How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?


James T. Kirk, The Wrath of Khan

The Lost Expedition is my own personal Kobiyashi Maru. I die a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like, I haven’t won yet.

The Lost Expedition is a game by Peer Sylvester, published by Osprey Games. It is, hypothetically, a game that scales from one to five and includes a co-op and head-to-head version. In reality, it is a solitaire game where you will lose. If losing makes you angry, just go away now. The review is over.

Okay. You’re still here. Let’s set the context first. The Lost Expedition is inspired by David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z. That in turn was inspired by the explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett was an English explorer who set out in 1925 to look for what he called “Z”, a lost city of gold in the Amazon. He disappeared with no trace. Grann chronicles the many, many ways in which the jungle can kill you. This game replicates that in card format.

Killed me. Ate me (That’s me in the belly).  Killed me.  Would have killed me if he were in the game

To start the game, you set up two lines of cards – the expedition cards and the adventurer cards. There are 9 expedition cards that you must navigate to find the Lost City of Z. YOU MUST NAVIGATE. This is not a push your luck game. This is a get rich or die tryin’ game.

The other line of cards is your three explorers, each with a different expertise – Jungle Knowledge, Navigation, and Camping – that can be used to survive in your own personal hell. One of the great things about The Lost Expedition is its inclusiveness. The 6 different adventurers included represent man, woman, Caucasian, person of color. Kudos to Sylvester for doing this.

Gameplay is divided into two phases – Morning and Evening. In each, you’ be laying down 6 adventure cards from both your hand of six (renewed after each evening) and randomly drawn from the deck. These cards are going to determine how you live or, more likely, how you die. Snake. Insect. Waterfall. Starvation. Jaguar. Native tribe. It doesn’t matter. They’ll all get you eventually.

But each card has three elements. A title such as Abandoned Camp that tells its story, alongside the art. A number that in the morning will determine where it sits in the adventure card line. And a set of symbols that determine your fate. Each symbols ether represents a resource that you gain or lose (health, food, ammo, expertise in jungle knowledge/navigation/camping) or an action (skip the next adventure card, remove or add an adventure card, move to the next expedition card, or die). If you lose a resource and don’t have that resource to spend. That’s bad. You lose health or you lose an explorer.

Most cards give you choices on what to gain or lose. Or take a positive action (like advance the expedition) but take a huge loss. There is complete randomness in how the cards come out – and that is infuriating, but gives it great replayability. But the decision I make for each card is what makes me squirm.

Let give this example. Perhaps in the morning I run into an encounter. My choices are add another random card to the end of the adventure line that I’ll need to navigate but gain a food. Or lose some jungle knowledge but skip to the end of the adventure cards – which means skipping that nasty snake attack – but I’ll need to spend an expertise point from my camping expert. Here’s the thing. I know in the evening, one of the remaining adventure cards in my hand is going to require a camping expertise point. If I spend it now, will the explorer get hurt later?????

I’m going to die again????

I mentioned morning and evening. In the morning, there are three cards you choose and three random cards. All are lain in numerical order. Your only choice is what to play now and what to save for the evening. In the evening, you have somewhat more control. You no longer have choices – you have to play all three remaining cards in your hand in addition to three random cards – but you get to choose in what order they’re laid out. You can choose a beneficial card that will get you ammo before you face that evil predator.

There are many ways to die – running out of health, running out of adventure cards, running out of food. There is only one way to win. I need to find 8 symbols on the cards that advance the expedition. Eight cards. I never got past 6 before all my explorers died.

Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

There have been complaints about the randomness. But imagine the experienced randomness of an early 20th century geographer trekking the unexplored regions of the Amazon. Don’t complain – embrace the heartbreaking chaos. The mechanics of the micro choices within a specific card playing out again the continued randomness of the card draw brings you to the forlornness that must have crept into Fawcett as he realized that he would, indeed, die.

The artwork on the cards is incredible. It tells the story of each card without any extraneous flavor text. We should be so lucky in other games. The cards themselves are oversized and sturdy. Osprey overperformed on The Lost Expedition.

The one nit is the obtuseness of the color-driven symbology. Does this mean it’s a required action or a choice? Does this color mean I lose food or gain it? It’s not a huge learning curve but it exists. Look, it’s a simple game with simple mechanics but complex decisions in a random space. I can live with a player aid card.

I won’t go into detail – because I haven’t played them – but Sylvester included both a co-op and competitive version. The co-op looks to increase the randomness even more but in exchange gives you the option of decreasing the difficulty by placing less expedition cards at the start.

Regardless of what they do, this is a difficult game to win. And that’s okay. Challenge is good.

And maybe you can be the one to find the Lost City of Z.