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Friday 26 March 2021

Friday Filler: Exploriana

In the nineteenth century there remained much of the world to be explored and discovered, so men and women would set out to chart and catalogue the great unknowns in Africa, Asia, and South America. Many would be sponsored by august bodies such as the Royal Geographical Society, the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, and Société de Géographie, as well as many museums, and in turn the most successful of explorers would return with tales of their explorations, bringing back with them charts of where they have been, fantastic animals and beautiful plants, amazing treasures, and even lost explorers. They would go on to be famous, whilst their sponsors—the societies and the museums—would gain prestige, able to conduct greater scientific work and open greater exhibits to the public. This is the set-up for Exploriana, a board game of exploration and discovery, published by Triple Ace Games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign in which august scientific bodies will send out intrepid explorers and naturalists to chart and catalogue the world, and come back with great discoveries. Each player is the head of one these scientific bodies, who Recruits and sends out Explorers to the far flung corners of the world where they explore regions, and make and return with discoveries that the scientific organisations so covet. It combines ‘Card Drafting’, ‘Push Your Luck’, ‘Set Collection’, and ‘Worker Placement’ mechanics, is designed for between two and five players, aged fourteen and up, and takes roughly forty-five to sixty minutes to play.

Exploriana consists of five decks of cards and four boards. Three of the decks of cards are Region decks, consisting of Discovery cards, one each for Africa, Asia, and South America. Each Region deck has an associated Region board. The fourth board is the Renown/Score Track, whilst the fourth and fifth decks of cards consist of Explorer cards and Mission cards respectively. Each Discovery card in a Region deck indicates its type—Animal, Location, Treasure, Map, or Orchid, as well as the number of Victory Points it awards at game’s end, Renown for determining turn order, coins it awards, and potentially the Hazard it presented in acquiring. The three types of Hazard are ‘Wrong Turn’, ‘Animal Attack’, and ‘Rockfall’. If a player reveals the three different or three of the same Hazard types during a turn exploring, his turn is over. The three Region deck decks vary in terms of risk and reward, with South America having the lowest and Asia the highest.

The Explorer cards consist of individuals like the Entrepreneur who can draw new Mission cards and choose open to keep, the Medic who can turn over the top card of a Discovery deck and if has one, can ignore the Hazard it reveals, and the Photographer who can take two cards from a Region. Explorer cards are recruited in the first phase of each turn, but each has a cost to be paid if a player wants to use their effects, and an Explore card is discarded after use. Each Mission card has a task such as ‘My Hero!’ (rescuing three or more lost explorers), ‘Bloomin’ Marvelous!’ (collect a set of orchids, one of each type), and ‘Location, Location, Location!’ (collection a location from each of the three different Regions. Each Mission card awards four Victory Points.

Each of the three Region boards has spaces to place the players’ Explorer pawns and Lost Explorer tokens. They are also double-sided, one side being for two to four players and the other for five players. The Renown/Score Track is used to keep track of the players’ Renown throughout the game. Both Renown/Score Track and the three Region boards are designed to click together jigsaw fashion to form one long board.

Set-up of 
Exploriana is simple enough. The Renown/Score Track and the three Region boards are placed in a line down the table and the three Region decks shuffled and placed alongside them with three cards in reserve on one side and the rest on the other. Two cards from each deck are drawn and placed face up so that everyone can see them. Each player is given his two Explorer pawns, six coins, and two Missions, which will score them Victory Points if completed.

Each round of 
Exploriana consists of four phases. Turn order goes from the highest Renown to the lowest, but at the game’s beginning, the player who most recently travelled to another continent goes first. In the ‘Recruit Explorers’ phase, the players each choose one Explorer card from those face up. There is always one more Explorer card than the number of players and any Explorer card left has a coin added to it. A player who takes an Explorer card with coins on it, also gets the coins. This can be a consideration as players rarely have quite enough coins necessary to hire their Explorers and use their abilities. In the ‘Send Explorers’ phase, the players take in turns to assign one of their Explorer pawns, then the other, onto one or two of the Region boards. A player can only explore a Region deck if he has an Explorer pawn on the associated Region board. It is possible to completely fill the spaces on a Region board, forcing a player to place his Explorer pawn elsewhere.

Then, starting on the South America Region board and moving to the Africa Region board and then the Asia Region board, each player takes any number of actions for one of his Explorer pawns in the third phase, Explore Regions’, before going round again for each player’s second Explorer pawn. There are three types of action a player can take. First, he can ‘Explore’, turning over cards from the Region deck adjacent to Region board; second, he can ‘Hire a guide’, every player having a guide token he can use to cover a Hazard symbol on a face-up Region card, though this costs coins; and third, ‘Use an Explorer card’, a simple matter of following its instructions. A player’s turn with one Explorer pawn continues until one of four conditions are met. Either three different or three of the same Hazard types are revealed face-up on the Region cards, in which case the Explorer becomes lost and a random Lost Explorer token is added to the Region board and all of the face up Region cards in the Region are shuffled back into the Region deck, and two cards are drawn again. Lost Explorer tokens are worth two, three, or four Victory Points, and are placed face down. Either because there are five face-up Region cards adjacent to the Region board or the player decides to stop exploring, or because an Explorer card tells the player to stop.

If there are five face-up Region cards or the player decided to stop exploring, and there are not sufficient Hazard types revealed face-up to get the player lost, the last action he gets to do is ‘Take Picks’. If there are four or fewer Regions face-up to choose from, a player only gets one pick, but if there are five, he gets two. A pick can either be all of the Region cards with Animal symbols on them in the Region, a single Region card with a non-Animal symbol on it (Location, Treasure, Map, or Orchid), or a single Lost Explorer token on the Region Board. A player can then repeat this all with his second Explorer pawn, in either the same Region or a different one, depending upon where it is placed.

The fourth and last phase of a round is ‘End of the Round’. It is actually only triggered when any Region deck or its reserve pile, or the Explorer deck is depleted, and indicates the end of the game. Each player is awarded Victory Points for the number of Renown points scored, Mission cards completed, Lost Explorer tokens, coins, and Region cards with Location and Treasure symbols collected, for each Animal on their Region cards collected, the number of Map symbols collected, and the number of sets of Region cards with Orchid symbols collected. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Essentially, each player is attempting to push his luck when exploring a Region and turning over its Region cards, attempting to find the Region cards he wants that will score him the most points or helps him fulfil the requirements of a Mission card. This is balanced against the possibility of too many Hazard symbols being revealed, and so making an Explorer lost, as well as the need to find coins which a player will need to pay in order to use the special ability of an Explorer card. The first player to any Region—typically dictated by Renown order—has the benefit of making use of the first two cards face-up in a Region, thematically, the equivalent of entering undiscovered territory. Later players will probably find that the face-up Region cards have changed, potentially with the best Region cards already having been picked or too many Region cards with Hazard symbols left to be revealed. The ‘Set Collection’ aspect of the game involves getting as many Region cards with Map symbols or sets of the three types of Orchid symbols on the Region cards. A last aspect of the game’s ‘Push Your Luck’ play, is whether or not to Explore the more dangerous Regions of Africa or Asia, which have higher rewards, but more risks in the form of a greater number of Hazard symbols.

Beyond the race to place Explorer pawns in choice slots on the Region boards, 
Exploriana is not a game with any real direct interaction between the players. This does not mean that it is a bad game however, rather that its competitive play is relatively gentle and probably suited to a younger audience than the minimum age of fourteen years old already given. Certainly twelve-year-olds would have no issue with relative complexities of Exploriana and those complexities are not that complex. Further, the playing time of forty-five minutes to an hour is a little long, except for the first playthrough perhaps. After that, it should play in thirty minutes or so.

That though, is the basic game. 
Exploriana includes much more than just the basic game. For two players, it adds a dummy third player to act as a rival, though this is not as enjoyable to play, and then there are several advanced rules and variants. These add valuable relics which can be discovered by collecting particular symbols for the Region the relic is from; a bonus of two coins for Explorer pawns which become lost, which encourages a player to actually push his luck even further exploring a Region and drawing cards; and Expansion cards which are taken as soon as they are drawn, such as the Poisoned Chalice which is given to another player (and later possibly to another player when an Explorer becomes lost) and losing the player who has it at the end of the game Victory Points. There are a total of nine advanced options and variants, which the players are free to pick and choose from, and that is in addition to the solo rules and variants included. Adding these to the play of the game will increase its play length though.

Exploriana is very well presented. A good cardstock is used for all of the cards, the playing pieces and tokens are of thick cardboard or wood, and everything is done in full colour. The rulebook is generally well written, but needs a careful read through in places.

Exploriana is quite a light game, with scope to make it as complex as the players want, but without getting overly so. Its engaging theme, attractive production values, and light mechanics make it a decent family game as well as something that can be enjoyed by the more experienced boardgamer too.

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