Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons
Our weekly games night was moved to Sunday (from Saturday) due to a sudden babysitting opportunity, and so we moved it to a slightly earlier start as it was school in the morning. We had quite a good array of games available on the table, but after three rounds of voting (everyone has two votes, but you can’t vote for the same game twice), Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons was the selection.
It was good to see this get some table time. This is a good solid game, but there are several other games we have which often get selected ahead of this.
Just to be completely clear, the version we played was the version with the scout trails leading to native huts along the side of the board.
The group was
Uncle G: Myself, and the provider of the game. Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons is the only modern designer boardgame I have ever bought from the box description alone. It dates from a time before I knew about BGG, and had only just discovered Catan, and we still had a store nearby which sold board games – something which now, alas, is no longer true. I normally do pretty well at this game, because no one else has figured out any strategy with it at all.
Aged P: My father. 70 years old, and with a proud history of flamboyant strokes, epileptic fits and bowel cancer. The strokes have left him with impaired vision which makes it difficult for him to read a lot of text, or scan a large area of a game board. Very good card player – his card playing skills pre-date the stroke and have survived intact.
Dominus: 15 year old nephew. Picks up games quickly and usually develops sound game strategies very early. An extreme risk taker. He will assess a situation, work out the best thing to do, and then realise that there is a stupid risk with almost impossible odds of success. He will then pause for a moment; and then he will just take the risk. Tends to do much better in games where this sort of risk doesn’t exist. I don't know why he even bothers to think about it first - we all know what he's going to do.
Sebastius: 13 year old nephew. Tends to like to choose an appalling start position, so that when he wins everyone will be amazed at his talent and skill. Has recently started lurking on BGG and reads my session reports, so I will have to be careful what I say about him. Has started to hum tunelessly during games which is really annoying.
During the setup I recapped on the rules, but this didn’t take long as we have all played before. I paid particular attention to the scoring mechanism for the native huts, as this had caused some confusion for Aged P on the last occasion we had played. We rolled the die to establish who would go first, and in a relatively short time we were underway. The rule book has several suggested starting layouts with bonus tiles positioned. We used the second suggested start set up.
My initial strategy was to spend cheaply in the early rounds, starting from the free edge of the board, buying one tile and placing a scout. My intention was that this would allow me to build up a large reserve of gold for the mid to late game, and at the same time would help me place my scouts in early positions on jungle paths, giving me an advantage in the crucial bonus resources.
Sebastius started relatively quietly, although he bought several tiles during each turn to try to discover large areas of the board. The tiles he picked allowed him to penetrate quite deeply into the interior of the board, and he managed to place a fort quite early on a tile which was joined to the +10 bonus tile.
Dominus started in his usual risk taking way, choosing tiles marked with a ‘?’. Luck favoured him, and in the early rounds he picked three native hut tiles, which allowed him to place scouts directly on the jungle paths. This was a little annoying for me as he wasn’t trying to use this strategy, and it was causing me problems.
I started as planned in a very quiet way, building up my cash resources and placing scouts on potentially small islands around the edges.
Aged P started (and played throughout) with what is probably the worst strategy for this game I have ever seen in my life. From the first turn, and throughout the game, he started his moves from the most expensive side of the board (cost 2 gold per turn), and routinely spent all his money every turn.
Acquiring gold during the game is straight forward – this is an exploration game and not a trading game, so the mechanism has been pared down to the absolute minimum. If at the start of your turn you have less than 4 gold, you roll the die. The person rolling receives that number of gold and everyone else receives that number plus 1. So for example, if you rolled a 4, you would receive 4 gold and all the other players would receive 5.
This is one of the most fundamental strategies in Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons. Make sure that you are not the person rolling the die for money. Receiving one less gold than the other players doesn’t sound like a lot, but if it happens continually the effect mounts up and is crippling.
Normally my strategy (spend the smallest amount possible in the early turns) brings me a gold advantage over every other player in the game, as I am by some way the most disciplined spender among us, and everyone else would be rolling the die from time to time. Aged P’s approach meant that we all had a massive advantage over him, but I had no financial advantage over any of the other players.
Dominus opened up a significant lead over the rest of us by mid-game. He was conserving his money well, although this was easy to do given Aged P’s approach, but was spending at a greater rate than I was and was converting into points by completing features. He also had first place on four of the seven jungle paths by virtue of turning up so many native huts on his exploration tiles (I had the other three).
Sebastius was focusing his efforts on the tile with the largest bonus, and so his any features he was building on were not being completed. Also, on his turns he would buy 2 or 3 tiles instead of 1 or 2, which meant that a greater portion of his gold was going on tiles instead of placing scouts, forts or settlements. He was exploring large areas of the board but wasn’t getting the points to show for it.
The scoring system ranks settlements above forts, which are in turn ranked above scouts. When an island is completed it is worth 1 point per tile (plus any bonus tiles (+5 or +10). Whoever has the most settlements on that island takes all the points. If no one has any settlements then whoever has the most forts takes the points, and if no one has any forts then it comes down to scouts. If there is a tie at all three levels then all tying players get full points. Second placed players get half that number. Third placed players get half again, and so on. The points come from placing your tokens, not from uncovering tiles, and this was costing Sebastius dearly.
I had moved into second place thanks to completing a few small islands, but I was beginning to be concerned about the lead that Dominus had gained over me. He was ahead on the native huts and had a higher score from me on completed islands. My only significant advantage was a significant presence on one of the bonus tile islands, and a much larger reserve of gold. In order to win I had to make this pay.
One thing about Dominus being so far ahead which worked in my favour was that he became a target to the rest of us. As the scouts started coming through from the other players, they all chose jungle paths to native huts which he was trying to claim, rather than mine. Rather than spread myself too thin, I focused on reinforcing the three paths I had first claim on.
Thanks to my large cash reserve I was able to bide my time, and then pay for exactly the tile I wanted on the large bonus islands, and then place a powerful token (settlement or fort) on it to claim a large share, even though the majority of the exploration work was done by the other players. In this way I was able to score well on two of the bonus islands and close the gap.
When buying exploration tiles, a player can pay one gold per tile for 1, 2 or 3 tiles and draw them randomly, or can pay four gold per tile for 1, 2 or 3 tiles, and choose the tile from one of the face up stacks. This is expensive, but at crucial times can guarantee that you get exactly what you need.
The game now entered the final phases. By a curious quirk of the exploration tiles drawn, the final unexplored area (around the +10 bonus island) had no pathways to it from the free edge of the board. The only way to explore this area was to pay 1 or 2 gold to start from the side or top of the exploration area.
This played into my hands, as throughout the game I had been careful to underspend and leave myself options. While Dominus has been careful with his money, the fact that there were no free exploration routes to the final area left him having to take a chance on drawing the tile he needed, which didn’t work out. Aged P and Sebastius both had a large presence in the final island (2 forts and 2 scouts each), while I only had one scout, but crucially Dominus had nothing.
I spent my last remaining gold to start from the top edge (2 gold), buy a specified tile (4 gold) and place a scout (1 gold) which finished the game, without giving Dominus the opportunity to place a scoring piece.
We scored the final island, at which time the scores were:
Uncle G 52
Aged P 29
We then started to reveal the scores from the native huts. In this scoring, all points go to the player with the most scouts on the path leading to the native hut, with whoever is closest being used as the tie breaker. No points are scored for second place or lower. With these scores, the final result was:
Sebastius 44 + 5 + 5 = 54
Dominus 45 + 15 = 60
Uncle G 52 + 15 + 10 + 5 = 82
Aged P 29 + 15 = 44
So a resounding win for me. I should point out that if Dominus had been able to place one more scout on one of the path he would have won 15 points from Aged P, giving him a score of 75 and Aged P a dismal 29, which would probably have more accurately reflected the play. Dominus suffered due to being unable to place a scout on the final scoring area due to it being closed off from the bottom edge of the board – something which doesn’t happen very often.
As is our usual custom, we had a short debriefing session as we packed the game away where we talked about what we had been trying to do, what strategies we had employed and how well they had worked.
It turned out that Sebastius had decided to play the game without any clear strategy at all. He had a tendency to want to explore large areas rather than score points which worked against him. Also he would focus on building up a large presence on what should become large point scoring islands around the bonus tiles, and this means not only that he neglects to pick up points from the smaller islands, but also he creates a target for the other players to aim at. If for example he has two forts and 2 scouts on an island, I can either take the majority share of the points by placing a settlement at the end, or I can (as I did in this case), place a single scout and get a significant share of the points in a much more efficient way.
Dominus played a very sound game all the way through. In the end I think he lost because he didn’t conserve his gold enough, and because he was an obvious early leader and so lost out on the bonus points available from the native huts – in the end only scoring one of them.
One thing he did really well was handle the risk of choosing the exploration tiles with the ‘?’ on the back. He had worked out that the odds favour the risk taker at the start, because the good tiles outnumber the bad. Once he had taken a few of the good tiles, he recognised that the odds had shifter against choosing them, and stopped taking those risks.
My strategy had worked perfectly from start to finish. My only concern throughout had been not acquiring extra gold in relation to Sebastius and Dominus, but in fact I was able to gain this by only buying 1 or 2 tiles on my turn instead of 2 or 3. Also, no one competed with me on the three native huts I was aiming for. There is a psychological aspect to this. If you come in late on a native hut, you must place at least two markers and probably 3 to take it. Once you have started competing for a native hut, it becomes inadvisable to switch and compete for another path. In this game, Aged P and Sebastius both started to compete against Dominus who was in the lead by mid game. As the game progressed and I began to move ahead, everyone else was too heavily invested in their existing battles to respond.
The less said about Aged P the better, quite frankly. His approach is almost a perfect guide about what not to do.
At the end of the game, I had placed 11 scouts, Dominus had placed 7, Aged P 6 and Sebastius 5. I think this was another reason why I was able to dominate the scoring from the native huts.
Thoughts on the game
This is probably too obvious to even mention, but always start from the free edge of the board if possible. To do anything else is to throw away money, and this will lose you the game.
On early turns try to underspend. Buy one tile per turn and put a scout on it. This will enable you to build up your gold reserves, and place your scouts in advantageous early positions on the jungle paths to the native huts.
Do everything you can to avoid having to roll the die for gold. Every time you roll the die you are gifting a 1 gold piece advantage to every other competitor. Don’t do it.
Place scouts at the beginning, rather than forts or settlements. You can pick up useful points from small islands and efficient minority shares in larger islands.
Concentrate your scouts on no more than 3 native huts (in a 4 player game). Don’t spread yourself too thin. You can’t hope to win more than three, so don’t try.
The native huts are a major factor in this game. In fact quite possible the points available make them overpowered. Certainly they dominated my entire strategy, which reduced the extent to which this game is a tactical exploration game and it became more a guessing game about which native huts to compete for.
Don’t get too caught up in the fun of exploring. The winner is the most points, not the most tiles placed. There’s very little point in turning over three useful tiles and building on the last one. Each tile you pay for and don’t build on is a missed scoring opportunity.
Don’t buy tiles for 4 gold until the end game, or when completing a feature. Sometimes you will need a specific tile, but most of the time, save your money and wait to see what comes.
Although I like the native huts and I like what they add to the game, the charge has been made that they are overpowered and unbalance the game. I can see the justice of this. I think to be at its best, Entdecker: Exploring New Horizons is a largely tactical exploration game. With the points scoring mechanism as is, I was able to win comfortably by almost ignoring the tactical play on the exploration board, and focus on placing scouts on the paths to the native huts.
A couple of variants have been suggested elsewhere on BGG, which I think would be worth mentioning, although I have never played with either. For comparative purposes, here is the scoring from this gaming session under the normal rules. I will go on to give how the scoring would change under each variant, although obviously the game play would have gone differently.
Sebastius 44 + 5 + 5 = 54
Dominus 45 + 15 = 60
Uncle G 52 + 15 + 10 + 5 = 82
Aged P 29 + 15 = 44
Use the scoring method used for the islands on the native huts. That is, the first player scores the full amount, the second player scores half (rounded up), the third player scores half of the second players score, and so on.
Under this variant the scores would have been.
Sebastius 44 + 5 + 5 = 54
Dominus 45 + 3 + 3 + 15 + 8 = 74
Uncle G 52 + 15 + 10 + 4 + 5 = 86
Aged P 29 + 8 + 15 = 52
This variant takes the scoring for the islands and mimics it on the native huts. I’m not sure how I feel about this without playing it, as this might simply turn the game into a guessing game (trying to get the higher scoring bonus points), or simply cause people to spread their tokens across every native hut, which would lose the differentiation between good and bad play.
Use half points for the winner to reduce the influence of the native huts on the final outcome.
Under this variant the scores would have been.
Sebastius 44 + 3 + 3 = 50
Dominus 45 + 8 = 53
Uncle G 52 + 8 + 5 + 3 = 68
Aged P 29 + 8 = 37
On the whole I like this variant more, and will suggest it for the next time we play. It keeps what is good about the native huts, and creates a tactical balance around placing scouts, which are weak for scoring on the exploration area, but strong on the native huts, without devaluing the exploration area.