Updated: Sep 16, 2019
This is a Kickstarter preview for Miles Ratcliffe’s Exploriana. We were provided with a prototype copy of the game to try out. This review is based on the game at the prototype stage and does not necessarily reflect the finished production copy.
Phew… We got past the disclaimer, fortunately we’re headed into the heart of the victorian era, leaving behind our litigious culture for one instead brimming with a sense of adventure and no sense of danger. We begin our journey in 19th century England, preparing for a voyage that may take us into the darkest heart of Africa, to the deep luscious jungles of South America or to the enigmatic east that is the mysterious continent of Asia.
A Quick Overview
Exploriana is a push-your-luck game of set collection with some light area control and an auction mechanic.
Each round consists of four phases and there are between 4 and 6 rounds per game. The four phases are as follows
Collect Income - Each player gets 2 gold from the bank.
Auction - Starting with the player with the most prestige players bid for items. Each player can bid once and must outbid the previous player or pass
Send Explorers - Starting with the player with the most prestige players decide on which expedition to send their explorers.
Explore - Starting at the top of the expedition track and moving down each player must explore their region.
When a player explores they may take any of the following four actions in any order:
Use an Item - Use one of the cards acquired during the auction phase
Hire a Guide - Spend 2 gold to place a guide token covering one of the visible hazards (Limit once per explorer)
Explore - Turn over the top card of your region
Collect Rewards - Finish exploring and take cards
Exploring is the meat of the game. Whenever a player begins an expedition there will be at least 2 cards face up. The cards are made up of various types of rewards but also show one of three hazard icons (or no hazard icons). While exploring, should you have 3 of the same hazard or one of each hazard showing at your location you become lost, ending your turn. If however you get all the way to 5 face up cards at your location you must stop exploring but may claim upto 2 rewards instead of 1.
Rewards consist of taking a card or a set of animal cards or claiming a lost explorer token. Note, that you do not have to reveal any cards and can simply take a single reward if you desire.
Before we open the box I want to take a moment to talk about the box itself. I love it. I really like the luggage tags and the various stickers that adorn the case. However, how amazing would it be if it were made from faux leather with actual tags! Anyway enough with the box, lets open her up.
1 Game Board
5 Player Boards
20 Wooden Pieces
79 Cardboard tokens
The Player Boards in this game are pretty big and honestly pretty superfluous. They show the various phases of play and the explore actions on one side and scoring on the other. These could have easily been cards rather than boards as they serve no in-game function. When we were playing I just placed one of them in the play area so players could reference it.
The game board is nice with clearly defined areas for everything, although I wish they had done a reduced saturation image of the card backs to show where the stacks go, we kept trying to pick up the image on the board thinking we’d left a card behind.
The wooden pieces and cardboard tokens are serviceable although hopefully they get upgraded in the end product, some nice little explorer meeples or something would be cool. Also the coins don’t have numerical values on them which seems like an oversight.
However, the really beautiful thing about this game is its artwork. The card backs feature very idyllic representations of Africa, South America and Asia, while the fronts take us on a visual journey through those locations. I love the art in this game, in fact, it is what drew me to it in the first place. However I have one big problem with it and that is that you don’t get to see it! Cards are placed on the board layered over each other so that only the game icons are showing and all the beautiful artwork is hidden.
And talking of icons, the game is language independent and for the most part that is fine. The exploration cards are clear and easy to understand. However the auction cards constantly required me to look them up in the rulebook and even after half a dozen plays there were still some icons that just wouldn’t stick in my head. I can’t help but feel text would have been helpful here to remind you what your cards did and to speed up the auction phase.
I’m going to start with the positives. Every time I played Exploriana I had a good time. I like the set collection aspect of the game. There are map cards, for example, that score more points the more you have, or Orchids which score 15 points if you can collect one from each region. This gives you something to aim for but also creates competition between the players.
I also like the push-your-luck aspect of the game. Because expeditions are resolved in order, starting with the player that went there first, you can manipulate the danger level, making it easier for your own explorers by taking reward cards showing hazards or harder for rival explorers by leaving them two face up hazards of the same type. Being able to buy a guide can really help mitigate some of the luck of the draw and prevent you from being at the whims of the deck too.
I love the artwork, there is something almost cubist to it and each set of cards evokes a difference sense of adventure. The African cards speak of a dry and dusty land with the yellows and oranges while the South American cards show us lush jungles in every shade of green.
But… As much as I like the artwork and the push-your-luck and the set collection there is one thing I really don’t like and that is the auction phase and to some extent the auction cards.
Some of the auction cards give you bonus scoring opportunities, which is great, I like that. The remaining cards give you special abilities which can be used during the exploration phase. These special abilities however are spelt out in icons and then fully explained in the rulebook, which is helpful because I can’t fathom some of the iconography.
However this means that when we start the auction phase I need to go to the rulebook, explain what each of the three to four cards up for auction does and then explain it a second time and even a third time after each card is auctioned off. And because of this and because each player can bid on each item, the auction phase adds a good twenty minutes, maybe more to the game length and I don’t think the game is better for it.
To start with there is no starting price for any of the items which makes it really hard to know what something could be worth. Some of the cards are highly situational, they could be worth lots of points or none at all and because coins equal ½ a point at the end of the game you need to weigh up your options carefully. Worst still, once one player gets ahead on coins they can start to strong arm other players forcing you to outbid them or allowing them to take cards for next to nothing.
I disliked the auction mechanic so much that I simply took it out in the last game we played and the game played perfectly well without it. It was faster and easier to teach. I was slightly saddened by the loss of the secret scoring opportunities but happier to not need to refer to the rules for the entire game.
For me the auction phase feels out of place, like it was a mechanic added to differentiate the game from others of its ilk. It took time, it was confusing for first time players and it just felt wrong in a game that was about exploring. The special powers that appear on the auction cards should have instead appeared on the Treasure Cards (which normally reward you with gold). This way the treasure cards would be more appealing and would have had an interesting in game effect. It would also be more thematic, using your knowledge from previous expeditions to help you in your next one. You could also tie the higher point scoring cards to the more difficult expeditions.
Exploriana is a difficult one for me. I like the art and the push-your-luck elements of the game. I also really enjoy the theme, which is probably under utilised for board gaming. And while I was playing the game I was having a good time. Is Exploriana, however, an essential game I need in my collection? Probably not. It’s fun and it’s light and it’s easy to learn and teach but ultimately it’s not for me. You can read more about Exploriana on their Kickstarter page and decide for yourself if this is one you want to add to your collection.