The Age-Long Pursuit Of The Unknown
Set in the alternate 1920s of Stonemaier’s SCYTHE (but no foreknowledge required), Expeditions moves the timeline on. Deep in Russia’s Yeniseysk, a mysterious object crashes in Tunguska, warping the land and producing countless mystic bounties. You and your animal companion must take trek with your Ironclad across swamps, forests and stranger lands besides to recover the unearthly treasures, using strength and guile to wipe out corruption, hiring soldiers, farmers and other citizens, choosing a path to glory and greatness.
As if you hadn’t deduced, Expeditions is a sort of late-Steampunk Mythos-infused worker placement game with deck-driven engine-building mechanics. That’s quite a mouthful, eh? As is increasingly the case, we’re seeing an uptick in game complexity derived from a number of different proven mechanics, and it’s how well those integrate – both as a ruleset and thematically – that makes or breaks so many games.
The Unexplored, The Unexpected
One of the best elements of the game is in its setup: you are assigned a random character (and companion) and a random Ironclad. Because they have distinct rules, benefits and preferred worker-engines, which not only guides you in the early game but also lends considerable replayability: even with the same character, the game plays very differently if you have the Ironclad that can take additional upgrades to the one that can move faster than any of the others.
At the start of the game all players begin the explored, uncorrupted south of the board. This leads to an initial tussle, and your first big strategic decision: do you try to generate a steady engine for growth, or strike out and open up hidden tiles with better potential and access to cards? This is paired with the game’s excellent action system, as indicated by the gearbox on your Ironclad’s card. There are 3 actions: Move, Play a card, or Harvest, and on the first turn you have access to all 3: however, you must then “move gears”, covering one option up. Each turn, you ordinarily only have 2 options available to you, therefore, unless you take a Recover action, which gives you all 3 BUT returns cards (and meeples) in play to your hand. It’s a very interesting decision mechanic, even more so because all players’ cards are face up at all times. For the first few plays, this can be a bit bewildering and lead to some action paralysis but fortunately, you soon get the hang of it, particularly with the game’s accessible iconography and clear reference sheets.
Expeditions an utterly beautiful product, especially with the playmat (though I know that some find it even more table-consuming). It openly wears its debt to Arnak, Dune Imperium et al on its sleeve, and that’s no bad thing. If you’re a fan of worker placement and engine generation this is absolutely the game for you – it takes many elements from others but still feels like something distinct and new. I am a big fan of the Mythos theme and there’s a bit of a dearth of Cthulhupunk out there – plenty of horror/mythos board games, but not so much the steampunk vibe. So it most definitely scratches that itch. Unusually, for a game of this weight, it’s not massively time-consuming to setup, play or tidy – massive thumbs-up there. And, as we’ve come to expect from Stonemaier, the solo Automa is fantastic, making for a very different play experience as the AI beetles about and is generally awkward.
Whilst you are competing for resources and spaces, at low player counts that doesn’t feel that restrictive. Equally, at high player counts, it is very much about blocking people, and it can feel a little frustrating at times; also, it take up a LOT of table, and mostly at one side thereof. Not deal-breakers, by any means, but may put some people off. I’d also like a quick start (which, say, Wingspan does so well) and clear explanation of victory conditions from the outset. But it is at the heavy end of things, so that’s not that surprising, really; also, it really is physically HEAVY – it’s a big old brick, which some folk love, but will take up a lot of shelf. And though I like the different coloured meeples, in this day of premium products, I wouldn’t say no to some printing on them (or even) different shaped meeples to indicate the different roles.
Accursed, Ultimate Abyss
Despite the fact that it’s undeniably great, I don’t… LOVE this game at 2 players, which is actually quite the niggle for us given that most gaming in our house is myself and the Elder Spawn. But the REASON I feel that way actually stems from other Stonemaier games. I love both Viticulture and Red Rising, and though I’m ambivalent about Scythe (feel a bit overwhelmed by it) My Little Scythe is a hit in our house. At times, though, Expeditions lacks the brutal cut and thrust interaction of (say) Red Rising. I’m not advocating direct combat, but some more overt interference would be good. Perhaps the answer would be to incorporate, to some extent, the excellent Automa at 2 players (as Dune imperium does).
Overall, though, Expeditions is a very solid and highly recommended game, which you’ll keep coming back to. It’s not bewilderingly complex, but it’s certainly demanding, in all the right ways.