September 30, 2011

Card Game Review: Lifeboat

Lifeboat (Gorilla Games/Jeff Siadek, 2010[3rd Ed.])
4-6 players / 12+ / 45-60 minutes

The First Mate was getting a bit smug for his own good.  Throwing his weight around, literally, he began to rule the roost, forcing us to change seats with him and taking all of our stuff.  The biggest of the survivors, with biceps like tires and a chest like a barrel, he bullied his way from one end of the small, floundering boat to the other.  "I'll be taking that parasol, there, Sir Stephen," he smiled wryly.

"Oh, not this time," the normally timid aristocrat answered.

"Look, here, you little pipsqueak, hand it over before I pound you and throw you in for fish food!"

"How 'bout THIS instead?" And whipping out a flare gun from inside his coat and thrusting into the Mate's face, Sir Stephen fired off a spectacular burst of light and fire that sizzled and cracked through the air.

Grasping in pain, the Mate yelled out, "Aaaah, my eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyes!"

What You Get:

A total of 96 cards, 3 small wooden birds, and about 20 plastic wound chips (appropriately translucent red).  The cards are not linen-textured, but they are of a very durable stock.  My kids have not yet managed to scuff or crease them even in the slightest, despite our numerous plays.  Believe me, that alone is a testimony in itself!  They are humorously illustrated and fit perfectly with the zany theme.  The wooden birds are a superfluous, but very fine touch.  The tokens make keeping track of wounds quick and easy, though we've had many a particularly nasty games in which we could have used more than those provided.  And in a stroke of cost-saving genius (that this budget-bearing consumer appreciates) the rules are printed on a sheet of paper.
The components.
Quick Rundown:

The premise of Lifeboat is that you represent one of 4-6 survivors of a sunken, Titanic-like ocean liner.  Goal #1 is to just survive until land is sited.  That simple matter, however, will be complicated by everyone's ulterior motives.  Goal #2 is to acquire as many provisions as you can to earn extra points.  Goal #3 is to help your secret love survive with  you.  Goal #4 is to make sure your hated rival doesn't.  Everyone begins the game with a random character in assigned seating, a random secret love, and a random secret enemy.  On your turn, you may either row the boat, use a provision card, attempt to mug some one else for one of their provisions, attempt to switch places with some one in the boat, or pass.  Your place in the boat is important.  If first in order, then you get the first selection of provisions passed around at the beginning of each turn.  If last, you get to pick the navigation card played at the end of each turn.  Provisions give you good things like water, med kits, points, and weapons.  The navigation cards usually spell doom for one or more of the characters.  If you attempt to mug or switch seats with some one and they don't play along nicely, a fight ensues.  While each character has a set strength value, others are allowed to join in the fisticuffs on one side or the other.  Plus you can play weapons to add to your strength.  But so can your target, and so can your allies, and so can your target's allies.  As you can imagine, it's not uncommon for a boat-wide brawl to ensue somewhat on the scale of mini-Waterloo.

E for Everyone:

The bow of the boat with nav cards.
Now, as usual, keep in mind this 'E for Everyone' bit does not mean I think every gamer will enjoy this little gem.  It means that I think kids will easily grasp the concept and mechanics of it while adults can genuinely enjoy playing it with them, as well as in their own adult gaming groups.  This is by far the most spiteful game in our collection and, indeed, one of the most spiteful games I've ever read of.  More on that in a minute.  First, why do I give such a confrontational game the 'E' rating?  Oh, let me count the ways.

The basic rules are straight-forward.  Once you understand the five simple actions you may choose from each turn, the rest of play flows smoothly.  Any other rules-breaking mechanic is clearly explained by card text.  The end-of-round navigation phase is also quick and easy.  The last player in turn order will look at the few available navigation cards and choose one.  It gives information on how much closer you're getting to land, who gets washed overboard into the sea, and who gets thirsty.  Proximity to land is represented by the bird tokens (you need four of them to end the game).  Wounds are represented by the plastic chips if you lose a fight, are thrown overboard, or get thirsty (some provisions prevent wounds from thirst or getting tossed over).

Downtime is minimal, also because of the nature of the action phase.  Rowing, passing, or playing a provision card is fast.  Fights can take a tad longer because of the diplomatic meta game in deciding who will fight for who.  It's obviously natural to want to help your secret love and hurt your secret enemy, but if you're too obvious, you could create more problems for yourself in the long run.  Or it's possible you really couldn't lend much aid in a given fracas, whether you wanted to or not, so you just kind of quietly sit tight.  Engaged or not, you will still be very interested in the scuffle's outcome, so downtime is almost irrelevant.  Besides that, they're hilarious.  You certainly don't want to miss some one catching a grappling hook in the eye.  I mean, I don't care who you are, that's funny.

Its been a brutal voyage!
The aforementioned diplomatic meta game works very well with what I call the reverse secret identity mechanic.  With loves and enemies hidden, the psychological game of figuring out each others' ulterior motives is balanced with the goals in regards to your own love and enemy.  This is a process that my kids can grasp, because it gives them a framework with which to think through.  In a twisted sort of way, the game would be even more chaotic without it.  It also takes the personal bite out of the spite since, by and large, your alliances are motivated by what the game deals you.  However, we also often have shifting allegiances by going mercenary to the highest bidder.  Indeed if you're one of the weaker characters and happen to love yourself (thus no one watching your back), that's one of the few options you have.  You may survive by avoiding every fight and you'll get double points for doing so, but you'll be danged lucky if you arrive at shore with anything more than the shirt on your back.

Now just because children can grasp the game, doesn't necessarily mean they'll be able to handle the spite - which also holds true for adults, I'd imagine.  Since gameplay is smooth, the theme is humorous, and the secret love/enemy mechanic dampens the spite, we generally have amicable games.  Whenever we have an issue it is generally a result of how the role cards are randomly assigned.  If you are your own secret love, then it can be rough going.  If you love and hate yourself, then you're a psychopath and only get bonus points for everyone dying - which is difficult to achieve.  And if you love or hate the same person, you're not always sure how to proceed - though you get more points for them living than dying.

So concept-wise, this game will not be to everyone's liking.  Not only is there direct confrontation, but it is brutal and often back-stabbing.  There is player elimination.  There is luck in drawing the provision and navigation cards that will be helpful to you at the right times (though trading of provisions is allowed).  It can go a little long if there isn't much fighting and you're not drawing the navigation cards that get you closer to land.  And some may object to the overt violence.  That is one thing I consider before buying a game for me and my kids - but here it is so over-the-top that it's almost Python-esque.  I grew up on them and am no worse for the wear...or so I think.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Lifeboat an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  For a chaotic game, it generally plays smoothly and in under an hour.  If your kids can play Citadels, then they will be able to grasp Lifeboat's mechanics and gameplay.  The 12+ age recommendation is probably in anticipation of the hurt feelings that the spite factor could create.  But my kids often request this unique title and the laughing always outnumbers the finger-pointing.

No comments:

Post a Comment