Mystery has always seduced you. And Danger. They’re partners in your fate, luring you like Sirens to explore the furtive questions that have hounded history – stories of lost empires and baffling legends. The third Siren is Adventure. And in your fantastic journeys to unlock time’s greatest myths, you’ve had plenty of that. You gained unimaginable wealth in finding the Lost Cities of Cíbola. Received powerfully arcane knowledge in deciphering the Voynich Manuscript. And unlocked the origins of humanity itself in discovering Lemuria. But one of civilization’s greatest mysteries has always eluded you. Where is Atlantis and what does it behold?
How to Play
Incredible Expeditions puts you in command of an always fantastic, and many times bizarre, quest to discover the lost civilization of Atlantis. Donning the personas and manning the improbable airships of larger-than-life captains, you’ll need to recruit a stout crew and equip your dirigible with peculiar gear and tools in order to survive the dark, mysterious and dangerous journey to Antarctica – where Professor Pendergast has determined it lies.
You can undertake this voyage in a race against one or more nefarious captains fighting each other with foul play and shenanigans, as well as combating the journey’s own grueling obstacles. You can team up with other adventurers to find the fabled land cooperatively, knowing full well the excursion is fraught with enough dangers of its own. Or you can brave the wintery solitude’s perils alone. In any mode, Incredible Expeditions is a role-playing style card game set in an alternate Victorian or Edwardian Era that uses deck-building to acquire crew and equipment and resolve encounters.
Assuming the role of one of the game’s five captains, each with a unique ability, you begin by placing your appropriate and superbly sculpted airship mini on Port City, represented by a location card. Each adventurer also starts with an identical 15-card resource deck. A number of other location cards lay face-down between you and your final destination, the Drowned City of Atlantis. Each locale requires that you successfully defeat a number of encounters to navigate to the sunken city, where you must overcome two tests within the same turn. If you prevail, the secrets of the doomed civilization are yours – and all of its treasures. But at what cost?
The competitive and cooperative/solo games have some variations, but the overall structure is very similar. On your turn you may either rest or venture forth. While resting, you refresh all of your exhausted crew members and hire new personalities and/or purchase equipment. There are three forms of currency – money, heroism and skullduggery. Every character and resource card requires a cost in one or more resources. You can pay for these in two ways. You start with a stash of tokens, and can accrue more, which represent these assets. You keep tokens until you spend them. You can also earn temporary resources each turn by exhausting crew members or playing resource cards, in standard deck-building fashion, for their specified amount. However, this short-term capital resets to zero at the end of each rest phase.
You can put new shipmates immediately to use, benefiting from their resource allocation or other abilities on the very same turn. However, purchased resource cards go to your discard pile, so you won’t see those until you can get through your current deck.
Resting is very much how it sounds – preparing for or recovering from your journey’s trials. The true action happens when venturing forth to face unknown dangers. Some locations are more welcoming than others – many present some additional benefit, ability or penalty (like placing curses upon crew members). Yet the primary obstacle is determined by an encounter card representing some terrible and/or fantastical test. These all require an amount or combination of heroism and skullduggery to prevail against. As with purchasing new cards in the rest phase you’ll use tokens, crew benefits and resource cards to cobble together enough means with which to defeat encounters. If successful against such an ordeal, reset your temporary resources to zero and, if you feel particularly daring or lucky, you can keep venturing to face any number of battles. But beware. If you lose, you’ll suffer consequences like losing crew members. Or worse.
The cooperative/solo version adds the ominous-sounding peril track. Each time a new location is revealed you must draw and resolve a peril card. In addition to unfortunate setbacks, it denotes a number of ticks to increase on the peril track. If that reaches a certain threshold it’s game over! Also, you may only rest three times (although you may adjust that to increase/decrease difficulty as you wish), whereas in the competitive game you can choose to rest as often as you like. So in the coop game you will not have as powerful a crew or as many resources, but you can work together in defeating encounters. In the competitive variant, you can build up as much as you like – of course you risk being passed up and left adrift in the icy arctic air!
Full Steam Ahead? Or Punk’d?
Steampunk is many things to many people. Yet even though the genre is tiptoeing more and more into mainstream avenues – often to the dismay and chagrin of its hardcore adherents – it continues to baffle most people, even if they find its oddities fascinating. Or just plain weird. On the surface it looks like it’s all about corsets and gears, or automatons and airships. An anachronistic mash of Victorian social norms and future tech which no one seems to understand, anyway. A lot of it appears to be escapism – granted elaborately and expensively so, but nonetheless a diversion from otherwise boring daily lives or more broadly a longing for a past that never was. In many ways it is. Indeed there is an inexplicable allure to its beauty and eccentricities. The art form has always provided a field of creativity and many experience or explore the subculture only upon that surface.
But deeper down, steampunk is also a mine of expression – expressing ideas, vision, adventure, and one’s self. Sure, some proponents are in it just because they like to wear pith hats and goggles or make brass-plated iPads and retro-futuristic wrist-watches. Beyond that, however, it’s another milieu, albeit an opulent one, in which to examine contemporary issues in often striking juxtapositions. In protest to vanity magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan, designers create costumes that prove beauty and pragmatism can co-exist. In an answer to cheap, no-frills modern technology, makers can craft gadgets that harmonize aesthetics, ingenuity and function. In backlash to post-modernism, writers can romanticize the rugged optimism of an idealistic past and the hero worship of individual accomplishment within a highly structured society, while still exploring its darker side of chauvinism and colonial exploitation.
So why am I seemingly going off the rails with this bit of social commentary? Because designer Liz Spain’s Incredible Expeditions is boiled in steampunk and she’s clearly a champion of the art. Just as the subgenre has influenced movies, literature, fashion, music (have you seen pop star Nicki Minaj’s Turn Me On video?!) and even novelty products, it’s been making its mark in the tabletop hobby, too. However, it doesn’t seem to make the same impact. I’ve yet to really see its broader philosophies or flamboyant creativity expressed in cardboard form. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s even a realistic medium to realize that. While loosely steampunk in style and definitely in spirit, Martin Wallace and Greg Broadmore come pretty close in Onward to Venus with the artist’s world of Dr. Grordbort and its scathing satirization of European colonialism. But most games that borrow the steampunk form do so mainly because it looks cool.
Incredible Expeditions certainly passes the eye-candy test. The artwork is bold and imaginative, the costumed models are lavishly strange and the sculpted airship minis are amazing. Even the die is intricately crafted in the style (though sadly it ignores steampunk’s desire for functionality, as well as aesthetics, because it’s almost impossible to read). So, yes, the game looks really cool. But to take advantage of its subject matter, a design that employs steampunk should be a bit avant garde or exude a sense of adventure, romanticism, even titillation. Incredible Expeditions does that – at least the later.
That means Quest for Atlantis, as any design staying true to steampunk’s aura, isn’t defined by its mechanics – and certainly won’t be “elegant.” It is a deck-builder, and you can carefully construct yours based on a coherent strategy. But then the design’s role-playing elements and narrative-driven action will quickly upset plans at some turn. That’s mainly because it’s difficult to prepare for the trials that lie along the journey – because you don’t know what you’ll face. You could easily discover friendly locales and/or draw simple encounters for which your crew and resources prove adequately equipped. Then again, you could just as easily face insurmountable odds in a scenario that requires more heroism or skullduggery than you can muster, or which cripples you before the fight even begins. Again, as with other deck-building designs, there are cards that allow you to recon locations or peak ahead at encounters. However, many times you’re flying blind.
I always hesitate using the phrase “experience game.” It often injects a pejorative connotation where none is meant. Yet that’s what Incredible Expeditions is. You must have a plan when building your deck and crew, but again, there are so many twists and turns in the narrative that you will find yourself ill-prepared at some point – usually more. Instead, the role-playing and storytelling shine brighter than the serious gaming element. This is a quest about the Baroness du Rochefort piloting her Arctic Orchid into the Factory of a Forgotten Age, relying on noble sacrifices and a bit of luck, hoping her hunter can muster enough skullduggery to overcome a Basilisk that’s just afflicted her trusty navigator with a Curse of the Frozen Heart!
The great thing is that it all works. Indeed, Incredible Expeditions is one of the better steampunk games I’ve played and/or seen. A game that tackles the genre should be chaotic, rife with conflict and a little unconventional. As another great genre-infused example, Mission: Red Planet injects predictable mechanics like role-selection and area-majority with nasty interaction and capricious events. I don’t want a neat Euro that just slaps the theme on like Mars Needs Mechanics or Spyrium. There has to be some counter-culture punk to give the genre justice. Incredible Expeditions does that with its main mechanic. You like your carefully constructed decks? Yeah? Well here you go, and good luck with that, old chap!
All three modes present their strengths and weaknesses in both game play and thematic integration. The competitive game radiates the same spirit of rivalry and antagonism found in much of steampunk’s literature. There are plenty of opportunities to connive against and sabotage your opponents. Plus the end goal is a race, which certainly represents the theme well. The main drawback with this variant is players are too tempted to sit and build up before venturing forth, ensuring they’re as strong as possible before facing the looming perils. There are two elements to combat this tendency. You’re only allowed to purchase three crew and/or resources per rest turn. And you cannot recycle through your discard pile until you’ve left Port City. However, the later restriction is moot once out in the wilds. The result slightly downgrades the story’s sense of adventure and runs counter to its spirit in making it easier to overcome encounters. There is still the race aspect, and you can risk lagging behind if your competitors sprint ahead. Invariably those that hurry, however, get pummeled.
I recommend the cooperative mode. There’s no arena of subterfuge, but the heart of camaraderie works well, a la League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Alas, be prepared for a stiffer challenge. Your team may only perform the rest turn three times. You may acquire up to four cards in the coop version, instead of three. However, your crew and accoutrements will still be sparser and more precious. Indeed you even have a crew size limit scaled to the number of players. Hence the need to enlist the aid of your fellow adventurers to overcome the voyage’s obstacles. And instead of a race against each other, you’re racing against time. The peril track builds a palpable tension as you scramble to discover and collect the keys needed to advance from Port City to the final secret of Atlantis. You can almost use your progression to write a novel.
Incredible Expeditions serves its genre well. Just as steampunk irreverently upends the structuralized Victoriana with which it has a love-hate relationship, Quest for Atlantis proves somewhat unorthodox with the main mechanic it chooses to embrace. Its deck-building element to which so many are accustomed dangles a strategic carrot just within reach. And there are certainly interesting combinations to create and a few ways to manipulate your resources. Yet there is enough randomness, interaction and Curses of the “this and that” to scoff at your best laid plans and undo the most carefully constructed decks. So hire that able crew and stock your airship’s holds with enough maps and charts and gold bullion. Just know that your careful preparations will chaotically unravel as your cursed crew is pulled by the whims of unspeakable terrors such as That Which Cannot be Described…
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Voodoo Bunny for providing a review copy of Incredible Expeditions: Quest for Atlantis.