Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark – A Thematic Euro Dice Game
While I love my Euro-games, some of them feel like the theme was added as an afterthought. Not so with Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark cunningly designed by Cédrick Chaboussit, and beautifully illustrated by Vincent Dutrait. Discoveries, a gamers’ Euro worker-placement dice game, feels like the theme was the starting point and the mechanics were built around, and in support of, that concept.
In 1804-06, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, at the behest of President Jefferson, led the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the uncharted American interior to the Pacific Northwest. Lewis served as the field scientist, chronicling in his detailed journal the plants, animal species, geography, peoples and cultures they encountered. Numerous discoveries of previously unknown plants and animals were made and science advanced through his careful journaling. Clark, the experienced soldier, outdoorsman and excellent mapmaker, kept the expedition moving by helping plan which routes to take. The maps he drew helped us understand the geography of the west and his journal provided insights into the lands, peoples and animal life of the region. Throughout their expedition, The Corps of Discovery – historians’ name for the group – received assistance from many of the native peoples they met during their journey westward.
The Theme Translated Into a Dice Game
In Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark you play one of the Expedition leaders: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, John Ordway or Patrick Gass. Your goal is to compile as much knowledge as possible in your journal. (The accumulation of knowledge was the whole point of Lewis & Clark’s expedition, so here in the dice game we find the same goal: all your preparations and work won’t really matter if you don’t make record of it in your journal for posterity. I realize that journal-writing doesn’t sound very stimulating or engaging in a game, but bear with me, you won’t actually have to do any writing, it’s just the most important Action you can take.)
Suiting the theme, you can record three types of data in your Journal:
- Geographical – maps of the territories you journey through – represented by Discovery cards. Discovery cards provide either straight up victory points or species.
- Biological – the new plants and animal species you discover – represented by symbols on some Discovery cards. You’ll want to collect sets of different species (fish, birds, mammals and plants) to accumulate the most points. For example, a full set containing a fish, bird, mammal and plant is worth 24 points at game end, while a set containing only a bird and a mammal is worth only 8 points. Your Journal Cover shows the breakdown.
- Ethnological – the American Indian peoples and cultures you encounter – represented by Tribe cards. Some Tribes are Wary and require a translator to talk to, others are Friendly and render assistance more readily. Both give you a guide (an extra worker represented as a neutral grey die) after your initial talks.
The player with the most points – from cards, sets of different species, and tepee collection ranking (some Discovery and Tribe cards have tepees on them) – wins the game.
To accomplish any feats worth recording in your Journal, you’re going to need men. In Discoveries, your men (workers) and those of your fellow explorers, are represented by colored dice. After setup – during which players each take a Player Board with 5 matching dice and choose a starting Discovery card – all players roll their dice and place them in their Dice Stock (the hole in their Player Board). During your turn you can either Play Dice from your Stock into your Action Zone (the parchment-colored areas on your player board and Tribe cards that simulate things you might do on your expedition) or Get Dice (gather up men lazing around the camp or recall your own men from other tasks). Unlike many dice games, in Discoveries, you don’t re-roll your dice every turn. Only when you Get Dice, complete a Journal Action, acquire a die in another way, or take an Action that lets you re-roll, do you roll the dice. Your dice cycle. It’s a very unique mechanic.
Your dice rolls determine the Actions you can take. Each 6-sided die has 2 faces with footprints (walk), 1 face with a horseshoe (ride), 1 with an Indian head (negotiate with American Indians), and 2 with letters (journal writing). To take an Action, choose one type of die face and play as many dice with that face as you want onto appropriate Action spaces. Some Action spaces have an arrow on the top, which indicate that you must discard a die to take the Action. Discarded dice are placed in one of the two camps on the game board depending on the face of the die used. Theme-wise this translates to your men returning to camp to relax after completing their task.
Your player board provides a variety of possible Actions at the beginning of the game, but as you encounter and negotiate with American Indian Tribes, you’ll acquire more effective Actions and Indian guides (grey dice). Let’s look at the Actions on your player board. It’ll give you an idea of how Actions work:
Take a Friendly Tribe Card and a Neutral Grey Die (Indian guide). The single up-arrow around the Indian head indicates that you discard one die showing an Indian head to the game board and take a Tribe card from the Meeting area (left of the game board). The face of the die indicates which camp (side of the board) you discard it to. In this case, you would place it on the left side of the board.
Take a Wary Tribe Card and a Neutral Grey Die (Indian guide). Two up-arrows mean you discard 2 Indian head dice to the game board then take a Wary Tribe card and a grey neutral die from the Meeting Area.
While all of the above Actions take only one turn to accomplish, the ones that follow, as well as many you’ll find on Tribe cards, usually require two or more turns: one turn to place a die to prepare for a journey (perhaps discarding one or more dice), and another turn to trigger the exploration by Journal Writing (placing Journal dice). There are three Actions like this on your player board:
Horse Ride. Place a die with a horseshoe face on the horseshoe space on your player board to prepare to cross two rivers by horseback. In a later turn, you can activate it to cross 2 rivers on a Discovery card by placing a die showing the Journal Writing face.
Hike. Discard one footprints die to the game board and place another footprints die on this space to prepare to hike three rivers. In a later turn you can activate it to cross 3 rivers on a Discovery card by placing a Journal Writing die.
Mountain Expedition. Discard two dice with the same face to the game board and place another (same face) on this space to prepare to cross two mountains. Usually in a later turn, you’ll activate it to cross 2 mountains. However, if you used 4 Journal dice, you could prepare and execute a 2-mountain journey in the same turn.
Journal Writing. In order to complete the journey depicted on a Discovery card and record it in your Journal, you have to be able to execute the entire journey all at once, in order, from bottom to top. For example, to complete the top Discovery card that’s worth 2 points (right), you need to either cross 2 rivers or cross 1 mountain and then 1 river. The middle Discovery card, worth 6 points, is more difficult: either cross two mountains then 2 rivers or cross 3 mountains. The more difficult the journey, the greater the rewards. If you can complete your current Discovery card combined with one of the face-up cards in the Reconnaissance Area, you’ll get a bonus turn as a reward. Definitely something to strive for.
While you can accomplish short journeys easily – like the 2-point one just mentioned – with the Actions available on your player board, you could really use some help for those longer trips. Fortunately, the Tribes you encounter help by providing additional, and often more efficient, means of travel.
For example, with the Cheyenne’s assistance (left), you only need 2 Hiking dice (one is discarded) to cross 3 mountains, while the Crow can quickly guide you by Horseback over 3 mountains or 3 rivers.
Whenever you activate one or more explorations by placing Journal dice – remember they all have to go off at once to complete the Discovery card in one fell swoop – place the completed Discovery card(s) under your Journal Cover, choose a new Discovery card from those available in the Reconnaissance Area, then take back all the dice from your triggered Actions, roll them and place them in your Stock. They cycle!
In my first few games I often felt like I reached an impasse: I needed more dice to finish my expedition (current Discovery card), but didn’t have enough men or didn’t have the right men to accomplish it. That’s where your other turn option, Get Dice, comes in. Of course, sometimes you might want to Get Dice just to foil your opponents’ plans. You have three options for Getting Dice:
- Take all of the dice in the left camp on the game board (where the Indian head and letter dice have been discarded). That includes your own colored dice (your men), grey dice (Indians) and those of your opponents (their men) that happen to be reclining there.
- Take all of the dice in the right camp on the game board (where the footprint and horseshoe dice have been discarded).
- Take back as many of your own colored dice as you desire from wherever they are, except in your own Stock, including: in another player’s Stock, from another player’s board, from either or both camps on the game board or from Action spaces on your own player board or Tribe cards. Groans are sure to ensue when you take them from other players, foiling their plans.
Whenever you Get Dice, you immediately roll them and place them in your Stock. Then your turn is over and play passes to the next player.
Play Time & Player Interaction
In Discoveries, turns are often quite quick and short. While the listed play time is 60 minutes, many of our games have been shorter than that: 30 to 45 minutes. Only occasionally have I felt the need to spend a bit of time to work out my options and decide what to do – usually after one of my opponents recalled his men and screwed up my plans or took the card I was just about to complete or acquire. The ability to recall your men – and for your opponents to recall theirs – leads to interesting strategies regarding which type of dice you use where and makes you pay attention to timing, too.
There’s definitely some engine building here: you need to get help from at least a few Tribes. The Actions they provide are usually more powerful and/or efficient than those on your player board. One thing I forgot to mention is that some Tribe cards provide a permanent effect or ability once you acquire them. For example, the Yankton Sioux Tribe Card #42, lets you play any one die as if it were a Journal Writing die, while Tetons Sioux Tribe Card #45 lets you play an Indian head die as if it were whatever face you chose to play that turn. All of the Tribe cards have a number in the bottom right corner so you can look up the meaning of their iconography on the reference handily placed on the back of the rulebook.
Discoveries’ components are top-notch. The two-sided cards (Discovery on one side, Tribe on the other) have a nice linen feel. The wooden dice are engraved so the paint shouldn’t wear off too easily. The artwork is beautiful! Everything fits easily in the box with plenty of room for expansions – should there be any forthcoming.
Of the many dice games that have come out recently, Discoveries satisfies my Euroy-itch the best. It also feels the most strategic. It’s a very tactical game, but I feel it offers the potential to discover deeper strategies as you play it repeatedly, which for me translates to excellent replayability. I don’t expect Discoveries to get old or boring any time soon. I love the artwork and really appreciate the way the mechanics carry out the theme. I must admit I’m also a fan of its predecessor, Lewis & Clark: The Expedition which I reviewed earlier. Other than the artwork and theme, they don’t really have much in common.
I would classify Discoveries as more of a gamers’ game than one for casual players because of its potential for deeper strategies. However, by no means should you take that to mean that you can’t teach it to casual gamers. It is actually quite easy to teach and learn. I just think gamers will appreciate its nuances more.
The way you cycle your dice – play them, get them back, play them again – is very unique. I’ve never seen this in another dice game. Unlike other worker placement games, there’s no way to make babies or hire more workers. Sure you can get neutral dice when you acquire Tribe cards and you can enlist your opponents’ dice, but you can’t keep them permanently. In fact, you can lose them at any time. So, you have to cycle your dice to serve your needs again and again.
Interesting tidbit: Congress allocated $2,500 for Lewis and Clark’s expedition. That translates to $51,000 to $60,000 dollars today (depends on which inflation calculator you use). Seems like a bargain to me.
Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark supports 2 to 4 players ages 14 and up. Play time is stated at 60 minutes, but can run shorter with players that don’t suffer from analysis paralysis (AP). Expect a little longer play time with AP players – you can’t get too paralyzed though.
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