I’ll admit it, the thing that first piqued my interest in Relic Expedition – a Kickstarter from Foxtrot Games – was the set of animal Meeples. Just getting a set of Meeple snakes and Meeple monkeys would have been enough. Yet, after having an opportunity to play the game, my level of interest has broadened considerably.
At first blush, the game appears to be an amalgamation of mechanics we’ve seen used elsewhere. There’s the discovery and treasure troving of Forbidden Island and the random map building/exploration of Castle Ravenloft and Carcassone. There’s a strong focus on PvP and the game does a number of things to ensure that players will actively impact and affect each other’s decisions (more on that in a moment).
Gameplay is decidedly simple, as players compete to find 4 identical treasure relics in the jungle, then escape via helicopter before their competitors. On their turn, each player rolls two dice, one with numbers and one with animals. The numbered die determines how many actions that player can take on their turn and the animal die determines which animals move. The animal movement takes place before the player actions.
The available actions are to either (1) draw a random equipment from the supply or (2) to move their player one space and reveal more of the map. The equipment allow players to navigate parts of the jungle easier, or combat different animals. Certain terrain (like dense jungle) can force players to spend additional actions to move through different areas. There are other “actions” like picking up treasure or using items, but they don’t use up an actual action. I can only guess that this was done to mitigate the negative affects of rolling extremely low on the action die.
Given that players really have only two options the game is simple enough for players of all ages and skill types. There isn’t a laundry list of possible maneuvers which can turn off new players and increase the learning curve. While I’m not always a fan of games that tell you the “best way to learn is just to play” – since that’s often just a crutch to avoid having to write clear and concise instructions – Relic Expedition actually can work that way.
There’s also an added bit of randomness to the game that others in the genre just don’t have, namely because the number of available actions are never set in stone. A roll of the die each turn determines just how much you’ll be able to do, so you can’t just readily rely on having multiple strategic options.
Some might scoff at that and dismiss the game on the grounds of too much luck being involved, but really this wrinkle just enhances the strategy. Players have to plan and account for the fact that they can’t guarantee future actions. From our play sessions it does appear that several poor rolls in a row can put one player behind, but luckily the game has another fun mechanic than can help mitigate that problem.
Aside from their own actions, players have to track the movement of the animals and in many cases, work to avoid them. The added challenge is that the animals don’t move on predetermined paths, like monsters in a game like Arkham Horror. Instead, players have control over where and how far an animal moves (1 or 2 spaces). Players hamstrung by poor rolling on their turn can shift the game in their favor with a few strategic animals placements, hindering other players and giving them the time needed to catch up.
I really like the mechanic because it puts the players in a more direct PvP situation, rather than having players be in some sort of race to the finish. That being said, if you have a particularly vindictive group of players, ganging up on one individual and effectively removing them from the game seems like it would be possible.
This back and forth between varying numbers of actions and PvP through animal placement is enhanced by advanced levels of the game. The difference between the advanced and basic versions of play involve additional terrain types and monkeys who will steal equipment from you. The game even comes with a true “training” scenario, in which animals don’t move at all and players just focus on actions. While it’s a nice touch of accessibility, the gameplay is so easy to understand that I think most players might just skip over that.
Our play sessions did reveal a few small concerns. First is that the strategy of trying to move as fast as possible through the jungle does seem to put extra pressure on other players, particularly if you go first. Expanding the jungle quickly might place more treasure on your side of the board. This is especially important if you are playing on an uneven surface, since the game board can only expand as wide or tall as the table.
The other issue is again, the idea of ganging up on one player with animal movement. Both of these aren’t exactly game breaking strategies, but they did crop up in our play sessions and more than once seemed to decide the outcome of the game well before it was actually over.
Despite the concerns, playing Relic Expedition is easy and fun, with a nice amount of replayability, customization and depth. I could easily see players developing custom sets of the tiles to create more challenge, or increase/decrease relic amounts and use monkeys to create more frantic gameplay. (Editor’s Note: the phrase “use monkeys to create more frantic gameplay” should be reason enough to support this game.)
I also see Relic Expedition as the type of game to use for introducing new players to the wider world of tabletop gaming. The gameplay is simple, but introduces players to hand management, exploration, and a little bit of PvP, but in a more casual way. For someone looking to step outside the Monopoly world of board games, Relic Expedition might just serve as a perfect introduction.