Welcome to Helladise
I’ll confess to having a morbid fascination with survival tales that turn to cannibalism. Flight 571. The Donner Party. Yellowjackets.
When a group of attractive twentysomethings are shipwrecked on a desert island only days before a tropical storm strips the place bare, what will they do to survive? Fish around in a burlap bag for wooden balls, mostly. See also: cannibalism.
Like countless marooned sailors before you, your hapless millennials are shaken but filled with a false sense of hope. True, nobody plans on being shipwrecked. But there’s plenty of wood in the jungle. The lagoon teems with fish. The yacht that bore you to these shores remains stuck on the rocks, packed with shrink-wrapped sandwiches, bottled water, and all manner of bizarre survival implements. You’ve watched two and a half seasons of Survivor. How hard could it be to fashion a raft, stockpile some food, and paddle out to the nearest shipping lane?
Hellapagos isn’t the sort of game that requires a belabored explanation. Its victory condition is as obvious as breathing. Escape the island and you win, regardless of whether your friends win with you. The actions you can take to effect your survival are dead simple. If you can see the board, you already have an illustrated primer. What sets these options apart is that each one is matched by some measure of threat. Water is easy to gather, but only if it’s rained recently. Anybody can swim out to the ship, but hoarding items will make your companions jealous. Want to forage for wood? That’s easy. As soon as you declare the action, you find your first branch. If you want more, it’s time to reach into the bag.
The bag transforms Hellapagos into more than a boilerplate survival game. Only two actions see you digging into its contents, but both carry stiff consequences. Fishing is the kinder one. Every night, each member of your party must eat and drink, lest someone’s survival be put to the vote — or the trigger of a revolver. Unlike the relatively consistent act of gathering water, fishing is never certain. Into the bag you go. Whichever ball you produce shows how much sustenance you’ve pulled from the lagoon today. Designers Laurence and Philippe Gamelin have struck the perfect waning balance, providing just enough food to keep you alive for another day or two, but not nearly enough to keep this up long-term. When somebody draws the black ball, everyone at the table looses a genuine hurrah. That’s three souls fed today.
Gathering more than a single stick also requires you to reach into the bag. You declare how many balls you’ll draw. There are only six. Each successful pull is another stack of wood. Draw the black ball, however, and you’re poisoned by a snake. Tomorrow will be spent recuperating. Worse, you don’t get to take part in that evening’s votes. You’re a mouth. A stomach. No longer a pair of hands. Just like that, you’ve become a liability.
It’s amazing how fast one can change from a valued member of the team to dead weight. How your companions respond is what gives Hellapagos its darkling edge. Contrary to expectations, human nature doesn’t have a straightforward opinion on the matter. In some cases, a weakened member of the team becomes easy pickings. Unable to defend themselves, the others are quick to finger them when selecting who’ll go without water. Unless you have a bottle squirreled away, you’re dead. That or a loaded gun.
But sacrifice isn’t inevitable. Other times, everyone rallies around their injured comrade. Perhaps the afflicted person has been a team player. They haven’t hoarded cards. They always volunteered for wood-hauling duty. They didn’t threaten or manipulate. Crud, maybe they did threaten and manipulate and hoard cards. Maybe they were the biggest crank of the bunch. That still doesn’t mean they should die. Does it?
There’s an unattested story about anthropologist Margaret Mead that makes the rounds on social media every so often. Asked what she thought was the earliest sign of civilization, she didn’t point to potsherds or the mortar and pestle. She indicated a 15,000-year-old human femur, broken and set and grown again. Somebody cared for the owner of that femur. Somebody fed and watered and protected them through their long rehabilitation, maybe even from their starving and dubious companions. There’s no record that Mead ever said this. But it touches something in us all the same. There are situations where we can imagine unleashing the beast within. Becoming something closer to our primordial roots for the sake of self-preservation. Losing humanity to preserve it.
And then, in those same situations, there are accounts of people choosing the opposite course. Forgoing food. Working themselves to the bone. Carrying their companions. Sacrificing themselves. Cannibalism is sensational, but that’s a question of overcoming squeamishness and violating taboo. I get why it makes headlines. I’m picky about my taco toppings, let alone that. But the real test of character has nothing to do with where someone in a terrible situation came by their calories. It’s about what they used those calories to accomplish.
Can a game evoke such extremes? Only in part. Hellapagos is as good an effort as I’ve seen. It feels much like a social deduction game even though there’s no deduction. The only hidden roles are the unknown lengths your friends will go to for the sake of simulated survival. The stakes are minor. Bruised pride. Getting eliminated five minutes early from a half-hour game. Maybe somebody calls you a rat bastard.
There’s no moral value to the actions one undertakes in a game, is what I’m saying. No lasting value. Within the magic circle of the game table, its approximation can momentarily cut. There’s something wondrous about a game’s ability to do that. Hellapagos is the ragged edge of a rock-torn ship. For all its vibrancy, its colorful illustrations and silly items (“Cannibal BBQ Kit”), it can electrocute a primal nerve if you place the live wire between your molars and bite down hard.
A complimentary copy was provided.