Safe Return Doubtful

Designed by Randy Moorehead
Published by Simulations Workshop
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

1-5 players
about 60 minutes

When I was seven, I won a poster painting contest. As it turned out, this proved to be the peak of my artistic career, my skills actually declining sharply since those heady heights. Anyway, they gave me a book token and I bought a little volume called Destination the Poles which told of four polar expeditions featuring extremes of courage and weather, danger and disasters. As I still have that book, and the worn pages are testament to the many times I've read it, it is safe to say it is a classic - I can remember excerpts to this day - and it went towards shaping one of my secondary interests. You can imagine then how excited I was when, nearly thirty years later, a game has finally appeared that captures thematically the exploits of Nansen, Amundsen, Scott, Peary and Fuchs and also actually works as a game.

I'll be completely up front about this game. Forget the fact it is a gamekit, forget the fact that I am really starting to like almost anything Simulations Workshop puts out, but do take on board the fact that I love experience games. And that is what SRD very definitely is. It is very low on interaction, skill and happy endings, high on atmosphere, narrative, frustration, cruel fate and ruined lives. I like it a lot, it has gone down generally well, but around 25% of those I've played with would never want to play it again. I can't say why, I'd really have to put it down just to taste. Whatever, I think it will appeal to those who enjoyed Timjim's Age of Exploration, Source of the Nile or Tales of the Arabian Nights, and it will also appeal to those who enjoy uneven races against the elements. So, with that in mind, how does it work and how does it create its excellent atmosphere?

Each player takes the role of an Arctic explorer and the aim of the game, both written and unwritten, is to be first to the North Pole and, ideally, to get home again alive. Sadly, the game doesn't cover the conquest of the opposite end of the planet, with its unique challenges and explorers, but we can hope that one day an expansion kit will appear. The players choose an explorer, a ship, a crew and equipment that they hope will keep them alive. The latter each have their own specific uses while crews have their own characters (good with dogs, never mutiny, good sailors etc), all adding to the flavour. In the basic game it is a straight choice of food over medicine, navigation equipment over shelter - space is at a premium on the ship, and even more so on the sleds. There is also a competition game which, quite neatly, makes something of a real game of it - you have equal points to start, and earn and lose points for achieving certain targets. So, you might well make the pole (25pts) and return home first (5pts), but should you die (- 15pts) and suffer slurs in the press (- 3-18pts) you could well still lose. We have been playing as a straight race so far, with imprecise victory criteria (it is nice to survive at all...), but I will be moving onto the points system next game. A nice touch.

The game breaks down into four main phases: sailing to the ice shelf, heading to the pole, the return journey, and sailing home, hopefully victorious, but I have seen expeditions limp home with but a few crew, the leader dead and supplies long gone. More glory than victory, here. There is no map, instead the whole game is regulated by movement on the lines of latitude - a painfully obvious solution, but it took a talented game designer to spot it. You start at 70º North and, hopefully, move 20º to the pole, then you turn round and come back. Forty spaces. Easy, eh? Hah! The first stage is undertaken by ship, so you tend to move quite quickly - perhaps 2, 3 or 5 degrees per turn. Once you hit the Ice Shelf you can stop and break out the sledges, or carry on and try to find inlets that might take you closer to your goal. If you are lucky, you may also find an Inuit village where you can stock up on supplies, and importantly use as a base to limp back to on the return journey. And believe me, you will limp. Once on the shelf your progress slows, to 0, 1 or 2 degrees and in this fashion you edge closer and closer to the top of the world. If you are lucky.

A turn - two action phases which combined represent three months of action - is as simple as deciding whether you are hunting that phase (see later) or if not, which form of movement you will be using. Usually, this will be ship or sledge, but if things have got bad, or if you have gone completely twistleton, you can walk. An action card is turned which will tell you what the weather conditions are, and how far you move in degrees and what terrain you encounter - ice floes are always a popular result. You log the turn's progress on your gamesheet and it is the next player's go. Every now and then you draw a disaster card (some people attract these with amazing frequency) which will result in such delights as mutiny, icebergs, frostbite, arctic rivers and crevasses, getting lost or weevils in your food. There is even scurvy for you and the crew, and piblokto for the dogs. Mr Moorehead is a sadist who, sadly, has also done his research.

All this is fine, and works out as a straightforward battle against the weather and the terrain, but of course while the elements are bad enough, they get even worse in Winter, and your team always needs to eat. Food is probably the most precious commodity in the game, and you start with very little simply because it is perishable, and so bulky to carry. You check for food consumption at the end of each action phase. Sometimes you will conserve what you have, but chances are you will steadily eat your way through it. Hunting can replace used stocks, or at least defer their use, but you can't do anything but hunt in a turn. Winter turns only have one action phase, you can't move - you just hole up and pray you don't go mad from Mørketiden - you can't hunt, but disasters can still befall the party. Fun all round then. This often means at least some of the previous year is spent hunting to build up food supplies, hopefully leading to a big push in the Spring. Even so, due to bad weather and disasters, it is still entirely possible to have a full tummy and still go round in circles, making no real progress. And for even the luckiest expedition, food can eventually run out. So, like any explorer worth his salt, you eye the huskies and wonder whether Fido would taste good with some mangetout and duchesse potatoes. As time goes on, he looks pretty darn appetizing and by then the sledges will have lost their utility anyway. Hopefully, this drastic carnivorous measure will get you home on foot. If it doesn't, you dead boy.

Almost the sole drawback with the game is one of interaction. As you might expect the players operate very much on their own. There is the race element, a sort of passive interaction, but beyond that joint action is virtually non existent. There are some newspaper rules that allow you to smear your opponent's reputation but that is all. But, as I've already indicated, I didn't miss the interaction at all. There is so much going on elsewhere that you hardly notice its absence. It is also in keeping with the historical setting that the adventurers don't interact - I don't believe they did in real life, and it would have added a false sensation if the designer had imposed this feature purely for game purposes.

Production is the by now recognisable Sim Workshop 'basic homespun'. Using black & white DTP with minimalist artwork, and requiring you to cut out cards, Randy keeps the gamekit flag flying high and the price appealingly low. But again, it doesn't matter a jot. You can see that you have a compass, or a pile of food, or some dogs and your imagination does the rest. And at the price it remains a bargain. The rules are clear and complete, and all the necessary game aids and log sheets are provided. Once you've cut out the cards, you are ready to play.

I have played this game four times so far. Out of around 15 attempts (we didn't keep records for the first game....), I think eight explorers have reached the pole, and six of those have returned home safely. In one memorable game, three successful players were seen racing back on their ships to be the first to publish the news - it is a philosophical debating point as to who gets to the pole first or who publishes first, but the players know in their hearts who has done it. In another game, not one of the four made it to the pole. The game is surprisingly varied, by virtue of the event cards and the carefully balanced fate quota. Oddly, but hardly a problem, one of the most entertaining gaming sessions I can recall featured a complete disaster of a journey headed by a friend of mine, where it seemed each turn something dropped off, got eaten or withered away. At the end of about twenty minutes of this, he was on his own in the middle of nowhere, looking extremely forlorn. And for some bizarre reason, I found this highly amusing and couldn't stop giggling. Perhaps you had to be there. So if nothing else, the game promotes a healthy dose of schadenfreude.

SRD scores for me on two levels. Firstly, and the stronger of the two, is the extremely strong atmosphere. The whole game is highly 'visual', imagination-wise, especially for someone with that little book stored away in deep memory. I can imagine the ships approaching the ice shelf, negotiating ice floes, the sleds scudding along behind the dogs, eyes open for crevasses and storms, mindful of the incredible hardships to come. As the pole is approached and circumstances become tougher and tougher, you can see the more involved players cringe as their teams fall ill and die, and food peters out. It is emotive, and for me, because it also generates the history, it is also exciting and enjoyable. All these strengths mean the game can be played solitaire; quite successfully I understand, and there are several historical scenarios provided for both solo and group assaults.

It also works on the simpler basis of a straightforward race, with all the usual interest that engenders. Whatever, one is regularly faced with the decision whether to turn back, but the desire to make it to the pole is high in everyone's minds. Meanwhile, I sit there, like the big softy I am, thinking I might be able to save the crew by turning back; others just see them as cardboard and head on regardless. As I was told recently, while moaning about a motorcyclist wheelying to victory over the finish line, I don't have much understanding of non risk-averse minds. Anyway, I have still won the game twice. That the game can generate these feelings from a few pieces of black and white paper, even from those who didn't enjoy the game, is remarkable, and I salute Randy Moorehead and his team.

As you will have gathered, I rate this game and its simple but effective systems very highly. The subject matter is excellent, the mechanisms carefully devised and implemented, the lack of a map and use of the lines of latitude as the movement regulator is inspired. It plays very quickly and players endure little downtime unless they are wiped out completely, which is rare (and usually means they have overstretched). In this respect the system is near perfectly balanced - in both game terms and historically. The game oozes ambience and does a rather good job of putting you there in terms of period detail, excitement, suspense and pure flavour. It heartens me to think that the next game in this expanding range, concerning tomb hunting in The Valley of The Kings, could be at least as good as this one, and perhaps even better. Fingers crossed. Safe Return Doubtful is one of my favourites of the year and although I concede it will not appeal to everyone, I do urge you to at least try it. At $10 you are not risking much to see if the game also appeals to you. Highly recommended.

Safe Return Doubtful is available from Simulations Workshop.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell