By Kit Howard
Whenever a group gathers around a table with a game between them, it’s a moment full of interactive and expressive potential. Some sit down eagerly in order to play something new. Some sit down contemplatively to try a new strategy. And some might even sit down with a personal score to settle against another player present, but hopefully everybody sits down with the expectation of fun and a willingness to work towards that goal.
I open with this statement because some games by design and with players’ intent quickly become a frantic free-for-all with each player in turn actively attempting to throw other players overboard, either by themselves or in temporary union with one or more fellow conspirators. Such games can be both wildly fun but, depending on the current mood of the personalities of the players involved, also straining, if not detrimental, to fragile friendships. One such game is Lifeboats, and it is one of my absolute favorite games of all time!
Ronald Wettering designed this game with Matthais Catrein doing the graphics and Argentum Verlag published it in 1993 under the name Ritte Sich Wer Kann (German for “Every Man for Himself”). I own the Z-Man version reprinted in 2006.
Lifeboats is a racing game for 3 to 6 players with the winner being the one who gets the most sailors ashore on the trio of islands with varying value on the other side of the board. Each player gets a boat, 5 or 4 sailors (depending on number of players), and 2 officers in an available color. Players also receive a deck of cards with every color and 3 single-use captain cards.
A starting player is chosen and given the token of authority. That player puts their boat in any lane opposite the islands, as does each player in clockwise order. The player with the token of authority also puts the black boat in one of the lanes remaining. Next the sailors and officers, heretofore referred to as seamen, are put singularly in any of the six available spots on a boat of any color until every piece is on a boat. Ludi Cave (that’s Latin for “gamer beware”), counterintuitively, don’t put all your seamen in one boat - you’ll probably be the target of every leak and your boat will struggle to move closer to the islands. Ready to play, now let the fun begin! And when I say fun, I mean chaos..
Voting and negotiation are the heart of Lifeboats. The cards are the most used pieces in the game, as players use them again and again to vote during a round. Players vote for which boat gets a leak, which seaman is displayed (thrown overboard) by that leak, and for which boat advances closer to the islands. Although players without a seaman on a boat don’t get to vote in throwing a seaman overboard, they can participate in arguments for or against an eligible player. Votes are cast by choosing a color or a captain card and placing it face down before them and then are simultaneously revealed when everyone is ready.
Ludi cave - Lifeboats is a ruthless game. The path to victory is littered with the flotsam and jetsam of shattered lifeboats. Several seamen of every color will never make it to those alluring shores on the horizon. The play becomes cutthroat when players are faced with the necessity of throwing a seaman overboard. Players can promise or declare their intentions, but such rhetoric need not be reflected in their voting. And once permission to vocally fudge or misrepresent their actual vote is tacitly granted, players reflexively acquire a certain diabolical cunning, or uncloak their inherent capacity for such antisocial behavior, that is so essential to survival in this game.
As stated, voting is slightly different inside a lifeboat. A leak can be placed on a boat that has no available spot for it, and such an event requires a seaman to be tossed overboard. This initiates a new vote. When a vote takes place on a boat, the voting is limited only to those players inside the boat. Officers count for two votes, sailors get one, with the most votes winning. The player with the token of authority settles any resulting ties. The losing player decides which seaman is thrown overboard, removed from the boat, and returned to the box. A leak replaces the vacated spot. A lifeboat will float as long as there are more seamen than leaks in it.
At the beginning, voting is fairly amiable and immediately resolved. Each boat has a couple of empty holes that can hold a leak. But very soon the voting becomes personal and eventually vindictive. Every vote is typically preceded by spontaneous feats of persuasive oratory, as all players seek to maximize their perceived advantage and get their surviving seamen closer to shore by convincing other players to support their gambits. These vigorous debates can include frequent haranguing, fervent bargaining, some pleading, and even begging before the cards are turned over the votes tallied. Depending on the group of players involved, the pre-vote debates can be peppered with all manner of vacuous promises, testy exchanges, and ephemeral alliances.
These exchanges become the racing heart of darkness in this game. Tensions mount when every vote becomes crucial. Betrayals aren’t quickly forgotten, and can be expeditiously avenged. Alliances formed one turn can readily evaporate the next. Proposals, even sweet, substantially advantageous ones, can be rebuked out of hand by players spurned in previous rounds. Such negotiations can greatly extend the length of the game, and the player with the token of authority might needs be granted the power of silencing debate at the expiration of a prescribed allotment of time and move to immediately vote on the question at hand (a Jimmy Stewart-style filibuster will make this game interminable and fun for none).
It is these frantic negotiations that more than slightly resemble nigh riotous chaos are such a fun wave to ride. I play this game not because I have an aptitude for steering my seamen to an island, I play it as frequently as I can because it is so exciting to be right in the thick of this bubbling emotional chaos that has slowly erupted around the table. Given the fact that it is only a game, players can indulge their destructive impulses on the game board. And many players do.
Now something needs to be said about the repairing of hurt feelings that might arise during the course of this game. Hurt feelings come naturally with games like Lifeboats. Unfortunately there are no instructions in the rulebook about making such repairs to leaky friendships, so after the game has concluded, lower your antisocial flag, fold it up, and lock it away in your chest until the next game. Also rely on your reservoirs of empathy and humor to bridge whatever chasms might have resulted from a game of Lifeboats. Anecdotally, I heard from a hoary grognard while he pushed stacks of counters across a map during a game of Advanced Squad Leader that he lost a good friend playing a game of Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy. Remember always that Lifeboats is just a game. Have fun, wrack chaos, but leave such unconstructive impulses on the game board!
Quickly, let’s wrap up with a couple of clever mechanics that make Lifeboats shine, like a shark’s fin breaking the surface of the water off the port side. Every player begins the game with 3 Captain cards. A captain card can be played as a vote, and will trump any other combination, except if another captain card is also played during this vote in which case all captain cards cancel each other out and regular voting is presumed. Captain cards are single use cards, you play them and return them to the box. Remember too that a boat sinks whenever it has more leaks than seamen, with the loss of all hands. The boat and seamen are returned to Davy Jones’ locker at the bottom of the box. Lastly, each round ends with a seamen shuffle. Starting with the player currently holding the token of authority, they take a seaman of their color out of any boat and place it behind that boat. In clockwise order, the neighboring player similarly takes a seaman of their color and places it behind a boat. Only one seaman can be behind any boat during this phase, so on their turn some players might not be able to participate in the shuffle this round. When it circles around to the last player to take out a seaman, then starting with the last player and now preceding counterclockwise, they must place their seaman in a different boat of their choosing. If the seaman cannot be placed in a different boat from the one they left, then they are removed from the game. This game continuously, ruthlessly swallows up hapless seamen. Don’t get attached to them, because you only need a few of them to crawl ashore on an island to win this game. But remember that Lifeboats is just a game, and regardless if you win or lose, it’s all about how much fun you and everyone else have playing the game.