A calm breeze wafts over a tropical paradise, but then the ground rubles and starts sinking into the ocean. People scramble for the insufficient rowing boats and ominous sea monsters can be spotted on the horizon. This is the opening to Survive – Escape from Atlantis, a veteran board game who’s 30 year anniversary edition is already a few years old. Survive will see up to 4 (or 6 with expansions) players trying to get their coloured meeples across the sea to the safe areas; a sea increasingly populated by sharks, whales and sea monsters.
Survive earns some points from me right off the bat by being simple, a game that works with my terrible teaching ability and probably 2+ pints is always good. The setup is excellent, getting the players engaged by asking them to build the island they’ll be fleeing as it slowly sinks into the sea. Then players set up their meeples, each one having a different number underneath representing how many victory points they are worth if they escape, but after setup they can never be checked. This means until scoring at the end of the game you aren’t sure if you saved an important scientist worth 6 points, or someone useless like Dom* worth 1 point.
The turn order for Survive is also nice and easy too. First you spend 3 movement points, either moving one person or boat a lot or several people or boats a little bit. Next you remove a tile from the island starting with all sand tiles then all forest and finally mountains. These tiles are not only pretty to look at but give the island a bit of 3D character to it with each type of tile being much taller than the one before it. (well done Survive, more points for nice object design). Any people standing on the tiles when they are removed will have to get in the sea**, so make sure to pick people who you don’t really want to stay friends with. The tiles also have abilities on the back which you secretly look at and depending what they are, either reveal and resolve them or save them for later. Finally you roll the monster die and move one of the available sea creatures to ruin everyone’s day even more. Whales move the furthest and knock over boats, tipping the passengers into the sea like so many peanuts in a dodgy pub. Sharks move slightly slower and gobble up any people swimming in the water. Sea monsters are the last type and these move like treacle but also eat anything in their path so watch out.
However, I’m going to put it out there that I don’t like Survive all that much. The problem i have is that it feels like the difficulty switches from too easy to too hard after each player has had 2 or 3 turns. Early on there are no sea creatures except the monsters in the corners so the first boats have an ok chance of getting through, probably with your high scoring meeples. Later on there are so many whales about that no boat can realistically move, meaning most of your people will be swimmers, swimmers are dead people that just haven’t realised it yet. A problem is that swimmers can only move 1 space per turn so swimmers that fall off the island in the middle of the game will not have time to make it to the edges even without accounting for sharks. This makes the game feel very samey with an early rush and basically the game being decided by those point. I have thought one way around it is to make all the outer tiles be beach so that players can’t set up a guaranteed early pounce on a boat, but that seems to go against the fun of building a random island to look pretty.
For the first time in this blog I’m going to talk about expansions, and I hate almost all of them, apart from the one with allows 5-6 players which I always like because I typically have more than 4 in my regular group. These expansions make the game even more murderous when i think it’s already too deadly. One expansion introduces the horrifying giant squid model, which appears whenever a whale appears but can be placed not just in the tile that was just removed, but anywhere and can kill people still on dry land or in boats. The other expansion adds dolphins which are supposed to help the players but in practice are a mixed bag, in the base game dolphins were a power that you gained from tiles, allowing you to move a swimmer up to 3 spaces but in the expansion these are replaced with some adorable dolphin miniatures that protect swimmers from sharks and sea monsters. This is fine but doesn’t help the unbelievably slow speed of swimmers. The dolphin expansion also comes with new monster dice, the addition of dolphins and other changes make moving any one specific monster type less likely. There is also another die which changes how fast the monster you rolled moved on average slowing down whales and speeding up sea monsters as well as letting your monster dive to any unoccupied space on the board. Slowing down whales does help boat survivability a bit but I wouldn’t say this expansion was worthwhile for that.
At the end of the day i can appreciate Survive as a unique piece of design, if you’re looking for a light game you could definitely do worse and it will remain part of my teaching arsenal. i just find after playing it a fair bit that games tend to develop very similarly and there isn’t a lot of chance for players to make skilled moves with so much death surrounding them, but if you can get past that then you might want to pick it up.
**© @megaslippers (2015)