Masters of the Gridiron

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 20-08-2014

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Masters of the gridiron 2Given my previous post about GenCon, it is only appropriate that the Major Fun Award goes to a game about football. Let me introduce you to Masters of the Gridiron: the card game that can unite casual gamers and football fans all across our fair land.

One of the things that I really love about games is the way the designers take events and activities in our physical world and translate those situations into cards and dice and tokens and the vast panoply of game mechanics. In many ways I think this is the most artistic aspect of game design (as opposed to the graphical art that decorates the box and cards and etc). There is a fascinating, understated beauty to this process of simulation and representation.

Masters of the gridironSports Mogul took on the daunting task of representing the game of American football and in the process, created the accessible and engaging card game. Each player has a deck of cards that represents a specific pro team from a specific year (we played with 8 teams from the 2013 season). The cards are divided into three categories: offense, defense, and playbook. Offense and defense cards depict actual players. The top half of the offense and defense cards contains numbers you will need for the card game while the bottom half contains vital statistics from the 2013 season (these are not vital to playing Masters of the Gridiron). The playbook cards represent different types of scoring drives and which players work best in those situations.

The game ends after each team attempts 9 scoring drives. Your scoring drive consists of one playbook card and one offense card. Your playbook card tells you which what to look for on your offense card and which players receive bonuses. In general you look for the player that has the highest rating for the play you have chosen (high numbers win). Once you reveal your offense, your opponent gets to choose one defense card. The play card says what kinds of defense work against the play so your opponent wants to choose a player with a ranking that is higher than your offense. If offense is higher, you score. If the defense is equal to or higher than offense, you fail.

Each player gets to be on offense and defense nine times. In between plays, the teams get to draw cards to replace the ones that were used. At the end of the game, scores are tallied.

There are some complications, but they are rare and are handled very well in the slim rule sheet. In the end, Masters of the Gridiron is very simple and yet offers a lot of interesting choices. You have to manage your resources (players cannot be used more than once) and you have to choose between going for touchdowns or kicking field goals.

01 AwardFor those who want more, there is a great deck building and drafting mechanic that allows the players to draft their own teams. Each deck comes with additional cards that can be swapped with others in the deck. It is also possible to combine different decks into a dream team. Each player comes with a salary. If you play one of the deck-building games you have a pool of money with which you can build your team. Now you have to decide between drafting a few top end players (and having many lower players) or having a more solid (if less exciting) team.

We had fun just playing with the teams out of their boxes. After the first series of plays, the game is very intuitive and does a great job of evoking excitement of football without requiring any detailed knowledge of the game. Casual gamers will appreciate the laid-back strategy of the card game and football fans will have a lot to discuss as the games unfold.

GO COLTS!

2 players. Ages 8+

Masters of the Gridiron was designed by Conor Milliken and Clay Drelough and is © 2014 by Sports Mogul, Inc.

Aztack

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 28-07-2014

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aztack_gamerNow that all those Mayan and Aztec apocalypses are over, we can get back to building pyramids for recreation instead of in an attempt to stave off the end of life as we know it.

Whew!

An early adopter of this new recreational approach to Mesoamerican architecture is Blue Orange Games and their fantastic stacking/tiling game Aztack.

The game consists of 60 rectangular tiles that resemble dominoes. Instead of pips on each side of the tile, there are Aztec glyphs—images that represent important symbols in Aztec culture. The four glyphs (flower, water, deer, and flint) are combined in many ways and in five different colors: green, orange, grey, blue, and burgundy.

To start play, 12 tiles are arranged in a 2×6 rectangle in the middle of the table. Each player draws 12 tiles. On your turn, you place one of your tiles on the base of the pyramid or pass if there is no space for a legal move. If you pass, you can jump in later. Play proceeds clockwise until everyone must pass. The winner is the one with the fewest remaining tiles.

The rules for placing the tiles are simple and well-illustrated by the rules. You must place your tile so that it bridges two tiles beneath it. The tile you place must also match both of the glyphs OR both of the colors. If it matches all colors and glyphs you get to discard an additional tile from your hand.

01 AwardThe simplicity of the rules belies a wonderfully complex and shifting matrix of choices. There is a great balance between making moves that will limit the choices of your opponents and those that will keep the board open for your future placements. Luck plays a sizable role but there is enough choice to develop strategies in order to manage the random elements.

Aztack is well made and beautifully illustrated. It is fascinating to watch as the pyramid rises from the base. Each one is unique and really very beautiful.

And Major Fun…

2-4 players. Ages 7+

Aztack was designed by Brad Ross & Jim Winslow and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Battle Sheep

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 26-07-2014

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battlesheep_gamerA bucolic scene. Technicolor sheep grazing in a green pasture. They look up every few moments, amble over to another patch of grass and clover. Quiet except for the sound of chewing and the occasional bleat as one of the sheep gets boxed in.

The horrors of war!

The pasture is a battleground. The sheep scan the field with steely eyes, looking for weakness in the enemy lines. A scream of defeat.

Welcome to the vicious world of Battle Sheep.

Blue Orange has brought us another great strategy game. Battle Sheep combines an area capture mechanic with a variable board that changes the contested pasture every time you play. As is the hallmark of most Blue Orange Games, the pieces are of the highest quality and the art is fun. The rules fit on a tiny slip of paper and once you have read them you will never need them again.

The game starts with the construction of the pasture. Players take turns placing the pasture tiles so that they connect. The combinations are practically infinite and you can construct some truly bizarre playing areas.

Once the pasture is set, the players take their 16 sheep tokens and place them in a single stack at the edge of the pasture. Each turn after the initial placement, each player must move at least one of their sheep tokens in a straight line until they have to stop—either by running into the edge of the pasture or by bumping into another sheep. A player can move a single sheep or a stack of sheep as long as at least one sheep is left behind. As the game progresses, there are generally several smaller stacks of sheep of each color. Players with multiple stacks may only move from one of the stacks.

The idea is to control as many hex spaces as you can and block your opponents so they can’t move. The game ends when only one player can make a legal move. At that point, players count how many pasture hexes they control.

01 AwardThere is a lot to think about here, starting with your initial placement. It is entirely possible to get shut down early in the game if you choose poorly. Each move involves a reassessment of the pasture and the possible moves of your opponents. And of course there is the great satisfaction that comes when you can box your opponent in to a small corner.

Baa Ram Ewe, buddy. Baa Ram Ewe.

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2-4 players. Ages 7+

Battle Sheep was designed by Francesco Rotta and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Niya

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 15-07-2014

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niya_gamerNiya is a quick little strategy game that draws its inspiration from Japanese garden prints. Each player represents one of two clans who are trying to quietly take possession of the emperor’s beautiful garden. Violence in such an exquisite location is out of the question but there are rules for entering the garden and if you can align your clan just right the space can be yours.

The garden is made up of tiles that are shuffled and placed in a 4 by 4 grid. Each grid square contains two of the following images: rising sun, poem flag, bird, rain cloud, maple leaves, cherry tree, pine tree, and iris. Each player also has eight clan member tokens. The game starts when one player places a token on the grid. Opponents alternate placing tokens until one gets 4 in a row, a box of 4, or prevents the other from making a legal move.

After the each token is placed, the next player must put a token on a tile that has an image in common with the previous tile. For instance, if I play on the tile with the Sun and the Iris, my opponent could only play on those tiles that have either a Sun or an Iris on them. Capturing tiles becomes a strategic battle to achieve an advantageous position while impeding the options of your opponent.

01 AwardIn many ways this is a variation on tic-tac-toe. I imagine there are optimal strategies for first placement and response moves, but nowhere near as simplistic as tic-tac-toe. Because there are two elements to keep track of and the board changes with each and every play, the exact same strategy will not work each time. Figuring out good approaches will probably happen over the course of several games. Fortunately, the games are quick and Major Fun.

The game is beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully designed. The tiles are double sided, heavy-duty cardboard, and the tokens are a high-density plastic. Rules, tiles, and tokens fit in a compact tin. It’s an elegant strategy game with great art and intuitive rules. Great for quiet evenings and rainy days.

2 players. Ages 8+

Niya was designed by Bruno Cathala and is © 2014 by Blue Orange Games.

Robot Turtles: Adventure Quests

Filed Under (Cooperation, Family Games, Kids Games, Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 05-07-2014

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robot turtle AQRobot Turtles: Adventure Quests is a separate adventure pack that can be added to ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles (it is not a stand alone game) or you can by and Adventure Bundle that combines the basic Robot Turtels and Adventure Quests. You can check out our review of Robot Turtles here.

Because Robot Turtles is a programming game, it makes sense that the game will evolve over time. The basic game is already designed with a leveling system in mind and the Adventure Quests  pack builds seamlessly with the original.

Adventure Quests adds a few things to the mix. The game comes with a booklet that contains several board configurations (quests) that the turtles must navigate. There are more gems and there are “Frog Favorite” cards which are sequences of moves that can be “programmed” to the function card. In many ways these are pre-set functions. They can be especially useful if you have children who are having trouble creating their own functions.

There are many ways to play with these functions. You can have a single function that all players use. You can have players choose a function for each adventure. You can have multiple functions available that players can use only once.

What is important is that the young programmers see how commands can be strung together to work efficiently, effectively, and creatively so they will get better at creating their own.

01 AwardI imagine this game will continue to expand for a long time. There are many obstacles and types of actions yet to be incorporated into the game. Some of this will be created by the individual players, but if the Adventure Quests pack is any indication, I imagine there is a great deal more to come from the developers.

This is a great addition to a great game.

Expansion for the basic Robot Turtles games. 2 – 5 players. Ages 4+

Robot Turtles was designed by Dan Shapiro © 2014 by ThinkFun.

Robot Turtles

Filed Under (Cooperation, Family Games, Kids Games, Puzzles, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 04-07-2014

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robot-turtlesProgramming is one of those skills that many of my generation and older consider to be about as esoteric as alchemy. Hours of waving your hands over a table. Repeatedly typing thousands of lines of incomprehensible gibberish surrounded by symbols that we just assumed were there to create emoticons. And then… the glorious Technicolor splendor of the electronic universe opens up on our screens.

It’s MAGIC!!

I for one am thrilled that there are people out there who take the time to program our machines to perform any number of tasks. I don’t think I have much of that kind of creativity, but I recognize it as such. I also recognize that the reasoning and imagination that underlie coding are key components that we all need to develop in order to navigate our digital and analogue worlds. The logic of programming applies to business and creative writing and all the games we play.

In an effort to bring the kind of thinking that programming requires to younger audiences, ThinkFun has provided the world with the fantastic little board game Robot Turtles. The game, designed by Dan Shapiro, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. And when I say successfully I mean funded about 25 times Dan’s initial goal. Seriously. Check it out here.

And deservedly so. Robot Turtles is a great game that does a wonderful job of introducing young players in to the game mechanics. These game mechanics are also the basics of programming. It needs to be said that the game does not involve actually programming a computer. Instead, the game mechanics mimic the skills and reasoning that good programming requires.

The goal of the game is to move your turtle to your target gem. You have cards that you play in sequential order that tell your turtle to turn, move ahead, fire a laser, or repeat a series of actions. Each of these actions is introduced over a set of games that gradually increase the complexity of the tasks. This approach to teaching the game might be a little frustrating to older players but it makes the game accessible to very young children. The youngest players will appreciate just moving the turtle around the board. Once they have mastered basic sequential commands, they can progress on to more complex games. In the parlance of most computer games and role-playing games, they can level-up.

Adults could probably jump in to higher levels without playing the “tutorial” levels but this is designed to teach very young children. The pedagogy is solid and each level is fun.

01 AwardAnother aspect that I only appreciated after playing with my kids was the cooperative nature of the game. It can be competitive but it is not written that way. The game encourages you to play with pairs on each team—a young “Turtle Master” and an older “Turtle Mover.” The younger player chooses the cards and makes the decisions but does not actually move the turtle. That is the job of the “Turtle Mover.” In this way, the younger players get to order around the adults who are supposed to follow the instructions chosen by the kids (and provide entertaining sound effects). I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and it still took me by surprise just how exciting it was for the kids to boss around the adults. My daughter chose the cards and I did just what they told me to do. This was a great simulation of digital programming in which the programmer provides instructions that something else (the computer) has to follow.

The most interesting and complex cards were the function cards. These served as markers representing a set of action cards. The actions would always be carried out in the same way whenever a function card was played. For example, in order to turn around the turtle on the most basic level, a “programmer” would have to play two cards (right turn, right turn). At higher levels, the programmer could place two right turn cards and a function card off to the side. If the turtle ever needed to turn around in the game, the programmer would now only need to play one function card.

The game comes with three kinds of barriers which can impede the turtles. Ice blocks can be melted by a laser. Boxes can be pushed. Stone blocks are permanent. The instructions come with some suggested “maps” but you are encouraged to come up with your own challenges and then figure out how you can overcome them with the fewest moves.

Creativity is highly prized but so is efficiency.

The art and instruction are fantastic. The pacing is great for a very wide range of players, and the game play becomes remarkably robust after only a few instructional levels. This is Major Fun for kids and parents and teachers and anyone (like me) who sees that programming should be taught to everyone—neither for economic reasons nor for purely pragmatic reasons but rather because the skills are intrinsic to our development as a species.

And playing with them is fun.

And our new robot overlords are probably going to feed the programmers who brought them to life before they feed the humanities majors who keep churning out post-singularity dystopian fiction.

So maybe there are some pragmatic reasons…

2 – 5 players. Ages 4+

Robot Turtles was designed by Dan Shapiro © 2014 by ThinkFun.

Machine of Death

Filed Under (Cooperation, Storytelling, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 27-06-2014

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machine of death gameSo if you haven’t checked out the Major Fun book review for Machine of Death, I’ll give you a moment to read it here…

[whistles through teeth…]

Take your time. It’s really good. The book, I mean. Go read it too.

[pulls out iPad and plays… er… does some research…]

Oh hi!! So now imagine a story-telling game based on the premise of The Machine of Death. Wicked cool, right?

You didn’t read any of the previous stuff did you. [Sigh] OK, so in a nutshell, a machine has been invented that, with only a drop of your blood, will predict how you will die with 100% accuracy. You get a piece of paper with some words on it: “steamroller” or “autoerotic exsanguination” or “French press.” Doesn’t say when or where. Doesn’t give any more details. And the machine might be said to have a highly developed sense of ironic humor so “French press” might mean a coffee maker or a bunch of Parisian journalists or perhaps a riot at a particular World Cup soccer match. Try to avoid your death and you’ll just find out how devious the universe can be.

The answer is always the same. The answer is never wrong.

In the game, you play a company of assassins. The Machine has made your profession very tricky, especially when your target has consulted the Machine. You are given four targets and a handful of items that must be used in order to bring down your intended victim. As a group, you have to come up with a plan that would make Rube Goldberg proud and then change it on the fly if something goes wrong.

The base game is cooperative. Each target comes with a description that provides your troupe of killers with a location and some personality quirks that you can use to your advantage. You also get your target’s Machine of Death card as well as three Black Market Gift cards that you must use in order to “establish the truth” about your target (learned that particular euphemism from Tim Power’s excellent novel Declare). The gift cards are redeemable for things like “something that floats” or “fancy pants” or “a public domain character.” All players work together to come up with a plan that utilizes all of these items.

For each Black Market item involved, the group must assign a number to it that indicates how likely it is to succeed in the plan. 2 means virtually guaranteed and 6 is nearly impossible. Once the plan is set, the group starts the 90 second timer and starts rolling the included die for each element of the plan. If each element is successful, the target is killed. Huzzah! If any element fails (you roll lower than the assigned number) you must draw a new Black Market item, discuss how it will change the plan, assign it a difficulty, and then roll for it again.

Your original plan can take as long as you like but once the plan gets going you have only 90 seconds to make changes. This keeps the action moving and adds a level of urgency to the proceedings.

You win the game if you eliminate all four of your targets. You lose if you run out of Black Market cards (you start with 20) or if you fail to kill a target. Along the way you can pick up special cards to help you, but the basic mechanic stays the same: come up with a plan, assign difficulty, roll for results.

01 AwardThere are also several alternative games that can be played with the same cards. Some of the variations are competitive. Some are more like a traditional role-playing game. One is a party game like Apples to Apples. This party game was popular with our large group. The variations are quite distinct which demonstrates two things to me: the strength of the concept and the considered design-work of the creators. If your group has never played a story-telling game before, start with the party game. Ready for some more role-playing but without the pressure? Play without the timer for a while. We had fun coming up with elaborate plans in much the same way that we would have fun building a city out of boxes and toilet paper tubes.

The story-telling game takes a very specific mindset to make work. It is much more about telling a funny story than winning or losing. In some ways it reminds me of an activity like writing an exquisite corpse. It also reminds me of collaborative role-playing games like Fiasco in which the dice are there to shake up the story-telling rather than win or lose a fight.

The Machine of Death is morbid and often bizarre but also Major Fun.

2 – 4 players (many more with some variations). Ages 15+

Machine of Death was designed by David Malki ! and is © 2013. The game is produced by Bearstache.

Keva Brain Builders

Filed Under (Creative, Dexterity, Puzzles, Thinking Games, Toys) by Will Bain on 18-06-2014

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Keva Brain BuilderIf you missed my earlier post about Keva planks and the fun of destruction, you can check it out here.

Keva planks are precision cut wooden building blocks. They measure about a quarter of an inch thick and the proportion of their dimensions is 1:3:15 (1 unit thick, 3 units wide, and 15 units long). The uniformity and quality of the Keva plank construction makes them ideal for building very complex and very stable structures.

Turns out, they also make for an interesting brain-teaser.

In essence, Keva Brain Builders is an exercise in architectural design and perspective drawing. The game comes with 20 planks and 30 puzzle cards. The cards are double sided. On the puzzle side is shown a diagram of something the player needs to build. The diagram shows the figure in top view, side view, and front view. The planks are color coded to indicate which side you are looking at in each view.

Your challenge is to build the structure so that it matches the picture on the solution side of the card.

The cards come in three difficulty levels. The easy ones are very simple both in the structure’s complexity and in the amount of balance it takes to create the structure. As the puzzles get harder, the diagrams become somewhat more difficult to suss out, but the manual dexterity to build the solutions becomes much more challenging.

01 AwardKeva Brain Builders lends itself to free play. Although many of us at Major Fun liked playing with the challenge cards, just as many liked building our own structures. I imagine that there will be many kids who will be perfectly happy to take the planks and make their own designs. I had fun trying to come up with complicated designs that I would then draw in all three perspectives.

Ultimately, this is a great introduction into Keva planks, it’s a nice small building set, and the puzzle challenges are a clever way to improve spatial awareness. It comes in a compact, zippered pouch; although if your household is anything like mine, that will get stuffed with dolls and the Keva planks will be incorporated into some other Frankenstein structure of train tracks, Lego, and toilet paper rolls.

Solo play. Ages 7+

Keva Brain Builders is © 2014 by MindWare.

Pivit

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 14-06-2014

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PivitAs you might imagine, we play a lot of games here at Major Fun, and after a while those games start to fall into rather predictable categories. In turn this can lead to a certain predisposition toward the ones we see most frequently. Tiling games are common and although I enjoy many of the ones that we get (see recent Major Fun Award winners here here and here…) when I open up the box I’m already settling in to a comfortable, laid back mental slouch.

So when we dumped Pivit out on the table and started flipping the tiles over, I had slipped into leisurely chat mode. It’ll be like Qwirkle, I thought. Lots of down time as each person takes a turn. Good for catching up on gossip with my friends.

To be fair, Pivit is a lot like Qwirkle in basic mechanics. You have tiles of different shapes and patterns. You arrange the tiles in interconnected lines so that either all the colors or all the shapes are the same in the line (but NOT BOTH). There are even WILD tiles. How hard could it be if it has WILD tiles?

Well, Pivit is more like a marriage between Qwirkle and Banangrams. I did not appreciate this confluence of game mechanics until I got my butt handed to me three games in a row by my step-daughter. You turn over your tiles (24 of them) and then try to be the first to create a crossword-style matrix. Your opponents are your timer. There are score blocks that are laid out in the middle of the table—one fewer than the number of players. Once you complete your matrix, you grab the highest score block you can.

The pressure is intense. Not only from other players but from the01 Award concentration it takes to differentiate the patterns. The patterns aren’t subtle but they have enough similarities that it is easy to confuse them in the heat of the moment. Mistakes were common which means that you could go from having the highest point block to nothing very quickly.

This is not a leisurely paced tiling game. It is a great lesson for those of us who have gotten complacent in what we expect from familiar categories of games.

We’ve been playing a lot of great games from MindWare recently and this one is no exception. The design of the materials, the clarity of the rules, and the elegant game-play speak highly of the care that goes in to their games.

Limber up your fingers and your minds and check out Pivit. It’s Major Fun.

2-4 players. Ages 8+

Pivit was designed by David Peterson and is © 2013 by MindWare.

Survive: Escape from Atlantis

Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 02-06-2014

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SurviveSurvive: Escape from Atlantis has been traveling a long time to make it to Major Fun.

Created in 1982, Survive: Escape from Atlantis is a board game with hexagonal tiles that change over the course of the game in a fashion similar to what you would find in more recent games like Forbidden Island and Settlers of Catan. As the story goes, you control a team of explorers who have discovered the island of Atlantis only for it to disappear beneath your feet. You must escape across hostile waters, either by boat or by swimming, to safe ground (the corners of the game board) before the volcano rumbling beneath the island goes all Pompeii on your…

As for tiles, you have three basic kinds: beach, forest, and mountain. These sink at different rates. The beach tiles disappear first, followed by the forests, until only the mountains remain, only to finally succumb to the inevitable collapse of the soon-to-be-lost continent. The tiles are cleverly constructed so that the beach tiles are thinner than the forests which are thinner than the mountain tiles. In this way players can instantly and intuitively tell what spots are most imperiled. Stronghold Games has done a fantastic job of designing all aspects of this edition.

Surrounding the island there is a wide expanse of ocean that teems with sharks, whales, and sea monsters. These entities slowly awaken as the island collapses and wreak havoc upon the explorers as the players try to make guide them to safety. Whales capsize ships. Sharks eat swimmers. Sea monsters destroy anything they catch.

Once the island is created in the center of the board, each player has 10 explorer pieces to place. The explorers have numbers 1 – 6 on the bottom of their bases which represents how many points each are worth. The goal is to have the most points at the end of the game, not necessarily the most survivors. When you place your pieces you decide where they go but once they have been placed you can’t look at their value. In the chaos of the game it is easy to forget which piece is which so there is a lot of tension as your explorers become threatened or are close to rescue.

On your turn you take four actions in this order: play a special tile (if you have one), move your explorers, remove a terrain tile, and roll the creature die. The terrain tiles are double-sided: one side shows terrain the other gives you a special action. Sometimes this allows you to summon a creature. Sometimes you can move your explorers. Sometimes you can prevent others from attacking you. Some tiles you can hold on to. Some must be played immediately.

awardOnce you move your explorers you must remove a terrain tile from the board. Beach tiles must go first. Mountains are last. If possible you try to dump your opponents into the drink. Because that’s where the creatures are and, as the blood-thirsty competitor you are, you get to command those creatures to smite your foes.

Your last action is to roll a die and move whatever creature comes up. This is how you prevent your opponents from reaching safety. Eat them with sharks. Capsize their boats with whales. Obliterate them en masse with monsters and whirlpools.

The removal of terrain tiles, in addition to the special actions they provide and the fun of dropping your opponents into a watery grave, also serve as the game’s timer. Under one of the eight mountain tiles there is a volcano. When it is turned over, Atlantis explodes killing any explorer who has not reached safety. Players tally up the score for each survivor.

The game has a lot of pieces but the art design and the instructions make the entire process very easy to follow. The most difficult aspect is probably the movement rules because there are different rules for swimmers, but once you have that down, the rest is very intuitive.

And very fun. Survive is a strategic game but one in which your plans often have to be scrapped and replaced as the island disappears and the ocean fills with flesh-hungry monsters. Of course, we control the flesh hungry monsters so maybe that says more about us as a species than we would like to admit. But revenge is so much fun!! And the sea creatures are so very very hungry…

2-4 players. Ages 8+

Survive: Escape from Atlantis was designed by Julian Courtland-Smith and is © 1982 by Stronghold Games.