Julian Courtland-Smith’s classic Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was an enormous mass market success over two decades ago. It’s a vicious family game of fleeing from a sinking island via lifeboats as you take turns controlling the monsters and devouring your next of kin. The game manages to be confrontational without ever feeling mean or unfair, and it has a strong unique identity that separates itself from other games with wide appeal. Stronghold Games perhaps flagship title has been the utterly fantastic 30th anniversary edition of the game, featuring beautiful artwork and lovely bits. Lovely bits is a term I need to use more often, perhaps in a British accent.
Geoff Engelstein and family, best known for the exciting Space Cadets series, have continued their electric connection with Stronghold by getting their hands on Courtland-Smith’s aged baby and massaging out some of the wrinkles. They’ve taken a venerated classic and provided just the right level of development to produce some new tricks without altering the original’s DNA or smooth feel. The amount of care and reverence displayed is enormous and you can tell everyone involved in this project just clicked and forged ahead in unison.
As an overall experience this is very similar to Survive set in space. Players take a collection of pawns numbered 1-6 and deploy them to open spaces on a space station mid-destruction. You take three actions on your turn which includes floating your astronauts helplessly into the black or hitching a ride aboard an escape pod, possibly one contained by other players. You’re trying to make your way to one of four warp gates which will often require fleeting moments of cooperation and, more often than not, meting out huge bouts of destruction. The idea is to score the most points, which means you need to get your highest valued pieces to safety.
After taking your three moves you choose one of the space station tiles to remove from play and dump any crewmembers occupying the tile into space. Throwing people into the mercy of the black cold void feels nearly as sweet as flipping the tile over and reveling in the new special power you’ve just acquired. Many of the tiles afford one time use benefits that can allow for dirty tricks and swings of dramatic enjoyment. Oh, and some will spawn ferocious beasts that immediately devour anyone paddling in zero-g.
At the end of each of your turns you roll a die which will dictate the type of creature you get to activate. You are able to choose one such monster in play and unleash your inner beast, devouring escape pods and floating citizens like a toddler on a bag of gummy bears. It’s gruesome and fun and most importantly – hilarious. You can’t help but burst into chuckles while mumbling curses at your Mom for moving the Queen over your escape pod and just wrecking your formerly peaceful journey. I can just picture those little dudes in pod #213 sipping on a glass of merlot and humming along to some Muzak before being swallowed whole. Now the air is full of a cacophony of screams as alien Queen stomach acid melts their skin from their bones.
A selection of special powers provide a fabulous oomph to the proceedings
The main new wrinkle from classic Survive is that players are given more authority in manipulating these interstellar monstrosities. You can now take to a fighter and move great distances as long as you stay in a straight line. When you land on a beast you can remove him from the map and place it in front of you. Likewise, you can spend an action to fire a turret from the station and claim a space bug as well.
At the beginning of each turn you deposit any aliens you’ve claimed back onto the board in open spaces of your choice. So Jimmy, Sam, and Naomi are gunning for an exit at full speed in their escape pod and you throw down a Warrior and a Queen right in their path. Next turn they’ll be ejecting their urine out the side of the pod with their first action.
Aw, hell nah.
This ability to sacrifice momentum towards escape to shift the board position of (kinda) neutral enemies flows nicely with the baked in personality of murdering each other for fun and profit. This game is all about drama and tension, including its subsequent release accompanied by long bouts of raucous laughter. It takes those prime emotional moments of gaming and just repeatedly slams the buttons to produce excellence again and again.
This version of Survive also includes an alternate board on the back which features only two escape points. For those masochists and sad clowns that didn’t think the original layout was quite vindictive enough, you can now narrow the exit vector and watch the body count pile up. It’s a hilarious alternative to the standard setup and one worth trying for grins and you know what.
The question that needs to be answered is whether this is better than its older sibling. If you must choose only one version of Survive! it will likely come down to which theme you prefer. The original Atlantis sinking/sea monster shenanigans is definitely fun, but I’m a sucker for science fiction.
The second query is whether this is worth owning if you already have that beautiful 30th anniversary edition of Survive. That’s a difficult question to answer as there is much carry-over between the two. However, the new theme in combination with the unique ways to interact with the monsters does create a distinct identity. In all honesty I’ll have to partake in a rare cop-out and throw up a stone wall as I cannot determine that decision for you. What I can tell you is that my group has had a blast ejecting each other into space and tearing each other limb from limb. You also can’t argue with the fact that this is Stronghold Games’ bestselling space title.