Survival of the Witless

Published by Avalanche Press, 1997
This review copyright 1997 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated August 10, 1997

You know you're playing a satire on academia when the errata sheet is labelled: "New perspectives on Survival of the Witless: An interpretive study in transrelational gender construction."

Not since INWO has there been a game which pokes as much fun at the whole political correctness thing. And academia is rife with PC, you'd best believe. The game is obviously written by an insider - not only does the text on the cards prove it, but I found one card which reads: "Your identity as designer of a cynical party game based on the tenure track process becomes known to other faculty members at your university. -3 status all faculty ..." At that point I decided to see who the game designer is, and, oddly enough, no one is credited . . .

This is Avalanche Press's first foray into non-wargaming - all of their other games are WWII or Napoleonic wargames of some complexity. I hope this sells well, inducing them to try other non-wargames, as Survival of the Witless is a very entertaining game!

Witless is a card game, complete in one box. The cards are not of the best quality, alas, being serrated and a bit thick so shuffling hurts the soft edges. With care, the game will last a while, however. There are six decks, the largest being the Action deck with 208 cards. Four of the other decks are used to create player characters, and the sixth deck determines the faculty on the tenure committee.

The game is for three to eight players, and is a different game at the extreme ends of the spectrum. There are only eight book contract cards in the deck, and you must have one to get tenure. Consequently, it's fairly easy to get a contract with few players, but difficult with a lot of players. Your character will have to seduce other characters to get their book contracts if playing with over five people. Seduce? Oh, yes: the game box states three times that the game is not for children under twelve or faculty over fifty years of age.

You start by getting one card at random from each of the four character decks: gender (M or F, obviously), race (Hopelessly White or Desperately Minority), class (upper, working, or hereditary academic) and sexual preference (hetero- or homosexual). As in real life, you have no choice in this, so a heterosexual white male may find himself playing a minority lesbian in this game.

Everyone gets an identical status sheet, which lists all sixteen possible faculty on the tenure committee, with a status track from -5 to +9 for each. You then deal out five faculty at random, read their bios in the Faculty Dossier (which is quite amusing), and adjust your status sheet according to their cards. Some give you a +1 if male, for example, while others give you -1 if white, and so on. There are faculty of all races, gender, class, and sexual preference, so everyone has a chance to get a bonus - or penalty.

You then start with cards based on your character: males get more cards than females, whites more than minorities, etc. The player with the most cards starts. Life ain't fair, and neither is the game.

There are two basic types of cards in the Action deck: writing cards and action cards. You can play as many writing cards as you wish in a given turn, or one action card. It takes three writing cards to publish an article (some actions require you to have an article published before you can benefit from them), and ten plus a book contract to publish a book.

Actions vary from cards you play on yourself to give you a bonus with faculty on the Review Committee, to cards you play on your opponents to hinder them in their quest for tenure. Most of these are very funny, especially if you have worked at an academic institution . . .

The goal is to be the first to gain tenure. It takes a published book and approval of three out of the five Review Committee members to get tenure. Approval requires an "11" on a single d6 + status. So you need at least status 5+ with three faculty before you can even try for tenure - and that might take awhile, with your fellows playing such cards on you as "VCR Set Correctly", "Blinded by Science", "Gossip Attack", "Student Support", and so on. Not to mention their characters seducing yours to steal your cards . . .

Grad students, the "trophy wife", "who broke the coffee pot?", parking in a faculty member's spot - all the gory details of academia are present in this fine satiric game. If you're not thin-skinned, you should enjoy this game.


Fix? I've just praised the game, why am I talking about a fix for it already? Well, the game takes too long. It's very hard to get a book contract and keep high status with at least three faculty, and you have to roll for each faculty separately when you do try for tenure, so you need a lot of them very high. So, simply put, the game takes too long given the light subject matter.

There are many possible fixes: don't require a book contract (just say ten writing cards equal a book), or only roll once when trying for tenure and add it to all faculty status, or require only a "9" to succeed instead of an "11", for example - and I'm sure there are others. But the one we like the best is:

  • If you discard any three cards (except a Book Contract - you may not discard a Book Contract!), you may make a seduction attempt.
We feel this is a good fix because:
  1. Seduction attempts are fun. (Er ... I mean in the game, honest!)
  2. Seduction attempts are not automatic, so it doesn't make it too easy.
  3. Requiring three cards means you can't try it every turn.
  4. There really aren't enough seduction cards in the deck.
  5. There are some admittedly dead-weight cards in the game, and this gives you a chance to use them.
  6. Given enough tries, seduction should get you a book contract from another player.
  7. Given enough tries, seduction should increase your status with at least one faculty member.
So given the combination of fun, chance, and multiple ways to further your goals, we think this is the best fix for the game - that we've thought of, at any rate. If you have any others, please let me know.

One other I have thought of, but haven't tried: card trading. (The Witless of Catan?) In this variant, before your action for the turn, you could offer a trade. ("I'll offer three Writing cards for one Book Contract! Anyone? How about a grad student? A trophy wife?" - it has possibilities.) You can only trade cards in your hand, not on the table. If anyone accepts, trading is your whole action for the turn, and you have to wait until next turn to play any card you receive in trade that turn. You can only make one trade per turn. If no one wants to trade cards, you may take an action as normal.

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