I can’t swim. I mean, I can swim but I’m really bad at it. In high school I was nicknamed ‘the drowning rat,’ and that was before the school got involved. They had a mandatory swim class which I excused myself from every chance I could – probably explains why I’m so bad. At the end of the semester they awarded certificates based on how well you performed. The best swimmers receiving a Shark certificate, then dolphin, then manta ray, turtle, and so forth. For me, they gave me a Starfish certificate. Let that sink in for a second; starfish don’t even swim! Given all of this, would someone tell me, why the hell I bought a board game based entirely in the ocean?
Deep Sea Adventure is a 2-6 player game designed by Jun and Goro Sasaki. In it the players are poor but fearless adventurers who spend their last 80 million dollars on a submarine to search the ocean’s depths, with the winner being the player who brings back the most treasure alive. The losers, on the other hand, will turn up blue, bloated, and beached in the next six to twelve months.
How to Play
Setup involves placing the submarine board in the middle of the table, and then creating a trail of treasure tokens face down in a line; ordering them from one to four dots. The oxygen marker starts at 25, and a deep seaple is given to every player.
The game plays over three rounds. Each consisting of all players hunting for Davey Jones’ locker, or whatever else they can find. They get points for every bauble, jewel or gold bar they bring back to the sub. However, if they’re still underwater when the oxygen supply runs out then they get nothing but a watery grave.
During a turn the four actions you must perform in this order are:
- Reduce the oxygen by the number of tokens held by the current player.
- The player then declares if they’re going to head back to the submarine, or if they’re going make Jules Verne proud and go deeper into the ocean. Once turned around, they skip this step in future turns.
- Roll two dice and move the combined total spaces. Noting that they:
- Skip already occupied spaces.
- Move one less space for every held treasure token.
- Depending on the space they land on, they can either:
- Pick up the treasure token and replace it with a blank space.
- Replace a blank space with a treasure token from their current supply.
- Do nothing, and patiently float around in the dark, empty sea waiting for other players to take their turns.
After each round, any treasure safely returned to the sub is now banked by that player. The treasure trail is then shortened, with all blank spaces are removed. Finally, any player who didn’t make it, may they rest is peace, has their treasure combined and placed at the end of the trail.
Once the third round is over, players add up their treasure points with the winner being the player with the most.
The best thing about the game is how small it is, both in design and components. It’s so small that it makes for the perfect game to chuck into any sized bag for game day. Also, it’s a lot more comfortable than Mega Seeds for when you need to smuggle a board game through inter-dimensional customs. Trust me.
This game is like a Siren, it’s all about creating enough temptation to drag you to the bottom of the ocean floor. Starting with the four tiers of treasure, each contains two tokens for each number of a set four numbers – tier one being 0-3, tier two being 4-7, and so on. This means going to the next tier is guaranteed to be better than the current tier, making it seem like going deeper is better. However, this a sunk adventure fallacy, as the further away from the sub you are, the harder it is to get back – as treasure impacts your movement speed.
To increase this temptation, after each round the trail is shortened and the treasure that didn’t make it back to the ship is combined and added to the end of the trail. This makes it easier to get to the bottom, and increasing the reward for doing so, creating a natural catch up mechanism over the three rounds.
By providing two dice, with each only going up three, they not only create a more tactile game, but probability wise it means that you have better odds at rolling a 4 or higher. Making it easier to rationalize the bad decisions you’ll make.
Dice also bring excitement with them. Since there is a random element, it leads to moments where you need to roll a specific number, or all your work is for naut. The great thing about dice is that they’re bound by the laws of physics, they tumble with momentum. After they leave your hand you have that elongated moment of uncertainty, where like a pokie machine all the possibilities float in front of your eyes before they finally stop on the one number you didn’t need.
Not stopping on occupied spaces allows you to turn a rolled three into something more. It speeds up the process of going down, and coming back up, while also creating a strategic element. To maximize your chances of returning safely you’ll need to bunnyhop your fellow divers on the way back. If you’re the last retreat, with no one to help you, you’re usually left to sleep with the fishes.
In terms of design, there isn’t that many actual decisions in the game. Given you will probably only pick up one, maybe two treasures per round, and then including the decision to change direction. That leaves you with about nine decisions to make throughout the entire game. These decisions are like poutine though, at the end of the day they’re still chips, but there is so much layered on top of them that it enhances the chips to a deliciousness previously unknown to man. An example of this layering is picking up treasure tile, which has at least four mechanisms attached to it: the oxygen, the movement debuff, the amount of points, and the trail shrinkage. In fact, every decision you make has more than one effect on the game state.
This game is ridiculously punishing. It’s worse than my 8th grade English teacher, and she was nicknamed ‘the bulldog’. So much is tied to the decisions, that if you misjudge when to pick up treasure, or when to turn around you’ll have better chance of learning to breath underwater than making it back to the submarine. The chances are lowered further after players start to realise they’re screwed, at which point they forfeit their life and instead try to use as much oxygen as possible.
Because of the shared oxygen, if someone picks up treasures from the first turn, then it penalises everyone as a result. Creating a round where it ends before it begins. This might be done vindictively, but it might also happen because a player doesn’t understand how much their decisions effect everyone. This is also known as the tragedy of the commons, referring to the economic theory and not the poor soul who’s a little slow in the head.
We talked about dice earlier, but I’ll quickly mention them again. The problem with dice being a main mechanic is that you can never be confident on what you’re going to roll. It limits the amount of strategy and forward thinking you can put into decisions, relying on probability instead of inevitability. There’s a saying in Hollywood: never work with babies, dice or animals.
Deep Sea Adventure is missing the excitement that attaches itself big risks and Hail Marys. Instead it rewards small victories, and mild achievements. Meaning it’s more suited to be played by moustached men chortling a chorus of good shows, rather than you hooting and hollering with your friends.
Lastly, the game plays up to six players, but I wouldn’t recommend it. At max there’s 25 oxygen. If every player grabs a treasure, there are only four turns each before they empty the supply. At five players this gets raised to five turns. The burden of one treasure allows for one guaranteed movement per turn, making returning alive so difficult that Tom Cruise has bought the rights for the game and is using it as the plot of Mission Impossible 7.
This game is interesting because there’s been so much thought put into it. Something I’ve come to love about Japanese designers is their ability to boil away fatty mechanics, stripping the game down to the essentials. From a design perspective I think this game is fantastic.
However, the difficulty of the decisions, and the punishment for failing to make the correct ones has lead even my dominatrix to refuse to play with me anymore. I’m not sure if it’s my groups bravado, stupidness, stubbornness, or a concoction of all three, but often when we play everyone dies. Every round. Ending in a tie for zero points. Personally, I didn’t find this very fun or engaging. Therefore, I’m ruling this as one for the purists and masochists amongst us, while the average game player might have a difficult time enjoying themselves. This unfortunately makes it impossible for me to recommend Deep Sea Adventure – I mean, there isn’t even a kraken.
Small box games, I feel like I’m drowning in them at the moment – what a fantastic way to die. Have you played any of Oink games’ other board games? I’ve got A Fake Artist Goes to New York, which is super enjoyable.