It’s the summer solstice and our rite of passage, so we compete. The sacred stone is tossed from a towering cliff overlooking the sea.
Into the depths the artifact plunges. We follow.
Dive is surreal. Originally published by Sit Down! and distributed in North America by Lumas games, this is an experience that asks players to peer through layered transparent sheets and use their actual God-given depth perception as the main interface with play. It’s a weird thing that is unlike any other tabletop design I’ve seen, but it drags you into the abyss with striking visuals and a coherent, almost ceremonious presentation.
The central action of Dive is serene. Players simultaneously stare at the transparent murkiness, eyeing images of sharks, turtles, fish, and scattered seaweed printed on the plastic tiles. Light will reflect off the surface and the shadowy chasm will require divers move about, taking in several angles to best deduce the depths of various sea life.
It’s undeniably clever. You feel as though you’re engaging with the body of water, immersed in the setting and using actual physical skills and mental acuity to find success and failure. As a work, it’s terribly obvious that this design germinated from this stunt, the transparent illation forming a gimmick of sorts with the rest of the experience wrapped around that translucent inspiration.
Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between that inventive spark and everything else. At times, it feels as though it’s a fantastic soul in search of a game. The dreaded word “activity” is freely thrown around and it’s easy to dismiss the process. At least, this was my experience among experienced hobbyists.
In this context, Dive simply is a gimmick-first design. It’s a neat distraction, something worth exploring for a bit as you experience an altogether new sensation. But its novelty wears thin after one or two 20-minute plays. The primary issue is that there simply isn’t enough strategic depth or fictional boundary to explore.
You can certainly improve in your ability to translate intuition to the mechanism of depth perception. After a round or two I was beginning to identify little visual tells of when one image was atop another, and context could provide a strong guesstimate of how far down a particular feature was.
This is important as the game is really a push your luck system where you program up to five layers deep, deciding whether each transparent sheet possesses a shark or not. If you estimate incorrectly, your progress is halted, and you fail to move farther down the depth track towards victory. It’s a race with your speed entirely determined by your ability to correctly spot the identifiers of each depth.
This is a nifty thing. When you lift a sheet and realize you correctly predicted the shark was on sheet three and not on sheet four, it feels satisfying. There’s a small moment of heart fluttering and you look around the table to see who guessed accurately. When the current flows your way you smirk, and when the shark feasts it’s a groan instead.
Some texture is added through turtles and manta rays. These special creatures offer benefits, such as increased movement on the depth track, but each is awarded to the player with the highest value token at that particular depth.
This is when it gets most thoughtful. The five tokens you place on your personal board are not only used to denote whether you believe there to be a shark or not at each layer, but they also determine who gains the benefits of these bonus movements. When we arrive at a sheet with one of these special animals, whoever placed the highest numbered token receives the benefit. So, is that turtle on sheet four? If so, you likely want to throw your five-value counter on that position.
It gets a little more interesting.
You can combine tokens, such as placing your three and four value discs on a particular level. Of course, this limits the range you’re able to dive as you need one token per level to descend all the way to the fifth depth each round, but it’s a gamble that may pay off if your depth perception is up to snuff.
There is also a neat companion system. It almost feels like a miniature expansion module of sorts, allowing players to receive a one-time special power. This is relatively entertaining in a wacky sort of way, as you get to upset the stricture of play by covering the sheet with your squid token, or force everyone to hurry up and finish programming their dive tokens as you count down while brandishing your killer whale. They’re little novelty abilities that feel as though you could have stumbled upon them in a Cracker Jack box.
It’s also difficult to ignore the whole Moana-ish aesthetic going on. It’s warm and mystical, inviting you to commit to the surf and let go.
I dig this vibe and there is definitely a game here, it’s simply not one that is strategically rich or overly dramatic. It requires just enough thought to earn its existence, and the incentive structure is woven adequately into the depth deduction.
But it struggles to ever find permanent ground. The central activity of analyzing the fauna overshadows all of the actual design work, much in the same way as party games often devolve into ignoring points and shunning the defined structure. Not that I would ever play Dive without its game component, but all of that is merely the faintest of excuses to partake in the plunge and that novel core concept.
Dive fares better with a more wistful group. As a family-weight design it presents a very striking experience that offers something you won’t find in any other box. My eight-year-old daughter was particularly fond of the challenge, finding smug satisfaction in out-navigating her dopey father through the swirling undersea.
Even in this ideal setting I’d prefer to pull it out once every couple of fortnights at most. But I would indeed enjoy this peculiar design when doing so.
There’s just a certain sense of cool here that is appealing. The gimmick is something that wants to be shared. It wants to come off the shelf and be ogled by newcomers. “You’ve never played Dive? We need to fix that.”
I want to encourage these experimental designs to be made. I want new experiences, not simply new things to acquire. Dive may not provide lasting and repeatable satisfaction, but it provides a spark of ingenuity, and that’s enough.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.