I had plenty of misgivings when someone at a recent boardgame meetup trotted out the Oregon Trail as a candidate for closing out the evening. Reviewers had thrashed it as a game that rode the trails blazed by nostalgia rather than use any sort of solid mechanisms as fuel to power you from Independence, Missouri all the way to the promised lands of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. But it was late in the evening. Another person there promised that it’d be a short game. And I would soon see why.
Gameplay was simple and easy; each turn, a player has the option of playing a trail card or a supply card. Playing a trail card would prompt you to follow the events written on the card. Sometimes you’d draw a calamitous event like having a wagon part break down faster than a 1989 Yugo. Other cards have you fording a river only to sink like a rock from an errant die roll and find yourself stripped of all the worldly possessions that you happened to bring along for the trip. But you probably deserved it anyway for trying to play as a Banker from Boston fleeing embezzlement charges.
Those mechanisms, while simple, aren’t what killed the play experience. What really brought it down to the bowels of the earth were the random “LOL YOU DIE” cards. Draw a calamity card and haha! you got bit by a snake and died! Sorry, no saving throw granted. You simply died. When the player next to me was the first to kick the bucket, I was almost sorry that it wasn’t me. It was getting late, after all.
The rest of us perished shortly after and that was that. An eternal debate shall rage over whether them not putting in the madcap rafting segment from the computer game was a missed opportunity. With all the nonsense that the game throws at you, I’d personally welcome the reprieve. Imagine a mini-game where you try to build a raft, Galaxy Trucker-style!
Now, if you actually wanted to play a game that’s about taking an expedition and trying to survive as you reached the fabled lands of Oregon, playing The Lost Expedition wouldn’t be a bad way to go about it.
Like in Oregon Trail, each player will play a card to create a sequence of events that charts the group’s path to the lost city of Z. The effects of each card range from irritating one-off events that drain your team’s resources to a bounty of supplies like food, bullets, and camping gear… most of which can be obtained if you’re willing to trade an existing resource. Effects that allow you to advance further into the jungle must be weighed against the resources they use up. That careful weighing turns the decision-making mechanism into a fun puzzle.
Another trick that The Lost Expedition uses is that some of the event cards allow you to skip other events entirely or swap the event order. For example, one player might declare that he’ll play a card that functions as a kind of safety valve because it allows the group to skip two bad events. If there are cards other players want to trash, that’d be the time to play them. In other times, you’d want to play cards carefully so that you don’t wind up skipping over a vital card needed to get a precious resource or continue moving closer to the goal.
Finally, you can choose which colorful personalities (including Teddy Roosevelt!) make up your party of hardy adventurers. Each personality comes with a special skill to help defuse any calamities that you’ll encounter during the course of the expedition. You can even sacrifice them by pushing one into a spiked trap if that’s what you need to do to win.
Thankfully, not everyone needs to make it to the lost city of Z for you to obtain victory, but after playing this and Oregon Trail at the same meetup, I couldn’t help but think that had the Oregon Trail used similar such mechanics, it’d have been a passably decent game. By the law of transitivity, that means The Lost Expedition is a passably decent game. Not enough to grip me with its narrative or tension, but it’s a good enough prelude to heavier fare.
Better than dying of dysentery in spite of the 3 cases of medicine you’re carrying in the wagon (yes, really).