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SOS Titanic

Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser

(Ludonaute, 1 to 5 players, ages 8 and up, 30 minutes, about $29)

sostitanic1Solitaire (also known as Patience and Klondike, which has some minor variations) must be one of the most universally played card games. Its origin is not known with exact certainty, but is widely attributed to Lady Adelaide Cadogan, whose book Games of Patience contained the solitaire card game that is now played globally.

There have been a few attempts to add a theme to the game, most of which have been imminently forgettable. The most recent attempt marries the still fascinating historical and tragic story of the Titanic with this classic card game. In SOS Titanic by designers Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, the player or players—the game can be played cooperative style with as many as five people—attempt to rescue as many passengers as possible before the majestic liner slips below the surface to its watery grave.

The mechanisms are similar to Solitaire, but it has some interesting and thematic twists, including the introduction of action cards. Passengers are divided into two categories—first and second class—and even though their lives are in mortal peril, the first class passengers still insist on being segregated from the lower class passengers. There are two sets of each class, with one set in each class adorned with an anchor symbol. This is important for final game scoring, but only if all passengers are rescued.

What really helps set the atmosphere is the nifty flip-chart booklet, with each successive page showing the Titanic sinking deeper into the depths. One page even depicts the horrific scene of the ship splitting into two. As time passes, more and more compartments flood, forcing panicked passengers to flee towards the stern, which has the effect of forcing the player to combine two lines of cards, shuffling them together. This often upsets a nice run of cards. This mechanism injects considerable tension and time pressure to the proceedings, which is very thematic and exciting.

The table is set with four rows of passengers, with the face card of each row revealed. The passenger classes are initially mixed, but as mentioned, they must be segregated when forming runs in the various rows. The player (I’ll describe the solitaire version) receives a historical crew member card, which gives the player a special power and indicates the number of action cards with which the player begins.

A turn begins with the player moving as many cards as he can. Movement rules are the same as Solitaire, with cards being placed atop of other cards of the same class in descending order. The highest valued card in each class (13 for 1st class and 17 for 2nd class) may be moved to begin a new row. There are six available rows, with a possible seventh if the Collapsible Boat action card enters play. The four 1-valued passengers may be moved above the boat, simulating the lifeboats and the rescued passengers. Passengers may be rescued by moving them into these lifeboats and, just like in Solitaire, they are placed in ascending order by class.

After moving any passengers, the player has two choices:

· Play an action card. There are 11 different types of action cards, each allowing a variety of actions. For example, the “Come Back” card allows the player to examine the passenger discard stack and retrieve a desired card. The “Mystery Passenger” serves as any passenger of the corresponding class, while the “Get Ready” card allows the player to examine and reorder the top five cards in the passenger deck. All of these cards are extremely beneficial, and using them at the right time can certainly spell the difference between survival and submersion.

Setting-up the Passengers Rescue. The player takes one-to-three cards from the passenger deck. If possible, the player may play one and only one of these cards, discarding the remainder. If none of the cards can be legally played, the cards are discarded and a page is turned in the ship book. As compensation, the player takes one action card.

One would think that choosing three cards each time is the wisest action. However, this depletes the passenger deck more rapidly. When the deck is depleted, another page is turned and the Titanic takes on even more water. Thus, it is sometimes wise to select only one or two cards, thereby delaying the submersion of the floundering ship.

sostitanic2The game continues in this fashion until either all passengers are successfully rescued—not a common occurrence—or the ship sinks below the waves. This takes 11 turns of the pages to occur. Pages are turned each time a player draws passenger cards and is unable to play any, as well as whenever the passenger deck is depleted. This can happen shockingly fast.

Even though the ship ultimately sinks and many passengers may be lost, the game includes a scoring mechanism wherein a player can track his success rate. Players tally the highest valued passengers saved in the four lifeboat areas and adds to this total the current page value of the ship notebook, which will be at zero if the ship has sunk. If all passengers are successfully rescued, the player also scores points for the longest consecutive run of anchor symbols in each class. Experienced players will likely pay close attention to the passengers depicting anchor symbols, but most players will be more concerned with simply saving as many passengers as possible. Thus, any points earned from anchors will likely be accidental.

It is important to note that the multi-player version of the game is played in the same fashion, except each player receives a crew member and action cards. Possessing these additional cards and powers is certainly beneficial and does make saving all of the passengers a bit easier, though not guaranteed. Players can confer on their choices, but cannot exchange cards. The works well with multiple players, but I feel the game is, at its heart, a solitaire game.

SOS Titanic does a very good job of coupling the Solitaire mechanisms with an intriguing theme. The time pressure caused by the sinking ship adds necessary tension and excitement to the proceedings. There are more choices to be made than in a traditional game of Solitaire. When to use action cards, how many passenger cards to select, whether you should move passengers to lower compartments that are in danger of being flooded…all are important decisions that are not present in Solitaire.

Yes, the game still has a large element of luck and it is possible to have multiple consecutive turns wherein cards cannot be moved or played, resulting in a quick sinking of the ship. Such is the nature of Solitaire. However, the game can also be tense and exciting. The action cards and crew member powers provide more options and flexibility, so these “nothing to do” episodes are not as common. There is that constant sense of urgency to save as many passengers as possible from the icy waters.

Even though I am not a Solitaire player (indeed, I generally don’t play regular card games at all), I am enjoying SOS Titanic. I rarely play solitaire games but this is one that will likely make regular appearances, reducing my already rare free time even further. Give it a try and find out how many passengers you can save.


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