12th Dec2018

‘Discover: Lands Unknown’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

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Whilst Fantasy Flight Games’ Keyforge has been making a big splash with its procedurally generated decks and fast, fliuid gameplay, Richard Garfield’s latest effort is not the only game to use the technology that FFG call their “Unique Game” system. Discover: Lands Unknown boasts a designer who is almost as illustrious as Richard Garfield (and possibly more prolific) in Corey Konieczka, a man credited on powerhouse games like Star Wars: Rebellion, Twilight Imperium IV and DescentDiscover: Lands Unknown is less about Konieczka’s design and more about the Unique Game system that it results in, however. My question is, does that make it better, or worse for the players?

For those who haven’t been paying attention to what FFG has been up to with Keyforge and Discover: Lands Unknown, the Unique Game system is literally what it says it is – where Discover: Lands Unknown is concerned, each box will contain five scenarios set across two different terrain types (chosen randomly from four) with a completely random set of components. Clearly, if your copy includes a desert or island terrain as mine did, then you’ll also receive tokens to match and scenarios that work based on the pieces that have been automatically generated and printed.

This approach results in a mind-boggling range of possibilities – perhaps millions. I don’t actually know to what level the component randomisation occurs, but it certainly includes the different terrains, a large number of different scenarios and a randomised set of characters, as well as a ton of components to support them. The bit I don’t understand is whether or not the modular board is printed different each time, or whether the picking system that FFG use simply chooses matching batches of boards, cards and tokens in different combinations. In any case, it’s impressive stuff from a technical perspective.

As a side note, my copy seemed to include enough components to work with all scenarios, but at least two popular reviewers claimed their copies seemed to be missing certain elements. In my copy, there were large swathes of numbered cards missing, whilst some decks featured up to eight cards that all featured the same number. In any case, my game did work fine through all five scenarios. Whilst I’m delivering one side note, I might as well deliver another – this review shows just the first scenario and frankly, that scenario might be very different in your copy. As such, I don’t believe that I am showing spoilers, but please do be aware that one or two pictures do show story content.

Each game of Discover: Lands Unknown is basically about two things; firstly, it’s about survival from one turn to the next. Secondly (but not by much) it’s about achieving whatever objective is on the current scenario card. In the first scenario, which in my set was clearly intended to be a gentle introduction, I simply needed to explore the map and locate a couple of specific locations before revealing the next card. Unusually, Discover: Lands Unknown is a semi-cooperative game, which means that the players proceed through the first four scenarios sharing in each others achievements. In the fifth scenario however, only one player can win, so it suddenly becomes possible to attack each other – but more on that later. Thankfully, it’s also possible to play solo – using a party of one to four adventurers who will (in that setting at least) cooperate.

As players explore the board (which is laid out upside down based on a scenario map) tiles will be flipped over to reveal resources, animals and even monsters, among other things. The characters will need to keep on top of their stamina, starvation, hydration and sickness levels using one of the superb trackers, each of which features four impressive dials. Damage, which cannot be healed (at least as far as I can see) is tracked separately and if a player suffers enough of it, then they are dead – and eliminated from the game.

Damage will usually happen as the result of either combat, a threat (which might be drawn during the night phase) or because of starvation, dehydration, sickness or some other malady. Which of these is most deadly for you, I suspect, is dependent on a combination of how random your copy of Discover: Lands Unknown is, in tandem with how unlucky you are when placing the map tiles face down. I’ve had water sources grouped together and we never found them until it was too late and I’ve also had setups where food and water was abundant, but enemies became a greater threat. In fairness, I’ve also seen what I imagine would be the ideal mix of both, leading to a well balanced game.

Discover: Lands Unknown unfolds in a fairly simple manner that is explained very clearly in the manual. Each character has an amount of stamina and can take any number of actions, as long as they have the stamina to do so. Actions include moving (one stamina per space), scouting (flipping an unexplored map tile for one stamina), cooking (one stamina) and so on and always begin with the Tribe Leader. Once a character has done everything that they want to, play passes to the next player and so on until everyone has taken a turn. At this point, the Day Phase (which is basically player actions) ends and a night card is drawn. At night, the Tribe Leader draws a night card that will restore some stamina, but it will often introduce a threat that must be dealt with, or a need to spend food or water tokens on feeding oneself. There are a few other things to consider – being beside a lit fire gives benefits, whereas being in the cold wilds has negative effects.

Combat in Discover: Lands Unknown is super simple, but if I’m honest I found it a disappointment, which is why I mentioned that it’s not one of the key things to think about when playing the game, even though (ironically) it does tend to be a mandatory way of closing out scenario five. There are two very random elements to it – the first of which is the actual combat, which is entirely dice driven. In a round of combat the active character will roll a die and if it exceeds the defense value of the animal being attacked, it will land a blow. The animal will then retreat one space. The character might chase them and hit them again, then the animal will retreat. The direction of retreat is randomised based on a second dice rolled at the same time – which can result in a cow, for example, running in a circle being hit repeatedly. At best, a harrowing scene, at worst, stupid. Nearby characters can support each other in combat using cards, but since the game is semi-cooperative, it’s debatable whether or not they would want to.

Discover: Lands Unknown is a weird one. It’s a game that I’ve had chance to play a lot of and in that time I’ve also taken in other reviews, most of which are negative. Whilst I am not overjoyed with it as standalone product, I do love the concept and I want to see it supported – but the Unique Game technology seems to much more well suited to the single deck play of Keyforge, than it does to a board game that has to be tighter and somehow less random – despite (actually) being entirely random. The combat is inexcusably poor and in desperate times, chasing animals with a slim hope of gaining meat is frustrating and thankless – despite the ability to assist each other.

These largely negative points aside, I like the concept of a randomised survival experience (which is what Discover: Lands Unknown basically is) and I love the varied characters and their individual talents. I like the production quality, which is very high (albeit there is a painful amount of stuff to bag up) and I did enjoy two or three of the games I played when things really came together in a good way and Discover: Lands Unknown felt at its most engaging. The theme is never especially strong, but it is pervasive – this is a survival experience for sure and whilst it isn’t linked to a particular fiction, aspects of Lost and similar IP’s run through it at all times. Overall, I am more excited about what Unique Game technology could offer next than I am about what Discover: Lands Unknown offers in itself, but that said, it’s not a bad game, it’s just not as brilliant as the second or third edition of the same game might be.

**½  2.5/5

Discover: Lands Unknown is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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