Incredible Expeditions Is Not What it Could Have Been

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Two years ago, Mike and I came upon a board game at PAX that caught my eye. I've long been a fan of steampunk aesthetics and rollicking stories of adventure. Incredible Expeditions: Quest for Atlantis promised both of those things wrapped into a singularly appealing package. Mike purchased the grand tour edition of the game for me as a gift. This edition was a limited run set with deluxe pieces and a couple bundled expansions centered on Lovecraft and espionage. Still in its Kickstarter at the time, I finally received my copy last month. After two years of waiting, we excitedly sat down to play. Here's what we found.

The packaging was quite lovely. The suitcase had a leather (vegan leather, at that) carrying handle and two basic toggle hasps. Inside we found cloth player mats, used to keep each player's captain, crew and resources in order, several stacks of cards, some green and gold dice with an art nouveau pattern on them. The five gold colored miniature steampunk ships looked like something created by Jules Verne and the various resources were represented with colored glass beads and metallic coins. 

Behold, the Port City, the first stop in the game, where players rest and acquire crew and resources.
Upon closer inspection however, the overall quality isn't exactly the "luxury edition" fair one would expect from a game that cost over one hundred dollars. The bags for the resource tokens are thin fabric and some have what appears to be green marker on them. The dice are interesting, but their small size makes the numbers on them difficult to read through the intricate design. More distressing however, all of the cards in the box began to curl in on themselves within an hour of being unpackaged. 

Setup for the game requires a lot of work. Each player requires a deck of basic supplies to start, and sorting out the cards for each deck in a five player game can take quite a while. Our first setup took nearly an hour to get everything sorted out. Because a large part of the game is based on deckbuilding, adding cards to that basic bunch of supplies is a given for everyone in the game. As such, even breaking down the game after play requires you to sort out the basic decks, just so you won't have to do it on the next setup. No matter what you do, you have to sacrifice some time to the organization of those god damned decks.

Writing about how the game plays is difficult because I am not certain that we played the game entirely according to the rules. We attempted to play a cooperative game, and found that the instructions were disjointed and vague in many places. Not just where they pertained to the cooperative rules, but even some of the basic rules were non-specific and prevented us from moving forward with much confidence. The rules governing how resources are gained, how long they are gained for, how they are lost and how they are spent and tallied is a complete mess. As such, we faced most of our challenges and encounters with our best guesses towards the intent of the rules. While we eventually won, it felt less like an accomplishment and more like we had finally finished a particularly draining chore.

More of the beautiful art in the game. Unfortunately, the game's deep flaws seriously impact the 
I believe that games should strive to have elegant rules that work intuitively within a couple playthroughs. Mysterium is a perfect example of this. While the rules appear daunting at the outset, the play of the game is easy to pick up and the movements become familiar quite quickly. Incredible Expeditions felt more like I had my arms cut off, was thrust into a tank with a manual written in code and told to drive. Furthermore, the text on some of the cards is not consistent. One card said, quite succinctly, that we would have to face "both encounters in a single turn" to receive the encounter defeated token, while the next said we would have "to Face twice to take a Defeated Encounter Stamp." That kind of verbiage is incredibly obtuse. To "Face twice" would mean to face both of the encounters in a single turn, face twice the number of encounters shown on the card, face an encounter two times on separate turns, WHAT?  

Some reviews have said that Incredible Expeditions lacks elegance because it is so true to its steampunk origins (assuming that steampunk is inelegant). I honestly think that this is nothing more than trying to pass off poor design as artistic flair. Incredible Expeditions may feature some beautiful art, but art alone cannot make up for a seriously flawed design principle. When I first encountered the game, I wondered how they would integrate deck building with standard gameboard mechanics, steampunk aesthetics, luck of the draw and strategic gameplay. As it turns out, the execution is as flawed as a broken watch. It may be beautiful, but it surely doesn't function as it ought to.