All Aboard the Raft of the Medusa
Being trapped for a week on a lifeboat sounds pretty awful, but what about being trapped for a week on a lifeboat stuffed with sociopathic murderers who alternate between claiming they love you and tossing buckets of chum into the water whenever you fall overboard?
Welcome aboard. You’re in for one heck of a ride.
Lifeboat is what you might call a social deduction game, but it’s unlike any social deduction game you’ve ever played before. Where most social deduction games present little puzzles of logic and behavior, where the main gameplay revolves around the untangling of everybody’s knotted claims to unpick which side they’re actually on, Lifeboat tosses you into a roiling sea of loyalties, affections, and hatreds, and tasks you with coming out the other side the supreme survivor. It’s Lord of the Flies in a phone booth. At sea. With sharks and dehydration and fist fights.
I’ll pitch you an example. Let’s say there are four people aboard your raft. You’re Lady Lauren. Your husband Sir Stephen has also made it aboard. Then there’s Frenchy and the ship’s First Mate. Now, just between those four people, there’s an enormous number of possible loyalties and treacheries. Let’s say that you actually love your husband and would prefer for him to survive this ordeal. Unfortunately, your husband has a thing for Frenchy. The First Mate is an absolute narcissist who really dislikes you, probably because you’re rich and fabulous, but you can probably count on Frenchy in a scuffle because not only has he fallen in love with you rather than requiting your husband’s affections, but he also holds a years-old grudge against the First Mate. That doesn’t stop you from hating Frenchy, but maybe he’ll die defending your honor. One can only hope. Oh, and poor Sir Stephen hates himself.
The problem is, you aren’t privy to any of that information when the game opens. Everyone has their own hidden pair of cards revealing who they love and who they hate, and from there it’s up to them to ensure the security of their loved ones while trying to profit from their secret opponent’s death. The result is total entanglement, a Gordian knot of intent and suspicions and hopes. Worst of all, even when you believe you can count on somebody, they’ll gladly turn around and stab you in the back if it becomes expedient. Saving your loved one isn’t the goal of the game, after all.
Rather, the goal is to be the best-off survivor once your raft is rescued, which comes down to a whole mess of factors. Saving a loved one is worthwhile, absolutely. But so is a healthy stockpile of treasure, gathered from the lifeboat’s store of provisions each round.
And that’s where fights come in.
Most of the time, you’ll get by without coming to blows. Spend some time rowing the boat, sputter in anger when the Kid pickpockets your stack of cash, or just sit around waiting to be rescued. But now and then you’ll want something, or maybe someone will want something from you. You’ll be minding your own business, sitting there with your life preserver, and the burly First Mate will get in your face. “I fall overboard like every turn,” he’ll say. “I need that.” Suddenly the knives, oars, and gaffing hooks come out, people are taking sides, and you’ve got that one guy in the middle who isn’t sure which side to prop up.
Where other social deduction games center around those logical puzzles of identity, Lifeboat is about that moment when the atmosphere of go along to get along devolves into eat or be eaten. Suddenly, it’s about negotiating as fast and as hard as you can. It’s about deflecting anger towards anyone other than yourself, about clawing your way to the top of a very hungry, very angry pack of sea-wolves. It’s the sort of wheedling that requires a loud voice and a talent for persuasion. It can also, incidentally, take a surprisingly long, surprisingly loud amount of time to wrap up.
Naturally, this means there are plenty of people who aren’t going to mesh well with Lifeboat. It’s absolutely the sort of game where convincing everyone at the table that Frenchy stands the best chance of winning while you’re sitting pretty on a stash of jewels is the best thing you’ve done all day. All loudmouths welcome.
The thing is, I absolutely adore Lifeboat. It’s the perfect negotiation and social deduction game for people who bounce back after getting chewed out and watching their allies melt away, and works well with mid-sized groups — up to six players normally, but the expansions make it work with up to eight. Even at its most frustrating, every match I’ve been a part of has ended with surprise revelations, including who was trying to defend whom, how well Sir Stephen pulled off his murder plot without ever appearing dangerous, and how the Kid managed to win again even when half the lifeboat is always trying to kill him off. Despite its simple set of rules and finite deck of tricks, every game plays out as its own drama of betrayal and disappointment.
Not everybody is going to get along with Lifeboat. And this time, that’s probably the point.