An Exploratory Evening with Lewis & Clark
April 16, 2014
Like the explorers of the American frontier, I once again
found myself in a strange land playing unfamiliar games with unfamiliar faces. I made friends with the native peoples of this land and in return they taught me valuable information about how to play these shiny, new board game systems.
The game that jumped out at me the most was Lewis & Clark, a deck-building, worker placement, racing game that tasks players with being the first team of explorers to make their way to the Pacific coast. And the way the game interweaves these different mechanics into a cohesive game play is, well, complicated, but elegantly
All right, so your goal is to win the race, and on your turn you can use workers on the central board (the workers are little Native American meeples, but that gets tiresome to say over and over, so then you start calling them "Indians," which is just wrong and awful, so we're gonna just stick with "workers") or play a card from your hand of six starting cards. 4 of those starting cards collect you resources based on how many same-symbol cards you and your neighbors have already played, 1 gets you more workers (you start with only 1 and don't get him back unless you play this card), and 1, god-bless-him, actually helps you move forward down the river. The trick is, though, that if you play a card, you've gotta modify that card with another card or a worker or some combination up to a maximum of 3, which means you can take the action of the card up to 3 times.
And this is cool because you will only play about half the cards from a given hand depending on your current strategy, so playing through your hand of cards never feels the same way twice, especially since you'll be adding more cards to your hand from a *cough* Ascension-style *cough* card offer. Here this style of card offer works, though, because deck-building is only a part of the whole picture. You're probably only going to add 3-5 cards to your deck over the course of the game, and so it almost feels like a variable setup element rather than a deck building offer.
All right, so you're collecting resources and turning those resources into ways to move down the river, but hold on, there are more complications! You see, doing all this stuff will only move your scout
down the river (as opposed to your camp). Only when you make camp can you move your camp up to the scout and return all played cards to your hand, but before you do so, you may have to move your scout back
based on if you are burdened down with too many resources, workers or extra cards in your hand that you didn't play.
This is super rad
, because it forces players to plan out what they are doing and not just grab billions of resources all willy-nilly. If you're collecting 6 wood, you had better know what you're going to do with them or they are going to come back and haunt you come camp time. Sure, there are 6 workers on the central board, and you can pick them all up if you want to, but is it really a good idea? How many do you actually need before you make camp? This fine line of being extremely efficient with your actions and using the space in your boats wisely is really where this game shines to me.
I mean, you can grab all 6 of those workers and then spend another 6 turns placing them back down on the board to various effect, but it probably isn't going to be the most efficient use of your turns. The guy who has thinned out his deck to be nothing but awesome cards and is cycling through them every 3 turns is getting a lot more out of his actions and is probably going to win (this is the exact mistake I made the second time I played). This game is all about making the best plan to use your actions the most efficiently to maximize how far you move up the river without having to move back down. It's great
And the last thing I love about this game is that the race track isn't all river. 1/3 of your way through the game you run into mountain spaces, and, let me tell you, that awesome engine you had for zipping through the river spaces? Isn't going to work anymore. It's time to make a new plan, but not all is lost. The awesome card you bought to help you move upriver may not be useful face-up, but face down it can multiply another card by 3. Yay! And once you've gotten through the mountains, the last 1/3 of the game is a mix of river and mountains, so you've really gotta be on your toes.
Also! The game comes with little river and mountain tiles so that you can modify the route to make it easier or harder.
One thing I don't really like about the game, though, is the leap-frog mechanic of the scouts. Basically, if the movement of your scout would land him on a space with another scout, then you just keep moving your scout in the same direction until you get to a free space. In a large-player game this can make travelling over the mountains a lot easier once everybody starts to bunch up at the mountain entrance, which, yeah, is going to shorten larger-player games, which is good, but, I don't know, it just feels a little bit like cheating - like you didn't actually earn that trip through the mountains - like you don't actually have to build a great mountain-moving engine to actually get through them.
Also, a lot of worker spots on the central board seemed superfluous, like you would only ever use them once per game if at all. And some spaces are only ever efficient in the beginning or end of the game. I don't know, it seems like you would like all options to be roughly equally viable throughout the whole game to make decisions more meaningful, but as the game evolves over time, the viability of some actions changes dramatically. For instance, the viability of buying new cards drops off dramatically after the first couple hands, such that in the second half of the game people often forget to discard the cheapest card when the Powwow guy is played because nobody's actually paying attention to the card offer anymore. It just feels a little weird.
And lastly, there is some player interaction in terms of the leap-frog mechanic, Powwowing before someone else Powwows, and playing that card that keys of the cards of your opponents before your opponent makes camp and takes all his cards back. But it would be nice if there were more interaction. With a lot of card builds you can more-or-less just put your head down and play a solitaire game.
All-in-all, though, there's a lot of cool stuff going on here, and the mechanics really allow for some good old-fashioned focused plan-making, which I enjoy immensely. The punishment for not planning things out well enough can be a little harsh at times, often making the winner of the game very apparent many turns before the end, but such is life, I suppose. I would definitely play it again, as I have a lot more learning to do before I fully optimize that trip to the Pacific.
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