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Doomed from the Start: Games about Titanic Tragedy Flounder with Public

by Michael Barnes (04/18/12).

Because of an outcry of those offended by the game in the United Kingdon, the board game The Sinking of the Titanic’s name was changed for U.K. distribution to Abandon Ship. But the same image of the Titanic was used for that game, too.

April 15th, 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The facts in the case should be well known by now, but in case you missed it, filmmaker and deep sea submariner James Cameron made a little movie about it a couple of years ago that was kind of popular. The long and short of it—icebergs and ocean liners don’t mix. Despite the perennial interest in the Titanic, there really haven’t been too many board games about the subject; it’s just not a very “gameable” subject, and the iceberg is going to win every time. But that hasn’t stopped a couple of gamemakers from giving it a shot, despite the tragic nature of its subject matter.

In 1975, it seems that the Titanic was still a somewhat sensitive subject. Late that year, Ideal released a game called The Sinking of the Titanic to some controversy in England. U.K. consumers, at least, were offended by the assumed disrespect for those that died in the disaster, so the game was almost immediately pulled from sale and a second edition quickly replaced it, making copies with the original title scarce. The irony is that even though the game was retitled Abandon Ship, it’s definitely the Titanic depicted on its cover, with its distinct four-stack profile. And imaginary people still go to their watery graves.

It’s the kind of goofy, novel game that just isn’t really made any more either in the hobby or mainstream sectors. It hinges on a unique gameplay gimmick that simulates the capsizing of the Titanic. The image of the ship itself is on a rotating dial and as the game progresses and as the ship starts to roll over, areas of it become submerged and inaccessible. This means survivors get trapped or drowned, and eventually the whole ship goes belly-up.

Interestingly the gameplay is effectively divided into two distinct segments, with the first finding players rolling dice and attempting to move passengers to lifeboats. As the ship sinks, the lifeboats are launched and the goal becomes to move lifeboats full of survivors to an island to wait for a rescue boat. But you’ve also got to have food and water for these folks, and a deck of adventure cards incur some random events during their voyage to safety. It’s a cutthroat struggle for survival, and players can steal passengers or provisions from adjacent lifeboats. There’s always the option for passengers to eschew the scramble for boats and just swim for it. The winner is the player that makes it to the rescue boat with two people and enough supplies for each. The boat pops up on the same dial the Titanic is on, once it’s fully under water.

It Looks like a grim struggle for survival, and beware the hand!

Despite the grim subject matter, it’s hardly a simulation or recreation of the titular event. It turns out that it has about as much to do with the Titanic as chess has to do with medieval warfare. It’s also treated with plenty of levity—cartoon artwork and a humorous tone hardly disrespect the real-life tragedy.

The Sinking of the Titanic is usually a rare game that I almost never see for sale. It carries interest not only for board gamers who may collect novel or unique titles or games from the 1970s, but also for Titanic memorabilia collectors. In fact, there was a copy up for grabs at a 100th anniversary memorabilia auction at Bonhams Auction House in New York this past weekend. It’s not a terribly expensive game, however, and exceptionally good examples can likely be found for under $100 if you know where to look. Because of the centennial of the disaster, more are popping up. There are currently 12 examples on eBay listed for $9.99 to $100, with an example of Abandon Ship from the U.K. listed for £125 ($198.56).

Other than a few obscure European games that have done the Titanic theme, the only other Titanic game of note is a 1987 title from Hoyle that is more notable because of its ridiculous production than for its value or desirability. It’s called—in contrast to The Sinking of the Titanic—Raise the Titanic. But instead of aiming to recreate its sinking, it’s about looting the wreck.

Raise the Titanic might be considered a 50-cent treasure.

Interestingly, it’s also a game that has two distinct segments and involves getting items to complete tasks. The first part of the game finds players engaged in a simple roll-and-move adventure, trying to earn money to buy equipment to salvage the wreck and establish fame. Salvaging treasures means literally taking heavy metal treasure pieces off of a large plastic model of the Titanic mounted on a column in the center of the board.

The pillar is spring-loaded, so the more weight removed from the ship, the more it literally rises. Once it reaches its peak, the game becomes a simple race with players jockeying back to a home port, trying to reach it while holding the ship’s log. It can be stolen, so there’s definitely a nasty, cutthroat element. The player with the most money and fame at the end wins.

Is this game worth its weight in tiny metal treasures? That’s for you to decide.

Raise the Titanic isn’t a particularly well-regarded or even fondly remembered game, but it has a one-of-a-kind novelty that makes it appealing to collectors. It’s playability isn’t very high, but it’s definitely a conversation piece and, here again, Titanic collectors might be particularly charmed by the mechanical, wreck-raising concept of the game. I can’t think of any other game that features this kind of mechanic, and it’s the kind of game—like Sink the Titanic—that just isn’t made anymore. That said, its value is fairly low—there’s an auction online right now listing a copy at $15. There’s another in England that the seller has posted for a speculatively optimistic $280. I saw a copy at a yard sale once for 50¢.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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