Survive! Space Attack! Review

October 29, 2015

Survive! is one of the best mass-market games ever published. It was released by Parker Brothers back in 1982 and many gamers today have fond memories of playing it during their formative years. Designed by Julian Courtland-Smith, it is a masterclass in simplicity, novelty and sheer cutthroat behavior. It lay out of print for over two decades, barring a couple of international editions, until Stronghold Games picked up the rights and did an all-new edition that was updated to a lovely 30th anniversary edition a few years back. Now, in 2015, they have done the unthinkable. They’ve changed the setting and added new rules, courtesy Geoff, Bryan and Sydney Englestein- the family responsible for the Space Cadets titles and the underappreciated Ares Project.

But it’s all good, it ain’t heresy if Mr. Courtland-Smith approves and he does. And overall, this is a fun update to a classic title that adds a couple of new features that shouldn’t alienate (!) veterans or newcomers. The big change is that the players are no longer trying to get their little people off a volcanic island sinking into the ocean while dodging sharks, whales and sea serpents. This time out, they’re fleeing a space station under attack by aliens.

The gameplay is mostly the same- you get three moves to get your people to safety and then a piece of the board is removed, dumping whoever is on it into space. On the back of the tile you removed is an action, which may add a creature to the board or work as a kind of action card. Then you roll a die and move one of the creatures, presumably to menace other players. The goal is to have people with the highest hidden values on the safety spots at the corners of the board by the time the whole thing goes south.

The feature that has made this such a classic is that the game allows for some grade A douchebaggery while remaining light and fun. The tile removal can drop people off into the mouths of waiting monsters. The escape pods have room for three- which may or may not be players willing to work with you to get it to safety. And watching a full ship of other players’ piece get destroyed one space away from safety is ALWAYS satisfying. But you never know what value each of the people have, so there’s no way to specifically target high value targets. This helps to keep it from being TOO brutal or vindictive.

The skin-swap obviously brings with it a lot of cosmetic changes. The lifeboats are now escape pods, the sea creatures now correspond to different classes of aliens that destroy ships, eat people or do both. The board is now more randomly constructed so that the pieces are removed in an irregular way rather than by working inward. And you can build the station either in a preset template on one side of the board or however you like on the other. Oh, and the other only has two “jump points”, which makes it even tougher to get those people to safety.

But the Englesteins went further with the setting- rest assured this is not simply a change of costume. Now, there is another kind of ship that gets spawned during the game- a one-seat fighter that you can pilot to capture (specifically not kill, to keep it family-friendly) aliens and redeploy them on your turn. There are laser turrets on the space station, so you can put a guy on there and spend a movement point to shoot and capture an alien that way as well. And there are numerous new tiles that do some really fun stuff like make aliens change from one type to another- really fun when a group in an escape pod thinks that they are safe from the “meat only” Spawn adjacent to them watches it turn into a ship-destroying Warrior. Or a Queen that eats everything. The creatures in this version feel more powerful and more dangerous, but this is carefully mitigated and balanced by more opportunities for players to remove them. The action tiles as a whole feel more effective, in part because you can play them more frequently than in the original game- there is no longer a one-per-turn stricture.

I have to admit that I was quite apprehensive about the setting change and the new rules because I think Survive! is pretty much perfect as Mr. Courtland-Smith initially presented it. It doesn’t need any more complexity or any more rules. I think that the Englesteins felt that way as well and the redeveloped aspects of the game are very respectful, very well thought out and very well integrated. It still looks, feels and plays like Survive!, and I appreciate that the impetus was to embellish rather than alter.

The one sticking point I have- and really the only reason that I’m not giving this full five stars- is that even though I think the sci-fi setting totally works and provides the opportunity for lots of neat artwork, great spaceman figures and plenty of kid-friendly pew-pew action, I really miss the classic storyline. I have many games full of aliens and spaceships, but I have very few that are about people fleeing from a sinking island, riding on friendly dolphins while dodging sea serpents.

With that said, the sci-fi concept is more likely to put butts in seats so to speak, so it’s hard to fault Stronghold for going this route with it. And if you’ve never played the original, you won’t miss the sea serpent anyway. I’m trying really hard not to say in this review that Space Attack! is better than the original and I won’t, but I will admit that the new additions add some great new dimensions that are going to refresh this game for fans while also bringing some new folks in for some wonderfully nasty “every man for himself” fun.