Fresh off the ol’ love-it-or-hate-it-it’s-here-to-stay Kickstarter boat is a new adventure game (full disclosure: I backed said Kickstarter), one that doesn’t have elves or orcs, and there’s only a single d6 and no traditional “board” in sight. What it does have is a confident sense of purpose, a definite idea of what it wants to be, and a fascinating ability to create a connection between the player and the game. It’s a little bit deckbuilding, a little bit Magic: The Gathering, and just a pinch of Elder Sign, with some delicious components and a real feel for its steampunk/Victorian-era theme. And it’s a whole lot of fun.
In Which Mechanics Are Discussed
Incredible Expeditions: Quest For Atlantis pits you and up to 5 others as expedition leaders on a, erm, quest to find the lost city of Atlantis. Each leader comes from a different walk of life; perhaps you’re a Vice-Admiral, or a Chinese pirate queen, or a titled Baroness. Anyone you pick will get a starter deck of Resource cards and their own ship, which consists of a mini and a “ship board” on which you track your resources and place any Crew cards you recruit to help you on your expedition.
(Side Note: The ship boards are large,and awesome. Very easy to discern your resource levels and Crew states. The spaces for Crew cards are called Cabins, and they’re numbered! It’s the little things, folks.)
The “game board” is a series of tarot-sized cards laid out between the beginning card (Port City) and the ending card (Atlantis, natch). During setup, you’ll put a specific amount of additional cards face down in prespecified positions between the two, forming a tableau; these facedown cards are the unexplored areas between you and your goal, and the idea is to be the first expedition Leader to traverse the gulf between start and finish and survive the final encounters in Atlantis.
Each of those facedown cards is a different location: the City of Dreams, the Factory of a Forgotten Age, and other fantastical places. And each of them has a special effect that’s active while you’re visiting and exploring the encounters there.
(Side Note: Some of these are beneficial. Most are not. The best thing you can hope for is that someone else explores the bad ones first, which will at least reveal that location’s nature to you ahead of time so you know what you’ll have to deal with.)
You see, most locations will require you to succeed at one or more encounters while you’re there in order to move on to the next unexplored location. These encounters are as varied and diverse as the locations. You’ll find monsters, curses, weather, and other things determined to kill you outright or eternally hinder the intrepid explorer. To defeat them, you’ll need to spend Resources.
Oh, have I not mentioned Resources yet? Oh, dearie me. I don’t know where my head’s at today. I must have the airs.
You’ll track three separate currencies–Gold, Honor, and Skullduggery(!)–and each turn, you’ll generate more of them by either playing a card from your hand, tapping one of your stalwart Crew to provide them temporarily, or spending any tokens you might have (which persist from turn to turn).
And so, in a nutshell, it’s a race against the other Leaders to explore new lands, use your deck of Resource cards and Crew to defeat the encounters therein, and be the first to survive said encounters at the finish line: Atlantis.
In Which Mechanics Are Hired
Each turn, you’ll decide whether to Explore (the aforementioned exploration/encounter sequence) or Rest, which is a lot more exciting than it might sound at first blush.
The Rest turns are where tapped Crew are refreshed and new Crew can be hired and Resource cards can be bought; of course, doing either of the latter will cost you a certain amount of one or all of those three currencies mentioned earlier, which means you’ll have to play cards to generate resources to buy more cards to generate resources to hire crew to generate resources to…you get the picture.
(Side Note: When a Crew is Exhausted, the card is flipped over to display a grayed-out back with the word “EXHAUSTED” written on it. The photos on the exhausted side are hilariously different from the ones on the active side, with some laugh-out-loud depictions of the tired character. Again. Little things.)
Resource cards are added to your personal starter deck, and this is where the deckbuilding aspect comes into play: you’ll want to thin the deck as the game wears on by getting rid of starter cards so that your more powerful resources like Strange Tinctures will appear more often.
(Side Note: Like most deckbuilders, the players receive identical starting decks at the beginning of the game, regardless of their chosen Expedition Leader.)
You assign Crew cards to spaces on your ship board, and each Crew member will generate resources when tapped, in addition to providing some sort of special ability (or invoking a special effect if you happen to encounter a location that calls for that particular type of crew member). The trick with Crew is knowing when to use them, as typically, once they’re exhausted, they don’t do anything else until they’ve been refreshed on a Rest turn.
You can also engage in a bit of Victorian intrigue and hire Crew cards to be placed on other players’ ships at your location. Assassins, Turncoats, Stowaways and the like provide ongoing penalties to whosever ship they’re on, and placing these Crew makes for a nice bit of PvP interaction, particularly if you’ve just used up another captain’s last Crew slot with a baddie. Which I would never do. (I do this ALL THE TIME.)
So there’s a lot going on here: you’re managing your Resource deck turn-to-turn while also deciding which Crew members to exhaust for which encounters and trying to time your Rest turns to take maximum advantage of the situation without letting others get too far ahead of you.
In Which Mechanics Are Tired
In a delightful turn of events, the game can be played cooperatively (or solitaire) as well as competitively. I’m happy to report it’s just as fun, albeit with a slightly different mood, when played in this way.
The big change is that as a group, you’re limited to only 3 Rest turns for the game. Yup. So you’ll need to decide when to spend those, when to try to keep pressing forward, and how to budget them for the duration. It’s a change that emphasizes the necessity of getting Crew that complement each other and fine-tuning your Resource deck.
It can also be punishingly difficult, especially when played solo.
(Side Note: I myself have a permanent house rule when playing this way that one gets a free Rest turn to start the game, before leaving Port City, since attempting 90% of encounters without any Crew or extra Resources would be a guaranteed failure; the first turn almost always ends up being a Rest turn anyway. Otherwise, you’ll be playing the game with both hands tied behind your back. Check BGG for a good difficulty-tinkering variant.)
The goal when playing co-op or solo is to find two Key tokens in the four random locations between you and Atlantis, after which you may enter the lost city. So it’s a smaller map than the competitive game, and one of the big decisions becomes whether or not to attempt a dangerous encounter in pursuit of what may or may not be a Key token (they and two blank tokens are placed face down on each location card at the beginning of the game, and you don’t find out what’s on your location until you’ve passed the first encounter).
As if the possibility of fruitless resource expenditure weren’t enough, this mode also throws in a Peril track, which advances from 1-10 as each new location is revealed. If it hits 10, game over. Did I mention that each advancement is accompanied by a card from the Peril deck, which invariably does terrible, sometimes unrecoverable things to you and your poor expedition?
If I have a complaint about this mode, it’s that all too often you may get yourself into an unwinnable state before exploring even half the board, much less attempting the final encounters. I believe co-op games and solitaire games should be difficult, but sometimes it feels like the cards, locations and encounters just actively hate you and that they all got together the night before and plotted how they would make you lose miserably when you played the game.
(Side Note: In a weird inversion of the norm (I think), the more players you have in co-op mode, the easier the game becomes, as each Leader can pitch in resources to help with a player’s encounter.)
In Which Mechanics Are Wired
There’s a lot to like about Incredible Expeditions.
For one, the steampunk flavor is pulled off very well. Each crew member, be they Stowaway Kid, Gentleman’s Gentleman, Navigator, Automaton, Assassin, or one of the other myriad characters, is portrayed by real people in steampunk get-ups. I think it’s a perfect way to connect the steampunk DIY aesthetic with the game. Some who take issue with “real people playing dress-up” all over their game art (see: just about any Flying Frog Productions game) may not like it, but I think it fits perfectly, especially for a Kickstarter game.
Where there is art, though, it’s beautiful, and the different Location cards each evoke a sense of place and wonder or horror as appropriate. The ship minis are distinct, match the flavor of their captain, and are tremendous additions. Resource cards are similarly well executed, with a good mix of both art and props.
If there’s one place the components are a bit of a letdown, it’s in that d6 I mentioned way up in the first paragraph. They were going for an ornate, cast-iron stylized look, but what they got was a poorly rolling, impossible-to-read cube, especially in low light. Luckily, d6s are easily replaced, and you’ll rarely find yourself having to roll it anyway.
There are also two “mini-expansions” available for the game that provide additional location, Resource, and Leader cards, one of which imparts a 1001 Arabian Nights flavor, and one of which–you’re not gonna believe this–has a Lovecraft theme, with your favorite betentacled Elder One making an appearance in his sunken pad.
(Side Note: Yes. Again. It actually kind of works here, though, given the exploration theme. It’s not like they shoehorned in ol’ Slimy into a modern fighter squadron management sim.)
(Additional Side Note: I still can’t believe that’s actually a thing.)
But the thing that IE does best is its commitment to its theme. You’re exploring new places, managing crew and resources, dealing with things that leap straight out of The Lost World or a Quatermain or Lovecraft novel. Aided by your plucky crew that could have jumped off the screen from a Doctor Who episode or a 1930’s adventure serial or even a Dickens story, you’ll soldier on and hope desperately to take a Rest turn just to refresh your exhausted band and take on more supplies. As the game wears on, so does the immersion, and it’s brilliantly integrated into the whole game.
The integration is part of the ‘squee’ of the game for me. It’s the fact that the currencies, Resource cards, and Crew cards all work together so tightly to form your own tailored economic/gameplay rhythm, in which timing can be everything. I love how the individual composition of your crew, combined with your expedition leader’s personal strength and how you’ve tuned your Resource deck, can make you take different approaches, particularly when you’re deciding which route to take to Atlantis.
Do you load up on Honor-generating cards and crew and hope for locations and encounters that play to that? Or take a more generalized approach? When do you rest, and how far behind will it make you? There’s a great deal of room for competitive and cooperative strategy here, and at its best, it really does start to impress upon you that you feel like a leader of an entire expedition, not just an individual character sheet traipsing about.
Incredible Expeditions: Quest For Atlantis is a game made with just a ton of love and affection for the steampunk ethos and Victorian era of fantastic fiction. Designer Liz Spain and team have crafted a fun, versatile, replayable adventure game that offers a good mix of decision-making, deckbuilding, and unexpected consequences. I’d highly recommend tossing in both mini expansions to increase the overall card pool, but I’m a completist like that–and I sincerely hope that bigger expansions of the same kind are on the way.
The difficulty spikes and sometimes random nature of encounters won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who enjoy discovery, high stakes and low odds, and want to be transported to a different time and place(s), IE hits all the right buttons. 4 magnetospheric gyroscope robot servants out of 5.