Just admit it already, Small World is not a fantasy wargame...it's a Mancala variant!
About three months ago I picked up the new Stronghold Games edition of Survive: Escape from Atlantis!. I had very fond memories of playing it as a kid, so I was super excited to get my hands on the reprint. I already knew that the game had held up over the years, because right before I moved out of Ohio my buddy Matt had brought an old copy he had found to one of our gaming sessions. We were all so caught up in gleefully killing each other's Atlanteans that I think we played it three or four times in a row. I spent the next three years kicking myself for not storing my childhood copy someplace safe when I was eleven and punished myself by trolling all the local thrift shops, endlessly searching for a used copy. None ever surfaced, but thankfully rumors of a new revised version started cropping up on the Geek...and eventually a copy worked its way into my anxious little hands.
While Stronghold was floating their teasers, they hinted at the whales being left out in favor of adding the giant squid to the monster mix. Of course, a small scale nerd shit storm soon erupted. Looking back, it's pretty clear that the whole controversy was a perfectly executed hype generator. Normally that kind of thing irritates the crap out of me, but this time I found the whole thing to be fairly entertaining, not to mention impressively clever.
After the dust of the controversy died down, Stronghold announced that the squid meeples were real and that they were going to be released as an expansion. I of course, having completionist sickness, simply had to have them. The best part of Survive! is feeding the monsters, so what could be better than more of them? I added them onto the Survive! order without a second thought. Sure enough, when they arrived they looked absolutely awesome, just like the rest of the reprint.
I set the game up straight away, read through the expansion rules and dove right into a four player game with the kiddies. The squid, with the rules as written, turned the game into an absolute bloodbath. We finished having only saved one or two meeples each and the island was completely depopulated before the jungle tiles were even removed. We set up and played again...and once more the land hopping giant squid ate nearly the entire fleeing populace of Atlantis. This thing needed toned down...badly.
Now I normally have a pretty strong dislike for house rules, I think that comes from years of playing in competitive tournament games like Magic, Mechwarrior and Dreamblade. Rules ambiguities wreck havoc in that environment, so I've always been of a mind set to play the game as written. Knowing the rules is half the battle when it comes to becoming tactically proficient in a game, so I always try to understand them completely.
House rules muck that up. Besides, There's nothing worse than being taught a game with someone else's made up rules and then being completely lost when you jump into that same game at a different venue. Sometimes the reverse is true, you go to play a familiar game and the whole table is playing a completely different way that someone in that particular group made up. You end up challenging all the crap the other players are doing and just generally come off as a rules lawyering Killjoy. I don't like it when that happens to me and I try not to trip up others by doing it myself, even when I really hate a rule.
However, this squid release is just really sticking in my craw. The Squid-eeples are amazingly cool and I absolutely need to use them in my games. Still, I can't stop thinking that the rules as written make them far too powerful. Now that it has been out for a few months, it seems that many out here in BGG land are starting to agree. Stronghold did take notice and offered a FAQ fix to tone them down. It helps, but still...I just don't feel right with squids crawling up on land (or having quarter-mile long tentacles) to eat people. They also have the side effect of making the other creatures, especially the whales, become almost inactive for most of the game. Given the choice it's just about always better to activate a squid, rather then mess around with one of the other critters. I want to play with them, but early on...those squid were wrecking the game.
I decided to access the great think tank of the Geek to get some suggestions. I figured if I threw up a couple of ideas, I could gather some input and find a more comfortable way to use them. The idea I was going for was this (previously posted):
One of the great things about Survive! is how well the theme comes together with the mechanics. The creatures all behave iconically, as popular fiction has always imagined them. The whales act like Moby Dick, the sharks behave like Jaws and the sea serpent wrecks the boat AND eats the crew, basically a diabolical combination of the other two creatures. Again, the gameplay meets popular expectations. The squid doesn't (at least in the originally printed rules) feel this way. Giant squid plucking people off of the island, devouring an islander literally every other player turn and having the ability to kill a whale if it strikes first just feel a little bit off.
I think that to thematically tie in the giant squid, they should have primarily preyed upon meeples aboard boats. That's what all those old carvings of the Kraken always depicted, right? That was the intent of my rough draft of a house rule set for them. I thought it would be neat if you could use them to aggressively peel enemy meeples off your boat, the trade off being you just might feed it some of your own if your opponents were lucky. I even thought it might be neat to place them so that they could guard empty boats and make it harder for your opponents to use them. It seemed like a more fitting use for them than the current land shark rules...
Unfortunately, the post was quickly devoured by a British Kraken. He stomped all over it and screamed POWER-UP from the roof tops at every suggestion I made. Now I've been inhabiting the inter-webs long enough not to let things like that really bother me. I'm sure he had fun and despite shooting everything down, he wasn't really all that rude or anything. He did however, almost single handedly shut down the thread. When I dropped my ideas, I erred on the side of things being too powerful as I figured it would be good to start aggressive and then tone things down based on feedback. Nope. All I got was an angry Brit and a suggestion from Kevin at Stronghold games to just play the FAQ. No playtest reports, no ideas, not even a suggestion to change the expansion name from Survive: Escape from Atlantis! The Giant Squid Mini Expansion to Survive! The Giant Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus expansion. There was nothing but crickets.
Now here we are a couple of months later and I see that finally some others are starting to take issue with the power level of the Squid. I still haven't seen a very good fix though, so I wonder...Is anyone out there playing around with them? I've ran a couple of games using this rough draft:
1. Whenever a whale tile is revealed, the active player may also place a giant squid in any hex already occupied by a manned or unmanned boat. The whale is placed in the original tile's space as normal.
2. A manned or unmanned boat in the same hex as a giant squid may not be moved in any way until the squid is destroyed or moves away.
3. A squid may be activated instead of a whale anytime a whale symbol is rolled on the creature die.
4. If a whale moves into the same hex as a giant squid, the whale immediately attacks and consumes the giant squid. Remove the giant squid from the game. If the squid was holding a boat (manned or unmanned), it is also destroyed in the encounter. Any meeples aboard become swimmers, as per the normal whale vs. manned boat rules.
I've played two games with this set-up. I haven't decided if I like it or not. It made the board seem kind of static in the early game as the squids pounce early and often on the first surge of manned boats, but things picked up once more empty boats came into play. I feel like there is an over-abundance of boats anyway, so it's nice to have a reason for spawning more of them (to run rescue missions!). The first set of boats to launch typically have a pretty high success rate, so slowing them down might not be such a bad thing. I also like having the squid and whale be a one-two punch. They share spawn tiles, so it's pretty neat to have them work in tandem. Even in normal Survive! Whales don't get a whole lot of action, so having the squid hold the boats in place until the whales get in position to sink them just works...and I can thematically justify it.
Try it out, see what you think. I am very open to suggestions. Just don't stomp up and down and scream Borken! Borken!
I already know that, I want to fix it...
I'm also kind of curious as to what everyone thinks of the dolphin challenge rules. I like the idea of having the dolphin figures on the board protecting swimmers, but they hardly ever activate (the wild card symbol is almost always used to eat someone)...so they are just not that useful. I saw one suggestion that players use the tile as in basic Survive! to move a swimmer three spaces, THEN place the dolphin in the swimmers space. The best of both worlds! Has anyone tried it?