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Tall Mountains & White Water: Lewis & Clark Board Game Review

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cog gaming board game review- Lewis & Clark Box

Year Published: 2013
Publisher: Asmodee 
Players: 1-5
Playtime: 120-180 minutes

One Sentence synopsis: A Nineteenth Century version of the Gumball Rally.

Well, we’re back after a rather long, unintended hiatus!  After buying  Asmodee’s Lewis & Clark: The Expedition, I promptly got lost in the wilderness and only just now made my way back to civilization to give you my thoughts on this excellent resource-management/worker-placement/hand-building & management game designed by Cedrick Chaboussit.

Nominated for many accolades, including 4 2013 Dice Tower awards, Lewis & Clark puts you in the boots of American explorers in the early nineteenth century intent on reaching the Pacific coast.  Players all start in St. Louis with a few basic resources, a boat group, and a starting hand of explorers, and through the acquisition of additional resources and characters must make their up the river and over mountain passes to the West coast of the United States.  The real trick is simply acquiring more resources and more characters ends up being a damaging strategy; after all, on such a long journey you’re going to want to pack light.  If characters are left in your hand when you decide to ‘refresh’ what you’ve played in order to get your cards back, or if your boats are too heavily laden with resources you’ve acquired, your party will actually get swept back the way it came by a number of spaces and you’ll have to work your way back up the river or mountains all over again!

cog gaming board game review- lewis & clark Boats

Your starting boat group, and accompanying boat additions available to purchase.

cog gaming board game review- Lewis & Clark Card ExamplesDuring a turn, each player must choose to perform one of two actions.  First, they can play a character card from their hand face-up, and depending on that character they can then ’empower’ the card to take whatever action is listed up to 3 times(more on empowering later).  For example, the cards on the right would allow the player to spend 2 wood to progress over 1 mountain tile for each time they empowered it, and the other card allows the player to choose from 3 different effects that would allow them to progress over 2 or 4 river spaces, or 2 mountain tiles depending on the resources spent.

The second option players have is to use Native American workers they’ve gathered from a previous turn to take actions in the Indian village.  Each player starts the game with a character that allows them to gather all of the Native American tokens in play into the center of the board, and then take as many as they’d like and place them on the player’s boats.  When this happens the player also generates a new Native American token in the middle of the board- the ‘stock’ of Native workers thereby grows every time somebody takes this action(not overly politically correct to use the Native populations as resource-generating currency, I know, but it’s closer to the reality of history than not).  On future turns, these figures can be used on various actions found in the village on the board, including gathering various combinations and values of resources, or acquiring additional boat space for either workers or resources so you won’t be as likely to float back down river when you refresh your hand.

cog gaming board game review- clarkcardplayedAdditionally, Native American tokens can be used on their own, or in combination with a character card from a player’s hand(played face-down underneath a character card they’re activating), to empower a character card’s ability.  For example, the player has decided to place 1 character card face down under the card to the right in order to empower it by 1.  They have the option to place Native American tokens in the other 2 blank spaces to empower it further, and take more of the movement actions listed on the card.  Once used, those native American tokens would go back to the village when the player refreshes their hand, and would not count against the spaces on their boats allotted for worker tokens.

Players can also spend resources to acquire 1 additional character per turn, or they may set up camp.  Getting additional characters cards expands and strengthens each player’s options they may take during their turn, granting more resources than the basic character cards might, or allowing the player to take actions they otherwise may not have been able to.  In some particularly powerful cases, cards may even allow the player to traverse terrain using different resources than normally, bypassing the need to diversify their resource-gathering in order to progress.  However, players must balance their acquisitions since getting stuck with extra characters left in their hand can be damaging to their progress.  Furthermore, since the character cards are drafted similar to how races are drawn in Small World, players are going to pay a premium for cards that were just introduced.  Knowing when to jump on a card to get it for the best price, but before other players choose to pony up the resources, is essential. Setting up camp simply lets players mark their progress on the board, and ensures that even if they float downstream their maximum progress is recorded.

My game group ended up really liking Lewis & Clark.  It’s actually a medium-heavy game at its core with so many aspects of resource and hand management, but they’re put together so well that even people unfamiliar with genre catch on quickly once things get going.  In fact, during our second game the person who is our most recent addition to the group and has never played a resource-management/worker-placement game in his life won, and won pretty handily thanks to a great character-card combination.

cog gaming board game review- Lewis & Clark Board

Setup is very easy and only takes a few minutes, but I will caution that you should set aside additional time during your first play-through to get the hang of the rules since there are so many elements and moving pieces.  I’m really torn on the rulebook, because it’s wonderfully illustrated and goes to great lengths to provide clarifications and further detail on cards; it even contains an appendix that lists exactly what each character card in the game does in case there’s confusion with the card’s iconography, as well as biographical information on every character since they are all based on real people.  However, some of the turn-descriptors are clunky, and the book doesn’t do a good job of offering a good, succinct description of the turn’s aspects before going into each element in more detail.  I found myself having to do a great deal of jumping around in the rulebook for the first half-hour of our initial game to actually get things moving smoothly, and by that point a couple of the people in the group had become disillusioned.  To be fair, the rulebook does recommend playing with only 2 people to start with in order to get the hang of things, and I have no doubt that if you sit down and try to familiarize yourself with the game in this manner first that introducing a larger group to the game will be MUCH easier.

My only real criticism of the gameplay itself has to do with the character cards.  As I mentioned previously, there are some combinations that essentially allow you to ignore resource-diversification, or to take certain actions you otherwise wouldn’t be able to take.  While I think that takes away from some of the game’s strategy in itself, if one player finds themselves with those cards and uses them well there’s really no catching up to them.  For example, being able to use a village space even though it’s already occupied, and then being able to use a basic-resource type to progress through the mountains.  Both abilities are powerful on their own, but together the person who got them was able to blitz through the mountains without needing to worry about horses.  Randomizing game-changing cards always poses the potential for overpowered combinations, but I think it’s more noticeable in this genre in-particular.

As far as other elements, the art for the game is excellent, and the mechanics and theme are solidly integrated.  This is really refreshing for a genre that is dominated by games where the mechanics take precedence and the theme usually doesn’t matter in the end.  The components are also solid, and the box is well-organized if not a bit large(there’s a lot of extra room).  Furthermore, it comes with a number of rules variants to keep things fresh, and extra tiles so you can customize the journey with additional mountains areas for added difficulty/relief.  My game group joked that a Donner party variant might be fun…I’m thinking so too, so we may go ahead and try to come up with that to post here!

COG Takeaway: If you’re a fan of worker-placement and/or resource-management games, then in the words of the wife of one of my game group’s members, this is a “must buy.” For $35, this game is really a steal.

What are you experiences with Lewis & Clark? Are there other games you’d recommend people try if they liked this?

-Ben

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Author: bduerksen30

coggaming.net I have an m.a. in history focusing on naval and maritime history in the Atlantic from the seventeenth-early nineteenth centuries. I've worked as a website consultant, and am currently employed as an analyst. I also run the COG Gaming blog for board game reviews, news, and kickstarter highlights. COG Gaming also offers playesting and editing services for new designers, and we're in the process of developing a few titles of our own. Contact me if you're interested in having your game reviewed, previewed, or in one of our other services!

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