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Review: Africana

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Africana Box

You’re an explorer for a European nation. For many years you’ve devoted yourself to the service of your country, exploring new lands and meeting the indigenous people. (Not to mention looting all of the valuable artifacts that you can get your hands on.) You’ve all but retired from the exploration game, opting to spend your days sipping drinks under the Caribbean sun. Suddenly your country calls again (or sends you a message in a bottle, since this is well before phones). The continent of Africa is open for exploration! Your country needs you to be the first to discover everything Africa has to offer and grab the good stuff before the other countries get there. Grab your boots, get out there, and make your motherland proud once again!

How It Plays

Africana is a set collection game that casts players in the role of European explorers racing to be the first to discover new places and artifacts on the continent of Africa. The explorer who completes the most expeditions and finds the most artifacts (which translate into victory points) is the winner of the game.

Gameplay is simple. On your turn, you can do one of three actions. You can draw travel cards, buy adventure cards, or move your explorer. That’s it. 

If you choose to draw travel cards, you will simply draw two cards and add them to your hand. In order to move your explorer along a route, you must play a travel card that corresponds to the color of the route. If a route shows two colors, you choose which color to play. You can move as many spaces as you want on your turn, provided that you have the matching cards to do so. Each player has one joker card which can be played  as any color, and assistant cards of the proper color can be used in place of travel cards, as well. If you’re really stuck for movement options, you can pay money to change the color of a travel or assistant card.

So why are you moving about the board at all? To complete adventures and expeditions, of course. You may buy adventure cards on your turn from one of the two “books” on the board. You can only buy the topmost card from a book unless you can afford to turn the pages. You may pay to turn as many pages in the book as you want, as long as you have the money. You can then buy any of the cards that you reveal, again, as long as you can pay for them.

Africana Feature
All set up and ready to travel.

Adventures may have you searching for artifacts which earn victory points at the end of the game. You may also be searching for an assistant, who will gain you an assistant card of that color which, as noted above, can help you move. (Be aware that using assistants may help you move in the short term, but they may cost you victory points at the end of the game.)

You can also join expeditions. Expedition cards line the bottom of the game board. Any time that your pawn occupies the beginning location of an expedition, you may join that expedition by placing one of your tokens on the card. (If there are multiple expeditions with the same starting location, you can join all of them.) You will receive a joining bonus of either money or a travel card when you join an expedition.

Africana Money
Money makes the world go round.

Expeditions and adventures end when your pawn occupies the ending location for that expedition/adventure. For being the first to reach the target, you receive the amount of money shown on the expedition/adventure card. The card itself is placed in your player area and will be worth points at the end of the game. Anyone else who was on the expedition with you receives nothing. If you were on an adventure to find an assistant, you receive the assistant card in the indicated color.

Players keep moving around the board, completing expeditions and adventures, until the expedition cards run out. The current round is played to the end so that all players have an equal number of turns. Players then tally the points earned from completed expedition cards, adventure cards with artifacts on them, collections of artifacts (sets of identical artifacts and sets of unique artifacts can score points), leftover money and travel cards, and unfinished artifact adventure cards. Points are deducted if you used more than two assistants. The player with the most points wins.

A Fun Junket Through Africa, or Just Junk?

Africana shares a few similarities with Ticket to Ride (TTR) and is often compared to that game. There is the notion of collecting hands of colored cards and trading those cards for movement. There is also the idea of completing adventures and expeditions, which are similar to completing routes in Ticket to Ride. Africana also uses the same mechanic of allowing players to choose only one action per turn from a small menu of actions. So if all of this is more or less the same as TTR, why would you ever play Africana?

The difference is that Africana gives you just a little bit more than TTR. While in TTR you’re simply trying to complete your routes, in Africana you have the option to not only complete expeditions, but you can enhance your scoring opportunities by also going on adventures to hunt artifacts. While I have seen games won by players who chose to focus on just artifacts or expeditions, most games between experienced players are won by skillfully balancing both. 

Having both expeditions and artifacts to chase also gives you more to think about, do, and keep track of. You might not be able to make any progress on an expedition this turn, but maybe there’s an artifact nearby that you can grab. Since you earn points at the end of the game for having matching sets of artifacts, pursuing artifacts can be a viable strategy if an expedition isn’t working out for you.

Africana Books
The adventure books. So cute!

You also have more agency in Africana than you do in TTR. You can actively search the adventure book (and those books are just cool) for cards that will help you (as long as you have the money to pay for that search). The travel cards you draw are still random, but each player has a joker that remains in their hand for the entire game. This gives you a bit more ability to plan your play than TTR, since in TTR you must wait and hope for a wild card to come up in the draw. These two mechanics leave you with the feeling that you have a little more control than you do in TTR.

You also have the opportunity to acquire assistants, something that TTR does not offer. Assistants can really help you move around the board and, once you have them, they remain in your hand for the entire game. Having assistants can give you more choices on your turn because you might not have to draw cards to move, saving you some time. However, if you have used two assistants at the end of the game you will lose five victory points and ten points if you have used three or more. You have to weigh the assistant’s usefulness against their potential cost.

And speaking of cost… There’s the issue of money. You’ll need money in order to increase your options (not unlike real life, come to think of it). You can spend money to search through the adventure books. You need money to buy adventure cards and the more money you have, the more you can buy. You can also spend money to change the color of a travel card to make it more useful for you. So, while you can ignore money and just take travel cards and join expeditions, the more money you have, the more options you have on each turn and the more efficient you can be. It’s in your interest to earn money by joining and completing expeditions and finding artifacts.

Africana Cards 1
Travel cards

All of this offers some wonderful tension because you are only allowed to do one action per turn. You have to carefully evaluate what you need to do and in what order. Efficiency matters in this game. You want to be first to complete expeditions but, as noted above, pursuing artifacts can also be a viable strategy. If you can combine an expedition with an artifact along the way, so much the better! You don’t want to waste too many turns just drawing travel cards, and that’s where assistants can be helpful, but they are also costly at the endgame. You can always do something on your turn, but knowing what to do and when is the difference between victory and defeat.

Despite all that’s going on, games of Africana move quickly. With only one action per turn, there’s very little opportunity for indecision. Even if you’re stuck between two choices, it doesn’t take long to sort out which one is the best. Because games go so quickly, Africana scores high on the “let’s go again” meter. Setup and play is fast enough that you can knock off a couple of games in an evening. It makes a good family game, as well. The box says ages 8+, but younger players should have no trouble grasping the rules and, while some of the subtleties of play may elude them, they can be competitive with an assist from an adult.

Africana Cards 3
Expedition cards

The negatives of this game aren’t negatives per se, but are only due to the nature of the game. Africana is a lightweight game, maybe a half-step above TTR in complexity. Anyone looking for a real brain burner will be disappointed. It also has some randomness in the travel card draw. If the cards aren’t coming up that you need, you can waste turns waiting to be able to put something together. This won’t sit well with those who desire total control in their games. Finally, it can get a little repetitive. With only three actions to choose from, you’re not doing a lot differently on every turn. Fortunately, it moves fast enough that you don’t really feel like the game overstays its welcome.

Africana is a good choice for anyone who loves TTR and is maybe seeking something similar, but with just a little more to think about. The extra decisions you have to make and options to weigh make this TTR 2.0 in my book. It’s still light enough that non-gamers can grasp it, making it a good choice for families. It’s also a good choice for those who want TTR with a different theme. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone seeking a heavy, brain burning game, or who can’t appreciate a little randomness in their games. However, if you’re looking for something to bring fans of TTR just a little further into the gaming realm, I don’t think you can go wrong with Africana. 

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Summary

Pros

Easy to learn gateway/family-level game with an interesting, engaging theme.
Bears similarities to Ticket to Ride and should appeal to its fans.
Offers more choices and agency than TTR.
Actions are limited each turn, meaning little chance of AP.
Despite limited actions, decisions and strategy do matter.
Book mechanic is innovative and different.

Cons

Randomness of the card draw will upset those who desire total control.
Can get repetitive toward the endgame.
Lightweight game may not offer enough depth for serious gamers.

9.0 Excellent

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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