You ever wonder what it would be like to be stuck at sea on a tiny lifeboat...with the person you hate the most...along with the person you love dearly? And a couple of other people you could give a rat's ass about? Oh...and apparently, whoever driving the boat is doing his or her best Speed 2 impersonation? And did I mention the Thurston Howell the IIIrd-esque stash of treasure on this little boat?
Yeah, it's as screwed up as it sounds.
Lifeboat (Gorilla Games; 4-6 players; 1 hour) is a card game where players are characters stuck on a lifeboat, drifting at sea. The catch? Each passenger secretly loves another passenger and also secretly hates another; for your loved one, you want to see them survive at all costs...but your hated rival? You will settle for nothing less than for them to become fish food. All the while passengers sort through whatever goods they can find on the boat, and hopefully drift to land (signaled by the sightings of birds, who presumably won't wander too far at sea, indicating land is near.)
During the trip, you'll bully your way into the seat you want, help loot the goodies on board, drive the boat, and row row row your way to shore. You'll protect your loved ones from thirst and the bullying of others, and you'll spend your time trying to gang up on your hated foe.
Each player at the start of the game is dealt three cards--a character, a Love, and a Hate card. The are six characters. The stalwart Captain; the hulking First Mate; able seaman Frenchy; snooty Sir Stephen; devious pickpocket The Kid; and the lovely Lady Lauren. You will be playing one of these. Also, the Love and Hate cards come from separate decks and show another character, whom you love and hate, respectively.
Each character has three things going for them. Size indicates their fighting ability as well as how many wounds they can suffer before going to Davy Jones' Locker. Survival rating indicates how many points that character is worth should he or she survive until the end--for example, the hearty First Mate has a size of 8 making him quite the strongman, but is also only worth 4 points if he survives until the end of the game. Lastly, each character has a special ability, save for the aforementioned First Mate (his size is his special ability, more or less...and yes, "That's what she said.")
There are placeholder cards for each character, and these are always placed in a certain order on the boat, with Lady Lauren starting near the provision deck, and The Kid starting next to the Navigation deck. This order determines who controls and gets first crack at provisions, the turn order, and who makes the navigational choices at the end of the turn.
First up on each turn is the Provisions phase. The character closest to the Provisions deck draws cards equal to the number of concious players on the boat. Looking at these cards, that player chooses one and then passes them to the next player on the boat--not the player to your left or right, but the actual character on the boat who is next in line. This means the last player in line will have only one card to choose from, getting whatever is left after all the other passengers have taken what they wanted. These provisions include money, treasure, weapons, parasols, life preservers, and the all-important water...more on that in a minute.
Then, each player in turn order on the boat may take one action. These actions include:
* Change Seats--you may attempt to swap seats with any other player on the boat. They can either accept peacefully or refuse; if they refuse, a fight breaks out. Any character who fights for the turn gets a special marker.
* Mug Someone--you may target another player, and attempt to take either one face-up card from them, or a card at random from their hand. They can give you the item, or resist...and then, yep, a fight breaks out, giving a special marker to all involved.
* Row--You can take an action to draw the top two cards of the Navigation deck, and put any or all of them on a stack beside the Navigation deck. These are potentially nasty things that will happen to people at the end of the turn. You place a marker to indicate that you have rowed for the turn.
* Do Nothing--Yes, you can sit on your hands and do nothing. Believe me, this is actually a good option sometimes.
Should seats shift around and turn order changes, you take that into account immediately. So if the last player in line next to the Navigation deck loses his seat and ends up farther up the chain, they will go sooner this turn.
If a fight breaks out, that's when things get fun. The aggressor pushes his card just above the other passengers; the defender, below. Each player can then play weapons to boost their size, or entreat the help of other players. Since you can give cards freely to others, people are likely going to be looking for their cut if they help you..."what's in it for me?" Should a player choose to help either side, they slide their card either up or down to show which side they are on.
Once all the card playing, begging, and allying is done, total up the size of each side, including any weapons played. The losing side all takes one wound. If the aggressor wins, they get whatever it was they were after originally, whether it was a better seat or stealing a provision. If the defender wins, then they have thwarted the plans of the attacker, and beyond the losing side suffering a wound, nothing else happens.
After all players have taken an action, then comes the Navigation phase, and this is where all sorts of other nastiness happens. The player closest to the deck takes the current Row stack that other players may have made that turn by rowing. That player may then choose which of these to resolve. Should there be no cards in the row stack this turn, the top card of the deck is revealed and carried out.
The Navigation phase happens like this. First you check to see if there is a bird icon on the card. If so, a little wooden bird token is placed next to the Navigation deck. Should a fourth bird be placed, the game ends immediately--you've found land! (And may have blood on your hands and murder to explain to the local authorities, but that's neither here nor there.)
After the birds, you then check the "Overboard" portion of the card. This indicates the character(s) who will be tossed overboard due to the reckless driving of the navigator this turn. This can be one character all the way up to everyone on board getting tossed. If a character goes overboard, they suffer one wound--except for Frenchy, who doesn't suffer a wound for going overboard. A character who goes overboard also loses all face-up cards, a great way of dealing with someone who has been smacking you with a heavy oar repeatedly.
(During this part of the game, devious characters can play the "Chum" card to summon sharks, who take an additional bite out of everyone who gets tossed overboard. Yeah, this is an upstanding group of folks we're talking about here.)
Last comes Thirst. A card will have character(s) named as Thirsty, as well as potentially icons for Fighting and/or Rowing. For each of these that applies to you this turn, you must discard a water or take a wound. This thirst stacks, so for example if the Captain rowed, resisted being mugged and got in a brawl, and then the Navigation card has his name as well as an icon for Fighting and also Rowing, he would have to pitch three water, or suffer a wound for each that he could not or chose not to discard for.
Once that's done, it's time for another turn--clear out the rowing/fighting tokens, and go back to the Provisions phase. If the provision deck empties, then you simply skip that phase thereafter. Repeat until all are dead, or you make it back to land. If you make it back to civilization, you get points for surviving, points if your loved one survived, points if your hated foe died, and bonus points for any treasure or money you may have been able to set your paws on, by means both fair and foul.
Tally up the points, highest score wins. And, that's the game.
This is the third edition of the game, which was originally printed in 2002. The box is small, portable, and sturdy. The instructions are a single fold-out page printed on both sides. The cards are nice quality; a little stiff but certainly sturdy enough ("That's what she said.") They use this faux Victorian art that, as I saw mentioned in another review somewhere, instantly makes you dislike the whole cast. I see that as part of the game's charm, as these are not nice people.
There are three small wooden bird tokens for tracking when the game is going to end. OCD folks may note that four birds ends the game, but only three are included. This shouldn't bother you whatsoever because the game ends immediately at four birds, but it may bother some people.
You also get some small red transparent discs, for tracking rowing, fighting, and wounds. These serve their purpose well, but we did notice that during a particularly bloody game with lots of action, you will probably run short on wound tokens. You can do what we did, and just use six-sided die for your health markers (the Captain and the First Mate can use a couple of extra tokens should they need them, as they are size 7 and 8.)
The rules are fairly simple, but could have used a little more explaining just to make sure that everything is handled correctly. Also, a short FAQ and better scoring example would've been nice, as there are special scoring rules if you love/hate yourself (or both, making you a "Narcissistic Psychopath", intent on the death of everyone else on the boat.)
A decent collection of components for $20 MSRP, they serve their purpose well.
The game is certainly a nasty-fest, as you have definitive in-game reasons for screwing over certain passengers, and protecting others. Since you can freely pass cards to other players at any time--and of course, promises of future favors that may or may not get paid up on--there is plenty of room for negotiation. You can give a fat treasure to another player just for helping you gang up on the First Mate...or even better, promise something for their help, then not pay up later. Yeah, it's a game in which you can be a real bastard, and there will be some meta-gaming going on for sure. "Hey man, you shot me with a flare gun last game after promising to protect me. This game...prepare to drown, bitch."
It's definitely a great game to bust out at a lunch setting at work, a little diplomacy and backstabbing that squeezes nicely into that timeframe. It's compact, portable, and is sure to make a few enemies out of your co-workers...always a bonus, amirite folks?
It's fun for sure, but it isn't perfect. For one thing, you're going to find yourself at times, due to the limited choices for actions, with nothing meaningful to do. While it may be strategic to select the "Do Nothing" option, it isn't much fun.
Also, you guys and gals know I dig asymmetry in my games, and am far, far from a balance fiend, but the game balance here is pretty out of whack. Since your size is directly tied to your fighting strength AND your health, that means weaker characters are going to have a really rough time of it. I'm not convinced the Kid (size 3) is able to survive the entire game, much less actually win, unless he has a powerful ally who loves him. Sure, he can stay out of fights and ensure he doesn't go overboard while navigating, but sooner rather than later someone is going to come calling for the navigator's seat, and from there he is just as likely to go overboard along with everyone else. Plus, he is last in line for provisions while navigating, meaning he is extremely unlikely to ever get a stat-boosting weapon to help him out. He does get a lot of points for surviving at 9, definitely the highest point value for survival, but good luck getting there. You're going to have to count on having a strong ally who would also score 9 points for his survival. Being completely at the mercy of the other players really isn't a whole lot of fun either.
Contrast The Kid to The First Mate, who has no special power but has plenty of health and strength with 8 size. He only gets 4 points for surviving, but he is nearly impossible to kill! And then there's Frenchy, who we're getting a sneaking suspicion is a touch too strong. Frenchy doesn't suffer wounds for going overboard (HUGE ability), is size 6 so fights well, and even gets 6 points for surviving.
You can definitely play around these weaknesses by figuring out strategies for the weaker characters, but just be warned there are going to be times where you're dealt the weakling and there won't be shit you can do about it but go overboard quickly and get eaten by sharks.
Lifeboat is a fun little game, viciousness in a small box and at a good price. The extreme variance in character strength means that you'll be in for some frustrating games, and getting stuck in situations where you really have no good actions definitely sucks.
Still, it's a good filler with more backstabbing than most games that squeeze in an hour.
There are two expansions so far--one called "Liquid Courage", but the one I gotta try is "Cannibalism." Yummy.
The Verdict: 3.5 (out of 5.0)
You can read more about Gorilla Games (publishers of Battlestations, Lifeboat, and others) at their website at http://www.gorillaboardgames.com/