At some point, the idea of “designing” a game becomes impossibly pretentious. It’s a natural concept for gamers, but for everyone else, games aren’t designed. They just are. They exist in a space that must flow as naturally as possible. But gamers like to complicate everything, so we create games that are about little pieces of wood being turned other pieces of wood, which in turn are turned into victory points. And lest you think I’m picking only on the Eurogame set, Ameritrashers are just as guilty. I mean, how many phases does a turn need before we have too many? There’s nothing wrong with complex games, but we have a lot of them, and that complexity is almost entirely for its own sake.
Survive is not like that. It’s about as straightforward as they come. You move your guys off of a sinking island, and stick them in boats to get them to the mainland. At the same time, you aim nasty creatures to wreck their boats, eat their swimmers, and generally ruin people’s game. That’s pretty much it. The island is composed of little tiles, each of which does gives a simple action that the player can do. When the island is gone, you count up your surviving pieces (each has a point value), and the highest score wins.
It’s a very simple game, and it’s not surprising that it’s an old one. Originally published in the 1980′s by Parker Brothers, Survive has been in and out of print in various places in the world. Back in its day, it was fairly popular. There have been many times when I’ve explained the game, and someone says, “Oh, I owned this when I was a kid!” However, the game has been out of print for about the last 10 years or so. So the newly formed Stronghold Games picked up the football, and they ran it in for a snazzy new reprint.
How to describe the experience of playing Survive? For me, it’s nostalgic. I never played the game before this reprint, but when I play it, it took me back to a simpler time. A time before games were picked apart mechanically, and they were just allowed to be fun or not fun. It’s nice that games have moved to more challenging ideas, but it’s good to know that there’s still room for the kind of game that can be played at family reunions. Part of that nostalgia is the very confrontational nature of the game. Many of the reviews I’ve read have commented on what a nasty game this is, and that’s true. But it’s easy to forget that games like this have never been uncommon for families. Didn’t you people play Mille Bornes? And wasn’t it satisfying to play a Draw Four card on your grandma? Of course it was. Part of my love of this game comes from the very direct nature of its interaction. Yes, you must play nasty. It’s not fun unless you do. And it’s nasty enough to hold grudges, but also silly enough to keep most people from leaving with hurt feelings.
But nostalgia isn’t the only reason that the game is good. I am most impressed by the thematic gameplay that comes with a minimum of hassle. There’s a false assumption that theme requires a lot of squirrely rules to really take root, but Survive proves that isn’t the case. The mechanics boil down to a very limited action-point system and a card draw. But they are married to a really good production and a very relatable setting. So instead of drawing a tile, you feel like the island is sinking. Instead of your opponents rolling a die to move an animal, you feel like there are nasty critters right next to you. It doesn't quite build narrative like the more detailed games, but it does more than its share. The best times in this game have been the times when we laugh at the funny situations. Once, someone moved a boat just before someone else got on board. This was immediately followed by someone miming a person hitting someone’s hands with an oar. Survive promotes lots of good moments like that one.
It’s helped a lot by the production. This game looks very nice. It’s even more impressive when you recall that Stronghold Games is a brand new publisher. The wooden pieces look very classy. I especially like the little sea serpents. It would have been nice to use white ink to show the point values on the blue pieces, but whatever. The tiles are even better. To simulate elevation, they come in three different thicknesses for the different terrain. The effect on the board is really cool. On the opposite side is a language-independent illustration of an action that the tile provides. I really don’t like the language independent symbols. They add a pointless difficulty to teaching the game. It MUST be taught with the rulebook open for new players. I understand that it makes the game easier to translate, but a player aid would have been really nice. But that’s really my only true complaint. This is a terrific production, and at $50, it’s a good reasonable price for what you get in the box. And hey, if you like to expand the game, there are a couple mini expansions. One expands the game to 6 players, and the other adds a giant squid to the monsters. I have played neither one, but they are both quite cheap, so I will almost certainly grab them at some point. And finally, Stronghold went the extra mile by including a few variants right in the box, including one with dolphins that help the player. It’s not essential, but it’s still a nice value.
At the end of the day, Survive isn’t what I would call a deep game. But not every game needs to be deep. Survive is razor-sharp, nasty, and very accessible. That’s its niche. I don’t pull it out all the time, but it has become my go-to game to play with people who don’t normally games. It’s very difficult to not get into the spirit of trash-talking and laughter that the game promotes. This is one title that deserved a reprint, and it got the reprint it deserved.
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