Full disclosure: A review copy of Explorers was provided by Ravensburger.
I think this is one of the last reviews I’m going to get finished before my big trip! So that’s fun. Just need to make sure all my ducks are relatively in a row before I head to PAX Unplugged! Unfortunately, that means I need to be like, three weeks ahead, so it’s hustle season over at What’s Eric Playing?. So that’s fun. This week, we’ve got a soon-to-be released (as of writing) game from Ravensburger, so I’m … covering that. Let’s check out Explorers!
In Explorers, you’ve just come across a wide new landscape that you’ve never seen before, and you want to see what’s going on! Survey mountains, deserts, prairies, and water as you discover lost scrolls and ancient temples and complete achievements to make a name for yourself. The paths you chart might lead to riches, or … they might just lead to nothing. That’s exploring, sometimes. What will you find off the beaten path?
You get to decide which side of the board you want to play on:
Everyone needs to use the same side. Then, add in the Provisions tiles and the Gemstone Tiles:
And then add in the Village tile as well:
Then, you need to set up the Terrain Tiles:
Shuffle one stack of tiles with the 1 – 8 on the Villages, rotate them a few times, and choose four (or just pick what you want) and set them into your player board. The other players must match your numbers, placement, and rotation so that everyone has the same board. It helps if you use the numbers on the Village tiles to help with orientations.
If you would like, you can flip 1 – 3 additional unused tiles to become Achievements for the game:
Now, each player marks the closest Village to the center with an X. I usually just count the diagonal distance, but you’ll figure it out. If there’s a tie, the Start Player chooses the closest Village to the center. After doing that, each player chooses one of the four Terrain types (water / prairie / mountain / desert) and adds 3 Xs. Each X must be placed on the same Terrain type and each X must be placed adjacent to the starting Village or another X. Once you’ve done that, cross off Temple values based on your player count:
- 2 players: Cross off the 10 and 6 (second from the top and the bottom) on all four temple locations.
- 3 players: Cross off the 10 (second from the top) on all four temple locations.
- 4 players: Don’t cross off any.
If you’re using the other side of the board, you’ll do the same thing, just for the 8 + XX and 8. After that, you should be ready to start! Shuffle the scrolls:
Give each player a marker and you’re good to go!
In Explorers, players venture into an unknown landscape and look for keys to mysterious temples across a variety of terrains. Find provisions, horses, and all sorts of other exciting surprises as you try to earn as many points as you can! It is a Phil Walker-Harding game, to be fair.
So over the course of four rounds, players will explore! Each round consists of 7 turns. First, the first player discards the top scroll of the stack, so there are only 7 scrolls remaining. A turn consists of two phases. Let’s go through each!
Choose Terrain Type
To start, the current Active Player flips the top scroll of the pile face-up. They choose one side of the scroll and face it towards them; that side is the Active Terrain.
Note that there are four Terrain types, but two scrolls have “split” types, where the top and bottom of the scroll have a pair of Terrain type. That’s fine too.
After the Active Player has chosen a Terrain type, everyone places Xs on their player boards! The Active player places three Xs on the Active Terrain, and the other players get two options:
- Place 2 Xs on the Active Terrain.
- Place 3 Xs on the other Terrain type.
In a three-player game, there isn’t an Active Player for rounds 4 and 7. Everyone chooses their preferred Terrain Type.
When placing Xs, you do need to follow the rules:
- You must always place an X orthogonally adjacent to another X, keeping in mind that you cannot place Xs on Villages.
- You do not have to place every X in a connected group or on the same group of Terrain, but you must normally place on the same type of Terrain in one turn. One exception: for the split Terrain types, you can place on both types in the same turn!
When you place an X on an object, you gain its effect. Various provisions (apples / carrots / fish) can earn you points each round, gemstones do the same, keys unlock temples that can score points, and scrolls let you essentially ignore the Terrain type for the round and place 4 Xs instead.
After every player has placed their Xs, the turn ends.
End of Turn
At the end of the turn, players first check to see if any player checked off a temple. Any players who checked off a temple circle the topmost remaining space on that temple track and then every other player crosses it off. Same goes for any Achievements, if you’re playing with those.
The player to the left of the Active Player becomes the next Active Player.
End of Round
The round usually ends without much fanfare, as players run out of scrolls. Once that happens, players total their Provisions points and their Gemstones points. Shuffle all eight scrolls together and the First Player passes the First Player token to the right. Start a new round! If this is the end of the fourth, round, though, the game ends.
End of Game
After the fourth round, the game is over! Total your Provisions, Village, and Gemstone totals. Then, add your Temple and your Achievement points (if you’re playing with those). The player with the most total points wins!
Player Count Differences
There aren’t a ton! Players don’t really interact with each other; they just primarily interact with the Active Player, since the Active Player chooses which terrain is the Active Terrain. There’s some racing elements, but they’re not too interactive (or too bad). You can kind of see when a player is getting close to scoring, granted, but you can’t really do anything about that beyond beating them to it. Since all the turns are simultaneous, the game time isn’t even really extended all that much (unless you have a player who’s very indecisive, but then again, there aren’t all that many places you can go). I like that! It means you get a lot of interesting and complex options since everyone is doing some similar things and some different things. But, as a cool bonus, it also means that you don’t see a ton of difference between player counts. To some degree, more players means more competition for the racing elements, but there are also more opportunities for players to score for the various racing elements, so I think it mostly evens out. I don’t really have a preference for a player count for Explorers; I’m happy to try it at two, three, or four.
- Thinking about Provisions can be helpful, no matter which side you’re using. You not only need to get Provisions, but you need to plan to get Provisions over the course of the game. If you’re playing on the alternate side, you need to build a network to all four tiles quickly that you can exploit to get all the Provisions of one kind. On the standard side, you still need to get one of each type, so this may keep you to one tile or it may have you making quick networks to other tiles to grab a nearby Provision. They’re pretty big points if you can get them all, though, so it’s usually worth it!
- Making a big push on Gemstones early can pay dividends. On the standard side, early Gemstones are essentially worth 4 points (since you score your Gemstones every round). On the alternate side, getting more Gemstones at least stops the point hemorrhage that the game has you in when it first starts. Either way, more Gemstones are definitely good, so getting more when you can will be helpful.
- Looking at what Temples haven’t been initially claimed can also guide you on what direction you want to go. Hitting a Temple first gives you the largest bonus (on either side), so it’s usually worth heading towards one that players haven’t seen yet, if you have the option.
- Fundamentally, I find it helpful to place Xs near a variety of different terrains so that I have a lot of options even if I don’t get the tile type that I’d like. I think of these as essentially waypoints or something; I’m not necessarily going down that Terrain type just yet, but I’m giving myself the opportunity to do so. This helps me justify going down corridors that don’t necessarily give me Gemstones or Keys or Scrolls or something, since I may be able to quickly branch off towards more useful things. Plus, more flexibility helps make sure that you can’t have bad luck; if you have progress that you can make in every Terrain type, every turn is a useful turn.
- There’s a lot of dead, empty space; try not to waste your entire move moving through them. This can happen if you haven’t made progress connecting a bunch of Terrain types; you may be stuck on one tile because you don’t have any open water to move into or you don’t have useful water to move through, for instance. This is why branching out a bit early can be helpful; you have a lot of options and you can pick the most useful ones.
- Similarly, be thoughtful on how to use your horses. Especially be mindful that they actually interrupt your placement of Xs, meaning that you can drop an X on a horse, use the horse’s ability to place an X on a different Terrain type, and then place your remaining two Xs on the same Terrain type as your first X, but in a new area that the horse’s X just connected. It’s a great way to skip over narrow strips of unhelpful Terrain, and I imagine you can find even more useful options for the horses after you’ve played a few games.
- Align your plans with the achievements in play, if you’re using them. This is just generally a good idea for most games. If there are things that give you points, make sure you’re paying attention to them and leveraging them. They might give you ways to turn a “useless” turn into an at-least-partially-helpful one.
- I don’t generally think it’s worth trying to choose your Terrain type based on denying your opponents what you need. It’s almost always worth just picking what you need the most. Even in a two-player game, they can still get a slightly-less-helpful version of your chosen Terrain type, no matter what you choose, so just always picking what’s best for you might be a good enough strategy to work, depending on how well you plan ahead.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Letting players choose their starting configurations is a solid way to ensure that not every player is going to move in the same way. It’s possible, just unlikely, I suppose. It gives players essentially a random seed of some kind as to how they’re going to go through the game, and that’s good, given the setups are locked in the same configuration. Some players might choose similar setups, but then the first turn choice usually breaks up that similarity and helps players forge their own path.
- It’s got a lot of the same map-type energy as Cartographers, but it’s less generative and more exploratory, which I enjoy as a contrast. I think the game is a bit easier than Cartographers to pick up, all things being equal, but I enjoy the strategic elements of Cartographers (and the drawing elements) a bit more. I like both of these games quite a bit, but this is the first comparison my brain is drawn towards, since you have very similar map-looking boards in play.
- I just really like that you can still choose the same Terrain type as the active player; players who do just get fewer Xs to use. I think it does a smart thing where no option is completely blocked; it might just be disadvantaged for a round. Plus, a player with scrolls can override the Active Terrain restriction and place an additional X, so it keeps players in the swing of things even if the flips aren’t necessarily going their way. I haven’t noticed a game where I was particularly boxed out from doing what I wanted, so it seems like the system is working as intended (and pretty well!).
- Relatively easy to teach. I think the core loop isn’t too complicated, which helps a lot along that pathway. I’m not quite sure it’s “teach my Dad without him getting disengaged”-level, but that’s a tough band for a game to meet. I’ve mostly been sticking with trick-taking games, but I might try to get him to try Hanamikoji over the holidays. We’ll see. Stay tuned. But I think this game ends up working great for a casual audience. I don’t think your first game will be 20 minutes, but I’m pretty sure you can get there quickly.
- I really like the various advanced variants / options / achievements. I think Phil Walker-Harding does a great job as a designer, especially given his focal point that there should be a lot of useful (but distinct) paths to winning. Explorers has this in spades, which I appreciate, and then there are just a ton of different configuration options, each informing the game a bit differently. I’d love to try more of them (and expect to, since I’m bringing this to PAX Unplugged with me).
- There are some solidly tough decisions in this game and I think that’s awesome. I really like having to decide where I want to go on my turn. I could focus on Provisions or Gemstones, but the Temple beckons, and I can get a ton of points from smartly placing Xs near Villages, and I’m not always sure what the best option is. The tension there is satisfying, and I think that makes the game so engaging.
- The wild card options are really cool! I like how that shakes up gameplay. I think letting players cross more than one terrain type very sparingly is smart, since that can help bail out stuck players pretty quickly or be entirely useless, depending on when it shows up. It has the potential to be huge, in the right contexts, and I appreciate that.
- I see a lot of racing elements in the game, but they’re a bit more engaging than in other roll-and-write-adjacent games I’ve played. I think the racing elements feel somewhat less punitive? This might be because the major racing element is the temples, and you can get a good sense of when someone’s temple-ready just by checking to see who has keys on them. If nobody does, then they’re probably not going super hard on temples. Just be careful for the folks who drop a key and a temple in the same turn! Dangerous business. I wouldn’t say these racing elements are particularly distinct, but the two-step process helps me feel more engaged in them. For the achievements, well, it’s anyone’s game there.
- I think putting an X on the first Village makes players think that they can put Xs on other Village spaces, which can be confusing. The rulebook explicitly forbids putting Xs on other Village spaces (and how would you? It doesn’t match any Terrain type.), but I got confused nonetheless in my first game, so I imagine other folks can, too.
- I’m surprised the markers don’t come with erasers. Probably just adds cost to the game, but it definitely took me a while to erase all the tile that I used for my photography play with just a paper towel and a dream. I get that the erasers eventually just spread it around on the tiles, but I do appreciate having them on the tiles in the first place.
- Oh, you need to make super sure that your starting setups are the same. The tiles look a little similar, and if you mess that up, you’ve messed the entire game up. As you might guess from a lukewarm Con, I don’t have that many problems with the game, but generally speaking, the sides of things look the same, the various tiles look the same, and the orientations kind of look the same, as well. It makes the game look more cohesive in all of its variable setups, but it also runs the risk of players just straight-up confusing one tile for a completely different tile, and if you don’t notice that fast you’re going to have a very messy game. Just something worth keeping an eye out for!
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Explorers is great! I’ve just had a bunch of fun with it, and I think it’s a lovely introduction to more of the flip-and-write space. Phil Walker-Harding has just been having a good year, I suppose, because while it’s a bit more complicated than Summer Camp, I think Explorers is a very nice game for the casual space. There are a lot of things to prioritize, for sure, but there are a lot of different things you can do to win and ways you can go about it. That really works, here. Players’ paths and priorities are what makes the game interesting, and the game is further enhanced by bright colors and some fun art. The box art, at least; the game icons are a bit on the smaller side, and while that’s fine, it’s not really a major selling point, for me. There’s some debate (fairly) about the idea of replayability versus variability, and while I think Explorers has the variability in its setup and achievements and expert modes, I think Explorers’s simple mechanics help push it over the line to replayable! I don’t find myself just trying to get through the various configurations and achievements for completion’s sake; I just genuinely find it simple and fun, and I want to show the game to more people. I think Phil Walker-Harding’s designs generally can push over that line, though. If you’re looking for a solid starter game in the flip-and-write genre that’s not just math or you want to explore a simple yet dynamic landscape, I’d recommend trying out Explorers! I’ve very much enjoyed it.
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