In the beginning was Klaus Teuber. And Klaus Teuber did look down and see that gaming was stagnant, and that Free Parking Jackpot was killing Monopoly, and he said, “Let there be Catan!” And it was so. And Klaus did rejoice, seeing that what he had made was good. And he said, “Let Catan be broken into pieces, and let those pieces be as hexagons, with which others can also create Catan anew.” And it was so – Catan was broken into pieces, and those pieces were as hexagons, and there was much rejoicing around gaming tables everywhere. Except for a few curmudgeons who hate dice, and they were cast outside into the darkness, where there is perfect information and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And the children of Klaus-Jürgen Wrede looked out upon Catan, and they saw that it was very good, and they said unto themselves, “We should go out to Catan, and take it for our own. It’s way nicer than Carcassonne.” And as they landed upon Catan and began to build roads and settlements, the first Klaus said unto them, “From whence have you come to disturb my island?” And the children of the second Klaus said, “We have seen this land, and it is a good land, fit for the building of roads and settlements. Plus, we have wood for sheep.” And the first Klaus burned with anger at their insolence, and said unto them, “Canst thou not make an original Catan joke? I shall smite thee with a mighty smiting. Hey, that rhymes.” And the first Klaus caused the sea to rise up against the children of the second Klaus, so that the island was consumed, and they were forced to take to boats or to swim for it. And the first Klaus caused the sea to be filled with all manner of vicious critters with nasty, big, pointy teeth. And the boats were wrecked, and the swimmers were made into tasty meals, and amongst the whales and the sharks and the sea serpents, there was much rejoicing.

Thus was born Survive! Escape from Atlantis – and it was very good.

Ok, so maybe the game doesn’t really have anything at all to do with Catan or Carcassonne, besides a superficial resemblance. The original actually predates them both by a significant margin, coming from Parker Brothers of all places in 1982. Now, in 2011, the game has been reprinted by Stronghold Games with great new bits that are somewhat evocative of those more recent classics. The game is played on a board on which an island of hexagonal tiles is constructed. Each player also places ten people figures (seaples perhaps?) on the island, with values varying from one to six. The numbers are printed on the bottom of the piece and are hidden until the end of the game. The object of the game, at least in the base scenario, is to get people with the highest total value off the main island and onto one of the four smaller islands in the corners of the board before the main island sinks. Moving is very simple – each turn, a player moves his or her pieces a total of three spaces. Boats can hold three people and move as one action. People may move off the island into either a boat or a sea space, but once they’ve left the island, there’s no turning back – they have to make a break for the smaller islands.

Unfortunately, while the players are in the process of evacuating the island, it’s sinking beneath the waves. Each player must, during his or her turn, remove one of the island’s tiles, revealing the sea space below. Any people on the tile are dumped into the ocean. Each tile also contains an action on the bottom. These actions come in two flavors: resolve now (generally bad and nasty) or hold for play at the beginning of a future turn (generally helpful). Actions that go into the player’s hand might include move a boat or swimmer up to three extra spaces or cancel an attack by a critter. Resolve now actions include things like placing sharks or whales into the space from which the tile came or revealing a whirlpool that sucks everything nearby into a watery grave. The game ends when one of two conditions is met: either the Volcano tile is drawn, or all figures have either made it to safety or met their demise thanks to some of the friendly neighborhood wildlife.

Creatures come in three flavors (four with variant) and are generally of the nasty variety. Whales smash any boats in the same space, sending the occupants into the water. Sharks devour swimmers already in the water but ignore boats; sea serpents are the nastiest, eating all boats and swimmers in the same space. Creatures move by roll of the die at the end of a player’s turn. In the base game, one die is rolled that determines what type of creature moves, with each creature moving a set number of hexes. In the variant game, two dice are rolled; one determines the creature type, while the other determines distance. This variant also introduces dolphins, which can aid swimmers in the same space by protecting against hostile creatures.

The gameplay is quite simple and can be learned in ten minutes. What’s not apparent from a cursory review of the rules is how unbelievably nasty this game is. This game is a forty-five minute exercise in schadenfreude. There’s very little randomness in the game – most of the player misfortune happens as a result of a deliberate choice of another player. Even simple decisions like which tile to pull are influenced by which of your opponent’s pieces you can place in mortal danger. Although what creatures move is determined by the die, where they move (and who they eat) is determined by the current player. It doesn’t take long before each player is actively at the throat of each of the other players, doing his or her best to send their dudes down into a watery grave. One turn might see a figure sprint across several hexes to steal a boat that another player was in position to occupy, leaving the remaining dudes to swim for it. On the next turn, that same boat might meet its demise under the fins of an ill-tempered whale. It’s a vicious, nasty little game full of backstabbery and screwage that really brings out the worst in people (in the best possible way).

The game is high in chaos, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no strategy. Most of the strategic choices happen at the beginning of the game – because the value of each figure is hidden information, the game opens up a lot of possibilities for bluffing and feinting. Placement of figures becomes an interesting shell game. A player might position his or her high value figures near a boat so that they can claim it on the first turn and make a run for safety – but the classic eggs-in-one-basket tactic can lead to disastrous consequences if the boat happens to meet up with a nearby sea serpent. On the other hand, placing a high value figure in the middle of a bunch of opponent’s dudes opens up the choice to jump into an occupied boat, giving at least one opponent an incentive to send hostiles elsewhere. Once the figures are down on the table, though, the game becomes highly tactical, with priorities changing each turn as the map loses tiles, monsters shift positions, and figures meet their doom.

I don’t want to overstate the depth of this game – Twilight Imperium it’s not. But it’s a ton of fun, well-produced with great bits, easy-to-follow rules, and a lot of replayability. It’s a game that plays well above the table with meaningful interaction and good metagame decisions. There will be yelling, there will be threats, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – but in the end, it’s a great game that brings out the vengeful deity in all of us.

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