Discover: Lands Unknown is an exploration and survival game for one to four players. But it’s hard to separate that description from the marketing furor around it. What makes Discover unique is–well, it’s unique.
Every copy of Discover is an assortment of different materials, and no two copies (we are told) are the same. Each copy contains two types of terrain, twelve different characters, five scenarios, different monsters, discoveries, and on and on–which make each copy its own mystery waiting to be uncovered.
That is an appealing prospect, I have to say, and opening the box of Discover is like opening an odd Christmas present from an estranged uncle who may not know you very well–the insides are intriguing and spark curiosity, but you’re not sure if you should (and whether you can) return it.
The idea of a completely untouched territory that is unique to your experience–that is what Discover is selling you. So it’s a shame when it delivers in part but not in whole.
I suppose an alternate title for this review could be “It’s Still Too Soon for FarmerLenny to Own a Fantasy Flight Game.” Because most of my problems with Discover boil down to the way I view Fantasy Flight’s games in general: interesting narrative and audacious conceit let down by boring and lazy mechanical choices.
But let’s start with the promise of Discover, because there really is something special here. Also, one caveat: I played the game exclusively solitaire with no interest in multiplayer play. (I prefer to go Robinson Crusoe in the exploration genre. So most reviews’ focus on the unsatisfying semicooperative play doesn’t apply here.)
It would be hard for me to overstate the anticipation of setting up the board for my first game, not knowing what any of the symbols meant, not knowing which of the seemingly thousands of punchboard tokens I would be using, or which cards in the decks would be triggered. I couldn’t even look online for guidance–this territory is mine, and only my wits would get me through the adventure.
And it is exhilarating when you are discovering new things. You turn over a stone and find–well, I’ll leave that for you. But you find something of interest that you want to put to use. You continue to look, and everywhere you go there are wondrous sights, useful items, and odd treasures that point to a grander narrative. You find items which give you access to new areas and new ways of understanding the game–and each time you get to look at a different card than the one you would otherwise be stuck with because of the items you have, it feels a little like you’re cheating the system and part of the inner circle. “Skip the line! No wait! You belong here.” While you are finding new things, Discover has hit its stride.
It’s just that, for a game called Discover: Lands Unknown, discovery isn’t as big a part of the game as I’d like. The land becomes known very quickly. The landmark that looks like a pyramid? Yeah, that’s in every game that’s played on the desert terrain in my copy, and it always yields the same exploration card with the same outcome. It may appear in a different place on the map, but it’s the same landmark. And it serves the same (or a similar enough) function in both scenarios tied to it, so even if the scenario stories were more interesting than they are, they still feel a little generic because of the static components. It’s probably too much to hope for more than this with an un-app-assisted board game that has been put together by computer algorithm, but it’s a little disappointing, because after you discover all the bits, the rest of the game feels a little like a chore.
The scenarios are formed of “fetch” quests–bring these items to this place–and you have to survive, while you’re at it, too. But “surviving” is often a matter of luck: will you get to the tile that has water or not? Will you get to the food tokens before your food runs out or not? Will you have useful items to craft or not? Will your character have a useful ability or not? Will I be injured in this fight against an emu or not?
I don’t mean to come down too hard on this point–Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, another exploration and survival game (and a game I love), is similarly shrouded in luck. But while Robinson Crusoe has a good deal of luck, there is usually some indication of what is coming. You can see the weather dice you will have to roll at the end of the round. You know the injury card that’s being shuffled into the event deck and will need to be dealt with eventually. You know the problem the event card set before you, and you have two turns to deal with it before you face the long-term consequences. You are at the mercy of a harsh environment in Robinson Crusoe, yes, but when you survive, you feel like Invictus–“I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” I have faced a barren landscape and tamed it to my wishes!
In Discover, when I survive, I think, That was lucky! And when I don’t, I think, Well, I couldn’t have done any differently there… The chief place where I feel at the mercy of malevolent forces is in combat. Combat is, in some ways, mercifully simple: roll a red die to determine whether your enemy hits you; roll a gray die to determine whether you hit your enemy. Easy peasy. You can modify the dice a little through some items or resources, but you mostly hit or don’t. I don’t know if the dice are loaded or what, but my red die always seems to roll high and my gray die low, which means I’m constantly taking wounds I can’t prevent. And combat wounds can’t be healed, and four wounds means you’re out of the game.
Well, you might say, that’s what your items and resources are for! Use them wisely! This is true, to a degree, but there’s no telling whether a reroll will actually help, or whether the resource I spend in modifying my dice will make a difference. Unlike in Robinson Crusoe, where the dice determine whether you have to face an eventual outcome (and are the risk of your own choice–you can assure an outcome if you want/need to), here most things come down to a roll-of-the-dice skill check that you can’t avoid. A monster walks into your space? You have to fight it. In one scenario, the only way to win the scenario was to defeat an enemy I couldn’t escape. Essentially, it was a roll-off to the death. (Granted, there are ways to prepare for combat in advance, but there are no sure things. And in this instance, it was annoying to play through to the end of the scenario, only to discover that this is how the final boss is defeated, to lose, and to face the prospect of playing again for potentially the same outcome. No thanks.)
This luck is in more than just combat. You might discover something at a feature, and the roll of the dice determines what you get. Sure, you can keep spending your stamina to roll the die and pray for a different outcome, but at that point, it feels a little like the game is wasting my time. If the artificial gatekeeper keeping me from my goal is simply the fact that I haven’t rolled the desired number, I’m tempted to just turn the die to that number and move along. (I’ve never been so tempted to cheat in a solitaire game.) And at that point, if you’re just turning the dice to the numbers you need to “get through” the scenario, it’s revealing a deeper truth that you probably weren’t having much fun to begin with.
The components included in Discover: Lands Unknown are on nice punchboard, and the explorer damage/stamina trackers are the usual high-quality Fantasy Flight dials. The cards look nice, and there are tons of tokens in the game. Yet the price still feels a bit steep for what is a four- to five-scenario game. I completed my four scenarios in seven plays (I cheated a little on the last scenario because I didn’t want to do the roll-off again), but I would say two to four plays were where most of the enjoyment was. Despite the variety in the box–multiple characters, variable tokens, etc.–this kind of variety doesn’t really provide replayability, in my estimation, for the reasons explained above: once you know the secrets of your terrain, the game isn’t very interesting anymore, and you figure out the secrets of each terrain in one to two plays. The box is also severely lacking any sort of storage solution–the insert doesn’t fit the components, and even baggies would have been appreciated, given the prodigious amount of tokens supplied–which contributes to my disappointment with the price. If I traded my game for another copy of Discover, this price would be easier to swallow (and I’m sure this is part of the pricing strategy). However, I didn’t enjoy the game enough to seek a like copy in trade.
Discover: Lands Unknown does have some interesting ideas–different types of damage that characters can take (with different ways to heal), the stamina system, the feature system, and especially the discovery of each unique game–but these are marred by lackluster mechanisms that lead to the realization that you aren’t playing the game; the game is playing you. The unique elements are the strongest aspects of the game, but in play you quickly find that Discover is a one-trick pony, and once the lands in your copy are known, it’s not just a matter of escaping the environment in the game; you want an escape to a different table, where your choices actually affect your destiny. Discover isn’t the worst game I’ve played this year, but it is the most disappointing.