If you have been wondering about the crew and passengers of HMS Arden, cast adrift in a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean in 1913, then doubtless you have been playing too much Lifeboat. Published by Gorilla Games, best known for the rare combination of light roleplaying and space combat against a Star Trek-like background that has a darker side to it than is usually hinted at in Gene Roddenberry style setting that is BattleStations—just finishing up its Kickstarter campaign for its second edition—Lifeboat is darkly humorous, social game of survival and inter-party rivalry in which the survivors must steer their way to land all the whilst fighting for the contents of the boat’s locker, for food, and for water as well as trying to avoid being knocked overboard and placed at the mercy of the circling sharks. If the Lifeboat could make it to land, then one of the survivors might have accrued sufficient loot, ensured that his Secret Love also survived, and his Secret Enemy died enough that he score enough Victory Points to win!
The good news is that the survivors of the sinking of the HMS Arden have made it to shore—even if it is in the South Pacific rather than the Atlantic and a desert island rather than the mainland. Now Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and the Kid must start all over again, surviving the dangers of island and scrounging not only the jetsam washed ashore from the wreck of the HMS Arden, but also the pirate loot to be found on the island. Which should keep them busy until a passing ship spots their signal fire and everyone—still alive that is—can be rescued. This is the set-up for Desert Island, Gorilla Games’ sequel to Lifeboat, which is designed to be played by between four and six players, aged thirteen and up.
Funded following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dessert Island consists of fifty Food Cubes (forty brown cubes and ten yellow four-cube cubes), twenty black skull-shapped Fate Tokens, three Ship Tokens, thirty red Wound Tokens, the rules sheet, and one hundred cards. The latter includes six Character cards, six Character Location cards, six Love and six Hate cards, six Location cards, thirty Fate cards, and forty Scavenge cards. The six Character cards are Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and the Kid, each of which is illustrated in an Edwardian style, and is marked with values for their Size (a measure of their strength in combat and their capacity to take damage, ranging between three and eight) and Survival Value at game’s end (ranging between four and eight). Each character also has a Special Ability. Lady Lauren removes Fate Tokens from herself whereas Sir Stephen can add them to anyone, the Captain removes Fate Tokens from others, the First Mate can forage for more Food, Frenchy gains Fate Tokens back from a fight, and the Kid can steal Food from his neighbours. There is a corresponding ‘I Hate...’ and ‘I Love…’ card for each character. The Location cards are numbered from one to six and each grants a special action. The Beach (1) enables a Character to distribute Scavenge cards; when hunger strikes, there is always extra Food to be found in the Jungle (2); Food is lost in the Swamp (3); there is always extra Food to be found in the Spring (4) when foraging; there is more likelihood of the signal fire being seen from the Hill (5); and the Cave (6) is a safer place to hide.
The Scavenge cards consists of food, loot, and tools. For example, Sardines are equal to five Food and a Coconut just one; a Chamber Pot is worth five Victory Points, whilst a Chalice is worth seven; and a Blunderbuss +10 to any fight or turns any Boar or Monkey Event into three Food. The Fate cards represent events such as animal attacks—Boars (Lose Two Wounds), Monkeys (Lose A Card), or Rats (Lose All Food); Illnesses (Lose A Wound); and Tsunami (scour the island of Food and Signal Fire Tokens, and inflict a Wound on everyone). In addition, each Fate card gives the ‘Wood’, ‘Torch’, and ‘Ship’ icons that indicate whether or not the signal fre has been lit and spotted, as well as a number and character name that indicates who might be the subject the event on the Fate card.
Game set up on the Desert Island is similar to that aboard the Lifeboat. Each player randomly receives a Character card and an ‘I Hate...’ and an ‘I Love…’ card each. t is possible for a character to love himself, which makes him a Narcissist who will score double Victory Points for surviving, though of course, it means that no one else has him as his Secret Love and so will not willingly support him. Similarly, a character can hate himself, making him a Psychopath who will score Victory Points for the deaths on the island… Everyone receives a single Scavenge card with the rest of the Scavenge deck placed off the Beach. The Location cards are laid out in order, from one to six and the Characters are randomly placed in the Locations.
Each turn represents a week spent on the island. Each week begins with the Character drawing Scavenge cards equal to the number of survivors and deals them out as he wants. Of course this allows him first choice and to assign a good Scavenge card to the Character he secretly loves and a bad one to the Character he hates. Then everyone draws two Fate cards and plays one as part of an action, discarding the other. In addition, one Fate Token is placed on the Location corresponding to the number on the Fate card and another on the Character who is named on the Fate card. The Character with the most Fate Tokens at the end of the round will be subject to the event on the first Fate card played (or the most if multiple Fate cards of one type are played). Again, this enables a Character to protect the Character he secretly loves and target the Character he hates.
Each Character now takes a single action. This can be ‘Forage’ (gain Food indicated on the Fate card), ‘Signal Fire’ (add to the Signal Fire), or Steal. When a Character decides to Steal, it can be to take Food or a Scavenge card from another Character or it can to be to force to exchange Locations. Now a Character can accept this and take the consequences—lose Food or a Scavenge card, or his Location, otherwise a fight ensues. A fight is a simple matter of comparing the combatants’ Size values against each other, the higher Size always beating the lower. Stalemates are always resolved in favour of the defendants, but both attacker and defender can boost their respective Sizes by using weapons like the Spear or Shovel and by getting allies to aid them. The attacking Character also gets to add the number on the Fate card played. The loser, or losers, if allies are involved, all take a single Wound. Should a survivor suffer wounds equal to his Size, he dies, and blocks the Location he is on.
In addition, the Characters who initiated the fight each receive a Fate Token as do any allies who joined on either side. So joining fights increases the chance of an event affecting a Character. The Characters are of course free to negotiate deals for their aid in helping one side out or another, but all deals are final and a Character cannot withdraw from a fight.
In the Lookout phase, the Characters check for Wood and Torch icons to see that the signal fire has been lit and for Ship icons to indicate that their signal fire has been spotted. This needs to happen four times for the Characters to be rescued. Lastly, the event indicated by the Fate cards occurs and everyone needs to consume Food equal to their Size. Then all of the Fate tokens are removed and a new round ensues…
Desert Island ends if everyone dies, in which case everyone loses. If the survivors are spotted enough times, they will be rescued and they can total their Victory Points, whether from Loot, keeping the Character they love alive, or killing the Character they love. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner.
Physically Desert Island is nicely done. The art on the cards has a charmingly period feel and both the Ship and skeleton-shaped Wound tokens are a nice touch. The rules could be a little clearer in places, but they are readable and after a play-through or two of the game, easy to understand. A set of ‘Sequence of Play’ cards would have been nice, rather than just the one.
Like Lifeboat, this is another nasty, cutthroat social game that is quite finely balanced. In both games the balance is between the need to gather resources or Water/Food, attempting to steer closer to land/attract ships, and protecting and killing the other Characters for Victory Points. Desert Island is not quite the same game as there is more of means to direct the action or events through the Fate cards against a Location or Character. So to an extent the players have the ability to influence where the events are going to happen. Another balancing point in the game is between the need for somebody to survive in order to avoid everyone losing against the drive for everyone to kill the Characters that they hate. In this, Desert Island is a semi-cooperative design.
Above all, the best element in Desert Island is going to come from the players. The Characters they play will influence their actions, but their ‘I Love…’ and ‘I Hate…’ will ultimately drive their actions. This will be coloured by the Characters that they play, which will allow them to bring some roleplaying elements into the game. Desert Island is a terrifically themed game of survival and infighting.