The Journals of Patrick Gass
I’m no particular fan of any period of American history other than the Roaring Twenties, but even I know the broad strokes of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Ah, to venture into the great unknown-to-white-man! Ah, to journey alongside John Ordway and Patrick Gass! Ah, to name Old Faithful after the latter’s dependable flatulence!
Yes yes, I realize that the Lewis and Clark expedition skirted around Yellowstone by a hair. However! It was later “discovered” by John Colter, a member of the expedition who went on to become the first genuine mountain man. When he saw that there geyser, it reminded him of his old friend Patrick Gass, and thus a legend was born. And there’s no way to disprove that.
Discoveries, also known as Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis & Clark for those endowed with the gift of gab, is set in… well, I suppose the title gives it away. And while it sounds like just about the driest game in the course of human existence, complete with inkwell and a set of goose quills, fret not, for it contains about as much journal-writing as it does American Indian tribes. Which is to say, quite a bit of journal-writing.
Thankfully, the journal-writing in question is as simple as moving some dice around. See, as one of the leaders of the Lewis and Clark expedition, it’s your job to make friendly with the local tribes, explore stretches of river and ranges of mountains, and record your discoveries for the benefit of the westward-bound United States. Most of the time, this boils down to assigning your dice to various tasks, letting you fulfill the requirements on whichever exploration card you’re currently working on. To travel along a river, for instance, you can make use of either horses or foot, though the horses will require fewer dice. Travel over mountains and you’ll need three matching dice of any type. Then, preparations complete, assign some journal dice to wrap it up. Easy peasy.
Or at least it is in theory. While some cards are simple enough to navigate, others — usually the ones worth the most points — require careful planning. Moreover, while it’s easy enough to journey through a single exploration card, your real aim is to plow through two of the suckers at once. Not only does this mean you’ll get to tuck two cards into your journal at the end of the day, your prowess at adventuring is so great that your fellow explorers sit around the campfire in awe, jaws slack, unable to move while you pack your bags and pore over maps with your guide. In practical terms this means you get another turn, which you can use to trim down on your next journey’s preparations.
Yes, wham-bam turns like these tend to take a while to plan. Settle in, Ordway.
Okay, so the goal is simple enough. Achieving it can be a tad more tricky.
For one thing, it’s a good idea to make nice with the locals. Spending time on diplomacy can make friends of the nearby American Indians, each of which brings some sort of special benefit. These range from letting you use your dice in different ways, giving you more efficient methods of traveling along rivers or mountains, or even locking away an extra exploration card to use at your leisure. My personal favorite are the Flathead, who help you take turns in an entirely new way. Normally you can only use one type of dice on a turn, which can get restrictive if you happened to roll a bunch of different faces. With the Flathead, you’re suddenly permitted to use any two dice, regardless of face. Very cool.
In addition to their perk, each tribe also adds an extra die to your pool. Spend enough time parlaying with the natives and soon you’ll have a helpful entourage of guides at your disposal.
This brings us to what is perhaps Discoveries’ best feature. See, as dice are spent, they usually find themselves sent to the main board, split into two camps. Every so often you’ll have to take a turn off to rest and resupply. In most games, this would be a boring wasted turn; in Discoveries, it’s one of the most interesting decisions in the entire game. See, while you could be a dullard and just take back all the dice of your color, after a while each camp gets filled up with dice belonging to pretty much everybody — and you’re free to claim all the dice of either camp.
Suddenly, Discoveries just got about a hundred times more interesting. After the first few rounds, most players will have borrowed dice on their board. This can give you a huge influx of dice at once, many of them appropriated from other players. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly, however, as players can use their off-turn to request all of their dice back — including any residing on your board. What’s more, if someone uses one of your dice to prepare for an expedition, go ahead and ruin their day by requesting it back. Never has the can-do and cooperative spirit of the Lewis and Clark expedition been so deliciously petty.
The result of all this dice-borrowing, native-parlaying, and journal-writing is a dice game that’s far more interesting than its subject matter would first permit. Performing a two-card exploration with a wad of borrowed dice and discovering some extra mammals for a hefty points bonus else can certainly be a thrill. The fact that you probably spent an inordinate amount of time thinking it through and probably had your plans dashed on more than one occasion by another player innocently claiming the exploration card you were eyeing… well, for every instance of innovation, Discoveries is happy to provide a counterpart of frustration. Like a mountain man who hasn’t had a bath in seven months, it sticks around just a little too long. It veers as wildly as John Colter riding a drunken moose between time-consuming analytical quandaries and obvious two-second turns. And speaking of John Colter, especially after his mad dash to escape an incensed tribe, it could probably benefit from a little more meat on its bones.
Still. It’s gorgeous, decently interesting, and lets me make fun of Patrick Gass.