Well wouldn’t you just know it? That desert island cruise has taken a turn for the worst and you’ve ended up ship-wrecked, with little to no useful stuff between you. What’s worse is that the last radio broadcast you heard was warning of an incoming hurricane.
Can you and your companions work together, source enough rations and build an escape raft all before the weather turns? Let’s find out…
Hellapagos is an interesting game for a few reasons. Firstly it plays from a snug 3 players, all the way up to a colossal 12, scaling pretty effortlessly along the way. It’s also a semi-cooperative game, meaning that while you’re looking out for yourself, it’s also in your interests to work with the other players for as long as you possibly can.
You’re unlikely to win without taking turns as a team player, but despite that, there’s still a chance that everyone except you could win.
First things first – this game from Gigamic packs quite a lot into a relatively small box, and the components are almost certainly better than you’re expecting. There are some lovely wooden balls accompanied by a fantastic hessian bag. Cards are packaged in two different sized boxes that look like crates you’ve managed to salvage, and even the main card holder itself is a little 3D model of a boat with a huge hole in.
To begin, set out the board and place the food and water ration tokens on the track, setting your starting supplies and deal each player a starting hand of cards according to the table in the rule book. This is essentially how the game scales so easily – there are no other rule or setup changes for different player counts.
You’ll place the raft building token on step 0 of its own tracker – you’ve not managed to build anything yet, and you’ll need to get a move on. Create the weather deck by shuffling the hurricane card into the bottom half of the weather cards. This will trigger the end-game somewhere between turns seven and 12.
Place the wooden balls into the Hellapagos hessian bag, shuffle the remaining cards and add them into the shipwreck card holder and you’re ready to go!
Each round follows five steps. Apart from the first round, you’ll always move the first player token to the right, meaning that the person who played last in the current round will get to go first next time. I think this is because your choice of actions potentially reduces depending on your teams choices, though practically it makes little difference most of the time.
You’ll then reveal a weather card which will either tell you the hurricane is upon you, or it’ll tell you how much rainfall there is (and by extension, how easy it’ll be to boost your water rations).
Next, each person takes one of four possible actions. You and your island companions are free to talk, strategise and negotiate as much as you like during this stage. But of course, everyone has an eye on their own interests so it’s up to you if you take people at their word or not.
Each action while playing Hellapagos feels different which is good, though some are relatively straightforward and at higher player counts you’ll feel like you’re waiting for an action, just to move the water ration token up a couple of spaces if you decide/are forced to collect water. You can only collect as much water as there is rain showing on the weather card, and these range from zero to three drops so you need to plan for good weather and have plenty of water in reserve.
If you choose to gather wood for a raft, you’ll move the raft building token on one space. You then have a little push-your-luck opportunity to go further into the jungle to get more wood. Each raft needs to advance the token 6 spaces to build so you’ll struggle to make enough room for everyone without taking a chance. You announce how many more pieces of wood you wish to collect and draw that many wooden balls from the bag. If you draw the black ball, you’ve been bitten by a snake and… well, that’s bad. Otherwise, move the raft token around the track for each white ball you drew.
Catching fish for food has a similar feel to it. Here you draw a single ball from the bag and the number of fish icons on it is how many food rations you’ve managed to find for the group. You’ll move the token up on the track by the same amount.
Your final action is to search the wreckage for supplies and items. Draw a card from the shipwreck and add it to your hand. Cards can include food and water rations, as well as some helpful items to aid your escape. You’re not under any obligation to reveal what you’ve salvaged, and having a secret stockpile of rations might help you out later.
Once everyone’s taken a turn of Hellapagos, you need to check that you’ve all survived. Every player in the game (including anybody suffering from snake bites after ill-advised jungle foraging) consumes a food and water ration. You’ll tackle each of these independently, and this is where the game takes a bit of a sinister turn.
To be blunt, if there are more players in the game than there are water rations, somebody is going to die of thirst. In a family board game. And what’s more, you’ll all have to vote for who dies of thirst.
You can top up any shortfall by playing water ration cards from your hand, but if you still come up short, you better start looking around for your least favourite person on the island.
Remember the risk of snake bites earlier? Well if you’re on the sickly side you don’t get to vote, but can still be targeted by others. Playing a secret ration card can save you at this point, though it may be shortlived.
Once you’ve consumed your water, you move onto food rations, where, you’ve guessed it, any shortfall means people might die of hunger. In a family board game.
Don’t worry though, because if you can’t decide who to vote for and one of you has salvaged the gun and bullet cards, you can just shoot someone dead instead. In a family board game.
End Of The Game? Please?
Once you’ve been through this ordeal, you need to check for the end of the game. This might happen because you’ve built a big enough raft for everyone, have enough rations to end the round and enough rations for everyone to survive on the raft. In effect you need a raft card per person, and two food and water rations.
Secondly, the hurricane in Hellapagos might have ben revealed. You’ll finish the round and hope you’ve got enough raft space and rations for everyone. Otherwise you’ll vote to see which of you makes it onto the raft with supplies, and who’s left to perish. Those on the raft win, everyone else loses.
Finally, and least cheerily, you might all die of thirst/hunger/gunshot wounds. In which case everyone loses.
So What's It Like?
There are some themes running through the game that you’ll probably not want to get into with younger players. The suggest age is 10+, but explaining to a child that mummy or daddy has died of thirst isn’t a great experience. Trust me.
It is a winnable game though. I’ve played this a number of times and everyone’s survived. Collecting water when the rain is pouring helps you out, and getting lucky on the push-you-luck element makes a big difference.
Ultimately, the strategy will only get you so far, and you’ll have to rely on some elements of luck to come through it all unscathed.
There are some nice touches and some tongue in cheek bits throughout. Scavenging the shipwreck only to find a winning lottery ticket, or a copy of the Quoridor board game feels fun when things are going pretty well, though it’s hugely frustrating when you desperately needed a bottle of water.
Turns are typically quick, which can mean you’ll get through a five or six player game fairly speedily, but the flip side of that is there’s a lot of waiting just to do something fairly basic on your turn. You’ll want to be the person building the raft just because that action introduces the most amount of tension and gameplay into any turn.
Hellapagos is a decent game, and a good introduction into semi-cooperative games. While it’s definitely aimed at families, you might find it challenging to play with those who aren’t ready to deal with all the ways anyone might die, and how they might have to vote to make it happen.
Turns can be brief, and downtime will feel pretty pronounced when you play towards the larger end of the player count spectrum.
I do like the components, and I think the care that’s gone into the production overall is really good. There are some excellent touches along the way and it feels like a good quality game. The rulebook is pretty long for game of this length, though the back page has a handy summary of the whole thing.
There are a couple of different ‘modes’ suggested in the rules, allowing for tournament play, but they feel relatively tacked on and I’d suggest are probably better avoided. There are also expansions available, but I’ve not actively sought them out.
I’d be wary of recommending it if you’re looking solely for a family game to play with younger children, but if you have a group who will lean into the adventure of it all, and are happy to be voting for each other at times of crisis, I think you’ll get something out of Hellapagos.