Time: ~45+ minutes
Times Played: 9
Let’s get this out of the way early. No one in my group knows this game by the name Lifeboats. This game is called Vote Boat. It will become readily apparent why shortly.
So what is Lifeboats/Vote Boat about? It’s actually a fairly easy premise and a simple game to teach and learn. You are trying to get your sailors (the color token that you are) from the sinking ship you evacuated to the island(s) at the other end of the board. Some of the lifeboats will spring a leak during the journey and will not make it the entire way to the island(s).
How does this get accomplished? By voting. Every single aspect of this game is done by voting. When I say every single aspect, I mean every single aspect. Hence, Vote Boat. There is nothing random about this game. Each time a decision is made, the player(s) select on of their cards from their hand and places it down in front of them. The cards that they have are one of each color represented in the game plus three brown Captain cards. The Captain cards can be used to override any other vote made by the players. So if the majority voted for the white player but a brown Captain card was played, the player of that Captain card can choose the outcome of the vote, regardless of what the other players say. Each player only has three Captain cards and once one is used, it is gone forever. Also of note is that if multiple Captain cards are played, they cancel one another out and are worthless and the vote stands with whatever the remaining majority is.
But that’s just the Captain cards, what about the votes? Majority rules. So whichever color is the majority when the cards are revealed is the “winner” of the phase. I use the term “winner” lightly and you’ll see why as I explain the phases below. If there is a tie, the player with the start disk (which passes from player to player at the beginning of each round), determines the winner out of the colors that were tied.
To begin the game, each player is assigned a color and they will set-up their boat and their sailors on the board.
There are two types of sailors: Crewmen and Officers. Your crewmen are the regular sized pawns of your color and each of their votes count as one. So if you have three crewmen in one boat, that’s three votes for whatever you choose. The Officers however, they have more sway with the boat inhabitants and each Officer is worth two votes. So if you have a boat with an Officer and two crewmen, you have four votes at your disposal.
The game is broken into three phases. First, a lifeboat springs a leak. Second, a boat rows forward towards the island(s). Lastly, Sailors jump ship and change boats. Let’s break that down further.
Phase One: A Lifeboat springs a leak. Which boat though? Well, let me refer you to what was said earlier. Everything is decided on by voting. You will vote as a table to have a boat spring a leak.
The blue leak tokens take the seat spots that are normally reserved for the sailors. If a boat ever has more leaks than sailors, the boat will sink and all sailors from that boat (and the boat itself) are removed from the game. Besides that outcome, there are two things that can happen when voting on a place for a leak to spring:
A) If the Lifeboat has a space for the leak, then put the leak in the open space and check to see if there are more leaks than sailors. If not, the boat manages to putt along for another turn, at least.
B) If there is no room for the leak, another vote happens! Room must be made for this water so someone in the boat needs to get out. Now, unlike other votes, only people in this boat can take part in the vote. This is where your Officers and Crewmen come into play. The “winner” of this vote is thrown overboard and replaced with a leak token. If a player has more than one token in the boat and is forced to throw someone overboard, they can choose which token is forced out.
So you have survived the leak, what happens next?
Phase Two: A Lifeboat rows forward. This should be one of the least contested points of the game. Everyone votes on which boat they want to move forward one space. Only one boat can move per round, so choose wisely. When a boat reaches the island, the entire boat disembarks and everyone on that boat survives.
Phase Three: Sailors change Lifeboats. The sea is choppy, the sharks are circling the boats and water is slowly seeping through the wooden beams. Absolute panic and chaos takes control of the sailors as they do whatever they can to survive. Starting with the start player, each player removes one of their sailors from a boat and places them at the back of that boat. Once every player has removed a sailor, in reverse order, the players have their sailors scamper back and return to an open seat in a different Lifeboat. If they cannot join a different Lifeboat, they drown and are removed from the game. If a player only has one or less sailors an each boat, they are exempt from the chaos as their sailor latches themselves to a bench and refuses to move (or so I presume).
These three phases are repeated until the boats have reached the beach or they have reached Davy Jones Locker.
And that’s it. That’s Lifeboats. The components are quality with the wooden boats and tokens. The boards and the cards are colorful and vibrant and coupled with the art, actually distract you from the fact that you are voting on who drowns or is eaten by a shark almost every round.
This game says it supports playing at three, which it does, but this game shines at the five and six player counts. The more players there are, the more options there are for movement and for negotiating.
Lifeboats has an age suggestion of 12+ and I agree with that sentiment. This is not a game for children. And not because there is sex or violence or harsh language. No, this is not a game for children because there is deception, vengeance and deceit lying in wait each and every turn.
Depending on the player count, there isn’t much strategy that can be used in Lifeboats. You can hope and try and persuade your fellow sailors to move a boat or kick someone out, but that doesn’t mean they will. There is a lot of playing on the fly as this game occurs. When playing at three or four, you might run into the opposite issue where you can see too far ahead and the decisions you make take longer as you try to map the perfect path but then get frustrated as your dreams of survival are dashed as your friend votes you out since you have more pawns left on the board than them.
Plenty of games have backstabbing and a “take that” mechanic and plenty of people can handle that aspect of a game. Because, deep down, it’s just a game. We wouldn’t really vote her out of a boat in real life, would we? (Disclaimer: I would.) But some people will get caught up in the game. They will want to win and they will want to do well and people will not vote the way they think they should. We have had quick games, flying through at a full player count in under an forty minutes and we have had a game last a little over two hours due to the negotiations and verbal jabs taking place.
Lifeboats, if it isn’t obvious by now, also includes player elimination, which could be problematic for some groups. Someone will be eliminated from the game before it’s over; it’s almost a guarantee. The game could last five more minutes or twenty-five more minutes after they’ve been eliminated.
So all that being said?
Lifeboats is one of the few games that I own where I honestly could not tell you who has won any of the games that we have played. All the talk and scuttlebutt is about the players themselves and the choices they either made or more importantly, did not make. Is that weird? Should we care about who wins and who loses? I remember a tantrum happening and I remember someone sacrificing themselves for another player so a vote would be passed, but not who had the most sailors sipping Mai Tais on the beach at the end of the game.
Anyways, I love this game. My group, for the most part, loves this game. If you’ve read some other reviews, you know I love negotiating games, such as Chinatown, and this takes that to another level as players can be eliminated from the game for their lack of deal making. This is basically a more light, more fun looking version of Diplomacy. They say Diplomacy will reveal who your friends are, this game will too on a smaller scale. The key to this game (not that this isn’t the key to every game), is having fun with it. Pretend to be a sailor when playing. Hum the Jaws theme when someone goes overboard. Realize that it’s just a game and enjoy it!