Satellites and GPS devices have spoiled exploration; before all these fancy devices it was man versus nature in a completely visceral and life-threatening adventure. If you wanted to explore the jungle, you needed a machete, a native guide and a lot of luck, because it was a sure bet that you were going to encounter dangers that you didn’t anticipate. Explorers of the 19th Century and even into the early 20th Century were constantly traveling the globe, seeking the source of the Nile, the fabled city of El Dorado, lost tribes, or, earlier, the Fountain of Youth.
The terrific new game The Lost Expedition is based around perhaps the most famous of these adventurers, Percy Fawcett. In 1925, Fawcett, his son Jack and fellow adventurer Raleigh Rimmell set off in search of the fabled lost city they called “Z” in what’s now known as the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. Following a final letter in which Fawcett stated that they were heading into unmapped territory, the group vanished without a trace and their fate remains a mystery to this day.
It’s up to you to follow in their footsteps through the dangerous Amazon and find the Lost City of Z. If you live that long. To do that you have a crew of three explorers (based on historical figures. Over 100 people lost their lives trying to discover what happened to Fawcett), a little bit of food, three measly rounds for your gun and a lot of hostile territory to traverse.
The game is mostly played with cards, each of which is considerably larger than regular playing cards at 3″ x 5″. Set up involves choosing your particular adventurers, starting them with three health each (which isn’t much!), laying out your jungle terrain to traverse, and then placing the first six cards of the first morning of your adventure, as shown:
There are three major styles of play with The Lost Expedition: solo play, cooperative multiplayer (2-5 players) and two person head-to-head. To get the hang of the game, I opted for solo play and that’s what I’ll be showing and explaining as we go. Also, I realize that it’s pretty hard to see what’s going on in the above photo, so let’s look a bit more closely at the fantastic Garen Ewing artwork, in the style of Hergé (Tintin) and similar European cartoonists.
Let’s have a closer look at the adventurers in our party first of all. These three are chosen from a pool of six and if you look on the top left, you’ll see each represents a different area of expertise:
The tent that Teddy (likely inspired by real-life Amazonian explorer Teddy Roosevelt, actually) sports means he’s good at camping, helpful when you need to spend the night or escape a torrential rainstorm. Roy has a leaf that indicates he’s our jungle expert, while Isabelle has the compass that indicates she’s key to navigating this thicket of growth in our quest to find the Lost City of Z. Each starts with three health tokens and below are food (chicken legs) and ammo (bullets).
The middle of the board is a jungle trail that really just marks your progress to the Lost City. Usually it would be nine cards long, but I recommend you start with a shorter path as it’s darn hard to succeed! For this game, I used six cards for my trail and the first time through didn’t make it even three steps into the jungle before my party died. It’s not easy.
The bulk of The Lost Expedition revolves around the Adventure Cards that are dealt out each phase of the game, morning and evening. In the morning phase, they’re sorted numerically but in the evening phase you can place each card at the front or end of the existing cards, giving you more flexibility to thoughtfully proceed through things. Cards have three possible sequences of caption boxes: yellow (events), red (choices) and blue (options). You must take the actions specified in any event box on the active card, then choose one from the red caption boxes and, finally, you can choose to take a blue sequence or skip it if you’d like. Cards are played left-to-right and once the last card is complete, you move to the next phase:
The leftmost card is easiest to explain. Healing Herbs triggers a “skip the next card” event, which is too bad, because Progress is a really good card. But, oh well, it’s discarded without being played. Then the blue caption box on the Healing Herbs box gives you the option of gaining two health (really good, can be given to any of the adventurers in your party up to, but not to exceed their starting health level) and adding a new Adventure card to the end of the sequence (possibly good, possibly not good) at the cost of one jungle expertise (the leaf symbol). Since Roy is our jungle expert, we can just take one health from him, then get two back. A good trade!
The Progress card would have been nice with its choices of one navigation to earn a jump forward on the trail, one navigation for two food, one jungle expertise for two food or a health token with no cost at all, but… we lost it. So our second card is an encounter with the Xavante which offers camping expertise at the cost of one food, a jump forward on the trail at the cost of one navigation expertise, or, if you want to actually kill off one of your adventurers, you can also jump forward one step. To win, only one of your three explorers needs to be alive, which is a raw deal for the other two!
That evening, here’s the card layout that I ended up with, left to right. The first card, Xinguano, is interesting because it’s so dire: either spend a bullet to gain camping expertise and be able to swap two other cards in the sequence (which can be darn helpful) or sacrifice two health to move forward one space, or someone in your party dies:
The second card has no positive benefit at all and when the swarm of bugs goes after you in the jungle, well, you either lose a camping expertise or a health. Which stinks. Card #3 is Mudslide! and it forces you to use a health and food, but gives you a chance to swap two cards, then, in the red caption box, forces you to chose between losing another health or a camping expertise. Card #4, Bakairi, is similarly not good: food for camping, a bullet to swap two cards or two health. Sensing a theme here? We’ve potentially lost six health and we’re not even done with this phase yet.
What’s important to know is that when a card has a symbol like a tent for camping expertise and it’s black (like on the Bakairi card) if you trigger that option by spending a food (white symbols indicate they’re costs) then the camping expertise is added to your party and can be used later as a cost. Heck, card #1 gains a camping expertise, which can be immediately spent to cover the requirement of card #2, Swarm. Done deal, explorers aren’t injured!
A close look at the last two might suggest that Lost -> Clearing is a good setup, but if you don’t want to spend two navigation points to move forward one space, the other caption box adds two Adventure cards and grants a camping unit, but also requires the next card to be discarded! No easy two food or one health for our party!
Amazingly on the second evening, I actually won the game, as you can see below:
How is that winning the game? Because my yellow meeple is one spot from the Lost City and the leftmost Adventure card lets my party advance one space if I’m willing to skip the subsequent card, Thick Fog. To win, all you have to do is get to the City so as soon as the meeple advances, it’s game over, and I’ve won! Finally!
Sadly not all of my explorers survived the journey, however:
Sorry, Isabelle, you simply ran out of health, but your sacrifice helped Teddy and Roy survive to the Lost City of Z, which is no small accomplishment! Notice also that Teddy had two extra camping units, while Roy had three extra jungle units (as denoted on the cards I’ve tucked behind those two explorers). They’ll forevermore be grateful for the selfless help of Isabelle, and saddened at her loss in the wild jungles of Brazil.
And that’s the basics of the solo game of The Lost Expedition. This is not an easy game to win and if I had extended my journey to the official nine cards of the jungle, I’m not sure that Teddy and Roy would have survived the additional trek. Still, it’s fun and straightforward and as long as you can handle the ceaseless sequence of unfortunate events and tough challenges to overcome, it is engaging and intriguing, with much of the complexity related to how you choose which cards to overcome and in what order.
The artwork is fantastic too, but I’m biased, a lifelong fan of Tintin adventures and related comics like Blake & Mortimer and even Valerian. The symbols take a bit of figuring out but there’s an included shortcut card that details what’s what, and it’s not more than 5-10 minutes to figure things out and get started with your first trek. I haven’t tried head-to-head or multiplayer coop so can’t speak to those, but I’m going to continue playing The Lost Expedition at least until I survive a 9-spot trek through the jungle!
The Lost Expedition. Design by Peer Sylvester, illustrated by Garen Ewing. Published by Osprey Games. $30.00.
Disclosure: Osprey Games sent me a copy for the purposes of this review.