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Survival Games

July 27, 2008

From trains, to farming, to a cathedral in Paris, it doesnít matter what the setting is when I have the opportunity to fight the game system itself, in addition to my fellow players. While the game is not a traditional opponent, there are a handful of games where you struggle against the game just as much, if not more, than you struggle against your more traditional human opponents. These are games that certainly donít appeal to everyone because they have a tendency to feel negative and oppressive, which is understandable given the pervasive motifs of famine, bankruptcy, and plague. Nonetheless, this is a loosely defined genre of games that I find myself drawn to more and more. Itís difficult to pinpoint exactly what is so enjoyable about this type of game, but I feel that it has something to do with the fact that you feel a sense of accomplishment once youíve finished even if you lose to your fellow players because youíve hopefully beaten the game system in a way just by managing to survive. Before I go any further, perhaps it would be best to give some examples of games from this genre to help you better understand since itís harder to grasp in the abstract. The six games that immediately come to mind when I think of games in which a significant part of the game involves contending against the game system itself include: Age of Steam, Antiquity, In the Year of the Dragon, La Citta, Agricola, and Notre Dame (with the first three being the best examples). All of these games confront you with famine, bankruptcy, and plague, which are not traditionally what youíd think of as good themes for a fun board game. Itís that prejudice (not with a negative context, just in the sense of pre-judging) against such distressing motifs that turns many people away from this genre of games, but on the other hand, itís that fight for survival that actually makes them so compelling. I say motifs rather than themes because, as I led the article with, Survival Games can take on any number of wide ranging themes (from trains, to farming, to a cathedral in Paris), but the motifs of suffering are constant throughout. I considered dubbing the genre ďPunishing Games,Ē but that just serves to reinforce the pain and suffering of barely holding on, whereas naming this category ďSurvival GamesĒ may help to emphasize the positive aspect of surviving the bruising and battering that youíll inevitably take in one of these games. Survival Games can be less about the end-point or goal and more about the journey (perhaps theyíre the Odyssey of board gaming). Unlike most eurogames where nothing bad can happen to you along the way, so itís simply a matter of being the most efficient player (or the least picked on player) to accumulate the most victory points or money, there doesnít have to be the same sense of coming up short in a Survival Game due to the accomplishment of staving off starvation or narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.

Age of Steam is a classic Survival Game because itís economic system is brutal and unforgiving. If you manage to make a single dollar in your first game, you should feel very proud indeed. Age of Steam is a game where you start off in debt. You begin the game with $10, but unlike the vast majority of games where your starting capital is somehow magically yours, Age of Steam builds into the system an explanation for how you obtained the money that you begin with. It does this by saying that youíve issued two shares in your railroad company (each worth $5). That doesnít sound so bad, until you learn that youíre going to have to pay your shareholders $1 per turn for every single share that youíve issued. The number of turns varies based on the number of players, but in a game that can take up to ten turns, this means that youíll end up paying back up to $20 for your starting capital over the course of the game. Furthermore, there is no way youíll survive this epitome of a Survival Game without issuing additional shares over the course of the game. Each additional share you issue will give you an immediate $5, but will require you to pay $1 per share at the end of every subsequent turn. Not to mention that you lose three victory points for every share that you issue at the end of the game. Although, as Iíve said, the victory points are secondary to simply surviving and avoiding bankruptcy. Iíve played Age of Steam 29 times now, and itís still a huge challenge every time I play it to escape from the debt that the game starts you in and build a profitable railroad that isnít in jeopardy of going bankrupt. This isnít even the only hurdle that the game throws at you, not by a long shot. In back-to-back phases every turn, not only do you have to pay for every share youíve issued, but you also have to pay based on how good your locomotive engine is. Furthermore, once youíve finished paying everything you have (and sometimes owing even more than you have), the game really kicks you when youíre down. It follows the first brutal phase with a phase called Income Reduction. This is a phase where the meager income that youíve managed to slowly build up is viciously cut down to size, turn after turn after turn. This is to signify the fact that your railroad track and cars are degrading over time from rusting and wear and tear, and you need to keep building and expanding (if you can afford it) to even stay where you are. It feels like treading water in a giant whirlpool that is trying its best to suck you under. I suppose I can see why some people have difficulty enjoying the game, especially people with large student loan debt, who Iíve found can have trouble appreciating a game all about suffering through debt and trying to escape the clutches of a debt that attempts to consume you and thwart all your efforts. But this is exactly why I love Age of Steam. Unlike games where players simply try to earn the most money and money is never in short supply (even good games like Chinatown, For Sale, and Medici), Age of Steam does a wonderful job of making you greatly appreciate the moment when you finally manage to go from being in the red to being in the black.

Antiquity takes Age of Steam to the next level in many ways because you go from struggling against bankruptcy to struggling against both famine and pollution. I wonít go into very much detail on Antiquity because Iíve already discussed the game at length in my Surviving in 11th Century Italy article. However, I will say that it belongs firmly in the genre of Survival Games (or Punishing Games if youíre a glass-half-empty kind of person) because Antiquity is another game with back-to-back phases at the end of every round that kick you when youíre down. After you construct buildings and collect resources every turn, youíre faced with the Famine phase followed by the Pollution phase. In the former youíre forced to fill your cramped city with a number of graves equal to the difference between the ever-increasing famine level and the amount of food that youíve managed to stockpile. In the latter you must add three pollution markers to the map in the fields surrounding your city (or six pollution markers if youíve managed to build a second city). These pollution markers block the spaces on which you place them, making those spaces unavailable for collecting precious resources. Ending each turn with these two phases makes the game not only extremely difficult but also can serve to trap you in a downward spiral of building graves and placing pollution, which in turn make it difficult to prevent graves and pollution in the future, which of course result in more and more graves and pollution headed your way. Soon youíll find yourself drowning in a sea of pollution with a city overflowing with graves, and thus no room to harvest resources and no room to construct useful buildings. Itís certainly not a very joyful game, but then again, neither was living through the Middle Ages, I imagine. While playing Antiquity is not a joyous or raucous occasion by any means, itís an exceedingly challenging and mentally stimulating game that will leave you thinking about it and pondering your choices long after the game is packed up and back on the shelf.

While Age of Steam only pits you against imminent bankruptcy and Antiquity merely makes you suffer through famine and pollution, In the Year of the Dragon throws the kitchen sink at you and then some. In the Year of the Dragon takes it up a notch by making players contend with drought, Mongol invasion, imperial tribute, and contagion, plus the possibility of decay after each of those fun challenges. In the Year of the Dragon is game where players reenact one year in ancient China around 1,000 A.D., which apparently was not a particularly pleasant time I gather. The game takes twelve turns each representing one month over the course of this year of the dragon. Each of these twelve turns consists of players first having the opportunity to take one action (e.g., expand their palace, collect rice, collect money) and recruit one loyal subject (which will make certain future actions more powerful), but then the game makes every player face one of the many possible disasters (e.g., drought, contagion), which will take your money, kill your loyal subjects, take your resources, and possibly destroy parts of your palace. Youíre lucky if the game leaves you with anything in the end. In fact, I used to think this game was about trying to cycle your resources and loyal subjects, having resigned myself to the fact that I was bound to constantly be losing them to myriad disasters. However, after playing a few times, I finally encountered a game where one of my opponents managed to avoid killing off any of his loyal subjects throughout the entire game and certainly pulled out a win in the end as well. It was quite a feat and one that makes me wonder what Iím doing wrong, as well as what all my other fellow players are doing wrong. I wonder if I could see that feat replicated as it seems nigh on impossible to withstand the persistent onslaught of catastrophes that the game throws at you. The parade of horrors makes this a downer of a game that I hesitate to introduce to many people because of the overall negativity of the game. Unlike most eurogames, itís not about seeing who can become the most prosperous, but rather, in typical Survival Game fashion, itís about seeing who can avoid being the most devastated. Then again, that means that it certainly has the trait I cherish most in Survival Games, which is the sense of accomplishment that you get from simply making it to the end, regardless of your relative score compared to your human opponents. Simply taming the game system opponent is enough to satisfy me.

Age of Steam, Antiquity, and In the Year of the Dragon are the Top 3 of this genre of Survival Games as far as I can tell (although Iím certainly open to suggestions of other games of this ilk), but I know of a few other games that also loosely fit the criteria. These additional three games may not be quite as punishing, but they still have a bit of a negative connotation that is missing from most games, since they pit players against famine and plague.

First, La Citta is probably number four on this list as itís another game where players are constantly scrounging for food and barely hanging on to avoid the clutches of famine. I always tell new players when teaching La Citta that if they canít decide what action to take on their turn that the default action should always be to build another farm because obtaining additional food is always good. La Citta is brutal because your goal in the game is to grow your population since each person in your cities at the end of the game is worth one victory point (which is the primary source of victory points), but every turn you also need to feed your population, and you lose people down to the level of food you can provide if you donít have enough food (and also lose an action on the next turn or 5 victory points if your fail to feed all your people on the last turn). That 5 victory point penalty is solely responsible for me losing one game of La Citta. Another wrinkle in La Citta is that right before you need to feed all your people, you have the opportunity to steal people from your opponentsí adjacent cities (based on the otherwise relatively useless buildings in your cities such as statutes, universities, and hospitals). Since you donít know exactly how many people youíre going to steal, you donít know exactly how much food youíre going to need. This sometimes results in the amusing situation where Player A is unhappy because his people were stolen by People B (remember each person is worth a victory point), but Player B is also unhappy because he canít feed all of his people because stealing people (which is an involuntary automatic occurrence) made his population larger than his food supplies. Itís a rare thing for one playerís action in a board game to make both players miserable.

Second, Agricola is yet another game where the constant pressure to collect enough food to feed all of your people makes it a candidate for the Survival Games genre. Not only do you have to gather sufficient food for your family, but the intervals that you have in which to gather this food are getting progressively shorter over the course of the game. At the beginning of Agricola you have 4 turns to obtain enough food to feed your family, but after that you have 3 turns before the next feeding is required, and then 2 turns, then 2 more turns, followed by 2 additional turns, and finally only 1 turn. Thus, there are six times that you need to feed your family, but the amount of time that you have in which to collect sufficient food is getting progressively shorter over the course of the game. This means that the game continuously tightens the screws on the players, or rather it eases players gently into a warm vat of water that slowly heats up, but is boiling before you know it. If you fail to feed your family, then you are forced to take a Begging card for every food that you are short, which translates into negative three points at the end of the game. Unlike in La Citta, at least you donít lose people in Agricola for being short on food, but both games make players contend with the ever-present threat of famine.

Third, Notre Dame was the game that Stefan Feld designed right before designing In the Year of the Dragon, and thatís not surprising to players to have played both games. While In the Year of the Dragon cranks up the pain to eleven, Notre Dame is the obvious precursor to Feldís magnum opus of suffering. Notre Dame puts the players down into a beautiful Parisian setting, but infests this otherwise family friendly game with hordes of rats bearing the plague. While players attempt to contribute to the building of the cathedral, they are constantly forced to beat back the persistent onslaught of rats throughout the game. Every turn the rat marker moves forward considerably on the rat track unless you focus all your efforts on keeping it at bay, and the penalty for letting the rats get out of control is both losing people and losing victory points. Itís a penalty that youíll probably have to resign yourself to suffering at least a few times over the course of the game, and while the plague bearing rats donít exactly threaten your very survival in Notre Dame, they do make this an uncomfortable experience for some gamers who canít cope with the constant pressure and tension that comes with fighting the plague in this game. Perhaps this means that Notre Dame is a good candidate for the gateway game of the Survival Games genre. You can use Notre Dame to test the waters with your fellow gamers to see if they enjoy being challenged by the game system itself or prefer traditional eurogames where you simply fight your opponents. If Notre Dame goes over well, then you can step it up to the other five games discussed above, but if the idea of trying to avoid being overwhelmed by the plague doesnít appeal to your fellow gamers, then it would probably be a good idea to avoid some of the even more painful motifs and punishing gameplay of the full-fledged Survival Games.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)