When President Jefferson purchased all of France’s possessions in North America, it surprised everyone. Even himself. After all, he only asked for New Orleans and its immediate environs to secure the commercially critical Mississippi. But when cash-strapped Napoleon counter-offered with more than 828,000 square miles stretching from Creole country all the way up and across to the Pacific Northwest at a bargain rate of $0.05 per acre, Tom Jefferson couldn’t resist. It was a controversial policy. Did he have the authority? What impact would it have on the spread of slavery? Did the young nation even have the money? Most of all, what in the world did we just get? A vast wilderness crying out to be discovered. Jefferson was ready to address that last issue by commissioning one of the most remarkable expeditions in history.
How to Play
In Discoveries you’re a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition tasked with mapping the great Louisiana Territory and cataloging the people, species and fauna that inhabit it. But instead of taking two years in the face of untold trials, tedium and toil, you’ll wrap it all up in an about an hour by rolling dice!
Assuming the role of an expedition leader you begin with five dice of your own color which represent your available explorers. You also have a personal player board and a journal “cover.” At the start of your game, you roll your dice and place them in your stock. The results stand until you spend them or are able to alter them in some manner later. Your board contains a number of action spaces on which you can place one or more dice. The journal cover is for slipping successful discoveries under.
Communally, a camp board it set out for all players to access. This is where used dice are discarded when spent, if required. It also contains three tribe cards and three discovery cards at all times. Tribe cards represent the assistance of both friendly and wary American Indians that you can recruit. Discovery cards signify successfully traversing and mapping land and identifying native plant and animal species. Interestingly these cards are one in the same. One side of the deck comprises the various tribes, while the other makes up discoveries. Obtaining cards is also how you will score points.
Unlike many dice-oriented games, Discoveries eschews the frequent re-rolling mechanic of Yahtzee. Any time you roll, the result stands and is placed in your stock for later use. There are ways to manipulate them – either by spending an action to actually change the face of one or two, or by using a special ability to substitute one die face for another. In many ways then, Discoveries is more akin to a worker placement game that uses dice, with a unique twist on how you may obtain and allocate them.
On your turn you can either take an action or rest. When taking an action, you assign one or more dice of the same face type to one or more action spaces. That’s it. Most actions require a specific die icon to trigger, but a couple allow for any type. Some actions may be completed with one placement, such as recruiting a tribe card with one or more negotiate icons, switching your discovery card or changing dice in your stock. Tribe cards in turn generally provide further action spaces that you can use in addition to those on your player board.
The remaining actions, both on your player board and most of those involving tribal assistance, deal with exploring discovery cards. These are the heart of the game and generally require at least two turns to complete, sometimes three. The discovery cards themselves designate a number of river and mountain icons you must traverse in order to fully explore. Each exploration action provides a combination of rivers and/or mountains towards meeting a card’s requirements. Generally, those actions also require multiple dice to trigger. Since you can only assign one face type per turn, you’ll need at least two to complete these actions. When you’ve successfully explored your card, you place it beneath your journal cover and select a new one from the camp board.
Resolving some actions requires discarding the dice you assigned, in which case they go to a specific side of the camp board. Exploring icons (hiking and horseshoes) go to the right, while negotiate and journal icons go to the left. Other actions allow you to keep one or more dice, in which case they’re re-rolled and place back in your stock.
If you’re running low on dice, you can rest, which means you get to re-stock. You can either take all of the dice discarded to the tribe side of the camp board, all of the dice discarded to the discoveries side or all of your own colored dice from anywhere in play. And since people will be picking up each other’s dice from the common discard pile as they rest, that means you’ll have the chance to snatch your own dice back away from them. After collecting whichever pool of dice you choose, roll them and place them in your stock.
As you recruit tribes and complete discoveries, the deck eventually depletes which triggers the end game. Players then earn points based on the aggregate difficulty of their discoveries, collecting sets of species in the process and gathering the most knowledge of various Indian tribes. And aren’t you glad you didn’t have to punt up the Missouri in a flatboat?
Worth Writing Home About?
Discoveries is based on the same theme, and uses similar style artwork, as Lewis & Clark: The Expedition (2013) by the same designer and publisher. I have not played it. From what I have read, that title is mechanically completely different and appears to be about twice as long. Aside from the clever ways in which both designs interweave the historical theme with their mechanics, I think I can say with confidence they don’t play the same.
Porting successful designs to dice and card versions in order to capitalize on a popular name is a slippery slope for many publishers to ascend. The concept of streamlining a bigger game to something faster and simpler is fine, in and of itself. But it better be a good design to avoid unsavory accusations about duplicity. That’s not to totally excuse the consumer from honestly researching these kinds of buys. But you know some will be duped into believing one is like the other just based on brand name. Chaboussit and company avoid much of that pitfall, I believe, simply by choosing not to name it “Lewis & Clark: The Dice Game.”
It also helps that Discoveries feels very distinctive, contains some honestly unique and/or rarely-seen elements and engages its theme better than most “dice games” I’ve played.
The design is actually really straight-forward. You either assign one type of die icon or take some dice to restock. Even when placement triggers an action, it’s resolved quickly. So the overall pace is snappy and there really isn’t any downtime. The exploration actions are a tad unintuitive at first because you must plan your progression, making sure you have the right number of dice to resolve an adequate amount of rivers and mountains for your discovery card. It’s not as cumbersome as it sounds. It’s one of those elements more difficult to explain than actually teach with the game in front of you.
Essentially almost all of the explore actions require multiple icon faces. But you can only place one kind each round. So first you must assign the initial die or dice, usually a hiking or horseshoe symbol. Sometimes it may require a second symbol, which means spending a second turn. Subsequently, you can complete the exploration with a journal icon in a further round. However, many discovery cards require more rivers and mountains than one exploration action grants. Also, the terrain icons you gain through exploration must match the order in which they appear on the discovery card. That can be a bit fiddly to visualize at first. Therefore you need to plan ahead so as to trigger enough of them simultaneously with multiple journal dice. You can’t fill up an action space to save for a future round – it resolves immediately.
While that planning is the primary extent of the design’s main strategy, it doesn’t restrict its analytical punch. In fact, since exploration is what Discoveries is really about, engineering and arranging your dice to earn the cards only enhances that puzzle nature. And there are still other decisions to be made.
Probably the most interesting one is how to exploit the shared dice pool. You will often end up with other players’ dice, but it may not last long because owners can snatch them back at any moment – even if you’ve already assigned them to an action space. In fact, don’t do that unless it triggers the action immediately, so that you don’t risk wasting the placement to a rueful opponent’s machinations.
On the other hand, all of those dice are quite attractive sitting in a large pile on the camp board and can prove useful. Even though you may not possess them long, hopefully you can take advantage of one or more. Plus you need to decide when to reclaim your own dice from around the table. Is it worth a wasted turn to deny one or two of your cubes to others? This element is really unique and affects the game in fascinating ways, without creating too much contention or chaos.
When and how to change your dice is also important. I appreciate that the main mechanic to alter unwanted results is not left to special rewards (although it does have that via a few tribe cards, as well) or further random results. You may change one or more dice, to the same face, anytime you like as long as you’re willing to invest both a turn and another die. So while it’s not left to chance or infrequent occurrence, it requires a commitment – one that you’ll need to revert to often.
The tribe cards also offer plenty of decision points. Most allow for alternative ways to explore. Some provide a rules-breaking ability. Some of them only require one die to recruit. Still others use up two dice, but are generally more enticing. Some provide a number of teepees, which represents knowledge of all the tribes. The more you know, the more points you can potentially earn. Of course, cards only come out three at a time, so nabbing the good ones will take good preparation, tactics and fortune in equal measure.
The variety of tribe cards are great in offering helpful options for exploration, yet oddly don’t contribute to any overall replay value. They simply amount to more of the same means to an end. Yes, there will be different combinations every game, but it’s all relatively similar: picking the best selections as they become available. Indeed games will feel very much the same from session to session. For some, that kind of personality isn’t necessarily an issue. And actually what detracts from any replay loss more is that the game can suffer from repetitive play and go a little long. It’s a brisk, thinker’s puzzle – but it’s still light with a minimal array of options and could stand to shave off 15 minutes.
One of the design’s more surprising strengths is its use of theme. Not to say that Discoveries is a dramatically immersive experience. However, it does find astute and subtle ways of injecting elements that really enhance its historical setting – some more obvious than others. The focus on tribe and discovery cards is true to the expedition’s goals of mapping the new territory, engaging with the American Indians and recording natural observations. The extra exploration and other benefits from tribe cards reflect the invaluable aid they rendered to the real Lewis and Clark. The discovery card maps bring the exploration motif to life, the dice as expedition members give their use meaning and the artwork absolutely nails the mood and setting. Indeed, outstanding illustrations and great production values seem to be a common staple with just about every game produced in France these days.
Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark feels very distinctive amidst its peers. It’s not a traditional dice-as-workers placement design, but yet it also steers clear of the frantic, Yahtzee-style re-roll fest so prevalent in the genre. And while not particularly deeper or more variable than other titles, it nonetheless manages to pull off a more cerebral experience. The semi-shared dice pool, controlled mitigation of rolls and nuanced integration of theme create an interesting and unique journey worth discovering, indeed.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing a review copy of Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark.