Evacuate, Wipe, Flush
I’ve been holding this in for too long and now I need to let it out in a rush.
Evactuate by Jeff Petersen and Tony Mastrangeli opens with one heck of a good idea. What happens when a vast space station filled with cooperative alien species — a real stellar utopia — is transformed into a lobster bucket by a zombie plague? It’s a given that at this point in the genre’s progression we’ve been battered over the head by the most milquetoast of zombie-fic lessons. Yes, yes, we’re the real monster. Evacuate takes it a step further. In this far future, everybody becomes a stinker when their back is against the wall.
It works like this. Each round, everybody chooses and simultaneously reveals a card showing how fast their group of survivors flees through the station. For a utopian startopia, it’s a dingy, narrow place, full of tight corridors that lend themselves to herding frightened aliens into near-single-file ranks. It’s also filled with vats of acid, piles of rubble, and gravity regulators pointing the wrong direction, forcing everybody to hop, clamber, and slog through one obstacle after another. After running along these corridors with your fellow aliens (and possibly tripping someone), you draw a card from the “Nomia” deck. Most of the time, this indicates that somebody is eaten, whether from the trailing species, whoever’s up front, or anyone who ran too fast. Other times, you might happen across a medical station. Eventually, a rescue ship is shuffled into the deck. Reach that with the most survivors and you’re crowned the most utopian of them all.
Even better, the whole thing also shows up with two interesting pitches. First, each species has their own innate ability. And second, it’s a deck-builder… sort of.
It’s hard to think of your species as their own entity when everybody is represented by the same Mars Attacks! miniatures. That’s where your own deck and unique ability comes in. To its credit, there’s a wide range of abilities on display in Evacuate. Even during setup, there’s some enjoyment to be found in noodling over how they might interact. The Urmak are bulky and take two hits from the Nomia to die. The Vorck are numerous, and also pick up their discarded run cards a little earlier than everybody else. The Valkar can sometimes teleport or even swap with another group of survivors. The Salps are, um, fecund. Yes, that means they breed new survivors while on the run. One species, the Glazaqtoq, has a private evacuation ship en route. The Azota are digital consciousnesses who wouldn’t mind if everybody died. The nerds.
Meanwhile, the Nomia deck takes shape as individual escapees are picked off. Whenever a survivor is devoured, their owner chooses a new card to shuffle into the deck. Over time, new attacks and opportunities are pulled. Sometimes a mega horde will kill a survivor in both of the back rows. Maybe the rearmost group will immediately catch up to the group in front of them. If enough time has passed, the evacuation ship is also shuffled into the deck.
Evacuation is packed with cool ideas. If only they cohered into a functioning game.
Oh, it’s strictly playable. A group of people can set this thing up, mutter through the fuzzier portions of the rules, and wade through to the conclusion. If we’re generous, we might even call such a ramshackle approach thematic. Which player chooses the next corridor card when multiple groups move onto the final card at the same time? When exactly do corridor effects take place? Is movement simultaneous or resolved in player order? Does the Broodmaster’s special ability really just outright trump the Valkar’s? There are reasonable answers for each question. But why settle for reasonable when you can settle conflicts via a tiebreaker of speed? I’m being facetious, of course. But in a game this lean, running into obstacles above the table is a disappointment.
Speaking of lean, for a game that’s supposedly fast and silly — and one that includes player elimination — Evacuate sure is clogged with slowdowns and a disposition as quick as a barrel of molasses that just wintered in the Rockies. One of the cards you can add to the Nomia deck outright adds new survivors to the group in last place, which murders any sense of urgency, along with the Azota’s chance of victory. Other cards kill off those in the front of the pack. Now everybody is nudging along at much the same speed, trying to be the guy in the middle. The Medical Station lets you recover a card from your discard pile. But not the action cards. Only the raw movement ones. So much for having a good time.
In theory, the Nomia deck is built by everybody. In theory, its contents are precious information. In theory, if somebody adds an ambush, which kills a survivor from any group that moved four or more spaces, it would make sense to slow down. In practice, everything mushes together. The deck is thick enough that there isn’t any reason to prioritize anything beyond the most basic self-preserving behaviors. It’s sluggish. Sort of like the survivors themselves, especially once they hit a corridor that slows everybody down or makes it impossible to pass by a single stinker.
If you want to see a game that could have been enjoyable in a light and frivolous way but stumbled over its own feet, look no further than Evacuate. Evacuate yearns to get everybody laughing. But fast and silly, it is not.
A complimentary copy was provided.