Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark, Ludonaute, 2015

14+, 60 minutes, 2-4 players, Competitive Worker Placement

I'm an Englishman who spent more time in my childhood playing computer games and D&D than I did studying American history. After all, most British history existed before America was America, and then it only came to be when they started brewing a massive cup of tea in the harbour. Actually, I spent more time doing most things than I did studying American history, as the previous sentence indicates. So, when a game recalling the travel exploits of two individuals came to my attention, what was it that drew me in? Primarily, it was the fact that it was a historical game, and I own very few of these. Especially now I'm living in America, the chance to play board games and learn about this country is appealing. There are two games on the market about the travels of Lewis and Clark. The other has a really lovely board and is loved by many gamers around the world, but they often complain that the game gets bogged down half way through. This game seems faster, more streamlined and, frankly has gorgeous dice. I'm a total sucker for good dice, and this game definitely has them.

This version of Lewis & Clark is a worker placement game where the dice are the workers. Some workers are exploring on foot, some on horseback, some are forging positive relations with the American Indians and some are writing in the journal. At the beginning of the game, each player starts with a number of dice according to the colour of the character they've chosen. Some dice (grey) are shared resources who can be borrowed from other characters or found elsewhere. The designs on the dice are gorgeous, the colours are bold and exciting, and the mechanics are excellent. If you befriend an American Indian tribe, you gain a grey die, which makes total sense because you've got more people helping you on your travels. If a player uses their workers on an expedition, they then have to rest them back at the camp, where you might choose to use them for your next expedition before that player uses them again. This is the first part of what makes it a highly strategic game. 

The bold colours certainly factor well with me. As a colourblind gamer, I will always mark down games that have game elements that can be easily confused. This game is certainly not one of them. A wall of technicolour smacks you in the face as soon as you open the box. The journals are brightly coloured, the dice are brightly coloured, the cards are clear. Visually, this is a nice game. Simple in its aesthetic, but that simplicity certainly works in favour of the game.

Two of the player sheets with the journal zone not yet removed from the Dice Stock box

A word needs to be said about the term "American Indian," by the way. The game is very clear at the beginning to explain that the 1995 US Census Bureau determined that this term was the most popular among the community about whom the name is appropriate. I really respect Ludonaute for doing this research. That said, that research was 20 years old by the time the game came out, and I'm not sure that is still true. I could be wrong, though. Nonetheless, some cultural sensitivity is very greatly appreciated. In fact, the whole of the first page of the rulebook is a description of the historical mission and an explanation of terms, so this isn't an afterthought - the designers want you to really think about the history and culture of the game.

The aim of the game is to record three differing kinds of data in your Journal - geographical (by mapping territories), biological (by discovering new species) and ethnological (by encountering American Indian tribes). Are there many games that have the word "ethnological" in the rule book? I'm thinking not. In terms of game balance, it seems that biological records are where the winning points really lie, which is a shame in terms of game balance because one would have hoped these would all have been equally valuable.

Each of the 55 cards that come with the game are double-sided. On the Tribe side are descriptions of American Indian tribes that you can encounter. Here, for example, is a card of the Walla Walla tribe. And yes, that's a real name of a real tribe... don't be so culturally insensitive! On the top right of the card is one of two symbols - in this case, it's the symbol depicting a Wary Tribe, which means that to befriend it you need to spend two Negotiate dice (that's a die with an American Indian symbol on it), instead of only one for a Friendly Tribe. Under that is a picture of a Tepee. The player who collects the most tepees during the game scores points. The bottom of the card explains what you can do once you befriend this tribe. In this case, if you put down one Ride, one Walk and one Journal die (the Journal die must always be put down last), then you can travel for three mountains and then two rivers. What does that mean?

Areas for exploration are placed on the right-hand side of the board. There are always three potential areas for exploration. On the left-hand side of each card is the reward for completing that journey - in the case of these three cards, 9 points, a plant discovery, or 5 points and a tepee. Travelling up the card is a journey. The top card here gives choices - either 5 rivers and 1 mountain or 4 rivers and 2 mountains. The second card is a straight 3 river journey, and the bottom card here is 1 mountain then 2 rivers. If a player had the Walla Walla tribe card (see above), for example, they could then complete that bottom expedition since they would be able to travel 3 mountains and 2 rivers. So, they would then get to keep the card and count it for points later. Here's the challenge, though. You can't just choose from three expeditions - you have to make a choice of an expedition, take the card and then work towards the expedition. Making that choice and then working towards it is actually very tough, and you really have to manipulate your dice and use the dice of other players to be successful.

Here's an example of a player who's set up nicely to complete an expedition. They've chosen the 3 river trip. In the middle of the bottom of their board, is says that if you put down two Walk and one Journal dice then you can travel 3 rivers. This player has two Walk dice (one red and one grey) so they could do start with those dice this turn. Next turn, they put down a Journal die (you can only put down one type of die each turn) and the expedition is completed. Sound easy enough, but not necessarily. At any time as their action for the turn, a player can summon their own workers back to camp. That means taking all dice of your own colour back. In this case, if the red player took their dice back, this blue player would not be able to complete their expedition (because then they would only have one grey Walk die).  If they did that, the blue player has some choices. They could use their Negotiate dice (the blue and red dice on the left of the dice pool here) to befriend some American Indian tribes. That would give them an extra grey die, which they would then roll and hope to become a Walk die. Or they could call their blue dice back, roll them and hope one of them becomes a Walk Die. Or they could swap their expedition card for another. There are a lot of choices, and that is what makes this a highly enjoyable and strategic game. Yes, it's clearly luck dependent, but it's also about how you manage the luck.

In the centre of the table goes the board, with three Tribe cards on the left and three Discoveries cards on the right. So, the Tribe cards on the left are next to the right bank of the river and the Discoveries cards on the right of the board are next to the left bank of the river. Confused? You should be, because that's by far the weirdest part of this game. When you look at the board, the left-side of the river is apparently the right bank and the right-side is the left bank. They try to explain it in the rulebook in terms of the direction of flow of the river, but it's nonsensical. That stands out as a really silly design flaw. It doesn't affect the game in the slightest, so it was a ridiculous addition. Looking at the board below, the player whose turn it is faces some real choices....

Let's say it's the blue player's turn. What they could do is place dice on the card to work towards a current expedition. Or they could befriend an American Indian tribe, which makes future further explorations easier. But they have other options, too. They could summon their own coloured dice to their dice pool. Or they could take dice from one of the banks of the river (remember, for no sensible reason, the left-side of the board is the right bank and the right side is the left bank). In this case, taking from the right bank would mean five dice added to the personal pool, while taking from the left bank (on the right of the board) would result in four dice. Obvious choice? Not so much. One might be inclined to go for the five dice, but if the red player went next they could just summon their dice and the blue player would be left with three. That would happen on the other bank, too, but the red player might be more inclined to let you keep one of their dice and do something else, whereas if they see you using two of theirs, they might not. Again, highly strategic.

Having to choose Tribe cards adds another dimension to the game. Do you befriend, for example, a Friendly tribe (costing only one Negotiate die) that gives you a tepee and allows you to spend 3 Walk and 1 Journal to go either 3 rivers or 2 mountains, or a Wary tribe (costing two Negotiate dice) that gives you a tepee and allows you to spend two Walk dice and a Journal die to travel 3 mountains, or do you befriend a Wary tribe (on the bottom of this picture) that allows you to spend just one Journal die to explore 2 rivers? Tough choice. I would probably take the bottom card, but don't trust me entirely because I've never actually won at this game.

Again, the artwork on the Tribe cards is lovely, although I do not know if it is accurate to each tribe. That may be mere white anglo projection in the assumption that the designers have explored this in this much depth. I hope that they have, but can't be sure.

Two more things need to be mentioned. The first is that for the game to work best, every player should really say out loud what they're doing. If players are busy doing their thing, then there's little interaction. However, if a player says, "I'm putting down two Journal dice, one here and one here, and that gives me 2 mountains and 4 rivers, allowing me to complete this expedition" then that kind of talk really makes the game interesting. The second is something that totally confuses me - the fact that this (and the other Lewis and Clark game) is competitive. For a game which clearly paid attention to historical accuracy, why are Lewis and Clark competing? They didn't race back to Jefferson to say, "I collected more species than he did!" They were a team! How is there not a cooperative Lewis and Clark game? The game mechanics here would definitely not work cooperatively and the mechanics are a lot of fun, but that's only because you have to suspend disbelief and have Lewis and Clark compete. It's by no means a deal-breaker, because this is a good game, but it's .... well.... weird. The back of the box says "Torah is your turn to write history." Given that Lewis and Clark are competing in this game, that's possibly the truest statement in the whole game!!

  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Historical theme
  • Strong, clear colours with excellent artwork
  • Highly strategic
  • Easy to learn with simple rules
  • Novel dice manipulation mechanic
  • Enjoyable game length time (about an hour)

  • The left bank being the right bank and the right bank being the left bank!
  • Notable luck dependency
  • Imbalance of biological over geological and ethnographic elements when it comes to scoring
  • Lewis and Clark didn't compete!
This game deserves a good score, so let's see what we've got.

Accessibility: 4/5 - The 14+ age suggestion is merely about legality, not about game play. Children under 10 should be able to play this. The rule book is clear and the diagrams helpful.
Design: 5/5 - I don't know of another game that manipulates dice like this. There might be others, but I don't know them. The colours and artwork absolutely round off an already well-designed game.
Depth: 3/5 - While the mechanics themselves aren't very deep, the strategic decisions that have to be made each turn are sizeable. 
Replayability: 4/5 - I prevaricated here between a 3 and a 4. The game length makes it very easy to play often.
Availability: 5/5 - Easily available online and in gaming stores at a perfectly acceptable price.

Summary: If you're the kind of gamer who loves to primarily play dungeon crawls and hack and slash, then this isn't for you. But if you want something really different, something educational and strategic, then this is a really good game. The dice manipulation element is brilliant, your party slowly gains in the ability to explore further and further and, despite a few niggles, the game is well balanced and well timed. You really feel like you're going on a long journey that requires real planning and careful execution. 

Final Score: I'm going to give this game our highest rating so far, particularly because of the excellent design. It only pips the previous best score by a hair's breadth, but nonetheless this game is well deserving of our rating of 85%.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. And kudos to whoever recommended you purchase it in the first place. Now go see the film.