The ship is going down, and the rats have to outrun the rising water to the top deck! That’s the gist of Abandon Ship, a board game from AEG, the same company behind The Isle of Doctor Necreaux. At first glance it looks like it’s going to be a very simple race to the top, but the game turned out to have some added layers of complexity.
Don’t be fooled by the chunky wooden rats, colorful dice and the cartoony ship on the board! While it might look like a little kids’ counting game—and, indeed, my kids (3 and 6) both wanted to try it out because it looked like one of their games—it’s actually for ages 10 and up, and one that you’ll be able to enjoy playing with (or even without) your kids.
Abandon Ship is for 3-7 players, ages 10+, and retails for $34.95 (though you may find better deals). It comes with 7 rat tokens, 7 wooden rat pieces, 8 dice, 8 water tokens, 5 cheese tokens, and a sinking ship game board (the ship fits into a slot, and then slides down the board as the ship sinks). It takes roughly 30-45 minutes per game, and doesn’t ever feel like it’s dragging.
The rats all start on Level 10 (the water is at Level 6 when you start), and the goal is to get your rats to the top (Level 36). The trick, though, is that you have a cardboard token that shows the three colors that count for you. These tokens are kept hidden from the other players, and there is overlap so you never know who might gain when you move a rat. The other trick is that you don’t want to be the first rat to the top—that one gets trampled on by all the fleeing people and doesn’t get any points. The second rat to reach the top is worth five points, third place is worth three points, and fourth place is worth two points. And, of course, if the rat drowns, it’s not worth any points.
You start off with eight colored dice, one for each rat and an additional white one. On each turn, you roll all of the dice, then select one to use for an action. Most of them allow you to move the matching-colored rat between one and six spaces up the ship, and then that die is pulled from the pool. An anchor lets you pull the rat back to the nearest rat; a circle around the number (or anchor) allows you to use that action for any rat; an “x” next to the number means that die stays in the pool. The white die has circles on all sides so it applies to any rat. It also has two special faces: an arrow that lets you move any rat forward to the next nearest rat, and an 11 which is a huge leap forward.
Each time there is only one die left, one of the “water” tokens is flipped over to see how many levels the ship sinks. At most one rat will drown, since you stop sinking when a rat goes below water. If there is more than one rat on the underwater level, none of them die until there is only one left. Then, all the dice are replaced and the game continues. (Dice are removed permanently for rats that have drowned or made it to the top level.)
There are also a few bonus points along the way in the form of cheese tokens. Worth one or two points each, the five cheese tokens are placed on certain levels; if you land a rat on one of these levels first, then you get the cheese. At the end of the game, you add up the points for all the rats on your token that made it to the top, plus the points for cheese, to see who won.
The rat tokens are a little similar to Clue: Secrets & Spies, where each player’s identity is concealed until the end of the game. However, because each player has three rats to score and there’s almost always some overlap, it’s not quite as easy to figure out how to maximize your own score without giving other players points as well. If you consistently move the same rat, your opponents will have an easier time figuring out which ones belong to you.
The fact that the quickest rat is worth zero points is another great tweak, because then it becomes a balancing act. Trying to get second place is harder than it sounds! It keeps it from becoming an all-out race to the top which would have been just a die-fest.
The placement of the cheese also changes up the strategy, because sometimes you’ll have to decide between helping your own rats or using someone else’s rat to claim the cheese. And in the games I’ve played so far, the cheese has often been a deciding factor.
Finally, the extras on the dice provide plenty of opportunities for strategy. For instance, if I use a circled number on the red die to to move my yellow rat, that leaves the yellow die in there for somebody else to move me again. If I don’t want the ship to sink as quickly because one of my rats is in last place, I’ll go for the “x”-marked dice so that we don’t use up the dice as quickly.
All in all, Abandon Ship is a cleverly-designed game that is much more sophisticated than it may appear. But it’s also one that I think younger kids would enjoy playing even if they don’t quite get the strategy. My own kids saw the box and wanted to play, so I tried it out with them. My three-year-old tends to just pick whichever die is highest, and my six-year-old goes for the cheese as much as possible, but they have a good time rolling piles of dice and sinking the ship. I’ve also played it with my wife and with several high schoolers, and everyone has given it high marks.
Board game enthusiasts will probably recognize the name of the prolific designer, Reiner Knizia, who also has a PhD in mathematics and puts it to good use in his game designs.
Wired: Combination of hidden identities, bonus cheese, dice features and “trampled” rat makes for a deceptively complex game.
Tired: My only complaint was that the ship (which comes folded in three) doesn’t quite sit flat on the background board.
Disclosure: AEG provided a review copy of the game.