Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Relic hunting in style

My decision to buy Relic Expedition was based almost entirely on its graphic design. Normally I try to try out a game, or at least read some reviews, before buying, but in this case an ad included in the box for Lanterns: the Harvest Festival and a quick look at a demo copy at my local game store was all it took.

Granted, the game's 1930s adventure theme is one of my favorites (see Fortune and Glory), but beyond that, I found its typography, iconography, and color palette to be very appealing. Imagine my relief when it turned out to be a pretty good game, too.

Players race to explore the jungle and be the first to leave with the right combination of relics. The jungle is made up of random tiles that are placed as the players move; some tiles reveal relics or villages, while others unleash pits of quicksand or wild animals ranging from panthers that send you back to base camp, to mischievous monkeys that steal random items from your inventory.

Inventory management is a major part of the game. Each player can hold eight items, so early on it's easy to load up with helpful equipment such as machetes to cut through the jungle, bullwhips or vines to swing over quicksand, or bananas to distract those pesky monkeys, but eventually all that equipment has to give way to make room for relics. It calls to mind the greedy explorer who leaves all the food behind so he can smuggle out gold and jewels.

Deciding which relics to pick up is a crucial part of the game's strategy, since each player needs to collect a particular combination. In the base game it's either four of the same color, or four of the same type, but an expansion adds cards which give each player a more specific goal. So as you're wandering the jungle picking up relics, you have to decide which pattern you're going to go for, but also have the flexibility to change based on what you're finding. Every relic you carry means discarding a piece of equipment, which can lead to some agonizing decisions since most of the equipment either lets you move through the jungle more quickly, or avoid the wild animals which are the game's main obstacles.

The animals are easily the game's most charming components, consisting of meeples (wooden pieces in silhouette) of panthers, boars, snakes, and monkeys. Animals are placed on the board when certain jungle tiles come into play, and as part of their turn, each player rolls a die which allows the movement of all the animals of one type. Since the players control where the animals move, anyone who gets too far ahead will usually find themselves stalked by panthers or menaced by snakes.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A delightful, if a bit simple, game with engaging game play and beautifully designed components.

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