Reviews

Board in the Stacks: The Lost Expedition

British explorer Percy Fawcett journeys into the Amazon and discovers evidence of a previously unknown civilization. The scientific establishment baulks at this discovery and mock him. Percy, unperturbed, returns to the jungle to prove his case. He is never to be seen again. This is where The Lost City of Z by David Grann drops the story and where The Lost Expedition picks it back up.

Osprey Games, designer Peer Sylvester and acclaimed illustrator Garen Ewing has taken The Lost City of Z as inspiration and re-imagined it into an engaging (albeit unforgiving) cooperative card game. Players need to guide a team of three adventurers to the ruins of El Dorado after the missing Captain Fawcett. The jungle is not kind and not all the adventures will survive. In order to win the game, the players must manage their resources well enough to ensure that at least one of the team survives the treck to the end.

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Here we have a team ready to go with a whole stack of adventure cards to dive into.

Each of the six adventures is based upon a historical figure and has a particular skill that will be needed to help the team through the hazards of the jungle…even if it kills them. Roy and Ynes have jungle lore, Isabelle and Candido are skilled navigators (as well as being dapper af), and Teddy Roosevelt and Bessie Coleman are experienced campers.

Each adventurer starts off healthy with 3-4 health tokens and the team well provisioned with ammunition and food. Players will work together to manage those resources  along with strategic use of any expertise picked up on the way in order to survive. The jungle is not forgiving though and acquired skills will likely be only met with more dangerous situations.

Set Up and Rules:

Depending upon preferred difficulty, 7-9 cards representing the movement across the jungle and into the ruins of El Dorado are set up on the table. 7 cards and four health for each of the adventures in the easy game is basically a learning game — even completely guileless and ignorant of the dangers ahead, players will make it to the end. A pawn representing the team will mark the progress made during the hikes. Hikes are split into Morning and Night phases.

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A Morning Phase with all the cards arranged numerically. It wasn’t a great morning.

Each of the phases are completed by resolving a set of cards placed by the players in turn order. Each card has a combination of mandatory events to resolve (those in yellow), choices where you have to pick one (red) and optional actions (in blue). Each of these elements will be contain a series of icons. When an icon is black it will be gained by the team to be used during future phases. When they are not filled in, it requires that icon to be spent or suffer a loss the consequences.

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An Evening Phase with the cards arranged in a way determined by the group.

During the Morning phase, players are dealt a hand of four cards. Starting with the first player, everyone plays an adventure card from their hand to the path until two cards are placed by each player. Cards are then arranged in numerical order and then resolved. After resolution of the cards, the team eats and spends a food token. The Night phase is similar except that cards played, stay in the order placed and are not rearranged. At the completion of the Night phase, the team spends a food token. The game is played in a series of hikes followed by feeding your team until one of the following happens:

  1. The pawn gets moved to the last card, ending in a win.
  2. If all three explorers are dead, the game ends in a loss.
  3. If the adventure deck runs out cards for a second time, the players lose.

Review:

The Lost Expedition is a rules-lite card game focusing on resource management and tight decision making. The core of the game the team being able and willing to discuss actions in order to determine their route. The game can stall here if players are unwilling or unable to collaborate (ie. players unknown to each other, social anxiety, general shyness). If you are playing with a group new to each other, they may find it very difficult to speak up about what the preferred placement of cards or which decisions to make. This can lead to an uncomfortable social tension. The best fix is to make sure players know each other and are familiar with cooperative games that require discussion as this game requires conversation and consensus for success. If you are teaching to a group of new players, I recommend moderating and encouraging discussion for a run through of the game on the easy mode.

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Sorry Teddy….

There is a surprising amount of flavor in the cards with hardly any text at all. This is a testimony to the artistry and art direction. You get a deep impression of the dangers the party is experiencing, the actions taken, and the results with only a couple of words and a few icons. Players get a tense experience with a surprising amount of storytelling embedded in the cards with very little actual language making this an amazing game for ESL or non-english speaking players (something that every library should be aware of when developing a collection). To be fair though, the story can get lost without someone willing to tease it out. Playing The Lost Expedition with no storytelling is like playing Gloom with only the card mechanisms. It’s fine but you miss out on so much. The art is reminiscent of Golden Age Adventure Comics, Tintin, and Johnny Quest. If you squint a bit you can almost see some Moebius. The imagery isn’t hyperbolic or exaggerated. The jaguar has teeth. The mosquito can kill you. A cut can get infected. The style is cartoony with a slightly darker feel and realistic edge and it works very well for the game.

Overall, I found it to be most engaging as a solo or two player game, adequate as a three player game, and drudgery at four or five players (sorry, it just didn’t keep it together for larger groups). Keep the player count low and you will get much more enjoyment out of the game. With larger groups the storytelling gets diluted and you start playing a game strictly of card play and it grew dull and overlong.

Representation:

Of particular merit to the design, I found the representation of the characters in the game to be diverse and inclusive. Out of the six characters, two are white males, half are women, and people of color are represented in a meaningful way. According to some people I have played The Lost Expedition with, the adventurers also read as Queer.

I has some concern with a game set in the Amazon. Especially as it pertained to the representation of indigenous cultures. Would it be problematic? Romanticized? Racist? From my perspective, however, the art and portrayal seemed respectful but still the game maintains a very Euro-centric view of post-colonial exploration (as, honestly, does the book). Several of the tribes portrayed in the game were unique. With over 400 tribes in the Amazon, each with its own language and culture, it was pleasant to see that tribes were represented in, what I found, a non-homogenized manner. Some tribes were depicted as peaceful, helpful, or antagonistic towards the team of adventures. Since the designer of the game specifically named The Lost City of Z as inspiration and Osprey Publishing is known for producing non fiction works, I hope I can trust them to put in the research required. That said, the Indigenous people in this game were not provided with any agency. And that is an issue although par for the course in the board game space. They were there to hinder or help the adventures and it would have been nice to see some representation *within* the team itself.

So where does that put Native/Indigenous representation in The Lost Expedition? Better then most but still plenty of room to improve.

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