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It is time for another "Review a Week"! If you are new to this, this is my attempt to try and play some of the games in my collection that haven't hit the table yet. If I constantly do at least one review a week, I have to play them all eventually, right? If it matters to you, all of the games in my collection were purchased by me or were gifts from friends/family.

I picked up Lifeboats a few months ago when I saw that someone actually had it in stock and wasn't gouging the price in any way. As of right now, the game is out of print, and while a reprint is most likely in the works, Z-Man has been pretty quiet regarding this title. Regardless, since the game is completely about negotiation, anyone could come up with a P&P copy simply enough cobbling together playing cards and buttons, and I would urge you to do so before you put any money down for this one, as it might not be right you and your group.

To begin with, I didn't set out to give Lifeboats a negative review - in fact, after watching BGWS regarding this one, and reading some reviews, I was looking forward to getting my own copy. My gaming group is a very close knit group of people, who enjoy games for what they are, and never have a bad attitude at the table, even when they are losing - I figured it was the perfect fit. I was wrong for several reasons - but let me give you an overview of the game first.

If you were going to buy a game for the components only, Lifeboats would win you over in a heartbeat. The board is colorful and nice to look at, the wooden ships are fun to push around, the little blue discs that represent leaks are fun to play with, and the little sailor tokens, while they remind me of Sorry!, do exactly what they should. You also get some cards that are all perfectly finctionary with cute little pictures on them that are completely unneeded, but flesh out the game well. I have one complaint however - you are supposed to have 2 different sizes of pawns representing "officers" and "sailors". The officers are larger than the other pieces, but once they get placed into the ships, they can be very hard to distinguish from the others. I think it would have been a better to make the difference more easily seen once they have been placed. Not that big of a deal really, but it is a distraction.



As I said before, this game is all negotiation - no dice, no cards, no worker placement, nothing. You proceed throught the turns of the game, asking people if they will do what you ask, promising them whatever you can think of to convince them to agree with you, but ultimately, nothing you agree to is binding in any way. This opens the doors to backstabbing, treachery, and feeding your opponents giant bowls of spite.

So, thematically, a ship has sunk on the reefs and all of the sailors pile into the lifeboats to try and make it to the safety of a chain of islands a short distance away. However, the seas are rough and full of sharks and other dangers, and the lifeboats themselves are leaky and barely holding together. It is literally every man for themselves as everyone scrambles to save their lives.

To start, you place the 7 boats on one end of the board, furthest away from the islands. Then one by one, each person picks a boat and puts one of their pawns into one of the boats. Once everyone has placed their people, the arguing can begin.

The first thing you vote for is which one of the lifeboats will spring a leak. If there is an open seat in the boat, you put one of the wooden "leak" discs in that spot. It is important to note that if there are ever more leaks than pawns in a boat, it will sink at the end of that turn. Now if there isn't any open spot in the boat because of pawns or leaks, well someone is going to feed the sharks. At this point, only the people in the boat may vote as to who is going overboard. Sailors count for one vote, officers count for 2. If there is a tie, the "start" player for that turn gets to pick who dies, even if they don't have a seaman in that particular boat.

Next you vote for which boat gets to move forward one space. Same deal as before - everyone votes and ties are broken by the start player. If by moving forward, the boat makes it to an island, remove it from play and put all of the sailors and officers on the island that they made it to.

Finally, each person HAS to pick one pawn that is going to jump out of their ship and move to another one. This begins with the Start Player and goes around the table. A couple of wrinkles here - when you pick your sailor or officer, he goes behind the boat that he is leaving. At this point, no one else can leave that particular boat. The second wrinkle is that you get to choose which boat your pawn moves to, in reverse order, meaning the start player gets to choose which pawn jumps first, but they are the last to pick their new lifeboat. Since you cannot return to the boat you leaving, you might run out of spots you can swim to. If this happens, you forfeit the seaman as he drowns and/or get gobbled up by the sharks.

That it the end of the round. The Start Player moves one space to the left and you continue on until all of the pawns make it to safety or are lost at sea. At that point you total up the value of your living seamen (points vary as to which island you make it to, and officers are worth more than sailors) and declare the winner.

Before I get to my personal feelings of the game, I will explain how voting works quickly. Each person gets cards with the 7 different colors on them. All you need to do is play the color you want to win and then you have voted. However, each person gets three "captains hat" cards. The particular cards will overrule the vote and the person who played the card gets to decide what happens - UNLESS more than one player plays a "Captain Hat" card - if this happens the cards cancel each other out and the vote is resolved normally. If EVERYONE played a Captain Hat, the start player gets to pick the result.

That's it. The game is easily played and taught. Even new players will be able to figure out what is going on and how to play in a matter of minutes. Grasping the inherent strategies to the game play will take longer however.

I remember, back in high school, a buddy of mine would host epicly long games of Risk and Axis and Allies at his house. At some point he picked up Supremacy and we played that for awhile. Then one day, he told everyone he had picked up an amazing game called Diplomacy and everyone had to come over and play. My reaction to the game was probably a lot like everyone else's who had played 1000 games of Risk - where are the dice? Slowly, we picked up on the game, and I spend countless hours that guys basement, going off with friend's into other rooms and corners to discuss strategies. I don't think a single game ever came to conclusion, but I do remember getting totally screwed over by my "friends" at some point in one game, telling everyone that they could go suck eggs, jumping on my bike and pedalling home. Some people would like to think I had tears in my eyes, but I still adamantly state that a gnat had flown into my eye.

Now why did I tell you that story? Because I wanted to show you the inherent problem a game like this represents. Lots of games have a screwage factor built into the mechanics. Lots of games give you the ability to screw your friends over, even if it isn't necessary to the game. Lifeboats is a game that, if you want to win, you have to screw at least one other person at one point or another, all the while covering your own ass from the treachery of your opponents.

That's all well and good. I am a big boy and I can take it, because it is only a game, but the problem is, as my friend Craig said during a session, "It would be nice to have a little strategy to go along with all of this slap, grab, and tickle."

Now, that isn't very eloquent, but it does describe my issues pretty well. When you have five or six people playing, voting, moving their pieces around, boats leaking, etc. it is very difficult to have a strategy worked out very far in advance. Sure, right now I can make a deal with yellow to vote for the green ship to move forward one, but who knows if I will even be in a position to help out yellow in the future, or vice versa. The random chaos with that many people is such as to make all negotiations almost moot. Alliances are just as easily made as they are broken, with no real negative for doing either. You are better off just concentrating on getting yourself in the best position each and every turn and hoping for the best than you are trying to remember who you were supposed to help and when - because most likely when that time comes you aren't going to be able to follow through on your promise anyway.

Now with less people, say three or four, the problem is actually the opposite. With that few of people moving around, you can actually see what is happening and what is most likely going to happen on any given turn. Now if you like negotiating, the game will shine. However, one person out of the group is going to be left out in the cold very quickly. Oh sure, all of you could progress at an equal rate, but no one who is trying to win is going to play that way. So you set up the game, start it up, and within the first 15-20 minutes you realize that, unless your opponents brains fall out of their skulls, there is no chance you are going to win the game and you still have about 45 minutes of "fun" ahead of you - and if you simply want to bow out of the game, you are the jerk.

I know this game has its fans, and I can totally see why people would like it. It is also very possible that I, and my friends, just don't get this one, but I seriously do not see what kind of people who would find this game enjoyable. If it has one saving grace, it is that it is relatively quick to play, so any hurt feelings or exasperation won't last long.

Ultimately, this was just a total misfire for my friends and family. I will not condemn this game as unplayable, because there are flashes of brilliance and enjoyment to be had, but the malaise between those moments makes them too few to save this one in my eyes. If you want a recommendation I will say this, if you want all of the backstabbing and treachery of a game of Diplomacy, with about 1/5 of the strategy, condensed down to 90 minutes, this will probably be the perfect fit for you and your group. Otherwise, steer clear of this one. Their are better games to spend your money on.

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Each to their own and this game certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. However there is one essential factor to making Lifeboats an enjoyable gaming experience that you don't mention and that is, a sense of humour.

Unless you have a crystal ball its hard to see too far into the future with this game so a player has to regularly reassess the position and adjust their actions accordingly. I've tried hard to sort strategies out and even written up pleas here for assistance, but to date I've had no answers. So this was never going to be a deeply strategic affair.


The game pivots on people getting openly picked on and as a result drown. How dreadful, What an awful way to go. Indeed, but I am yet to participate in a game where as a pawn slipped beneath the waves, someone didn't say, 'Glug Glug' or 'try surfing in' or hum the Jaws theme. And most of the time everyone laughs including the drowned.

And that is the way the game needs to be played. Yes people get picked on and there is 'back-stabbing treachery' but its a game where that is the central mechanic. If a player gets all bent out of shape because they've been betrayed by their friends had their boat sunk from under them and has a strop or a sulk and gets gnats in their eyes, then they really shouldn't have joined the game in the first place. No one has insulted your family, crashed your car or kicked your child. It's just a game.

However if I did witness that sort of reaction then I'd do my best to make sure the rest of their little blokes were the next ones to go diving with their air turned off. Nothing spoils the atmosphere of a game more than a player frothing at the mouth.

Lifeboats has to be played with a sense of humour and must be enjoyed as a light hearted game where winning is perhaps secondary to having a laugh even at your own expense.
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This is a very well-written review that would be more readable if there were headings to break up all that text. And I love the title - it's the only reason I read the review!
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As we decided what the evening's game would be, one of our party and I were browsing through the almost one-hundred games in my collection. My dear friend's hapless gaze fell on Lifeboats. The colour drained from my skin.

"We don't play that game," I spat. "Why, does it suck?" "Yes. It sucks your life away. It sucks the love of your dearest beloved into a netherrealm of pain and deception, transforming you into a soulless demon that cares only for the cursed wooden pawns that inhabit this box. Those that play this nefarious game know only the deep, insatiable thirst for points. Those points will not comfort you when you look around you and see only enemies where friends once sat. These points will not care for you in your old age. Nor will the loved ones that have been turned against you and that you have turned against."

"Shit, I was going to say Bohnanza, but that sounds awesome! I want to play THAT."

"No, I told you, I don't play that game. It awakens ugliness. It ends relationships. The boats themselves are carved from trees that grow only in Hell and have unpronounceable names."

"No, that's the one. LIFE-BOATS! LIFE-BOATS! LIFE-BOATS!"

Shaken by the spontaneous, cultish chanting, I nevertheless endeavored to explain the game and its terrible dangers to the group as best I could, but they were undeterred. I made sure to include the steady chorus of screaming babies that echoes in your head from the moment you place your first piece until the last of you is dead, and the veil of blood that covers your eyes as you openly advocate the purposeful drowning of those you once loved, colouring the world with a sinister crimson darkness. Still, they wanted to play.

As the first round passed, their faces began to change, distort. They saw the blood. They heard the deafening, tortured cries of a thousand drowned seamen before them. Silently, they exchanged glances as if to communicate their new, all-too-late understanding of the horror they had irreversibly waded into.

After several moments of stillness and silence, the strongest among them found enough humanity remaining in himself to raise his head and speak. A single utterance of acknowledgement dribbled lifelessly from his slackened lips: "Oh."



I totally won that game. LOL NOOBS
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I had a similar Diplomacy experience. I had someone I hadn't played games with before call me because they wanted to have all the countries represented for a game called Diplomacy. Sounded fun. I got there and no one knew me and no one would even talk to me about any kind of deal. I left after a couple of hours, asking them why they bothered to call me if I wasn't really going to be part of the game. I guess just so they could have every country represented. But was my country truly represented if no one would even talk to me? They didn't even bother to tell me one thing and stab me in the back.

That has soured me on Diplomacy, which may actually be a pretty good game.

Lifeboats looks much lighter than Diplomacy, but I agree you'd have to have the right group of players in the right (light) mood for this. I enjoy playing a troll in Talisman and walking around thumping the Druid and the Thief on the head, but the randomness of the game allows one to believe they were unlucky when they lost, not that they were picked on, which a game with no luck means that person meant to pick on you.
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While I enjoy the game - and teach it to folks often - I'll always appreciate a well written, thoughtful review. I do agree that you can't think out strategy too far ahead, but I find it enjoyable nonetheless.

Still, interesting to see your view!
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Excellent review. You did a great job of explaining the game as well as pointing out possible faults. I think negotiating games in general are very dependent upon your group, but since this one lacks any other mechanic its rings especially true.

Have you ever played Mall of Horror? If so, how do you think it compares to Lifeboats? If you haven't played MoH, do you think your experience with Lifeboats would keep you from trying another negotiating game?

~ Bones
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BonesJackson wrote:
Excellent review. You did a great job of explaining the game as well as pointing out possible faults. I think negotiating games in general are very dependent upon your group, but since this one lacks any other mechanic its rings especially true.

Have you ever played Mall of Horror? If so, how do you think it compares to Lifeboats? If you haven't played MoH, do you think your experience with Lifeboats would keep you from trying another negotiating game?

~ Bones


I have often wanted to play Mall of Horror, and I will probably try it out sometime. Of course someone nearby would have to own it...which is problematic since I am the only one who owns any games.
 
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Mall of Horror has more style, better components and more expanded mechanics. I prefer MoH for those reasons, and because it tempers the all-out negotiation with skill and luck. MoH is a pretty fun game, and it doesn't make people quite as upset, I've found.
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A brilliant story, Pellbort!
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Thank you very much for this excellent review. I was on the fence about this game leaning towards getting it. I knew I would have trouble finding good play groups due to the large number of people needed and the fact it is essentially a screw your buddy game. However there were two main questions I had:

1. How much potential for strategy does this game have (I was worried the second I saw the duration)?

2. How isolated are the screwed players (I love downtime monsters like Talisman once in a great while but I absolutely hate games that leave one or more players feeling the sting of inevitable defeat early on with little opportunity to stage a come back)?

Your review addressed both of these nagging worries I had and now I think I will pass on the game. I won't pass an opportunity to try this game if it arises but I don't think I am going to buy it unless I do try it and am very impressed.
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Kevin
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I love this game, but I believe it only works with at least 5 people and its best with all 6.

Bear with me... I was totally absorbed by the first season of Survivor, and then gradually lost interest with each subsequent season. What I loved most about it was not the meaningless physical challenges or the 'survival' aspect, but the negotiation and backstabbing that occurred while the players each tried to secure a spot as one of the final 2 as they voted others out. I loved seeing the alliances, the empty promises, fallout from the backstabbing, and seeing the players walk a fine line between appearing to be someone's worst enemy or best friend.

I mention Survivor because I feel that Lifeboats captures the heart of that competition perfectly. I agree that it does truly test some relationships and people can take it way too personally. However, the ones that do take it too personally often are the most proud when they win, or come close to winning, via their version of 'honest play'.

Also, I'd argue that there is definately strategy in this game, but maybe not what you'd expect. In this case your strategy wouldn't be carefully mapping out each move based on a careful assessment of risk/payout, and based on your best guess of what will happen in the next 2-3 rounds. In this case, the 'meta-game' is the game, so your strategy should involve negotiation tactics:
"should I be a wheeler and dealer, or a wallflower and ride others' coattails?"
"should I ally with this person because we have a stronger relationship outside of the game? Will they betray me or stay loyal?"
"Should I be 100% honest or lie through my teeth, or a combination of both?"
etc, etc, etc,...

Unfortunately, this game doesn't come out as often as I'd like because we rarely have that many people together for that long without kids distracting us.


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I was going to post that any fan of the show Survivor will feel at home here, and I see this has already been mentioned. The strategies employed in this game are extremely similar to the ones in the show.

Do I try to fly under the radar until the end?
Do I ally with another outspoken player and allow them to take the heat?

Just as with Survivor, "strong" players are great allies in the beginning, but become liabilities as the game progresses. The decision of when to eliminate the strong is important.

Inherently, this game is great for any sort of player. Even the most meek player who doesn't say a word has a chance to win by simply not appearing to be a threat. Likewise, an outspoken player can make logical arguments in their favour for success.

This game virtually requires five players. With five or six players, no one will be left out, and alliances are guaranteed to shift during the game.

There is a critical flaw with four players. As soon as two players agree to cooperate on a particular vote, the other two players have no one to turn to. There is no negotiation or argument that can change the outcome. The game boils down to who can make the fastest deal, not the best deal. I have played it a few times with four players and can see how the complaints of "being left out" or "no strategy" would apply.

With five or six players, two or three players can make an agreement on a deal, but there are enough other players involved that one or two alternate proposals will be tabled. Usually, there will be two or three "choices" for every vote throughout the game. This gives some freedom for diplomacy and for the best aspects of negotiation to come out. It also greatly enhances the power and tactics of "the stick", as knowing when to call the vote can be as important as the vote itself.
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UndeadViking wrote:

The Start Player moves one space to the left and you continue on until all of the pawns make it to safety or are lost at sea. At that point you total up the value of your living seamen (points vary as to which island you make it to, and officers are worth more than sailors) and declare the winner.
(emphasis added by me)

Is it true that different islands have different values? I have never seen this rule before, and it doesn't appear to be so on my original German version. I know that officers are worth x2 and crew/sailors are worth x1.
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They sure do. Take a look at the pictures above and enlarge them. You can see the different point values.
 
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I have the original german edition (glued the voting wheels together myself) and there is actually one tiny part in the rulebook that mentions the point values under the section regarding moving. It is also printed on the board.
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Now I understand why the rules say you cannot move your boat sideways. So, there is some more strategy then in placing your initials sailors in the boats. Interesting. My German edition didn't come with American rules but I will check out the board tonight when I get home to see if I can find those valuation marks.
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Great negative review! Could use a little more whitespace, but very well written.

I like Lifeboats a lot, much more than Diplomacy or Mall of Horror. Diplomacy requires such a big investment that getting backstabbed REALLY hurts. Mall of Horror is very similar to Lifeboats, but it has too much rules baggage in between the voting. I prefer games that get right to the point, and that's what Lifeboats does- it's one brutal vote after another all game long.

The thing about Lifeboats is that everyone is going to get stabbed in the back multiple times every game (or they will have won a truly epic victory). If everyone knows that going in, it's easy to compartmentalize for an hour and just have fun betraying each other.

Ultimately, I think Lifeboats is most similar to games like Red Dragon Inn or Guillotine where you just expect mindless brutality and laugh all the way through.

Regarding strategy, a well-timed captain hat can be a devestatingly good play. It's not much, but it's definitely in there.
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squash wrote:
This is a very well-written review that would be more readable if there were headings to break up all that text. And I love the title - it's the only reason I read the review!

I found it very readable.
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