Suddenly a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
Entdecker is a relatively light exploration game from Settlers' creator, Klaus Teuber. Rumor has it that it was once supposed to be part of a massive three-part game with Settlers and another of Teuber's games (Löwenherz, I believe), but it stands on its own merits just fine. In the game, you will be sailing with your fellow players on a majestic clipper ship hoping to strike it rich with your new discoveries. Exotic fruits and vegetables, greedy pirates, deadly storms, and unpredictable natives will all have their part to play in your adventure, albeit in a rather abstracted way. Don't come looking for a very richly themed experience here, but the basic mechanics do invoke a sense of exploration and pride in your discoveries.
The basic mechanic of the game is a blind-draw from a tile-bag. But first, in a nod to Settlers' resource acquisition mechanic, you'll have to finance those tile draws. Like in Settlers, everyone will benefit from the resources you produce on your turn, with the amount of the benefit controlled randomly, this time by a spinner to Settlers' dice. The difference is that, while in Settlers each player might get different resources, everyone will always get the same amount of gold from each spin to finance their explorations. After you've spun and everyone's adjusted their balance, you get to decide how far you want to voyage. You'll pay up-front one gold for each tile you wish to draw from the bag, knowing full well that you may not be able to use them all and may have to cut your journey short due to unforeseen circumstances. Knowing how many to draw is a key element of the decision-making in the game, as you'll have to pay for settling on the new islands with the same gold reserve you use to pay for exploring them.
As you draw out your tiles, you'll see whether they can be played into the archipelago that you and your opponents have been slowly piecing together in jigsaw fashion. You get to pick where you start your voyage, but after that your fate is largely controlled by destiny and your tile draws. If the tile fits, you have to play it, even if it doesn't help your cause. At any time, you can stop and decide to settle on an island you've just discovered, throwing all your remaining tiles back in the bag, with no gold refund! Settling is important, though, as it is the main way to gain victory points in the game. The person with the strongest settlement on each island when it is fully explored will receive the lion's share of the points. To add some interest to this fairly basic tile-laying mechanic, there are some random event tiles mixed in with the standard tiles. If one of these is drawn and it can be played on the map, you have to encounter the event, good or bad. Events include pirates who'll steal your gold, storms that will abruptly end your voyage, and natives who will either welcome or shun you.
After you begin to fill in the map, certain islands will become fully explored, at which point anyone with a settlement on the island will receive points based on the strength of their settlement. As you lay out your portion of the discovery, you'll want to decide whether to form small islands for yourself or attempt to rival your opponents' presence on the larger, higher-scoring islands. There is a significant bonus for being the strongest on an island, so it's worth your while to pick your fights wisely and not waste your very scarce resources. Like Carcassonne, any control markers you place on a feature on the map will remain there until it is completed. Your supply of pieces is much more limited in this game than it is in Carcassonne, however, so you must choose the very best places to deploy your forces. The board forms a very pretty picture of the full island chain as you eventually flesh out the map, but don't let that fool you into playing non-confrontationally or you'll likely lose.
There really is only one mechanic in this game, much like other tile-laying games such as Carcassonne or Metro. There is some interest in the area-control mechanic and the random events, but your turn will always simply be to draw so many tiles and lay them on the board. It can get a little repetitive, but it is a relatively relaxing process most of the time, much like Carcassonne. I've mentioned Carcassonne three times now, so I might as well admit it: this game is more like the other famous Klaus (Jurgen-Wrede) designer's hallmark game, Carcassonne, than it is like Klaus Teuber's famous Settlers. The overall feel of the game and general strategies are much the same between the two games. This could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, this is not just a Carcassonne clone or spin-off like the nearly dozen games in the Carcassonne series. On the other hand, it may still feel like old hat all the same. I've considered a turn-timer or a random-event-triggering timer to add some pizazz to the experience.
Entdecker is a pleasant way to pass the time with a loved one or a few friends, but it's not a rip-roaring good time or a challenging mental exercise. It is what it is, a light game in the general family of Carcassonne and its kin. There is enough randomness in the gameplay to keep you coming back for more, but not enough to make you want to play the game every week. If you love tile-laying games, this is a good choice. If you want a feeling of exciting voyages across the sea to uncharted lands of wealth and plunder, you might want to look elsewhere, despite the dead-ringer theme.
...this is not just a Carcassonne clone or spin-off...
It sure isn't. Entdecker was released YEARS before Carcassonne.