Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Monday 27 February 2012

Love, Hate, & Survival

Gorilla Games publishes a couple of games that I like. BattleStations manages a 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. Who Would Win? is a silly game of ridiculous comparisons. Whereas the latter is a light social game that works with both parties and families, BattleStations is very much a gamer’s game with several supplements supporting its setting and the capacity for a GM to create his own material. Lifeboat is the third of Gorilla Games’ titles that I have tried and liked. It is another card game, and although not necessarily a family or a party game, it is actually far more social than Who Would Win? with a strong emphasis on interaction, diplomacy, negotiation, and treachery.

Designed for four to six players, aged twelve and up, the theme in Lifeboat is very simple. The players are survivors aboard a Lifeboat rowing to safety after their vessel has sunk. Tensions between the survivors are high. Not only do they possess few resources between them, they also each have a secret love aboard whom they want to see survive as well as a secret enemy whom they would like to see go aboard and be left behind as shark bait. In the days it takes to row to shore, the survivors will squabble over who will be Quartermaster and thus control the resources, who will be Navigator and thus steer the boat closer to shore, whilst the stress of the near constant squabbling and the near constant threat of thirst and dehydration takes its toll. If a survivor can make it ashore alive, he scores Victory Points, and he can score more if his Secret Love also survives, his Secret Enemy dies, and for bringing loot such as jewellery, paintings, and money with him. A game should last no more than an hour.

The game consists of forty-two Provisions cards, six Character cards, six Placeholder cards, six Hate cards, six Love cards, twenty-four Navigation cards, three wooden Seagull meeples, twenty Wound Markers, plus the rules sheet. 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 or 1920s 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 six) and Survival Value at game’s end (ranging between four and nine). Each character also has a Special Ability. Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, and the Captain value jewellery, paintings, and money respectively, and get extra Victory Points for smuggling them ashore. Whilst the First Mate is “…JUST PLAIN BIG,” Frenchy is an excellent swimmer and never takes damage for being knocked overboard and the Kid is a Pickpocket who can steal Provisions cards from other survivors. There is a Placeholder, a Hate, and a Love card for each character.

The Provisions cards consist of various different items. They include weapons such as Gaffing Hooks, Knives, and Oars – the latter can also be used to row the boat; bottles of Water to stave off thirst and Medical Kits to provide healing; and Life Preservers to help a survivor endure going overboard without suffering injury amongst others. Our favourite was the Bucket of Chum, which ensures that sharks attack anyone or everyone who has gone overboard. The Navigation cards determine at the end of each round if the boat is any closer to shore – indicated by the appearance of seagulls on the card; if any characters are knocked overboard, thus loosing anything that they are holding and possibly suffering an injury into the bargain; and if any characters suffer from thirst after rowing the boat, fighting, or just because…

At game’s start, each player receives a Character card, plus a Hate and a Love card to indicate their Secret Love and Secret Enemy. It 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 of anyone else aboard… Everyone receives a single Provisions card with the rest of the Provisions deck placed at the boat’s prow. Then the Placeholder cards for the characters are placed in the following order: Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and lastly the Kid who sits in the boat’s stern. Behind sits the Navigation deck.

Each turn represents a day spent at sea by the survivors. Each day begins with the survivor in the bow of the boat doling out the Provisions as the Quartermaster. Cards are drawn equal to the number of survivors and first the Quartermaster chooses one before passing the remaining to the next survivor in the boat, who again selects one before passing on the remaining cards. Then beginning with the Quartermaster, each survivor takes a single action. This can be to “Do NOTHING,” “ROW” the boat, “CHANGE SEATS” with another survivor, “MUG SOMEBODY” for a Provisions card, or “TAKE A SPECIAL ACTION” as allowed by a Provisions card.

To “ROW” the boat, a survivor draws two Navigation cards, chooses one to add it to the Rowing Stack whilst the other goes at the bottom of the Navigation deck. To “CHANGE SEATS” with another survivor, a survivor simply swaps places with another in the boat, changing the seating order in the boat. If the other survivor refuses, a fight can ensue. Survivors usually attempt to “CHANGE SEATS” to gain control of the important seats at the bow and stern of the boat, the Quartermaster position allowing a survivor access to the Provisions cards first whilst the Navigator position has control over who takes or avoids injury and thirst at the end of the day as given on the Navigation cards.

Similarly, a fight can ensue if a survivor refuses an attempt by another to MUG him and take a Provisions card. SPECIAL ACTIONS let a survivor use and open the Parasol, which staves a survivor’s thirst, remaining in play until lost overboard; or use a Flare Gun to get closer to the shore or use a Medical Kit for healing. Provisions cards like the Parasol or the Flare Gun are used just the once before being discarded.

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 Knife or Gaffing Hook and by getting allies to aid them. The looser, or losers, if allies are involved all take a single Wound. A survivor can take damage equal to his Size before being knocked unconscious. If he takes another Wound or is knocked overboard, he is killed. A survivor who is successfully mugged must give up a Provisions card or if he was attacked over his seat, he must swap places with his attacker.

At the end of the day, the survivor who is in the boat’s stern serves as the Navigator. He gets to choose a single Navigation card from the Rowing Stack and carry out its effects. This can include a Seagull appearing to indicate that the boat is closer to the shore – four of these needed before the survivors are rescued and the game ends; if any survivors are knocked overboard, their being injured in the process and losing any Provisions cards that they have on the table; and if any characters suffer from thirst after rowing the boat, fighting, or just because… It is possible for a character to be thirsty a total of three times if his name is listed on the Navigation card and they also rowed the boat and was involved in a fight. A survivor can use any bottles of water Provisions cards to offset the effects of thirst.

A game of Lifeboat ends once four seagulls have appeared on the Navigation cards and the survivors are rescued. A player then scores Victory Points if his Survivor made it, his Secret Love survived, his Secret Enemy died, and for any loot he brought ashore. The player with the most Victor Points wins.

Physically Lifeboat is nicely done. The art on the cards has a charmingly period feel. The rules are simply explained, but they are perhaps a little too plain.

One of the interesting aspects about the design of Lifeboat is how the survivors are balanced. They are balanced in that the higher their Size value, the lower their Survival value at game’s end. For example, the First Mate has Size 8 and Survival 4 versus the Size 3 and Survival 9 of the Kid. Similarly, the survivors with lower Survival values tend have more powerful Special Abilities. For example, the First Mate has no Special Ability, but the Kid is a Pickpocket who can Mug other Survivors without the need to fight them. It is one reason why the Kid is such an annoying character!

The other balancing factor between the strong and the weaker survivors is that the names of the stronger Survivors appear on the Navigation cards more often and thus suffer from thirst or are knocked overboard more often. The best balancing factor are the players themselves, who will each have different motivations depending upon the Love and Hate cards that they drew at game’s start. These will drive their survivors to support or attack different survivors each time the game is played, rather than necessarily team up on the same players each time, which can be an issue in others that have a “take that” style element to their play.

Despite the balancing factor of the Navigation cards, the high Size values of survivors like the First Mate or the Captain might be difficult to assail, or at least seem so. Either though, can be defeated through a combination of allies and weaponry, and making these alliances – often temporary – is the fun part of playing Lifeboat as is working out who a survivor’s Secret Love and Secret Enemy are, and then using them to your advantage, whether that is to gain support or to stab him in the back. This aspect will certainly appeal to the player who likes to engage in table talk or roleplaying a little in order to form or prevent alliances. Overall, Lifeboat is well designed, fun to play, and comes without the survivor guilt.

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