3 Chits, 3 Giggles
Much like an American drama series, life sometimes throws at you something quite unexpected. With the recent introduction of our new video series 'Desert Island Decks', the last thing I expected to find at the recent and rather splendid UK Games Expo was something akin to the tropical climate we so often mention on screen, but, in the corner of the convention hall, we found a game that immediately made me pay attention and immediately chuckle. A game with bold branding and lots of people gathered around. It was called Hunger: The Show, and it's a game all about trying to survive life on a desert island. Well played Birmingham. But, actually, that is the question we should be asking, does it play well? Or is it just a game with good advertising? Well let's find out.
Putting aside the coincidental nature of its discovery, this was a surprise for me at the recent expo. I'm a huge fan of the US TV show 'Survivor' and while not really a viewer of the UK equivalent 'Shipwrecked', I've seen enough of it to know that these two shows were probably the main inspirations behind the board game you see now. The premise is simple; you are a contestant on a TV show, set on a desert island, and to win the prize of a million dollars you must be the first to escape the island by raft, but you must keep yourself fed along the way or you'll 'die' of starvation.
The gameplay is a simple mix of action selection and bluffing. You all have the same set of cards; one for each area of the island (which varies depending on the number of players) and five different actions you can perform. In each round (and there are up to eleven of these, though the game is rigged so that it could feasibly end anytime after round seven) you and your fellow players will choose one action and one location in secret, and then all reveal at the same time. This is the crux of the game.
There are three actions dedicated to collecting the various, limited resources on the board, which nicely enough is played inside the box itself, representing the island. There are chickens which you can hunt, fruit you can forage for and raft pieces you can pick up. However, you may instead choose to steal as your action, which means that you get to take everything that other players in the same area as you will have gathered for that round. Harsh. However, the final action is to guard, which sees you not only thwart any theft attempt, but get rewarded in the form of food or items from the players you protected. Play incorrectly though, and the punishment can be brutal, especially in a land of not very plenty.
Are two people doing the same action in the same area? Well then, they'll only get half the usual reward due to getting in each others way. What if three or more people make the exact same card choices? Tough luck, nobody's getting a thing now, well done. What if you guard an area where there aren't any thieves prowling around? Well sure, you'll find a coconut or two as you wait aimlessly, but the nutritious value of these are far inferior to the rest of what's available. There are actually many ways these cards and choices can cause differing results, and you really have to consider exactly what is the best option for you to not end up hungry before the end of the game.
You see, each player starts with enough food to last five rounds easily, but with people stealing and getting in each others way, as well as the variable values of each resource in how much food it produces (chickens for example can either provide 1, 2 or 4 food, but coconuts are mostly worth 0, with a few 1's and 2's mixed in), pretty soon you are desperately seeking out the last scraps of food left on the island, through honest means or dishonest, to sustain yourself just to get to the next round.. Life really is tough on the island.
Ultimately though, food is only used to keep you going forward. The real items of value are sets of raft pieces. These hidden value tokens bear either rope or wood on their underside, and contain values of either one or two, but each set of a rope and wood will only score you the lowest value in the pairing. These are the only points that matter in the game, and so it is more common than not for a player to win with two points, due to the other players starving themselves out of the game or bad luck drawing pieces.
Like any good series though, an interesting concept will only get you so far. There has to be something more behind the scenes in order to keep you coming back, but does Hunger: The Show have it, that 'X Factor'? More than you might expect given the rather cheeky branding of the game and somewhat non-feminist approved artwork (the females certainly aren't 'female fantasy' armour levels of ridiculous but they at least have the reality show contestant trope as their basis). This is a really easy to get into deduction game where out thinking often means out playing, and despite a few convoluted explanations for certain unlikely situations (e.g what if there are two guards played alongside one thief with no resources being collected?) it isn't very taxing on the old noggin.
It plays between two and six players but feels better at higher player counts, as there are many more ways each round can play out and potentially more rewards at stake, while it also allows a little player balancing (the practice that the players themselves will stop one player getting too far ahead) to come into effect. You will be forced to change your tactics on the fly in order not to go hungry and many people will die on the island, which brings up one of the few issues I have; the player elimination aspect (if you're really unfortunate, this could happen quite early though if that does happen you probably deserved it) There's nothing worse than getting eliminated from a game and having to watch your friends carry on without you. At least in this instance, it fits with the theme of a reality show, and the game is usually over in less than half hour so it's not as much of an issue as it usually is.
If you've read any of my previous reviews, you should know I truly value a good theme in a board game, but it's not often you come across something that feels new. For me, this certainly stood out, and yet the game feels like it plays uniquely too, even though it is a rehash of many things that came before. You won't come away from it with a blown mind or desperately wanting to play it again like Great Western Trail or Pandemic Legacy, but you'll probably dig it out more often than some of those small filler card games you may have acquired over the years.
Overall, this stood out for me due to its unusual, striking theme and thankfully plays well enough to justify it. I doubt games like these will make it into people's yearly favourites list, but it is company's like PHALANX constantly trying out these new ideas that we should be thankful for. I also find it deliciously ironic that the very bane of the small screen landscape, reality TV, is the one thing that made me want to check it out over other games present at the expo. I guess I'm just a sucker for good advertising.
Review by Russell Chapman