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Subject: One-half of Diplomacy, but Twice the fun. rss

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Benjamin Maggi
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Introduction

I am a huge fan of the game Diplomacy. Introduced to me when I was doing my undergrad in college, I fondly remember the nights playing it; yes, we would start around 7:00PM at night and play on until we passed out. Huddled around a table with a laminated map of Europe in one hand, a list of potential moves in the other, darting through the shadows hoping to glimpse what others were writing and straining to hear whispers from other rooms, all the while giving signals to my own "allies" using finger taps and seemingly-random gestures, it was a great time. Oh sure, there were instances when the game broke down- like my first experience playing the nation of Austria/Hungary when no one wanted to work with me the entire game- and I have done things I regret like throwing a chair across the room. But for the most part, it is a game that still gets me excited with the prospect of playing even though I don't stand much chance of winning, much less lasting until the later rounds.

Diplomacy is a combination of two different concepts: (1) negotiations and (2) military tactics. While the later would appear to be simple enough it is in fact often compounded by the problems of mistaken or poorly written orders, confusion of the territory names, improper support directions, and a required memorization of all of the stalemate lines. Some enjoy the pure simplistic military strategy of the game, but not I. For me, it is the complex negotiations, fraught with betrayals, meta-gaming, mixed loyalties, and ever changing alliances that draw me to it. There are some who are afraid of the game, claiming that it will "ruin friendships;" while this may be true, I question the strength of their relationship to begin with. Others embrace it in the hopes that the time will come when a perfectly played back-stab will not only assure them of some great victory but also allow them to gloat over the person or persons whom they trampled over. While I have witnessed this on many occasions, seasoned players know that while an excellently-played betrayal will give a player a temporary win, in the long term if they ever are to play again with the same people this type of maneuver will not work. Trust and honesty are valued highly and not easily regained once lost.

Add to that the complexity of arranging for hopefully seven people willing to play a game where in reality at least one of them won't make it past the first two hours, and at least another one or two will be forced to play through that time even though their chances for success are seriously hampered. For me, I dreamed of a game that took the complex negotiation meta-game aspect of Diplomacy but eliminated the fiddly military conquest element and shortened the experience to under two hours. Then, I heard about Life Boats and my prayers were answered.

Game Components

I judge games first by my eyes, and second by their rules and mechanics. In no small part I am sure it is because to get many of my games to the table I need to be able to sell them to my non-gaming friends. While a game with cheap cardboard pieces and dull boards may be a gem in terms of wonderful gameplay, if it doesn't look pretty my family's eyes will glaze over and ask for Monopoly. Thus, looks are important. However, I can name dozens of games that could win awards for their components yet are boring to play, littered with rule inconsistencies, and feature uninspiring themes and game mechanics. Most games I played as a child were produced with lots of colorful plastic bits and such but used the tired "roll and move" or "draw a card and do what it says" system. Yawn!

This game has a unique history for me. I learned about it years ago and started to lust after it, but I wanted an English edition and the Z-Man's first print run was sold out and going for large amounts of money online. Thus, I did what any handyman would do and decided to make my own version. I made boats using planks sanded to shape, with the holes drilled all the way through and then the boat bottoms glued on (so that the holes would be smooth all the way through) and shaped them. I ordered multiple sizes of wooden pawns online, cut dowels to length and painted them blue for the leaks, and started painting my sailors and boats too. I planned to use regular playing cards, sleeved, with inserts made of construction paper for voting. The board would be blue cloth with the design painted on it by me. It was perfect. Part way through, I realized I didn't have enough colors of spray paint and the cost of the paint for the rest of the pieces was almost equal to the cost of a used German edition of the game. My makeshift bits went into a box, the German game was ordered, and I was able to get on with the rest of my life.

The German edition and English editions of the game are functionally similar, and both are produced well. The German edition which I have has a board that is a bit drab or "toned down" in colors when compared to the English edition but it plays fine, if not better, because your eyes can concentrate easier. The wooden bits- boats, sailors, and blue "leaks"- are beautifully done and very smooth. The game is designed for various player numbers and with less players each person receives more guys. Though they could have given every color the same number of pieces they cheapened out and made some colors with less pieces, meaning if you wanted to use those colors you needed to have more human players in the game. Thankfully, the colors with less pieces are white and yellow, the two most unpopular colors in my group. If they had skimped on red or blue it would have been a catastrophe!

In my version of the game there are player "voting wheels" which are secretly turned to reveal the desired voting color and revealed simultaneously. The English version uses cards. In play they both work well but the wheel may prove fiddly to put together (my used copy already had it done) and when rushing to vote based on the "stick rule" (see below) it is easier to throw a card down then to try and turn the wheel without it sticking or bending. These are minor points, however. My German edition also came with three very thin cardboard chits representing the captain's hat option for voting, and though I may laminate them eventually they work for now because they are not held in hand and subject to sweat and bending. Finally, my game came with the "wooden stick" used by the first player to call negotiations to a close.

Aside from needing to print English rules (Ich spreche nicht Deutsch) and creating a handy condensed version incorporating the stick rule (featured in the BGG files section), the game was very usable in its German form. Though I may someday finish my set just for fun, I am happy I purchased the commercial version as it doesn't look cheap and it also skirts potential legal and ethical issues.

Game Play

The rules to the game are very easy to understand and teach, and the rule book is laid out well with multiple examples. The object of the game is to get the most sailors of your color to one of the three islands at the end of the board- each of which has different valuations for the officers and crew- and at the same time make it difficult for others to do the same. The game starts with all players in selected boats at one end of the board or "track" and ends when either they all reach safety or drown. In situations of ties, the colors of the boats that reach the end first determine the overall winner; this is the only situation where the color of the boat you are riding in matters.

Setting up the game takes all of a minute and the only special nuance is to give each player the correct number of crew and officers depending on the total number of players in the game. A start player is selected (I believe the rules call for the player most recently on a boat), the boats are placed in turn order on the board in any available space, and then it begins.

This is a negotiation game, meaning for the most part nothing is done without a vote of the players in the game. Some votes are given by all players, and others only by certain players who have a vested interest in the results of the boat. Ex: if you are in a sinking boat and someone needs to get thrown overboard, only those in the actual boat with the hole can vote on it. In cases involving tie votes, the Start Player breaks the tie even if he or she was not in the vote itself! This is a tremendous ability, and only tempered by the somewhat harsh changing-boat mechanics in Phase 3. Each player also has the opportunity to play a "Captain's Hat" card or chit, which means when played that person gets to decide the vote regardless of what others chose with their voting wheels. However, if multiple people played Captain's Hat cards they cancel out and the remaining votes are tallied. In case of ties the Start Player breaks the tie. Each player receives only three Captain's Hat chits, and each can only be used once in the game. Thus, if you use one and someone else does too you both wasted your opportunity. Ouch! Finally, the German edition contains the "Stick rule," which allows the Start Player at any time during the negotiations bang the start stick on the table, immediately ending all negotiations and resulting in a vote then and there.

The game has three phases per turn, at the end of which the Start Player rotates to the next person:

1.) Phase 1: A Lifeboat Springs a Leak
One of the boats in play will receive a leak, and all players still in the game can vote on this. Only one boat will receive one leak each round, but boats can have multiple leaks. After negotiations, each player selects using the color wheel the boat they want to receive the leak; once a spot is filled with a leak, no sailor may be placed there and the leak will always remain in the boat. (Apparently, bailing with buckets was never contemplated by these sailors!) Each player has the ability to cast one vote, and once everyone has chosen, the results are revealed and one blue leak is added to that boat if there is an open spot. If not, one sailor must be thrown overboard to make room for the leak! Players with sailors in the boat vote to determine who is thrown overboard. Here is where the differences between Officers and Crew come into play, as crew get one vote, but officers get two votes (the votes must be the same color, meaning essentially the votes are worth twice as much as a crewmen's vote.) The "loser" must sacrifice a crew first, but if they only have officers in the boat one will be removed. Finally, a check is done to see if a boat contains more leaks then sailors. If it does, the entire boat sinks and all aboard are removed from the game!

2.) Phase 2: One Lifeboat Moves Forward
One of the boats in play will move forward one space towards the safety islands, and all players still in the game can vote on this. After negotiations each player votes for the boat they want to have move forward one space. Boats cannot move sideways towards an island that has a higher scoring value. Once the votes are revealed, the winning boat moves one space closer to the islands and if a boat reaches the last space, all sailors aboard are placed on the island and the boat is put next to the board. Keep the boats in order for scoring purposes later in case of ties. If only one boat remains, it automatically moves forward one space. Note: once a person reaches the island, they are "safe" and cannot ever be lost.

3.) Phase 3: Swim to a Better Boat
Starting with the first player, each person removes one sailor from a boat and places it behind the boat in the water. Only one sailor total may leave from each boat which means that some players may not need to remove anyone. Then, in reverse order, players put their sailors into a different boat then where they originated. Multiple players may jump into the same boat if there is room, but if there is no room in an eligible boat the sailor will drown! If only one boat remains then this phase is skipped. Many times this means the first player either won't have a boat to get back into, or else the only boat left for him will be a boat that is doomed to sink. This rule tempers the start player's powerful ability to break all ties. Finally, another check is done to see if a boat contains more leaks then sailors. If it does, the entire boat sinks too.

There is one question that is not clearly answered in the rules, but which there is some discussion in the BGG threads. If a player is out of the game- meaning all of their pieces have drowned or are safe on the islands, may he still participate in the voting? One school of thought says that they have either played really well or really poorly to get themselves into the position they are in and thus they shouldn't be excluded or punished for it by banning them from voting. The counter opinion says that since they aren't on the high seas anymore clinging for life in a boat they shouldn't have any ability to affect the outcome on the rest of the people still in the water. Whatever decision you choose to make, state it clearly in the beginning of the game to avoid problems later on.

What I like About This Game:

1.) Interactive: my favorite aspect about a game is the interaction it elicits from the players. I have played many games considered great here on BGG which didn't really require any conversation or other involvement between the players aside from questions about rules. In some, the closest players can get to changing another person's strategy is taking a spot with their worker or grabbing the card first. While it is possible to play those types of games and make small talk at the same time, I like games where there is constant combat, battling for position, screwing your neighbor, and much laughing, crying, screaming, etc. This game has it. Since you cannot hope to accomplish much of anything without the help of others, you will be required to wheel and deal your way to victory. But for every good promise you make and keep, you will also probably be required to lie or "remain uncommitted" as well. This delicious interaction is what makes Lifeboats shine.

2.) Fast paced: there isn't a lot of down time in this game because players are constantly in the thick of it, and turns last only a minute or two each. If the start player allows negotiations to go on forever then the game can drag, but the designers put a timing mechanism into the rules (which for some strange reason didn't get translated to the English edition) so I can't fault them if the game goes on too long. Bang that stick, people!

3.) Simple rules: a child can understand what needs to be done each turn, not that I suggest children play this game (see below). Trying to explain the Phase 3 "Chinese Fire Drill" logic is a bit difficult too, but the rules for it are easy to follow. Just make up some story about how each person wants to escape the boat full of cannibals or say the crew are suffering from dementia and it will be fine.

4.) Well produced: you can't help but fall in love with a game that has cute boats, colorful sailors (and usually, when "colorful" and "sailors" appear in the same sentence it is in relation to their language) and fun little leaks that seem to always roll about. It lures people in, only to potentially shock them later on when they find out how the game actually plays.

What I Don't Like About This Game:

1.) Not Suitable for Everyone: that is a nice way of saying that there are certain groups of people who either won't comprehend some of the subtleties of the negotiation system or cannot emotionally handle it. These may include (a) children who don't understand why someone lied to them, (b) whiners who used their captains cards at the wrong time and now don’t have any left, (c) wives who expect preferential treatment from their husbands, (d) sociopathic liars who can't seem to get anyone to vote with them, (e) the "can't we all just play nice" people who hate the fact that someone is going to drown and don't want to hurt anybody else's feelings, and (f) the new guys who join gaming groups and haven't made many friends yet. Frankly, there are lots of reasons to pull out another game, but if you have a group that can handle this then I say go for it.

2.) Player number imbalance: In my limited experience of playing this game we had a great time with four players but I think it would shine much more with five or six. While technically it can be played with three, this would either result in (a) two people ganging up on the third guy, or more likely (b) a group-think game where every vote is publically analyzed so that no advantage is given to any single person, also resulting in a near-tie game. Both sound pretty boring to me. While in reality this in-depth analysis is how the game should be played, when emotions are allowed to enter and cloud a person's better judgment (usually evidenced by phrases such as "remember when you didn't vote for me and my guy drowned?" or "don't worry, I got your back like you had mine" or my favorite "I know I should vote for Blue but yellow has been voting against me all game!") it gets so much more interesting. Thus, if you only have a few players stow this game in the locker and pull out something else.

3.) Negotiation Drag: if you have a gaming group that is going to argue for 5-10 minutes before each vote as to the merits of each color selection, this game will make you wish that you were trapped on a deserted island. Use the start stick as a threatening tool, and get the game back on track. Otherwise, the game can take two hours or more with lots of people.

Final Reflections

I enjoy this game enough to play it again, and my family and friends all seemed to enjoy it. I didn't expect them too, which is a big shock for me. It scratches an itch that I have for Diplomacy and that alone makes it worth the price. In fact, it might be a good way to test the structural integrity of your potential Diplomacy group before committing eight hours to that game. There aren't a lot of games that focus on the negotiation mechanic alone which makes this unique in the world of board gaming. There is absolutely no randomness to the game, and luck as we commonly define it only exists when trying to read what other player's voted for. If you are a quiet or timid person you will not get through this game or enjoy it. If you are obnoxious and drooling at the mouth over the chance to stab someone in the back you will get your wish- only to find that for the rest of the game no one will listen to a word you say. If you are a teacher trying to explain how bi-partisan politics work this is an excellent teaching tool (warning about having young children play this game repeated). If you want an interesting "ice breaker" game before a heavier wargame- and one which will reveal all of the "allies" who cannot be trusted in the later games- give this a try. And if you just want a simple, clean-cut game to play that will test the strength of your diplomatic skills, this is a perfect medium. Just a word of warning: it is best to inform everyone at the start that this is only a game and not a real life ship wreck, as some people can't seem to leave the game emotionally down the road and will harbor resentment at certain people based on a previous game of this.

Re-implementations:

Lifeboats was re-implemented in 2005 as Mall of Horror (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/16772/mall-of-horror), in which all players are trapped in a mall about to be overrun by zombies. It introduced new game mechanics such as the ability to forecast where the game's problems would be encountered- think of it as being able to foretell in advance which boat was going to get the leak so you could bail out before the others- and things like weapons and trading of items. I have never played it and it probably wouldn't go over as well in my gaming group, but it looks like an excellent game. So, if you want a more streamlined game go with Lifeboats but if you want more "theme" and additional intricacies go with Mall of Horror. Note: Mall of Horror is itself being re-implemented in late 2012 as City of Horror (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/120217/city-of-horror), which I am eagerly awaiting.
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Aurelio Agustin
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Are you serious about the re-implementation? It would never occur to me that these games where similar.
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Benjamin Maggi
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aurelio wrote:
Are you serious about the re-implementation? It would never occur to me that these games where similar.


I have seen at least one thread where it said that MOH was a reimplementation of Lifeboats. BGG also says that COH is a reimplementation of MOH, and not MOH 2.
 
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Tyler DeLisle
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Interesting. I was looking into this game and I kept thinking that it really reminded me of City of Horror. I was actually about to write a thread asking if there was any reason to get Lifeboat when I already have CoH. I guess this kind of answers my question.

This definitely seems simpler, less to explain, CoH adds ability cards, and building abilities, but aside from some symbology, it's really not that much more to explain.

Lifeboat looks adorable, but I'll probably pass for the sake of keeping my collection tight. Thanks for the review.
 
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Benjamin Maggi
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TyDeL wrote:
I was looking into this game and I kept thinking that it really reminded me of City of Horror. I was actually about to write a thread asking if there was any reason to get Lifeboat when I already have CoH.


I have never played either Mall of Horror (MoH) or City of Horror (CoH), mostly because the horror themes just don't interest me. That being said, I am always on the lookout for MoH because I think it would be more interesting. A friend owns CoH but I don't believe he plays it much.

Adding all of the extra rules might add to the game play, but I don't know if they really enhance the core experience: negotiating. They might add chrome, and they might make for more challenging decisions, but not having played it I don't know how much they will add to the negotiation or bluffing aspect. In that regard, Lifeboats is about as "pure" of a negotiations game as you can get (if you don't play with the "stick rule" then it is even purer).

That all being said, it really depends on your game group... which is true of any negotiation game. My core gaming friends would probably like CoH or MoH but my casual friends would never buy into it. They do, however, enjoy Lifeboats.
 
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Benjamin Maggi wrote:


3.) Negotiation Drag: if you have a gaming group that is going to argue for 5-10 minutes before each vote as to the merits of each color selection, this game will make you wish that you were trapped on a deserted island. Use the start stick as a threatening tool, and get the game back on track. Otherwise, the game can take two hours or more with lots of people.


There is a neat variant (that was part of the original German version of the game) where the starting player could, at any point, immediately stop all conversation. No talking is allowed and everyone immediately votes.
 
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Benjamin Maggi
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ShotgunGames wrote:
Benjamin Maggi wrote:


3.) Negotiation Drag: if you have a gaming group that is going to argue for 5-10 minutes before each vote as to the merits of each color selection, this game will make you wish that you were trapped on a deserted island. Use the start stick as a threatening tool, and get the game back on track. Otherwise, the game can take two hours or more with lots of people.


There is a neat variant (that was part of the original German version of the game) where the starting player could, at any point, immediately stop all conversation. No talking is allowed and everyone immediately votes.


Yup, I reference it above in my review as the "Stick Rule."
 
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