Walter Muller, £25
Designed by Ronald Wettering
3-6 Players, about an hour
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
This is the game that Flusspiraten should have been. Whereas that game was over complex, slow and ultimately flawed, this is close to ideal. Interestingly, it is not designed by Walter Muller himself but by a new name to me, Ronald Wettering, so perhaps he came along and showed our Wally the game he had hoped to design. Rette was easily the best game at Essen and I feel is a sure fire hit. The surprise for me is that I like it despite the content, and this is really going to shock you, because it is a game full of negotiation, lying, deception, backstabbing and all those other things I strongly dislike about Diplomacy (and seem to comment on each issue sorry). The difference is that this is carried off in such clever manner that I am completely sold. It is a game at which I have looked aghast at opponent's tactics, executed some unbelievable coups and laughed so much that it has hurt. A game about throwing people to the sharks just has to work on the basis of fun and Rette delivers perfectly by dint of a solid, clean system and one tweak of dazzling import that I will come to later.
The game, which translates to Every Man For Himself, is about lifeboats. Seven of them leave a sinking ship and aim to make the safety of three desert islands. Each boat contains a random selection of sailors and officers, colour coded to represent the players' interests, who will score points for each dobber safely landed. Each boat need only move three times to make it home, but boats will spring leaks en route and it is surprising how difficult it can be to get the boat to move at all. This is because the game revolves around a constant diet of group decisions and each player has his own agenda namely to get his men to the islands and to hell with the rest of them.
At almost every point in the game, the decision is made on the basis of a majority vote. Absolutely anything goes in trying to make sure you get a result that suits, or at least is neutral. Much time can be spent making deals, negotiating, stirring up trouble, misleading the opponents or simply pleading with those that might just listen or join your side. All this concluded, it goes to the vote. Each player selects the colour he is backing on his dial and all are revealed simultaneously. The majority wins, the turn leader (known as the Man with the Stick) breaking any ties with his casting vote. However, it is also possible for a player to select a hat instead of a colour.
He can only do this three times, and failure still costs one of these lives. The judicious play of a hat will give that player the right to overturn the vote and decide the outcome, often used to move a boat containing your men or to hurl an unfortunate overboard. The rub, and the cause of much merriment, is that two or more hats played together cancel each other out and the remaining vote stands. This usually follows much animated nodding, tapping or scratching of heads and subtle, ambiguous hints such as, It would be very unwise to PLAY A HAT this early in the game, Mike. Inevitably, since mind reading isn't all it's cracked up to be, two hats emerge quite frequently from the very players who have agreed to play one between them. Whoever does this earns the Indian title of 'Two Hats' until the next bozo screws up. Alan Moon, for instance, has already been dubbed Chief Two Hats for unstinting services to comprehension and logic. Even more deadly is the newly invented Jefferies Sacrifice, wherein you spot the situation where a leading opponent will play his hat and, in an effort to pull him back, throw in yours to cancel him out. It hurts, but hurts him more than it does you. It also helps to hide your hat counters if you can get away with it.
The turn structure, and indeed the rules, are so simple as to be intuitive. The turn starts with one of the boats springing a leak more leaks in the boat than sailors, and it sinks with all hands. If there is no room for the leak, someone has to get off and become shark bait. In the absence of a Captain Oates gesture, this too goes to the vote. Captains are useful here as they get two votes to a sailor's one. Next is the movement of one boat up the board, often the scene of vicious negotiations, recrimination when it all goes wrong or jubilation as a boat finally hits the beach. Hat play is often prevalent in this phase.
This is followed by the cleverest part of the game where the sailors must make a dash for another boat. Without this one pivotal rule, I doubt the game would work half as well. Starting with the Man with the Stick, each player must take out a sailor from a boat. Then, in reverse order, they get back into another boat. Sometimes there won't be room to get out, sometimes there won't be room to get back in (in which case they drown), but the ingenious part is that the whole perspective changes every turn.
Boats so full of holes that they must sink unless you get in, suddenly become welcome havens. The destination of the next leak counter becomes crystal clear. Players who you were just voting out of the boat or refusing to move are suddenly in a boat with your guys and want to be the best of friends. Alliances are therefore always fluid (unless you are playing against the Clifford-Corrie Cartel) and the chance of the stab or the last minute reprieve permanently on. The net result is that by game end you fall out with everyone, yet it doesn't matter because they are giving as good as they get and you have probably helped them as many times as you have stabbed. Similarly, there are times when everyone around the table is lying through their teeth or the least likely strategy somehow makes it to the top with those left out shrugging in despair and incomprehension, but always with a grin. Three times Clifford convinced useful voters of his future commitment to their cause only to hurl them out at the first opportunity the key word here is three. In many ways, the whole feel is of a negative of Diplomacy; the play is fun, somehow upbeat and ever changing, wherein you can always suggest a better deal even if it is laughed out of court, and the result is humorous and invigorating rather than dull and acrimonious.
Production is superb, with just one fiddly exception. The boats and sailors are all wood, painted in bright colours, the board is rendered in that inimitable Muller style and the Stick is very nice too. The weak points, though not in quality, are the six voting dials which have to be made up from three pieces of cardboard using the double sided sellotape supplied. This is a good half hour's worth of Blue Peter anguish and you need to take it very carefully. I would suggest using Copydex instead if that were any easier, but it isn't by much.
It is hard to say whether the game is value for money as having played once, I would have gladly paid twice the asking price. It is one of those games that you simply must have. And that is it really. It all plays in about an hour, seems to work best with five or six but four is fine, it is an awful lot of fun and, to be honest, it hardly seems to matter who has won. A brilliant game and the very best of 1993.
On to the review of Was Sticht? or back to the review of Magic.
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