REVIEW: The Lost Expedition

Two cats staring at the lost expedition game box.

In The Lost Expedition you take a team of explorers on a trek through the Amazon in search of a previous expedition that never came back. They were looking for the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Will you find them? Will you find El Dorado? Or will you meet the unknown fate of the previous expedition?

Who designed this game? Peer Sylvester, a German game designer known for the strategy games König von Siam and The King is Dead.

What kind of game is it? An adventure card game where you carefully plan the daily hikes of a team of explorers, trying to minimize hardships and to reach the goal with at least one explorer still alive. The game can be played solo, cooperatively (with two to five people) or one vs one.

When was the game released? In 2017 by Osprey Games. A new game based on The Lost Expedition was released earlier this year. It’s called Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth and will be reviewed by One Player Two Cats in the near future.

Where does this game take you? To the wilderness of the Amazon rainforest in the late 1920s.

Why would you play this game? If you like a puzzle, careful planning, pushing your luck, and an historical theme that comes through in beautiful artwork.

Components, Rules Summary and Gameplay

You get about 70 oversized cards, two pawns and a bunch of food and ammunition tokens in a beautiful box that folds open like a book. The box has a plastic inlay to keep all components in place. Component quality is good. The cover, just like the artwork on the cards, is made by English comic book artist Garen Ewing. Mr Ewing has done an excellent job.

A game of The Lost Expedition set up on a kitchen table.
Isabelle, Ynes and Bessie are ready to head out! All of the six explorers in the game are based on historical persons.

Nine of the cards are laid out on the table to form a map of the area you have to traverse. To win the game you must take your party (represented by a pawn on the map and three cards for the three explorers you’ve picked) from the first card to the ninth. To reach your goal you have to do some very careful planning. You have to make sure that your explorers have food to eat, that they can defend themselves, and that they don’t run into anything unprepared.

The discoveries, encounters and challenges are represented by 56 adventure cards. Each card is oversized and has an illustration covering it’s entire front side. The cards have descriptive, often evocative names, and some boxes with symbols representing events, choices and options. To plan the day and lay out the path for your explorers, some of these cards are played randomly from the top of the deck, and some very carefully from your hand. When you’re done, you go through them from left to right, resolving all effects and abilities. After that your people have to eat (or lose health points), and then you start over again, trying to survive another hike.

The Lost Expedition can be a pretty mean game, and I’ve never managed to win with all the explorers still alive. Fevers, hostile tribes, rainstorms, poisonous frogs, scorpions, failing equipment, and anacondas are but a few of the dangers you have to face. If it weren’t for the friendly tribes, your adventurers skill and your careful optimization wouldn’t be enough to survive. A small portion of luck can be useful too.

The box says 30-50 minutes but solo game is often even shorter than 30 minutes. The cooperative came might take 50 minutes with a group of indecisive people that can’t agree on anything. The PvP variant is about half an hour. It’s refreshing with a box that overstates the play time – in my experience most games take longer than it says on the box.

Variants

The cooperative variant is similar to the solo variant described above, except that all players have their own hand and are not allowed to tell the others what cards they hold. Once they’ve decided what card to play, however, all players try to decide on the best way of utilizing it.

Two cats sleeping next to a bunch of cards from The Lost Expedition.
To play competitively against each other, Juni and Mysan have to pick three explorers each.

The PvP variant, where two players race to reach El Dorado, is not very intuitive from a thematic point of view. The players take turns laying out cards forming two different paths, trying to force the opponent to take the most dangerous one.

The Experience

The Lost Expedition is a tense, mean, tight and quick game. If you win, you do so with little margin. You seldom have food to spare, and at least one of your explorers (usually two) are dead before you reach the goal – if you reach the goal at all. I’ve won a third of my games at most. To get to El Dorado, you have to make agonizing decisions, usually trying to pick the lesser of two evils. The game is a puzzle where you often have lots of opportunities, so it’s pretty thinky.

The fantastic artwork does a great job of evoking the theme. Each card, with its name, illustration, and event and choice boxes, is a little story in itself. When you tie it all together, it becomes an adventure.

The cards from the game The Lost Expedition spread out on a coarse blanket.
Card #35, the Thunderstorm, tells a little story. The yellow box says to skip the next two cards on the path – the explorers are delayed and cant get where they planned to go. The choice between the red boxes is between losing health and seeking shelter. The latter requires using up some resources, so the choice isn’t always an obvious one.

The theme is pretty strong, but at heart this is a game about optimization and calculated sacrifices. If you want to beat this game, everything has to be used as a means to that end, whether it’s some food, a bullet to fight off a raging boar, or one of your explorers that could be sacrificed to see if the rope bridge holds.

Reading the designer notes in the rule book makes it clear that this is a well researched game. All the tribes encountered in the game lived in the Amazon in the era of the expeditions, and it’s clear that the people you meet during the course of the game represent different cultures, attitudes and beliefs. I also get the impression that all the flora and fauna are indigenous to the Amazon area.

It’s hard to play this gaming without thinking about what followed in the footsteps of the different explorers that went to these lands. Forced migration, deforestation, stolen cultural artifacts, the spread of disease… After playing The Lost Expedition I’ve felt compelled to read up on the Conquistadors, on anacondas, on legendary cities of gold, and on the impact of colonialism in South America.

So?

Yes, I like this game. In fact, I like it a lot. The beautiful package, the very well written rule book, the three variants of gameplay, the rich, evocative art, the connection between theme and game mechanisms – it’s just great for what it is. So what is it? It’s a quick, unforgiving puzzle with an interesting historical theme. When I’ve played through it once I usually have another go since it’s already on the table. The 56 adventure cards are one-offs, so it feels pretty varied after quite a few solo plays, two co-op adventures and one two-player competition. If it starts feeling samey there’s an expansion called The Fountain of Youth and Other Adventures.

THe boxes for the lost expedition and the expansion the fountain of life.
The cover art for The Lost Expedition and its expansion reminds me of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. The expansion will be reviewed in the near future.

This game makes the most sense to me as a solo game, and I’m keeping it mainly for solo play. The cooperative variant is actually really good too, but I am not overly fond of co-ops, and there are other ones that I like better. The PvP variant feels less thematic and more mechanical, but it’s a quick, tricky and nasty backstabbing exercise that I rather enjoy.

The wonderful production and packaging and versatile gameplay makes The Lost Expedition a good gift. But make sure that you know the recipients gaming preferences – everybody doesn’t like puzzle games, and the theme might not be for everyone either.

Other People’s Opinions

“Solitaire for me is the best way to play this” says Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower in a video review. He also says that he had to actively work to connect the story and theme with the puzzle of the gameplay.

In a review on BoardGameGeek, Olaf Slomp writes that ” Solo and co-op were fun for a couple of plays, but the game has no staying power as such for me.” He adds that he still likes the competitive variant.


I hope you found this review helpful. Juni and Mysan are fighting over who gets to have Ynes on their expedition team, so I have to go and separate them.

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