All aboard the HMS Beagle for a voyage of a lifetime. Explore the rich, diverse ecology of the Galapagos Islands while you research species, deliver them to museums, correspond with home, advance the theory of evolution and establish a base (campsite) on one of the main islands. All by sending your workers to one of the multitude of sites of this table hogger of a game. What more could you want? At its heart Darwin’s Journey is a simple work placement game. Played over 5 rounds, each round you have 4 workers to do your bidding. Once they occupy a certain slot, this will allow you to explore an island, navigate the Pacific Ocean, send letters home or upskill one of your workers. The more skilled a worker, the more complex task it can under-take in future turns.
Many of these slots can lead to further actions with the game being won by gaining the most victory points (VP’s). These VP’s can be gained by a a smörgåsbord of options – exploring further and faster than your rivals on both the islands or the ocean; completing tasks; filling or emptying spaces on your player board; up-skilling workers; carrying out correspondence; advancing the theory of evolution; completing crew cards and successfully achieving the ‘Beagle’ end of round goals. Analysis paralysis yet?!
The Good Stuff
Darwin's Journey is a beast, no question. I have the collector’s edition and just unpopping and sorting the tiles and tokens took over an hour. I can genuinely say my mind was awash trying to sort them out as not only have half the tokens been upgraded, but the game box includes a solo mode, a major expansion and 3 mini-expansions. Once I had sorted these out into the various sized insert trays and had a strong cup of coffee it was time to set up the game.
Here the manual (nearly as thick as ‘The Origin of the Species) is brilliant. Clear and concise instructions made the set-up relatively pain free, if not quick. You have six areas with different tokens to sort. Luckily they have a first play set up and all tokens are clearly labelled – in fact it was at this point I realised that half the tokens/tiles I’d unpacked were for one of the many expansions included in this edition.
Once the Darwin's Journey board is ready, the player boards are a doddle, a few workers, tents, stamps, wax seals and crew cards (these also having an introduction game suggestion) and you are ready to go. These crew cards along with the six areas on the board have a multitude of options, giving even the main game massive replayability without even looking further into the content.
When set up is complete you can start your PhD into evolution. Here the game settles into a pretty standard worker placement – send them to a lens (area on the board) on a diary section if your worker has the required wax seal requirements (paying a coin penalty if you aren’t the first worker in a section:)
- Academy allows you to gain wax seals, which in turn power up a worker so they can go to a more profitable site. There are four main-coloured seals and a special (purple) seal. This purple seal can be treated as any colour.
- Navigation means you can advance your ship along the Ocean track.
- Exploration is similar but one of your explorers gets to move further in-land discovering the abundant riches there.
- Send letters home (by using the in-game stamps) via Correspondence. At the end of the round, bonuses are gained if you have the most stamps on one of the letters. Once a stack of stamps is empty you will have additional actions to perform. It could be one of the ones already mentioned, or one that we will see later on.
Each diary section has upgrade sites. You can send a worker to open a new lens on one of the 6 sections and pay for the privilege. These upgraded sites require more wax seals, but increase the reward gained. Once you open one up, all players can use the site, but you receive a coin from the supply if they do.
Where you can send your workers doesn’t stop there. When you are exploring on land or sea you will encounter specimens that you can collect. Thus on a future turn you can deliver that specimen to the museum gaining coin and advancing the theory of evolution in the process.
You can also send a worker to research a specimen already in the museum – this could be to complete an objective.
Start Of Game
You start Darwin's Journey with two objectives but can gain more by: you guessed it, moving one of your workers to the ‘gain objective’ site. This also has the added bonus of getting you cash, which can be hard to come by, particularly in the early stages of a game. You can complete five silver and 5 gold objectives in a game and each will bring about VP’s, bonus actions, gain an additional worker or reduce the cost of certain actions for the remainder of the game .
The game runs in turn order (randomly assigned at the start.) The final place to send a worker is the ‘reverse turn order space.’ This does what it says. If you are the first to go there in a round, the next round you’ll be number one in the turn order. It also gains you some much needed coin.
So lots of actions and only four workers to start with – how are you going to do half of them you cry? Well as mentioned you can gain an extra worker, but when you explore, not only do you collect specimens, but you can trigger all the actions previously described. As well as some extra ones…
- Establish a campsite – this can also set in motion further additional actions. Oh, and when you have placed more than one tent there are more actions activated on your player board.
- Gain a temporary knowledge token – you start the game with one – they allow you to boost a worker if they don’t have the required wax seals for a particular action. (Discarded after use.)
- Place an explorer on a new Island.
- Gain a special purple wax seal.
- Research any specimen.
- Perform a locked action (one without an opened lens spot.)
So as you can hopefully see, those four or five little workers can produce a lot of actions via their placement and resulting rewards. As you get deeper into rounds 3,4 and 5, and actions start chaining together, this of course brings multiple dilemmas of: if I do this it will propel me down a certain route or I could do this and this brings something else into the equation.
How Does It Play
That was a brief intro in to how to play the game, but probably more importantly how does its play?
In one word: Excellent. It is beautiful to behold on the table with the art fitting with the theme and components out of the top drawer (even without the collector’s edition upgrades.) Cardboard tokens are thick, the dual player boards are a joy and any cards used made from good cardstock.
When playing we found the game quickly flowed, with little thinking time after the first few rounds where symbols and rules had to be looked up and reread to make sure we haven’t missed anything. Every time you place a worker it feels it has meaning. How does it move my game plan forward? What do I get from it? And to some extent how does it affect my opponent? All this leads to turns that are satisfying. You can place your operative, watch it activate and that can lead to a lovely chain reaction of moves after which you can sit back with a smug smile on your face knowing it completed a hard days yakka. As with many work placement games the complexity of the turns increases as the rounds progress. Thankfully this hasn’t been a major issue in games played so far at a number count of two and three, but I can see it being a problem once people get more au fait with the game.
There appears to be many roads to victory, with points being allocated in various ways all linking with the theme of retracing Darwin’s steps through the Galapagos Islands, documenting new species and developing his Theory of Evolution.
I would agree with the game time on the box of 30 minutes a player, but setup/ packing up does add additional time onto this. A minor gripe is the there are 3 storage trays included, but we were at a loss as to what tokens go in which compartments and have they been designed to hold the extra bits from the included expansions?
For those who like direct conflict with their fellow players Darwin's Journey, like many a eurostyle game, is limited. You can block them from worker slots or when exploring an Island, but other than that it is negligible. There is no stealing specimens from other players – there is a pirate expansion, but that hasn’t made onto the table yet.