly explains how to play it and hopes you would be interested in playing it, too. Because board games are fucking awesome.
In many forms of media, the genre of “black comedy” is well-practiced. Basically, it’s taking something normally dubbed serious and making light of it. You don’t necessarily see a lot of that in board games. Sure, you see some (Cards Against Humanity is basically one giant dick-in-a-box of black comedy), but in general, if a game is going to have serious themes (horror, terror, death), it’s going to dress the part: Lots of black, lots of earth tones, lots of fonts that scream an attitude of “spooky” or “serious!”
Whether unintentional or blatant, Survive: Escape From Atlantis winds up being total black comedy. The 30th anniversary reprint by up-and-coming Stronghold Games features calm blue seas, beautiful tropical artwork, lots of candy-colored meeples, and creative-looking wooden sea creature pieces. Of course, those meeples are in a tough struggle for their lives and will ultimately wind up either being eaten by a shark, have a boat they’re riding in destroyed by a whale, be swallowed whole by Nessie’s ocean-dwelling cousin, get sucked into the deep by a sudden whirlpool, or burned alive in a volcano explosion.
And you’ll never have as much fun killing off your opponent’s wooden humanity as you do in this game. It’s time to talk Survive: Escape From Atlantis.
Game: Survive: Escape From Atlantis
Players: 2 to 4
Gametime: 60 minutes
Designer: Julian Courtland-Smith (UK)
Key Mechanics: Action point allowance, secret deployment
Story: You’re controlling one of several teams of early 20th century explorers who have discovered the famed island of Atlantis. See, you knew it was real! All those legends about the island sinking were a bunch of bullsh...well fuck, the island just started sinking. And most of the local sea creatures are sudden out to kill you. And a damn volcano is about to blow. OK, screw all the other teams, you want to save as many of your team members as you can — even if it means throwing them to the whales/sharks/sea serpents.
What do you do? The game begins with a randomized setup of the island of Atlantis. The island is made up of 40 hexagon land tiles: 16 beach tiles, 16 forest tiles and eight mountain tiles. Once this is done, each player will take turns placing their ten Explorers (colored meeples) onto the land tiles. Sea serpents are placed onto five specific spaces on the board. Each player then gets to place a lifeboat onto one of the ocean hex spaces adjacent to the land tiles. And now the game is ready to go.
The objective of the game is simple: Get your explorers off of the island, onto a lifeboat, then over to one of the four “safe islands” on the corners of the board. Sounds simple. Of course it does. It always does. But as is often the case when a board game objective sounds simple, pulling it off is pretty fucking hard, and doing it better than everybody else is even tougher.
A player’s turn consists of three steps: First, movement, A player gets three “moves” on a turn. Moving an explorer onto a different tile or adjacent lifeboat counts as one move, as does moving a lifeboat one space, or unloading an explorer off of a boat onto one of the safe islands.
Who gets to move a lifeboat depends on its occupants. If there is nobody on a lifeboat, it can be moved by any player. Once a lifeboat has at least one of its three spaces occupied, whatever player or players have at least a share of the majority of the lifeboat’s occupants can move the boat. So if the red player has two explorers on a boat and green has the other space, only red is allowed to move the boat; green is just sort of along for the ride. But if red, green and yellow each had one explorer on the boat, all three could move the boat on their turn.
The next step is removing one of the land tiles from the board. Tiles are removed in the order of the elevation on the island: The beach tiles are removed first, then the forest tiles, then finally the mountain tiles. If an explorer happens to be on the tiles removed, they fall into the water. But the good is, they’re not dead (yet). They are a “swimmer”. Swimmer can either be picked up by a lifeboat, or they can try and swim for shore. But Diana Nyad these swimmers are not, apparently. Moving a swimmer one space will costs all three of your movements.
But once you remove a land tile, it’s take to take a look at the underside. Because it’s going to do something to affect/fuck with the game. Some tiles will cause an immediate action to happen: It might add a boat, it might add a shark or a whale or, maybe, just maybe, it will create a whirlpool that will destroy everything in that space and in any water spaces adjacent to it. Other tiles might be ones you get to hold onto, which you can play on a later turn to maybe get to move a boat or sea creature, or let a swimmer hitch a free three-space ride with a dolphin. (Flipper is a total BAMF). Others allow you to successfully fend off attacks from whales or sharks. (Take than, Captain Ahab! You too, Ian Ziering!)
Once the tile stuff is dealt with, you roll the sea creature die. Depending on the results of this roll, you will get to move either one of the sea serpents or, if they’ve shown up yet, a whale or a shark.
Oh, let’s talk about these sea creatures, shall we? Each sea creature moves differently and will have different effect when they come in contact with explorers out on the open water.
- First up is the whale. Whales can move up to three spaces when rolled on the die. Once a whale enters a space occupied by a lifeboat, the lifeboat is destroyed. Any explorers in the boat become swimmers.
- Next, there’s the shark. Sharks can move up to two spaces when rolled on the die. Once a shark enters a space occupied by swimmers, the swimmers are eaten. Apparently, these are teenage sharks, because it doesn’t matter how many swimmer are on a space, when a shark shows up, they’re all getting eaten.
- Finally, there’s sea serpents. They can only move one space per turn, but woe is you is your explorers are in that space. Swimmers meeting a sea serpent are eaten. Lifeboats meeting a sea serpents are destroyed, and any explorers on those lifeboats are also eaten.
So, this keeps going on until one of the players draws the mountain tile that has the Volcano. When the volcano erupts, every explorer not on one of the safe islands is wiped out and the game is over. Don’t you just love happy endings?
How to taste, sweet, sweet victory: Winning a game of Survive isn’t just a matter of getting your explorers to the safe islands. It’s a matter of which ones. See, each explorer has a point value between 1 and 6 printed on their base. There are more low-scoring explorers (Three 1-pointers, two each of the 2- and 3-pointers) than high-scoring. (One each worth 4, 5 and 6) At the end of the game, each player will count up these points on their explorers who reached safe islands. Highest score wins, in a tie the player with the most saved explorers wins.
So, what’s awesome about this game?
- There can be some back-and-forth battles between you and other players when it comes to moving around sea creatures. While you’re moving a whale toward their boat, they might start moving a shark toward your swimmer. Meanwhile, another player might start getting aggressive with a sea serpent and how do you react to that?
- For multi-step turns, the gameplay remains fairly simple.
- As the game goes on, there’s a little bit of a revenge element that can come into play. If you have a sea serpent gobble up the explorers of a couple of other, that might come back to bite you, say, with a lethal shark/whale combination.
- There's a little bit of memorization challenge as well. You're not allowed to look at the point totals on the explorer's bases during the game. So you have to try and remember which ones can be sacrifical lambs in an attempt to save the high-scoring ones.
- The dark comedy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game that has as much laughter going on while killing players off as happens in Survive. At some point, somebody is going to do a Mr. Bill impersonation as three explorers and their boat are sucked into a whirlpool. That picture with the four explorers on a single tile with two sharks waiting for dinner? That happened in the first game of Survive I ever played during International Tabletop Day this year. Every person who walked by the table at least giggled. Yes, us tabletop games can be sadistic fucks at times.
Variety is the spice of life: There are a couple of expansions out for Survive. One is simply extra explorer tokens in two extra colors that allow games of 5 or 6 players. Another adds a new sea creature— the giant squid, which can pluck explorers out of boats or even grab them while they are on a land tile. Then there is a dolphin/dive dice option that is an expansion for the most recent version (previous versions included these).
Other ways to play: There is a Survive app out for iOS. Haven’t played it, so can’t give any info on how good it is. There has also been promise of an app coming out for Android, but that has yet to happen.
Images via BoardGameGeek (and OregonBeast)