They Survived

This might be my favorite of Amabel's covers. It makes me feel the cold.

One of the big questions in wargame design is how one ought to simulate the range of possible outcomes. Take the Battle of the Bulge. Should a designer concede to playability by pretending that the German Ardennenfront could turn aside the Allied advance? Or should they instead presume that German victory could only be measured by some other metric, such as days or weeks of delay? Press a little deeper and you get questions about balance and historical determinism. Maybe, just maybe, we can rethink what it means to “win” in the first place.

That’s exactly what Amabel Holland has done with Endurance. Right from the outset, her rulebook warns that the survival of Ernest Shackleton and the twenty-seven members of his crew is not a historical given. Their escape, in her words, was “a fluke.” It shouldn’t have happened. It nearly didn’t happen. Roll the dice a hundred times in a hundred parallel simulations and it might never happen again.

That’s the first thesis behind Endurance, but it isn’t the most essential of them.

I'll be the mountain.

You will come to resent these cards.

Frank Hurley was the photographer for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. It wasn’t his first voyage; he’d returned from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition only a few months before the Endurance embarked. He had an eye for a shot. By the time the Endurance became stuck in pack ice, he’d already documented life aboard the ship. When it became clear the Endurance would be crushed, he painstakingly recovered the best 120 glass-plate negatives and smashed the remainder. For the rest of the crew’s travails over ice, sea, and stone, he only carried a pocket Kodak and took a few dozen shots.

He survived. For a time. He took part in both World Wars as a war photographer, championed composite images as a way to portray a higher truth than any single camera shot could capture, and died in 1962.

There isn’t a single turn in Endurance that doesn’t force a lost opportunity. Sometimes more than one. Every card has three segments: an action, a test, and a penalty. From the moment the Endurance is trapped, you draw two cards. One is used for its action. Hunting penguins and seals for meat and blubber. Painstakingly hauling supplies from the ship before it sinks. Entertaining the crew with cards to keep their spirits high. These are prone to failure, especially as your men become demoralized or injured, especially when the dice don’t cooperate. The second card is deployed for its test. Filling bellies. Warming hands and feet. Tending to injuries. These fail sometimes too, although usually because you’ve run low on tinned food or blubber. Whenever a card fails its action or test, you resolve its penalty. Men become demoralized. Later, injured. Later, dead.

It gets worse. When your vessel is lost, the crew moves to Patience Camp, waiting out the long drift on the ice floe. Later, encamped on Elephant Island, spirits are frayed even further. Every time the game progresses from one act to the next, your pool of drawn cards increases by one. Now you’re drawing three cards. Now four. Now five. All the while, each turn only allows you to resolve one action and one test. The rest? Penalties all the way down.

(Blackborow underwent surgery. That's all I'm saying.)

Well, that’s weirdly fitting.

Harry McNish was the ship carpenter, not to mention one of the old men of the voyage. His skills were invaluable. He shored up the Endurance for a time, delaying its death knell. He modified the sledges and eventually the lifeboats, making them suitable for the ice and the open ocean. But he was also cantankerous and prone to complaining. He briefly rebelled against the Captain, a grievance Shackleton never forgave. For his part, McNish never forgave the shooting of his cat, Mrs. Chippy, to prevent it from a slow death to the elements.

He survived. For a time. He complained about a deep-seated ache in his bones and was eventually injured working the docks of Wellington. He died indigent in 1930.

On the surface, Endurance rightfully emphasizes the material realities of its tribulations. There’s an inventory to manage, full of meat and blubber and tinned food and firearms and medical supplies and playing cards and even a phonograph. It would have been easy to default to the customary board game methods for representing such things. Instead, Holland forces them into the headspace of uncertainty they held for their bearers. Whenever a resource is used, you roll once more, just in case you thought you’d evaded the accursed things. This roll determines whether your supplies hold out for one more test or dwindle, first flipping to their more meager reverse side, then eventually disappearing altogether. It’s an abstraction that serves the game far better than a supply track or inventory Tetris would have, expressing everything from spoilage to stretched rations via a single hateful digit. Managing your supplies is as much a question of luck as it is one of foresight.

Clever as that is, there’s something deeper going on. At its root, Endurance is a surprisingly non-material experience. The crucial resource isn’t physical health, but a constant grappling against despair. Beneath the supplies and the sled dogs are men with failing hearts. Death is not so often a question of injury, although that can happen, or exposure, although that can happen, too. It’s a question of resolve. On the first play, it’s easy to overlook the little things. The pack of playing cards. The book. The phonograph. Surely these aren’t the items that let men survive? But they’re the items that let men want to survive. They’re the items that give men the will to not only face the long dark, but face it down. Where so many games about survival posit that morale is a secondary concern, important, of course, but still subordinate to broken bones and frostbitten toes, Endurance flips the formula upside-down. Your men march on full bellies, yes, but first and foremost they march on full hearts.

As you can see, McNish is being a real pill. Again.

The lifeboats portion of the game is testy.

Perce Blackborow stowed away on the Endurance, eager for adventure. Shackleton made a show of threatening to eat him first, should it come to that, but Blackborow came to be regarded as one of the crew’s favorites, always ready with a quip or a song. After the crew divided themselves among three rowboats and endured multiple days on the open ocean, gumming frozen meat for their sustenance, Shackleton gave him the honor of being the first to set foot on Elephant Island. Blackborow later lost his toes to amputation while waiting for rescue. When he woke up from the procedure, he went right back to joking.

He survived. For a time. He returned to Newport and was awarded the Bronze Polar Medal for his conduct. He died of chronic bronchitis in 1949.

Around the halfway mark, Endurance throws you out to sea. The lifeboats phase places your surviving crew aboard three flimsy twigs and casts them onto the open water. Everything you want to keep must be carried: men, supplies, dogs if you haven’t already eaten them. And then you roll. These rolls are almost more traditional than the rest; you seek runs or straights or pairs, or dice that sum to a certain number, and share excess dice between vessels. In keeping with the game’s dedication to its setting, these rolls are desperate and terrifying. It’s entirely possible that one or all of these lifeboats will be dashed and lost. Once, I assigned my weakest crew to a single boat, hoping to keep my stronger rowers alive. Instead, one of the hardier teams sank.

This is usually when I begin to question the peculiar hold Endurance has on me. I’ve often complained that we’re too reductive with our board games. That we demand they be “fun,” as opposed to the myriad descriptors we allow our other artistic mediums to embrace. In those moments, the emotion I’m having could not remotely be described as “fun.” Yet it’s a valuable emotion. It’s a fist clenched tight beneath my breastbone. It’s a periodic reminder to breathe. It’s a sparkle of desperation, a remoteness of hope. It’s the soak of a man at the gunwale, wracked to the marrow in seawater, hardly able to draw breath for the chattering and the stink and the thought that maybe it would be better if it ended now. It’s an evocation, an incantation, a prayer. It’s a board game that has transported me into misery.

And, if misery, perhaps redemption. Perhaps. Perhaps.

And all they had were muffins.

My best outcome.

Holland refuses to retell the story of the Endurance exactly as it happened. The odds don’t bend toward the historical outcome. If anything, they bend away from it. The best I’ve managed is rescue after only losing three souls. That was on my fourth try, after figuring out some of the game’s particulars and priorities, a luxury of repetition Ernest Shackleton couldn’t have dreamed about.

To counteract that hardship, Holland offers an olive branch. There is no victory condition. Neither is there a loss state. Nor are there “scores,” tallies of bodies warm and cold somehow passing for victory points. Oh, surely the game might end prematurely. But even an early end isn’t stated as a loss. It’s simply something that happened. Your crew survived, for a time. Along the way, hopefully they endured. Hopefully they fought. Hopefully they passed from misery to redemption and back again, as we all do, and kept going until they collapsed, and saw in the struggle the small miracles that made the living worth it. I’m sure somebody will say the absence of a win condition means it isn’t a game. I say that person is poor of spirit and doesn’t deserve a game this miserable or this hopeful.

Because what a game, to evoke such a thing as endurance in the face of misery. What a game. They survived. And it’s only a game like this, replete with its unbearable agonies, that the miracle of such a statement makes itself real.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on March 23, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I’ve been in a pretty bad Memento Mori headspace right now. Although I love the sound of this game, I think I might attend to myself before taking that inner dialogue to the tabletop.

    R.I.P. Mrs. Chippy.

    Great work, as usual, Dan. Damn ye for making me buy The Hunt with your typewriter.

    • As someone given to bouts of melancholy, I will say that I’m glad I was in a good headspace when I played this one. Although maybe it would have helped, who knows. I tend to find solace in fictions and histories about people overcoming misery. Sometimes it’s hard to know what will help.

      • I just read Robinson Crusoe for the first (and only!) time. Although I had a lot of problems with the book, he makes a great point about looking to people less fortunate than you instead of looking at people who seem more fortunate. This game seems like a great vehicle, despite the lack of space bucks and victory points 🙂

  2. My God. I never thought I would cry reading about board game. I’ve always felt a connection to Amabel. She seems like such a good strong person, the sort of person I’d like to be. I’ll have to pick this one up.

  3. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is a mind-bogglingly breathtaking history. It’s one of those achievements that just don’t seem to add up – “how come they’re still alive when they were cold, starving and practically out of all equipment several weeks ago already???” Sometimes, humans are simply wow. It looks like the game reflects that well, so kudos to the designer and to you for the review.

  4. I read your critique all the way down with Dan Simmon’s “The Terror” in mind, despite the fact that the events depicted in the book were inspired by another infamous expedition. It seems like Endurance sparks the same feeling of dread as the book, which greatly appeals to me.
    If you’re keen to it, I think an interview uncovering the author’s thoughts and way to convey the feelings you had might be extremely interesting.

  5. Last night I went to a friend’s to play some War of the Ring. He is a Jackson and Tolkien fan, but knows little about boardgames. I know little too, but a bit less little. He asked me how did I learned about boardgames and I mentioned your blog.
    He is also really into Shackleton expedition. He knows the story since he went to Anctartica to make research, he has it tattoed, he bought the whisky based on the recovered bottles from the expedition. We spent a long time discussing the event while we tasted the whisky.
    So imagine my my surprise when I open your blog today, and I found this. Life sometimes has a way of connecting things in delightful ways.

  6. I would even say that only 50% of my gaming is about having fun. Satisfaction can come from a better understanding of a subject, maybe to feel compassion with whom it affected.

    Reading your review the 900-day siege of Leningrad came to mind. The humanitarian side of the story could become a good board game, absolutely not fun, but give a deeper understanding of a people. I’ve met and talked to many of the survivors. As a game it would be cruel, since success is not about saving all lifes, but not lose yet some hundred thousands of life. It’s about discipline and unselfishness, control, and even ingenious ability to develop weapons while under siege to hold back the German and Finnish assault. The fate of some heroes in the aftermath made it more cruel, which would add another interesting aspect to a game, when your win is also your death.

  7. A game without victory conditions or scoring? Color me intrigued.

    Like ‘Chips’ before me, the theme immediately reminded me of Dan Simmon’s excellent novel ‘The Terror’. That book really left a lasting impression on me.

    Also your comment about demanding that board games should be ‘fun’ reminded me of a discussion I once had about the movies by Michael Haneke, in particular ‘Funny Games’.
    Basically, a friend of mine wondered why anyone would choose to watch such movies over something ‘entertaining’. I didn’t find it easy to explain, just as I’m struggling to do so now, but somehow I feel it’s very worthwhile to explore all kinds of emotions. I’m not always in the mood for such difficult movies, but sometimes they’re exactly what I need.

    I’m getting the impression this game might serve a similar function for me. Thanks for the review!

    • Thanks for reading! If you’re curious to hear more, check out the interview I did with Amabel. She adds a number of additional thoughts that are worth hearing.

  1. Pingback: Space-Cast! #29. Enduring Snake-Eyes | SPACE-BIFF!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: