House Rules: SURVIVE! Cooperative Play

Survive newIf you don’t know about the game Survive! yet, you’re missing out.  Survive! is a fun little ride, where players control small groups of colored meeples trying to escape an island that is deteriorating into the sea, and which will ultimately explode.  Between them and the safety of the four corners of the board are whales, sharks, and sea serpents, determined to swallow up the poor little meeples and the lifeboats on which they depend.  The best part is this: it’s every meeple for itself.  If you need to dump a fellow player off the shores of a beach into the blood-saturated water, or if sicking a sea serpent on a nearby boat will buy you that precious one-hex movement that will save your meeples’ lives, well then so be it.  It’s mayhem on the board, with just the right amount of backstabbing and betrayal to keep the game vicious but without permanently damaging real-world friendships (unlike Diplomacy).  It plays 2-4 players (without expansions) in about 30-45 minutes.

This game was originally printed in 1982, and since then, it’s been repackaged and rebirthed in a couple of different forms, and it even spent about 10 years being completely out of print.  I was thus elated when I learned that Stronghold Games had acquired the rights a few years back, and that it was going to be so much more beautiful than the Parker Brothers version we had when I was kid. I have yet to add any of the expansions to my current set, and I’m totally amped about a new sequel set on a space station that should be coming out in October, but what I really meant to share in this post was some house rules I developed for my kids.

survive parker brothers

Box cover for the 1982 Parker Brothers printing of Survive!

My kids love playing Survive!, and I love playing it with them. The rules and turn sequence are simple enough for my boys to remember and to keep the game moving along at a quick clip, and all the little wooden meeples and boats and heavy-duty tiles in Stronghold Games’ current version certainly rank Survive!’s “toy factor” pretty high.

Unfortunately, in addition to liking the game Survive!, my boys also like to fight. What’s worse, we have a friend currently staying with us, along with her son, which makes for three boys in the house: ages 5, 6, and 7. This is what we call “chaos cubed.” So when it comes to Survive!: a cut-throat game about feeding your buddy’s people to sea serpents just to save your own bacon—well, among a 5, 6, and 7-year-old, this tends to lead to hurt feelings, fighting, pouting, and tears pretty quickly.

I felt what the boys needed was more cooperative gaming, but my selection right now is pretty thin: basically it’s just Forbidden Island and Castle Panic, both of which are a little too involved for the kids, since they require really strong coordination, conversation, and forward thinking. However, with a few minor adjustments to the rules, Survive! is easily converted into a scenario where the players are pitted against the environment and the creatures, rather than against each other. I’ll grant that this cooperative system might not be entirely appealing to adult players, but then again, adults are a little more thick-skinned than children when it comes to backstabbing game play. (Well, sometimes they are, anyway.) At any rate, when playing these modifications with the boys, the chaos was curbed rather than cubed, and the game created great opportunities to discuss concepts of helpfulness, mutual benefit, sympathy and compassion, and even self-sacrifice. Here’s how we played:


Survive!    Rules for Cooperative Play

All normal rules apply, except for the following:
  1. During Step 4 of your turn (roll the die), you will roll two dice: (a) the red Creature die, and (b) the one blue Dive die that is numbered (1,1,2,2,3,D). The number on the Dive Die dictates how many hexes you must move the creature shown on the Creature die, if there are any of those on the board. You must move that creature towards the closest (measured in hex count) possible target that the creature would normally attack, even if that target includes your own people. If there is more than one target or more than one creature that can satisfy these requirements, you get to choose which creature to move and/or which target to approach. The creature must stop moving if it can reach and successfully attack a target, otherwise it must move the number of hexes towards a target shown on the Dive die. If the result on the Dive die is “D,” you may move the creature in any direction you wish, limited to its normal movement rate as shown on the board.

  2. Land tiles that you keep in your hand are kept face-up on the table to encourage discussion among the players as to when would be the best time to play them. However, these tiles are still held by the player(s) who drew them; they cannot be handed off to another player.

  3. When the game is over, players determine what the collective score of the game was by adding up the point values of all their surviving people, regardless of color. We play just to try for a “high score,” but here’s a suggested scoring bracket you might consider for measuring the relative “success” of the game:

    2 players 3 players 4 players
    Miraculous 43-56 64-84 85-112
    Heroic 29-42 43-63 57-84
    Brave 15-28 22-42 29-56
    Tragic 0-14 0-21 0-28
  4. If you would still like to have an “overall” winner of the game, then one player can be declared “Most Selfless.” This would be the one player who contributed the fewest points to the group total, suggesting that the group total was made possible by the sacrifices of the “Most Selfless” player.


Using these variant rules, especially with kids, Survive! becomes an opportunity for round-table discussion about how people can best help each other in a situation that is dangerous for all. Over the course of our first game, I watched my boys change from the ankle-biters they too often are into the super-heroes they always want to be. They shared boats and discussed the fastest ways they could escape survive close upthe island by dividing the movement between their turns. They invited each other onto the “higher-ground” land tiles to help each other last longer. When it came to a choice between dumping a friend or yourself into the water—or worse: a choice between feeding yourself or your brother to the sea serpent… I didn’t even have to say anything. Both my boys encouraged self-sacrifice. When there was no choice, and they had to feed each other to the sharks, they were sorry, and they said so. No hurt feelings, fighting, pouting, or tears. Best. Survive game. Ever.

If you don’t have Survive! yet, get it. It’s hilarious and awesome. And if you have kids, consider playing it with them, using these cooperative rules.  You’ll be surprised by the depth of conversation that accidentally occurs.

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