There you are. Living on a small island, stranded if you will. Your tribe living relatively peacefully with the other tribes on the island, like Robinson Crusoe, as primitive as can be. Then, as if things weren't already difficult, the island begins to sink. This is the situation in Survive! by Parker Brothers, originally published in 1982.
When I first pulled this one out to teach my wife, she said, "Oh no, is this one of those hex games?" (Sometimes she needs a little nudge.) The island is composed of 40 hexagonal spaces. In setting up the game, each of these spaces is randomly covered with a piece of cardboard designating one of three different types of land, either beach, jungle or mountain. The center space of the island is not covered with land. In this space lives a sea monster. Four other plastic sea monsters are also placed, one at each corner of the game board. Players then take turns placing their color coded men, 10 each, one at a time, onto the island. Each man has a number on his bottom, one through six. Once placed, no player may check the men's numbers until the game is over. After each man has been placed, each player then places boats, 2 each, one at a time, into the water near the island's coast. Then the game begins.
At each corner of the game board, in addition to a sea monster, is an island that is not sinking. These bits of solid ground are where players want their men to be before the island sinks to almost nothing and finally explodes. These islands don't belong to any particular player. All players may get any of their men to any of the islands. When the island explodes players add up the numbers on the bottom of their surviving men, and the highest total wins. Getting your men to these safe islands and preventing your opponents from doing the same is where the fun comes in.
A player's turn consists of three basic elements: the move, the pick, the roll. First the move. A player may move any combination of his own men or boats a total of three spaces. Empty boats, or boats in which a player has the majority of passengers, may be controlled by that player. Men may move across land, into or out of water, into or out of boats, or they may swim for it. A common opening move might be moving two men into an empty boat and then moving the boat toward another of your men (a boat can hold up to three passengers) or toward one of the outer islands.
Then the pick. After moving, the player will pick up one of the land tiles, causing that bit of island to sink. Any men standing on a picked tile are now swimmers. Land is picked in the following order--first all the beach, then the jungle, then the mountains.
The player then looks at the bottom of the selected tile. On the bottom will be either a picture or words. A picture generally indicates that something will be placed in the now water-filled space. This might be a shark (in which case the swimmer is now lunch meat and removed from the game), a whale or a boat. The shark is represented by a little plastic dorsal fin, the whale by a little tail fin. Once placed, these creatures remain in the game until killed. A whirlpool indicates that everything in land adjacent to that hex is pulled down and out of the game. On one of the mountain pieces is an explosion indicating the game is now over and scores are to be totaled.
If the bottom of the piece does not contain a picture, it contains instructions and is kept by the player to be played at the beginning of any subsequent turn or when attacked by a whale or shark. These cards give a player the power to move creatures around the board, move his own boat or swimmers extra spaces or defend one from whales and sharks. Once these cards are used they are discarded and out of the game. After the pick comes the roll.
And finally, the roll. To complete his turn a player rolls the special die. It will indicate shark, whale or sea monster. The player is then allowed to move the indicated creature. If there is more than one creature on the board the player may choose which to move. This allows players to have creatures attack the opposition. Sea monsters move one space and eat swimmers and manned boats. Sharks move up to two spaces and eat swimmers. Whales move up to three spaces and smash manned boats, leaving the occupants to try to swim to safety.
These three phases complete a turn. As stated before, after the first turn a player may have land cards in his hand. Most of these may be played, one per turn, before the movement phase of the turn. Two, "kill a shark" and "harpoon a whale" are used defensively and played only when attacked by one of these two creatures. Like the other cards, once played the cards are out of play for the rest of the game.
That's basically it. After each player has taken a turn and gotten the order straight, things run very smoothly. The components are nicely designed, particularly the sharks, whales and sea monsters which do add to the atmosphere. Seeing the classic shark fin heading toward your man treading water out in the middle of nowhere is a little disconcerting. The men are a little on the smallish side, but over all Survive! looks very nice.
Survive! is an American made family game put out by Parker Brothers. But it seems to have a number of attributes so often praised in German and recent Germanesque games usually classified as family-strategy. It is quickly learned, the mechanics are simple, it is nice to look at and it is a blast. Every turn presents the player with a number of choices. Having 10 men to get to safety and the ability to move no more than three per turn can present some problems. It is not uncommon to have a man treading water in shark infested water, two sitting in a boat waiting to paddle to safety, a couple standing on land pieces which will soon sink, and another player making a move for an empty boat that you had your eye on. Sinking a piece of land is particularly fun when another player's man is standing on it, unless it happens to reveal a boat. The die, while offering another chance to maliciously hurt the opposition can also provide defensive moves, sending a sea monster away from your planned path. And if you play your cards right that endangered swimmer can be helped to shore by a friendly dolphin.
There is some luck, or chaos, involved— the flipping of the cards and the roll of the die, but not too much. Much of your success comes from careful play and like other games, not appearing to be too far in the lead so the other players don't gang up on you and send all the critters to wherever you happen to be. The other aspect of the game that has seen popularity recently is the "surprise ending." You know you have until both the beach and jungle cards are gone before the game is in danger of ending. But once those mountain cards start to sink the game could end at any time. This of course adds tension and excitement to the game. Some may not like the various point values for each man. This can definitely lead to games in which someone with five or six survivors is beaten by someone with only two. I see this as part of the fun. And if you can remember, just for a couple minutes, where you placed your big pointers, and concentrate your efforts in that direction, you may be able to convince the opposition that since you only have a couple men safe, perhaps the shark should attack someone else. Of course it is also likely that they will get wise to your plans and do everything they can to kill you, I mean stop you.
The game doesn't work as well with two people as it does with three or four. Although around here it's usually played with two, and it is played fairly often. In the case of a two player game it's a pretty sure bet that both players' men will either be to safety or dead before the island blows. This takes some of the pressure off and tends to make one more aggressive in regard to making as many of your opponent's men shark food and more patient in making your own way to the outer islands.
Having not stepped foot into a bonafide game shop before last year, soon after discovering The Game Cabinet, Sumo and of course The Game Report, I realize that I am still a bit of a newbie in the game world. But I've been paying attention to those games, foreign and domestic, which receive a great deal of praise in the sophisticated game press. I even own a few of them. And Survive! would appear to fit well into this group. I would encourage everyone to keep a sharp eye out for this one. It really is a great game. Incidentally, if you come across more than one copy, please drop me a line. I have a nephew and a possible future sister-in-law that are interested in obtaining their own Survive!
May the ground stay solid under your feet and may the sea monsters out of your boat .