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Designer Diary: There and Not Back Again — The Lost Expedition to the City of Z

Peer Sylvester
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
Normally I don't know exactly where my ideas come from, but in this case it's easy to pinpoint: David Grann's book The Lost City of Z. In this book, he retraces (sometimes literally) the steps of the adventurer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett was a seasoned adventurer in his time who was obsessed with finding El Dorado, a mystical city in the Brazilian rainforest that he just called "Z". Contrary to most expeditions in his time, he believed in small teams, so in 1925 he ventured into the "green hell" together with his son Jack and his son's friend Raleigh Rimmel and was never seen again.

Because Fawcett was a well-known figure of his time, his disappearance made major headlines and many expeditions tried to find him, but to no avail. Suffice to say, this is a very captivating story, and Grann's re-telling and re-visiting of the story is superb. It's one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books!

Running an Expedition — The Development of the Mechanisms

Even while reading the book, I thought of creating a game about the expedition. This story is great for a game because the theme is not often used, and it makes for great storytelling as well as potentially interesting and hard decisions. For me, the theme was a re-telling of the expedition, and since there was only one expedition, the logical step was to make the game cooperative.

Board Game: 6 nimmt!
In my "snippets of loose ideas" (a word doc with short one-sentence game ideas), one entry read "cooperative game with 6 nimmt! - mechanic", and I thought this would be a perfect fit. After all, "quarterbacking" can be a problem in cooperative games, and this mechanism gave me the chance of reducing that aspect somewhat: Everybody would play cards at the same time, then they would be added in numerical order. You can't discuss card play in this phase, so as a result: No quarterbacking!

Then once all the cards are in the row, they would resolve in the right order and there would be decisions to make. At this point, the "leader" could still make all decisions on their own should the group want to avoid the dominant player problem, but this was a decision left up to each group. (I hold the opinion that a cooperative game should offer some direct cooperation among the players, so I didn't want to get rid of this element completely.)

In playtests, though, it became clear that the "all at once" mechanism didn't work as I thought it would. Looking at all the other players' cards was too time-consuming, but without seeing these cards, you would have too little information on which to base your own cardplay, so I changed to the current rule in which all cards are played one after another. But you probably didn't want to play your whole hand (so that you can possibly deal with bad cards), so what do we do about that? If you could discard them, the game would be too easy to win, but if you use all the cards anyway, then playing them one after another doesn't make sense as they would be arranged in numerical order anyway.

In the end, I came up with two distinct card play sessions for each hand. In the first half, you play two cards one by one, then all played cards are arranged in numerical order and their actions resolved. In the second half, you play the other two cards in your hand one by one, but the cards stay in the order that they were played. This worked well.

Board Game: The Lost Expedition
Laying out a path in the jungle (Photo: Elijah Weerts)

Living an Expedition — The Thematic Elements

The problem with a game like this is that you need to develop the cards before you can even playtest the game; you can't use generic stuff to test out the mechanism first, so I had to think first what I needed. The biggest problem in the jungle is food. Food is surprisingly scarce if you don't know where to find it, so one of the variables would be food. Health would be another one — an obvious choice. A third one was ammunition, something that would allow you to kill big predators, but this would be very limited. (One thing I learned from the book: You can also heat bullets to burn away hookworms that are under the skin.)

Of course you don't advance on the expedition automatically, but only if you encounter a certain symbol that was on roughly one-third of the cards in my prototype and that was nearly always optional with the requirement that you give away food, ammo, or health.

The thematic element was embodied in the cards, which I wanted to represent the dangers of the jungle, so I researched. A lot. All animals and all other things happening in the game can happen in real life, even if some dangers are somewhat exaggerated; a thunderstorm is more dangerous than an anaconda, but, yeah, it's a game, and an anaconda is way cooler.

One important part of the original expedition, both in the book and in real life, are the tribes that inhabit the rainforest. Fawcett somewhat relied on friendly tribes and encountered hostile ones as well. Since this game is set in the real world, the game would be about real people, so I worked hard to not be ignorant: I researched all tribes in the area that Fawcett visited, and they are all in the game depicted with their own names. Thus, you will encounter the Hi´aito´ihi or the Awa, just like Fawcett might have. They all give you choices and will often (but not always) help you, if you give them gifts or help.

In general, I thought of the encounters and dangers and tried to imagine what would or could happen, then translated that into icons. Sometimes I had to include an additional icon or not offer as many choices as I would have liked for balancing reasons or to make the game more interesting, but for most cards I can tell you pretty much what happens there (and it makes me happy when I see that other people can as well).

Leaving Base Camp — Publishing "Fawcett"

I showed "Fawcett", as my prototype was named, to Osprey Games in 2015, and by chance the first person I showed it to had just read a book about Fawcett! He was immediately hooked and Osprey quickly decided to publish it.

I was asked whether I would like a "Tintin-style graphic design", and as a fan of Hergé I said yes. That's how Garen Ewing came on board, and he did a fantastic job! Every graphic I got, I savored and I showed them to every one of my friends who cared. Really, really nice!

Board Game: The Lost Expedition
I mean, just look at that artwork! (Photo: Scott Silsbe)

I also have to give Osprey credit where credit is due as they came up with the solitaire rules — I just played three hands — and they had the idea for head-to-head play, which we developed together. They put in a lot of balancing and playtesting time, so I felt a little bad for insisting on things like "Poisonous frog" instead of "Venomous frog" or for changing the color of the anaconda way after deadline to better match the real ones.

We changed the setting slightly to make it more interesting for people not familiar with the original expedition. Instead of playing Fawcett himself, you now play a set of adventurers following in his footsteps, retracing The Lost Expedition, as it were. Your goal is to reach El Dorado instead of just resurfacing from the jungle. This is less historic, but it makes for a more motivating theme.

The end result, I'm not too humble to say, is stellar! I really like how this game turned out, and I hope you do, too!

Peer Sylvester

Board Game: The Lost Expedition
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