Two Minds about Discover: Lands Unknown
It’s that time again, when Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen merge as one — mentally merge, don’t be gross — for Two Minds About…, the only series on the web in which two board game critics named Dan and Brock discuss how they felt about a board game. Today’s topic, the computer-assembled Discover: Lands Unknown. It’s the computer-generated future. And it’s a grim one.
Brock: Hear me out: spreadsheets.
Dan: Oh no.
Brock: Wait for it.
If I’m being totally honest, I love those boxy little varmints. I spend most of my work day interacting with them in one way or another, and I’ve come to trust them in my personal life as well. For the mundane task of organizing data in useful rows and columns, I can’t think of a better way.
But do spreadsheets have a place in our gaming? Occasionally I’ll hear a particularly bland game compared to one, but what would happen if a spreadsheet designed a game? With Fantasy Flight’s Discover: Lands Unknown, we’re about to find out. Dan, what’s the hook?
Dan: First of all, I’m not down with the spreadsheet love. Second, the hook… might work? The idea isn’t terrible. I mean, it’s the basic setup for plenty of games. Take a hostile environment — picture a tundra, a forest, a desert, and so forth — mix in a bunch of little struggles and resource woes and dangers, and produce a game that’s basically a grab bag of those settings and struggles and resources, but make each game unique with the power of computers.
The part that loses me is that last bit, where rather than hand-crafting a survival game in the vein of Robinson Crusoe or Greenland, the whole thing will be assembled via procedural generation. When you heard the pitch, did you even think it could work?
Brock: I’d be willing to bet a fair number of our hobby’s favorite games started out in some spreadsheet format. Many of us are nerds and dorks, after all. So the idea isn’t without precedent.
And when I first heard of this concept, I’ll admit I felt a thrill of possibility. A game designed by an artificial intelligence! Truly we are living in the future! I was excited to see how things shook out. I imagined bizarre juxtapositions and acrobatic logic, like those Deep Learning images, only applied liberally to cardboard and plastic.
Dan: So, the thing is, I’m not even particularly opposed to the idea of building a game like this. There are digital games that do it to great effect — I’m thinking about Renowned Explorers, The Curious Expedition, Spelunky, or any number of 4X games with random map generators.
Brock: Right. We know that quality is at least feasible when a game leans on a lot of random construction.
Dan: But in those games, the jankiness of the generation is part of the appeal, right? And sort of true to life, in a sense. Rome being situated in a great trading spot in the middle of the Mediterranean isn’t balanced. That’s where the flavor comes from. Someone’s holding a critical piece of land, or your explorers need to figure out the best route through a swamp despite dwindling supplies. But in trying to make a game, complete with board game balance and board game peccadilloes (I’m looking at you, event cards), I don’t see how this was ever supposed to function. Especially when the base game seems like it would stink even if it had been hand-crafted.
Maybe you should explain the basic structure of this thing?
Brock: Discover: Lands Unknown (hereafter known as “D’LUnk”) is the kind of game that would require a powerhouse publisher like Fantasy Flight behind it. Nearly every piece in this box has been randomly drawn from a list of options, so that every box is completely unique. Though I imagine “technically” unique would be the more accurate language. Things start out with two separate biomes. My box had a lush tropical island and a gloomy swamp, while I imagine Dan’s had, what, a Roman aqueduct and a CVS drive-thru?
Dan: A valley in the mountains and an arid red desert, actually. Which pretty much sets the game in my home state. What a letdown.
Brock: Nothing beyond this is going to surprise or thrill you. Event cards, equipment and bad guys, a stack of character cards, and lots of tokens with things like wood and rocks. The goal, which I can only assume is not randomized in every box, is to survive while exploring your new digs in one of five scenarios. There’s reportedly a mystery to solve, including why you ended up on your deserted island or freeway median strip in the first place, but you’ll be straining your eyes to find any evidence.
What else stuck out to you, Dan?
Dan: I guess the first thing is the half-assedness of it all. In my first scenario, we were stranded in the middle of a valley with no apparent way back to civilization. So we began spreading out, looking for a way home, gathering some food and sticks and whatnot. And we kept running across these tidbits of plot that were so disconnected from both what we were doing and my ability to pay attention. There was something in a tree, but it was just another random item card. A few event cards are just there to make you draw another event card, which is the stupidest form of padding your deck’s size.
Brock: In my own games, there was a vaguely threatening cult. I think. There was some bull-head imagery that popped up in several places, and several boats, both sunken and unsunken. Then, several card-chains deep in the event deck, a portal to another dimension that was guarded by… not a bull-headed monster. In the swamp dimension where we ended up, the cult was linked to some kind of paramilitary group, or possibly they were separate entities. It was like one of those narratives generated by feeding an AI a bunch of stories, except this was actually created by an A.I.
Dan: Well, to some degree. The story bits were man-made, shredded into a thousand pieces, and then stitched together by the algorithm. But that arrangement was the product of computing, certainly. I think I’d like the game a whole lot more if it had that computer-generated weirdness to it, that fragmented social logic.
Instead, it’s almost impressive how little D’LUnk bothers to function as a game. Like, my copy wasn’t cooperative, but there are all these weird cooperative elements, and we were supposed to care enough to assign somebody the first player token while still competing for resources. But we weren’t working against each other all the time, either. Did you get any sense for that, or was that just my copy?
Brock: I had much the same experience. There are intrinsic pieces of the game that seem opposed to its mission. As we both noted, it’s not a cooperative game. If someone’s character dies, they are eliminated, and the other players press on without them. Not itself an uncommon piece of design, but it does seem like the idea of the game is to play all five scenarios with the same players. After all, they do seem to build on previous gameplay concepts and bull cults.
But if that’s the case, then what do you do with the Jeff or Geoff who died of exposure? Is he left out of the rest of the scenarios? And if not, it starts to erode every other design decision. It ceases its function as a game and turns into a bunch of questions. Why is there player death if everyone is back for session two? Why crown a winner or winners at all? In that case, why bother with consequences or actions or anything? It’s a tumbling spiral that could easily end with just reading some event cards and putting the box back on the shelf, and that’s not a good look.
Is there anything we liked about D’LUnk?
Dan: Honestly? Not really. I appreciate it as an experiment, but I certainly don’t appreciate being the victim experimented upon.
But for the sake of objectivity and ethics, I’ll strain myself to come up with something. Straining… flexing… not coming up with anything… Okay, here goes. I like the notion that we can pick up the same game, have completely different experiences, and then swap boxes. That stuff you were saying about a cult didn’t happen to me. At all. My twist was basically the fungal apocalypse from The Last of Us.
The problem is that I can’t bring myself to play the final scenario in my copy, let alone five more from yours. Instead of producing radically different settings around the same core experience — like, say, scenarios in T.I.M.E Stories — every play feels flimsy and weightless. Swapping around flavor text and map colors doesn’t actually transform the game.
How about you?
Brock: See, knowing that you had a fungapocalypse makes me like it a little more. And I do think the art design has some charm, evoking an “Adventures of Tintin” or “Blake and Mortimer” animation vibe.
In the end, though, briefly looking at it is all the further interaction I want to have with it. It has ambition to spare, but lacks any real substance. All of this stuff somehow adds up to much less than the sum of its parts, and it’s a real shame.
Though I suppose I could be convinced to say its name a few more times. D’LUnk.
Dan: I’d much rather utter the name of Fantasy Flight’s other randomly generated game: Hearthstone. No, wait. Lorepiddle. Crumbs, I forgot the name. Anyway, how about we look at that next time instead?
Brock: You’re thinking KeFrgArc, and yes, let’s. It’s just a bunch of cards and silly names, right? What could possibly go wrong?