Lost cities of ancient myth have beckoned to countless explorers through time. For some it’s the thrill of adventure. Others, a passion for curiosity. Still others, it’s the singsong call of unimaginable wealth. Whatever the lure, these intrepid discoverers blaze indefatigably through inhospitable environments, hostile inhabitants and deadly wildlife. All for that feat, that discovery, that treasure that will earn them immortality. And while some are indeed remembered to this day, most of them ironically end up lost like the city they trekked out to find.
How To Play
For a daring few, finding that discovery of a lifetime is worth the cost, worth the risk. Now you are one of those select! And you’ll put all of your wits to the test – and your life on the line – in The Lost Expedition. Through managing a hand of cards, your party of explorers will trudge, snake and hack its way through the Amazon fending of incessant dangers and counting your blessings in those rare moments of respite.
There are three ways to venture into this jungle. You can go it solo – as long as you’re prepared to spend eternity alone, too! You can gather one to four friends similarly stirred by, or oblivious to, the perils. The cooperative adventure also offers three different difficulty levels. Finally, you can race against another explorer, in which case you win by beating your competitor to El Dorado…or not dying first.
In any mode with any number of players, you actually control a party of three explorers all based on historic persons. Each expedition member must have a unique area of expertise: jungle, navigation and camping. Assign three or four health markers per explorer (based on level of difficulty), gather a communal supply of food and ammunition and you’re ready to traverse the same Amazonian trail on which Percy Fawcett disappeared some years before. That’s not ominous, at all.
The route you’ll take through the wilderness is represented by expedition cards – seven or nine depending on the degree of challenge. There is nothing special about these cards, though they create a nice panoramic rain forest trail when laid out together. However, they are simply spaces to track progress. You begin on the first card, and the last is El Dorado, the Lost City of Z or whichever legend you wish to stand in.
To reach that fabled destination you will play out hands of adventure cards representing various encounters or happenings on your fateful journey. Each round you’ll receive four (six in the solo and 2-player variants) to play between a day and night phase. In the day phase, players alternate placing a card one at a time until six total are on the table. With the solo version, half of these are drawn from the deck. Each adventure card has a value from 1 to 56 and the six cards are now rearranged in numerical order from least to greatest. Once sorted the team must resolve them in turn, completely addressing one card before moving to the next.
To resolve a card you follow its caption boxes, which might be mandatory, optional or a combination of both. Events are yellow and are compulsory. Choices are red boxes and there will be at least two, in which case you must choose one to resolve. Options are blue and work exactly as they sound – you may opt to trigger them or not. These caption boxes contain one or more icons that you must address beginning with events, then choices and finally options. Further, within an individual box you must trigger each icon in order from left to right.
Icons sort of represent the design’s currencies – the necessities to garner progress. Symbols might stand for resources like food, ammunition and health. They could indicate an area of expertise. Some allow you to manipulate the trail by swapping, discarding or adding adventure cards. And finally there are a couple that signal advancement or death. Resources and expertise icons may be black or white, revealing whether you gain or must expend the item, respectively. Handling and tracking resources is straightforward and intuitive as there are tokens to collect or spend.
Expertise is a little trickier. If you would gain one, you physically take that adventure card, keep it with your other resources and then may later spend it on another one down the path that requires the specific know-how. You don’t actually use the expertise marked on your three explorers. Instead, those signify which explorer would lose health if you’re not able to meet a caption box’s expertise demand. Alternatively, you may chose a different explorer to lose two health tokens to meet the expertise, instead. If an explorer’s health is depleted, it’s very sad and quite possibly terrible for the remainder of the quest. However, you can still succeed, but the odds may be against you.
The day process is repeated with the remaining cards in your hand for the night phase. Except instead of rearranging the cards numerically, you resolve them in the order they’re played. Hey, it’s pitch dark in the remote wilderness. Planning is tricky, to say the least. Maybe it’d be better to camp for the night, but not when glory awaits!
After the night phase, players receive a new hand of cards and repeat the day/night process. When you successfully resolve an adventure card, your party doesn’t always make progress towards El Dorado. Rather to move further down that trail, you must complete a card’s caption box with the “advance” icon in it. Only then does your party’s pawn travel on to the next expedition card. Do that eight times (or six in easier games) with at least one surviving explorer and you’ll reap fame, wealth and immortality. Fail and you may at least be remembered forever, but likely as just “that one person who disappeared that one time…”
Did You Bring the GPS? No, I Thought You Did!
In the ongoing debate about theme vs. mechanics, it’s often noted that many times a developer will change a designer’s original theme or setting. If the designer started first and foremost with a strong mechanical framework, then it’s usually adaptable to refinish the narrative elements. Not so with The Lost Expedition. Peer Sylvester is very up front about the title’s inspiration and his intent – Percy Fawcett, the Amazon and the Lost City of Z. Now his original path card system could very well be applied to other journey settings or exploration motifs, but it’s clear that Sylvester wanted to make a game about venturing into the deadly uncharted with equal measures of determination and readiness to confront often overwhelming surprises.
When playing The Lost Expedition I invariably get the same vibes as with another of my favorite small box games – The Grizzled. Both are extremely challenging cooperative designs in which you must overcome icons on cards, but often leave you in hopeless despair. You coldly grip the grim situation, consider the desperate odds, understand the uncertainty and heroically muster the determination to press forward. Yet in the back of your mind you know very well that confidence is manufactured because, really, you just don’t know. Will your cards compliment the others’? If your hand is devastating, is there hope to be found elsewhere at the table? Players can discuss general strategy, but may not reveal the details of their cards or when/how to play them. That rule may seem odd for a cooperative activity. In the Grizzled, chalk it up to soldier’s fate. In The Lost Expedition, it recreates the sense of discovery in an unexplored wilderness. In both, it makes for an extremely challenging game.
At least with this design you’re setting off of your own free will while glory and immortality are achievable. In the Grizzled it’s because you’ve no choice and, even if you survive, your reward is shell shock, grief and a troubled soul for the rest of you life.
Still, that notion of sacrifice infuses The Lost Expedition with a melancholy that is oddly one of the design’s central strategic considerations. What are you willing to forfeit – even a life – to move forward? For most of play that surfaces in simple resource management. Which boxes do you resolve based on available food and ammunition? Is the cost worth the expenditure? Or do you find yourself using up supplies just to spin your wheels? Maybe you’ll get nothing for your efforts anyway, so what’s the max you’re willing to spend for such stagnation? Trekking into the unknown with new surprises every day means conservation will be a constant concern.
Then again, some sacrifices are of far greater significance. First, there’s your party’s general health to monitor. Many caption boxes require a simple expenditure of health. Except it’s not so simple. You get to decide which explorer takes the hit, but do you spread it out? Or hope to rely on expertise cards? Because if you’re forced to meet a jungle, navigation or camping scenario and the corresponding explorer can’t take the wound, you’ll have to reduce another by two. Then there a few boxes that require you to kill off one of the trio outright, which is momentous enough to pause the game and ponder. That’s rough. To be sure, the game isn’t lost. But losing one expert means their comrades will end up paying the price later in double wounds for the loss in knowledge. However, most of the time in this scenario it’s for a greater good – usually advancing the expedition one step closer to El Dorado. The decision to lose a party member is fraught with angst because the odds keep stacking against you when it happens and, dang it, after you’ve been through such an arduous journey together they’re like family!
Mechanically there are just as critical and challenging decisions in hand management. The day and night phases are as different as, well, day and night! During the day you can manage the path a little easier. It’s no pushover and you still may have rounds where your cards are horrible no matter what you play. However, there is a greater degree of planning since you know in which order everything will be resolved. It becomes a compelling puzzle where you need to set up cards that give resources which will allow you to pass through later ones. And hopefully with a surplus! All of that sounds easier than it is to actually accomplish. It is a card game and you only get what you get.
Another factor to consider during the day phase is that you don’t necessarily want to play all of your favorable cards, if you have any. No matter how tempting. Because the night phase can be brutal if you’re not prepared. There’s no planning now…just reacting. And hoping the next card doesn’t derail your journey unrecoverably. It’s a thematically taught tightrope. You’re explorers. You’re exploring. That means the unknown is just one more beast stalking you. Nighttime is where that element really shines. Resolving cards in the order you play them, whether favorable or not (though usually not) mimics that sense of exploration in that you’re committing to this dangerous adventure, despite the odds and in face of all the consequences.
The odds of survival – or at least reaching the Lost City of Z with remnants of your expedition – increase with two and again three players. At three, it’s about the same challenge as with four, which I image would be similar to a full complement, but the down time increases as discussion crescendos and you must wait longer for your own turn. So the game really hits an appealing stride with one, two and three. If you do venture in with more, at least the alpha player tendency natural to the genre is dampened by hidden information and the rule that you may not discuss specific cards in your hand. While central to maintaining the theme of uncertainty, it also allows each player to influence the journey in their own way, to contribute to the group’s progress…or downfall.
The presentation, art and graphic design compliment the game well. The card quality is a step up from standard fare. They are slick and really thick. Mainly though they are tarot-sized, which was a nice design choice. It allows plenty of room for the caption boxes and icons, makes for clear visibility across the table and really showcases the illustrations. The expedition cards create a nice jungle panorama. The tokens are a bit undersized, but fully utilitarian. The only hang up is the slight learning curve for iconography. For the most part symbols are intuitive, but the issue is the black and white shading and remembering which means you gain the resource and which requires spending it. Still, it is remarkable that such economical components convey the journey and discovery themes as solidly as they do, for a card game.
Perhaps one of the greatest praises I could heap upon The Lost Expedition is that it turned me into a solo gamer…at least for this title. I don’t typically game by myself. I’ve dabbled with a few titles here and there, but much prefer playing with others. Yet I found myself committing to several sessions in the hopes of reaching that bonanza. And I plan to keep it for that reason, as much as any. Despite how wrenching and seemingly forlorn the task is. It beckons you back even after several defeats, because you build up the confidence to make the journey again, convincing yourself that this time you’ll make it! And eventually you will! The solo game is extremely intense because the path is built with cards from your hand and also randomly from the deck (although in the night phase you can choose whether to place drawn cards in the front or back of the path). While increasing the challenge tenfold, it reinforces that sense of discovery and the unknown by which such quests were fraught. It compellingly models the combination of skilled determination, careful readiness and the deadly uncharted.
Games like The Lost Expedition are one-of-a-kind. Mechanically and stylistically it plays like few others. More than that if feels like a distinctive experience. Mentally, it’s a puzzle game and the challenging task it lays before you is equally stimulating and rewarding on its own, whether you’re navigating it alone, journeying with the help of others or racing against another. If it were just that puzzle, it’d be a neat game. Sylvester goes beyond that, though. With a minimum of components and low rules overhead, he surprisingly evokes a theme of preparation and risk into uncharted dangers and discovery. That creates an engaging experience more than worth the thirty minutes plus journey.
Osprey Games provided a copy of The Lost Expedition for this review.