Stranded!: Review

Back when Fairway was younger and Survivor was “new,” he wondered how long he’d last out in the wild. Well, lucky for him, he can now find out. Today, Fairway takes a look at Stranded!, a survival, card game. See if he can outwit/outlast everyone else.

Stranded! is a two- to five- player card and dice game in which players take on a motley crew of characters who are stranded in various locations and trying to survive. We played a pre-production version of the game and used dice from Fuse and wood food bits from Blend Off!

Initial Impressions

  1. Right out of the box, the game leaves a lot to be desired from art to graphic design. Lots of words on gradients with very simple icons. Nothing about the cards seems to suggest a survival game.
  2. The rules were less than model of clarity. We sorted them out, we think, after guessing at what we had to do.
  3. Certain of the events and game mechanics were definitely entertaining. Rolling dice and adding to your characters ability adds a dash of role playing that’s fun.

Game play

In Stranded!, players are essentially trying to survive by keeping enough food on hand to outlast other players over the course of a 12-round year. There are a few other ways to win too: discovering the last of six regions or becoming a master of your environment by acquiring four upgrades.

To play, each player is first dealt one of the unique role.  Each role card has essentially six attributes whose values are unique to that role: 3 physique attributes and 3 intellect attributes.  These attributes will affect how hard (or easy) particular events are to overcome. As players succeed in overcoming events, they’ll be able to “upgrade” these stats.

Each player is then dealt a set of “drama” cards and given a starting amount of food.  Drama cards are multi-use cards. They act as one-time effects when played for their “action” or, when permitted to, can be played as “upgrades” to the player’s attributes.  Food represents the amount of time a player can survive. Ending a turn without any food means the player starves.

At the start of the game, the players start with a starting Season (summer, fall, winter or spring) and in one of six possible regions.  Each region has a base food amount equal to the number of players plus the Season-adjusted amount on the region card.  This amount of food is placed on the region and is available as a reward to players.

Now, you’re ready to play. Each turn represents one month.  After three months, the season changes. This continues until players have met one of the objectives or the calendar runs out.

At the start of each month, players draw one Drama card and can play one action.  Then, the players reveal an Event.  The event represents some adverse obstacle.  The Event Card has a base difficulty, a season-based adjustment, and a stress type.  The base difficulty represents the number a player must roll assuming no other adjustments.  The season-based adjustment can increase or decrease the difficulty based on the time of year.  The stress type is an icon that matches one or more of the six attributes.  You lower the necessary die roll by your total of those attributes.

Once revealed, starting with a first player and proceeding clockwise, players attempt to overcome the Event by rolling dice.  Players can also discard drama cards to lower the die roll by some amount depending on the kind of Drama card discarded.  If successful, the player has a choice: take three food from the region (if available), draw two drama cards, or add an upgrade from their hand to their character.  If the player isn’t successful, then they must discard resources listed in the penalty section for that Event.

After the Event, players can going exploring by discarding a Drama card and rolling a die. If they roll a number equal to a new region, all the players move to the new region and food is restocked.

After everyone’s had the opportunity to go, the month ends. Players discard one food (if they can) and a month token is added to the season (revealing a new one if there is already 3 tokens on the current season).

On the green

My rubric is pretty tough on a game like Stranded!. The game isn’t hard to learn and is relatively quick to play (sub twenty minutes).  And, there are elements compelling enough that we played the game a few times. We had a good laugh at some of the flavor text and the struggle to overcome events felt real enough at time. And for that, I think the game has some decent bones. But that’s really all this game is: the bones of game.

Where it comes up short

Art, Graphic Design. Right out of the box (and even to a degree still in the box), the game is unpolished. The choice of fonts and colors suggests anything but a lighthearted, survival game. With the exception of the regions, most of the cards were just a giant, black icon with some text and dice numbers.  Even the characters weren’t much more than a symbol and name. Even for the regions where there was the hint of art, it wasn’t much.

In a sense, this was basically an abstract card game. It could have been completely themeless and still worked.

Rules polish. There were so many issues with the rules, even as revised by the designer. For instance, the rules say “Shuffle[] the card decks” and later “choose[] a starting season” and “choose[] a random location.” This alone was unhelpful.  Why are we shuffling all the decks when we’re choosing cards later? Also, it turns out that locations and seasons are intended to be ordered.  The rules, right at the start annoyed everyone learning the game.

Again, somewhat frustratingly, the game never really defines player order or how player order is supposed to determine. But this issue turns out to be really important, especially when it comes to playing actions, resolving events, and exploring. The first couple of successful players have an opportunity to take food from a region. If you’re the third or fourth player, you’re probably not getting food. Likewise, one of the victory conditions is discovering the last region. If you’re on the fourth or fifth region, getting to “explore” first or second can make the difference between winning and losing.

There are other little things like this.  Including the fact that the “Supremacy” condition also doesn’t account for ties.  If two players end with four upgrades, who wins? These sorts of things pervade the otherwise simple game.

Rush strategies.  Over the course of a few games, it became readily apparent: the best strategy is a rush strategy. Rush upgrades and rush territories. Weirdly, you can rush both without meaningfully having to pick. That is, the game has two victory conditions: Supremacy (four upgrades) and Exploration (be the one to find the 6th territory). In the first case, players would spend every event upgrading their character. It turns out, that if you just straight upgrade, you typically have enough food to survive the 6 or so rounds it takes to get 4 upgrades.

In the second case, almost every player would attempt to rush through the territories.  In a 3 player game, it’s possible to “win” by exploration with a few good rolls in 3-4 rounds. In theory, you could do it after the second round. Again player ordered was hotly debated as a result of these strategies.

Player elimination? The game uses player elimination as a primary mechanic. In some ways, it’s not unlike my own game Starving Artists. The game is short enough that a player losing all their food early isn’t out for long. When players did starve they often felt like it wasn’t their own fault: teaming up against one player to deprive them of food was frequent strategy. I’m not sure this was the best implementation of player elimination.

In the hole

I don’t know what to make of Stranded! except to say that there is the bones of a game in the box. There’s too much left “unfinished” to recommend the game without some significant fixes. Because I have hopes that the designer will make significant fixes, I’m going to leave this unscored.

Fairway was provided a copy of Stranded! in order to write a fair review. He was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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