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Source of the Nile» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Drowned by crocs and eaten by cannibals: what fun! rss

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Michael Debije
Netherlands
Eindhoven
The Netherlands
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Source of the Nile was originally a Discovery Games release, later put out by Avalon Hill in 1979. It may be played by 1 to 6 players, and takes a few hours, depending on the scenario played.

What You Get

In a standard Avalon Hill bookcase box topped with a rather atmospheric illustration reminiscent of an old movie poster you get a three-board foldout map of Africa, ca 1820, with only the coastal hexes and some of the southern continent filled in: the rest is blank, ready to be explored by the players. You get a sheet of rather plain counters depicting the player markers, native tribes, and special discoveries, a deck of 108 cards that drive play, a player aid pad, four dice and three rather poor-quality crayons. The presentation is somewhat Spartan, though utilitarian.

What You Do

The goal of Source of the Nile is the exploration of the deepest, darkest wilds of Africa. Each player assumes a role of an explorer, missionary, journalist, zoologist, botanist, doctor, ethnologist or geologist, each with slightly different goals. You start off with $1000 with which to outfit an expedition. You can hire askaris, native fighters, bearers to carry your stuff, guides to lessen the chance of getting lost, camels, horses, muskets, gifts for trading with natives, canoes, and the all-important food rations. Care must be taken to make the right balance, as a shortfall on any good or helper can spell disaster, and often does. Once everyone has secretly outfitted their expedition, players select a port town on the map edge and travels there, ready to penetrate the interior.

The game is run by the action card deck. The turns are divided into phases, which each player completing an entire turn before the next player has a go. First, one needs to select their level of activity, whether you plan to move cautiously, normally, or recklessly. This determines both your movement rate, but also your effectiveness in encounters with tribes and how good your hunting bag is. The, you draw an event card. These cards are full of horrible disasters that can afflict your expedition, all keyed to a certain type of terrain. They range from attacks by tse tse flies, rampaging rhinos, guides falling from canoes, and even, I discovered this evening, an attack by cannibals that can get your explorer eaten. The events, though morbid, are wonderfully evocative, and cause no end of delight for the other players as they watch half your expedition disappear into a pool of quicksand.

Next is movement. One first checks to see if they become lost, modified if you have a guide. The guides are notoriously bad, and tend to flee if they lead the group astray: I never manage to maintain my guides beyond a few turns. Movement into unknown hexes costs 2 movement points, into known hexes one, so is very easy. A card is drawn to determine terrain (veldt, jungle, mountain, swamp, lake, desert), another to determine if there are any rivers, another to determine if there are any special discoveries, like 21000 foot mountains, 1000 foot cataracts, or enormous lakes: all these finds can gain victory points. Yet another card is then drawn to determine if any natives inhabit the hex. If natives are encountered, one may choose one of 6 policies to approach the tribes. This decision sometimes hinges on the size of village encountered: those farther from ‘civilization’ tend to be larger, and thus, more dangerous. The policies range from a defensive, threatening pose to open-armed ‘hey, wot ho, old chaps!’ A roll will tell you if they are friendly and allow you to trade and stay with them, or whether you end up with a spear encased in your gullet.

Once villages are dealt with, you’ve got a chance to hunt to supplement your dwindling food supply by rolling a die and consulting the terrain, and finally, you get to draw one last card to see if you found something ‘special’: these are keyed to your profession. Missionaries can convert heathens, botanists discover new plants, and journalists interview native chiefs. The turn passes to the next player.

There are also several special locations on the map where hidden ‘major finds’ can be made: the elephant graveyard, King Solomon’s Mines, or even the famous Dr Livingston (I presume). The game ends when a preset victory level is achieved: to score points, you need to return to a port, ‘cash in’ your findings, and score. If you die before making it home (a distinct possibility) then all your findings, which have been drawn in crayon on the board, are erased, mere rumors, and your name lost and forgotten. Bleak, yes? Normal games are won with 100 points, but any level can be set, and the game continued over several sessions.

What I Think


I will say at the start that I think this is the best exploration game yet created. I will also say it is definitely not for everyone. The game presentation is bland, at best. The cards are full of small-print text, the map is mostly blank white hexes, and the exploration sheets are awfully utilitarian. The rulebook is one of the least friendly that I know, very choppy and disjointed, especially since there are two major sections: the second half relates to a more role-playing experience, which I have not really discussed in this review, mainly because I never play the game this way, and so do not feel qualified to comment. Regardless, the game will not ‘flow’ for a while as one must continually track down obscure rules scattered about the text, and even now I forget that each man consumes extra water in the desert, and that native rations do not spoil…

The mapbuilding is quite convoluted, but really, is quite ingenious, and works out rather well in the end, despite its tortuous method. The crayons are terrible, however, and I strongly recommend pulling out your plexiglas sheet and blackboard pens before playing this game. There is also a LOT of dice rolling, so much so that often you feel completely at their mercy. The events can be deadly, and they hit often and hard. Guides desert at a moments notice, and let me tell you from experience, a charging rhino is damn hard to kill, and can wipe out a significant portion of your expedition. The natives are unruly and can swiftly bring an end to your career. You can be shot, stabbed, die of thirst, drown, and be bludgeoned by apes. A game can go a couple hours with nary a victory point in sight.

But you know what? I couldn’t care less. The adventure is one of legends. I can only imagine what it must have been like to enter a completely unknown region of deep jungle in the early 19th century, perhaps even the first human ever to set foot in that smidgen of land, and discover a new species heretofore unheard of by mankind: this game gives me a bit of this thrill. I have stories to tell after playing, one that you can imagine telling in your pith helmet back in Cape Town over a warm scotch to the bright-eyed reporter from London, secure in the knowledge that, even though you may perish on the morrow in some forgotten gorge, your exploits will live beyond your years. This is a game of true adventure, for the kid in us who read Edgar Rice Burroughs as children, and is for storytelling more than the winning. I think I just convinced myself to bring it down again tonight…
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Robt. Ferrett
United States
Madison
Wisconsin
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I agree with pretty much every sentiment in this review--I enjoy this a lot, but it's not for everyone!
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Darrell Hanning
United States
Jacksonville
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Good review, Michael.
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franklin johnson
United States
santa cruz
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Good review, but note that humans have lived in Africa for thousands of years, so you would not be the first. What would happen is, you would be the first to bring the land or animal to the notice of the larger world and civilizations beyond - that is, 'discover' them.

Note that discovery often led to the Africans themselves hearing about other parts of the continent for the first time!

Since you like the game's promotion of a sense of wonder at what might be in a vast blank area, maybe you would like the fantasy supplement in the variant section of the forum. Now you can explore the Africa of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. And, of course, Edgar Rice Krispies - er, Burroughs.
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Ken
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This game has been sitting untouched on my gaming shelf for years. I think the rules intimidated me (or perhaps it was the likelihood of a gruesome death).

Your review has convinced me to finally get this game to the table. Thank you (many years later)

Adventure awaits!
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Michael Debije
Netherlands
Eindhoven
The Netherlands
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mrcoolranch wrote:
This game has been sitting untouched on my gaming shelf for years. I think the rules intimidated me (or perhaps it was the likelihood of a gruesome death).

Your review has convinced me to finally get this game to the table. Thank you (many years later)

Adventure awaits!


Great to hear! This is the ultimate goal of my review- get that game played. Have fun!
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Vincenzo Beretta
Italy
Milan
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I played this game with two friends for years when I was a teen-ager (I learned English thanks to games ). The level of violence is unreal. One could point out that the level of violence in a wargame - even a tactical one - should be higher. But the violence in wargames is very often abstract ("flip the counter to the half-strength size"). Here people are EATEN, usually with graphic descriptions.

A side note: this game marked our approach to RPGs. We played the normal version, but after a while a single house rule (and some contingent ones) allowed us to play with an "expedition" of three explorers moving together. This led us to "Magic Realm" and from "Magic Realm" to "Dungeons & Dragons" (Red Box). I didn't say "bye bye" either to wargames or games like SotN (my current group plays from D&D 3.5 to Arkham Horror), but it did with that group of friends. Ah, those teen-ager years... (tear)
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steve lieb
United States
Waconia
Minnesota
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Our family gaming history includes one night where my oldest son, having lost his entire expedition by turn 2, said "screw it" and continued across the waist of Africa, entirely alone.

By astonishing series of rolls, he survived.
Every single tribe he encountered ended up friendly.

He was the first to cross Africa, and as a lone insane explorer won the game.
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