Review: Papua


Papua, New Guinea is one of the most ecologically diverse locales in the world with an astoundingly high density of specie representation – over 4% of the world’s vertebrates, despite occupying less than half a percent of the Earth’s land surface.  Zoologists and all of their specialized ilk continue to discover new insect, bird, and reptile species to this day! At the turn of the 20th century the island remained a virgin mystery waiting to be explored. Well, unless you already lived there…

How To Play

You head a scientific expedition to the tropical island of Papua (think New Guinea), tasked with befriending the local natives for assistance, outfitting your party, securing funding, and documenting the land’s exotically undiscovered flora and fauna – from a European perspective, of course.  Oh, and scoring victory points. And your time is limited. It’s a harsh land and hard work and you are human, after all, with only so much stamina and means of endurance.

Papua uses a unique dice activation worker placement system to accumulate the resources necessary for your expedition, along with bidding and set collecting to discover the island’s natural treasures.  The explorer who best balances these logistical and scientific scales on their expedition of course will earn the most prestige!

To begin their excursion of discovery, each leader treks out with seven meeples, representing their team, a few coins in starting capital, and three fish tokens for food.  These are placed behind player screens as future progress and accumulation of various resources are kept secret. To protect against scientific deceit, I suppose.

Your venture begins!

The game board is not dissimilar in layout to other worker placement designs.  There is a prestige track at the left to record points and a stamina tracker ringing the borders to mark each player’s energy, which is a sort of action currency and one of the game’s end-timers.  The bulk of the board comprises six action spaces to which players will assign their expedition crew to collect resources and explore the island’s exotic nature.

Players will then alternate rolling dice and using the results to place some of their worker meeples at various locations, after which all spots are resolved in a particular order.  Beware though! Exploring an unfamiliar jungle with an inhospitable (to Europeans) environment is accompanied by certain perils – unless you’ve secured sufficient funding to protect your intrepid team.  Also, not every action will be available each turn, so planning can be uncertain.

Not too catastrophic…

At the beginning of a round, the player with the least energy takes the forbidden token and closes off one of the six zones by placing it there.  That spot is off limits for selection during that turn. It cannot stay in the same locale two rounds in a row.

Then the player with the most energy grabs at least five dice and tosses them.  These custom dice have five faces numbered 1 through 5, while the sixth space is a skull and storm cloud – the dreaded catastrophe!  This result represents disease, hostile natives, dangerous animals, or other natural calamities that might befall your explorers. Any catastrophes (excepting the first round of the game) immediately eliminates one of your meeples.  Alternately you may pay one coin per catastrophe to save the same number of workers. After confronting those dangers, the player may then spend coins to increase or decrease the pips on the remaining dice – one coin per pip on as many dice and as many times as they’d like and can afford.

Then the player determines which dice to use and resolve, needing the matching pips on a die (or dice) to place in a zone of its indicated value.  For every die selected, the player places one meeple. However, at the beginning of a round, none of the locations are assigned any values, yet. Instead, each spot is designated a value token when a player first uses dice to place in them.  There are only five tokens (1-5), so no result will be duplicated at multiple placement zones. So, the first player to place workers at any zone gets to choose which value is assigned there by selecting one or more dice of the same number, placing the matching token value at the location, and then a number of workers equal to the number of dice selected.  Following expeditions must have die results that match that location in order to place their own meeples. So the first player has a blank slate in which to forge a trail, while the last one will likely have to follow the beaten path (especially in 4-player sessions).

Making some decent headway.

In addition to locations requiring certain die rolls to assign workers, another parameter you must keep tabs on is your energy.  Everyone begins the game at 50, but for each worker you place you expend one energy, unless you consume a food token to conserve some of that.  One energy per food. Energy is tracked along the edge of the board and at periodic marks you are required to spend a number of food tokens, or lose one worker per unmet food requirement.

Players do not have to expend all of their dice.  They may place as many corresponding meeples as they wish, up to the number of dice rolled.  After resolving and placing, the next player then rolls, resolves catastrophes, and selects which results to use and where to send workers, bearing in mind they may or may not have any blank locations to assign dice values to.  After all expeditions have assigned crews to the various zones, they are individually resolved in value order beginning with the zone assigned the ‘1’ value.

At the huts, players can increase the number of dice they roll.  It requires one, two, or three meeples to advance along the huts track and involves some moderate risk.  The more dice you roll, the more potential there is to face catastrophes. That said, you are not obligated to roll the maximum number allowed by your hut marker.  You are only required to roll five, but may roll an additional number up to your limit.

The jungle, and river, and volcano, oh, my!

The logistics zone has two or three bonus tokens, which vary every round.  These can award points, coins, food, or meeples and are chosen by majority placement.  The expedition with the most team members gets first pick of the options, while the second most gets next pick and so on with the third (in a 4-player game).

At the field notebook, the player with the most workers gets to take the notebook card.  This is usually resolved immediately, but either way is a very powerful rules-breaking ability the owner benefits from.  If there is a tie at this locale, no one gets the card. Collecting them is also a source of points.

Bid on your destination…and discovery!

The expeditions locale is where you will make your discoveries.  This area is marked with jungle, river, and volcano destinations in which expedition cards are slotted.  There are seven different cards, each with five copies – although five cards are randomly removed at the beginning of the game.  The goal through the course of play is to collect sets of the same cards or different types (with more points awarded for the latter).  You can place from 1 to 3 meeples in this zone. Each allows you to bid for one destination’s card, so if you have three crew you can bid for all three slots.

The auction is silent.  Each player in the expeditions zone secretly assigns a number of their spare meeples and coins behind their personal screens corresponding to the destination(s) they’d like to explore.  When everyone is done, the screens are dropped. Whoever assigned the most meeples to each area wins the expedition card there. If tied by meeples, then whoever allocated the most coins from among those tied.  If still tied, the one with the most energy wins.

Oh, the wonders we will see!

After winners take their cards, they must spend their coins used to bid.  Losers keep their money. However, all players, regardless of winning or losing the auctions, must spend one energy per meeple they bid during this resolution, and cannot reduce that by consuming food.

The funding zone secures income to finance your journeys.  Players may assign any number of meeples here that they wish to, legally – that is up to the number of dice corresponding to zone’s current value token.  To collect, one player rolls three dice and aligns them in ascending order. Those are compared to the in-play field notebook which will indicate whether you use the least, middle, or greatest value.  Collect that number of coins plus one for each meeple you placed.

Finally, players will acquire food tokens at the hunting and fishing zone.  This is also based on dice, but each players rolls individually. Toss a number of dice equal to the number of workers you were able to place there, plus one, and earn tokens equal to the number of your meeples plus the difference between the highest and lowest die values (with catastrophes counting as zero).

In the end, the tropics wear you down.

At the end of each round workers are recalled, zones are cleared of their token values, new logistics tokens are seeded, a new notebook card is drawn, and new expedition cards fill the three destinations.  Play then proceeds until either the expedition deck is exhausted or one or more players are out of energy, or even went into the negatives.

Then players earn points based on retained resources.  The one with the most coins earns five prestige. Each player also gets a point for every two food, every three energy (or losing points for falling into the negative), and every meeple.  You can nab one to fifteen points based on collecting up to five notebook cards. But the bulk of your score will come from accumulating expedition cards. A set of all five from the same category is worth thirty prestige, with less for a smaller set, of course.  Meanwhile, hauls of unique categories may earn up to forty points for a complete set of seven! After all of the final calculating, the expedition that earned the most prestige may present a lecture about the exotic island of Papua to the next Royal Society meeting.

FORBIDDEN sounds so ominous…

It’s a Jungle Out There?

Though set in the Victorian Era’s waning days and dealing with pith helmeted exploration, Papua isn’t a steampunk game.  But the design’s inner workings still seem to me analogous to the genre’s ubiquitous and iconic clockwork imagery. It’s mechanisms work intricately and effortlessly insync like gears and springs.  In other words, while progressing through its various trappings, visualizing and recognizing the cogwork apparatus winding it, you’re always focused on its ornate face. The sum of its whole takes precedence over its individual parts.

That’s where Papua proves the most intriguing.  Those disparate parts are not particularly new, and at first glance there are many of them.  If not careful, that combination can sink a design, crushed by the weight of its own derivativeness or unnecessary complexity.  Yet in adding a single intuitive twist to standard worker placement it successfully builds a fresh experience. The player-driven zone assignments create a sophisticated strategy as each must navigate how that impacts spent energy, turn order, action resolution order, the number of dice you roll of each value in order to meet the number of meeples you need in a zone, the potential to restrict others, and managing resources to feed your team, conserve energy, mitigate bad rolls and especially secure expedition cards.

Journal your progress, for better or worse…it’s for SCIENCE!

Interestingly the design hands significant advantages to both the first and last players.  It begins with the explorer who has the least energy. They set the tone of a round from the start by blocking one zone with the forbidden token.  Not only can this immediately mess with others’ plans, but there are a few parameters for the one deciding what to close off. If they have a surplus of coins or food, it’s smart to deny your competitors access to that.  Of if you’re short in funds and fear missing out in the expedition cards, then make that off limits, so no one can have any!  If there’s a really powerful field notebook card that you’re concerned another will either take great advantage of or even use against you, then close that.  Then again, maybe you can nab it or perhaps grab a sweet logistics bonus in that zone, so you’ll make sure to leave those open?

That’s because the last player’s other big advantage is placing after everyone else.  At first, it might seem a bit of the opposite. And it is true that going last means that all of the zones will already be assigned values by the leaders before you.  So you do rely on some luck to get the rolls you need to place in desired spots. However, if you have the coins to mitigate enough dice, placing last also ensures that you get final say in the zones where majority matters.  If the current leader in the logistics or notebook locations is one, two or three, you can manipulate affairs to one-up them and “steal” the majority and thus the best swag. Or if you notice that the expeditions locale isn’t as contested this round, perhaps placing two or three meeples there will secure at least one card, for sure, and maybe more.

It takes a lot of energy to trail-blaze.

The first player’s primary leverage is that blank slate.  He or she gets to assign the first values, and, therefore, meeples to the choicest zones.  Typically without needing to spend many coins, if any at all, to mitigate rolls. This freedom is a significant enough advantage that it’s worth conserving energy by taking fewer actions in a round in hopes of going first in the next.  That said, it’s not completely overpowering because of the aforementioned majority control zones. If you’re the first to place in the logistics or field notebook locales, you can easily be “outbid,” in a sense, by later players trumping you with more meeples and no way to counter that.

In addition the ranking in which zones are assigned matter, impacting the order of action resolution, which influences what you place where.  If you need funds before going into the auction for expedition cards, you better not put a lower number in the latter spot. If you note that you’re close to needing to feed your team, you better assign dice to hunting and fishing that are lower than values for expeditions.  Bidding uses meeples, which exert energy that might trigger that required mark before you’re ready. Other zone combinations aren’t as order critical, although you can always use bonuses from the logistics zone to meet requirements in bidding for cards. And now and then, even nabbing the notebook card at a particular moment can be helpful.  Therefore, this characteristic keeps players from assigning values and dice simply based on numbers. It’s a subtle nuance that is smart and combats repetitiveness.

When in Rome…seek the natives’ help.

Another element influencing placement is that you don’t necessarily want to select all of your dice from a given roll to place meeples because that uses energy, which proves to be a slowly dwindling commodity as the game progresses.  Plus, if you plan to bid for expedition cards, you’ll be spending even more of the precious resource. And you will, because, I can’t stress this enough, the bulk of your points in Papua come from those sets.  It’s tempting to spend that energy, as it means taking more actions with meeples and earning cards. Yet conserving the most health is also of huge benefit because it’s the tiebreaker. That, and if you spend a lot of it one round, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to contest for first player on the next.  Fall too far behind on that track and you’ll perpetually follow the leader. Despite some advantage to bringing up the rear, repeatedly lagging behind isn’t ideal.

Mechanically the design’s various features are blended quite smoothly.  There’s dice activation, worker placement, set collection, bidding, dice rolling, resource management and area majority.  The “advanced” version, which I recommend just going with from the start, piles on variable player powers, too. Additionally, there are more than one use for each of the game’s resources, requiring a delicate balance.  Meeples are used for placement to take actions and in bidding. Food is needed to conserve energy and outright spend at required points. Coins help mitigate dice, save meeples from catastrophes, and are also part of bidding.  Finally there’s energy, which is only used to perform actions and is eventually finite – so ticks down as the game’s timer – and is affected by both placement and bidding, the two more significant aspects to Papua. Not incidentally, all of these resources count for some amount of points at the end of the game, if you can conserve them efficiently enough.

Totally better than sting or bite!

Again though, you don’t really think in terms of moving from one of these disparate elements to another.  Even though that’s essentially the process! Turns are well structured, so you’re always cognizant of the details necessary for success.  But as you progress through play, it’s with an eye on your expedition’s total progress. It begins with the individual dice pool rolls which affect zone activation, worker placement and resource management.  Then as each locale is resolved in numerical order by a slightly different mechanism, the cumulative efforts wrought through bidding, dice rolling, and area majority inform how you approach and analyze your progress overall.

With all of those parts spinning together, it also helps the design thematically tackle its subject of an exploratory expedition surprisingly and satisfyingly well.  The end goal of your venture is of course biological and zoological advancement. So it makes sense that the bulk of your points will stem from the expedition cards. But journaling your finds is essential to science, so the field notebook cards are also a nice payoff.  Additionally you need to exert energy on those more workmanlike efforts undergirding your primary enterprise: things like funding, acquiring crew members, and feeding them. The importance of those logistical considerations are represented by the design awarding these resources points.  But such behind-the-scenes elements are not as sexy as big scientific discoveries, so you’ll have to be content with managing them mainly to secure the cards that will catapult your work into the limelight.

Because of the nuanced zone assignments and worker placement, game play is more interesting with three or four.  The 2-player variant uses a sort of bot in which you roll dice to determine a number of neutral meeples to place in the logistics, field book, and expedition destination zones.  This non-player party may squeeze the other two out, especially in the majority areas. But that’s about it and it’s all random, more of a nuisance than a smart puzzle to deftly solve.  3- to 4-players provides a good balance of competition and uncertainty.

Scientific discovery is prestigious.

Though interestingly, the player count is not a tremendous source of tension, as you might expect from a worker placement game.  Rather, the design’s primary point in that regard is the feeding aspect. I briefly mention this as I’m not typically a big fan of elements that penalize players just for not doing something, but here the requirement fits well with the thematic idea of outfitting an expedition party.  If you’re not prepared, starvation logically leads to setbacks in the loss of team members. Otherwise, there generally isn’t a great deal of it elsewhere.  (Alright, losing meeples to catastrophes is nerve wracking. So be leary of just how many dice you roll on your turn, no matter how big a pool you have access to!  But that’s more of an arbitrary input, even though you can plan for funding contingencies to avoid them, whereas feeding is a built-in mechanic requiring preparation.)

Still, the title lacks more traditional tension namely because, unlike most every other title in the category, there’s essentially no blocking.  Except in using the forbidden token, but that bars access to even yourself. Instead, you can place where anyone else is already present, as long as you have the dice matching the zone’s assigned value.  That doesn’t mean things can’t get tricky if you’re down on the turn order ladder, but outright blocking isn’t going to happen. It’s refreshing as a new twist in the genre. Now, within the spirit of blocking, it’s rewarding to manipulate scenarios in using multiple results of a certain die value to your advantage that can effectively prevent your competitors from benefitting in the majority-concerned zones.  But other than that, if they roll well enough, you can’t prevent them moving about where they wish.

Pile on another mechanic…variable player powers!

Papua successfully abstracts and incorporates the thematic elements associated with a Victorian Era scientific expedition into a design that offers a fresh iteration of a familiar mechanism.  The bulk of your points are indeed predicated on making those discoveries through set collection, but tending to your intrepid crew in the process is critical or the former endeavor falters.  And while there’s a lot going on, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on.  It’s varied elements and mechanisms blend synchronously so that you’re aware of all the cogs behind the face, but ever focused on the overall beauty of its inner workings as a whole.  With a nice balance of planning, maneuver, and random factors, this expedition is a fresh discovery in the worker placement genre.

Devir Games provided a copy of Papua for this review.

A New Breed

  • Rating 8.0
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Blends multiple mechanisms smoothly
Unique dice/worker placement system
Good thematic tie-ins


Catastrophes extremely random
First and last players have large advantages

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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