Journey to the Center of the Earth board game: A four-sided review

Box cover for Journey to the Center of the Earth

The Journey to the Center of the Earth board game is a ‘flip-and-write’ listed for 1-50 players. As each player takes a sheet from a pad and uses a shared set of information to play, high numbers are indeed possible. But I’ve only played it with 1-4 players (it works well with those).

The game takes 20-30 minutes to play, regardless of player count. And while the box says ages 10+, gamer children of eight should be fine.

At time of writing, Board Game Prices only lists a completely different game on its site. It’s easy to tell, as the covers are very different. The game reviewed here is available directly from the publisher, Looping Games. It is listed at €21, which is a good price for what you get: 100 double-sided sheets; 37 cards and a second rules sheet for solo play (but no pens/pencils).

The theme is stretched pretty thin, but does a good job of setting the scene – and the artwork on the cards and sheets also helps. This is very much an abstract game. But in fairness, your goal is to get to the centre of the earth (read: sheet) and back out again in one piece. So it certainly brings the theme along on the journey.

Teaching the Journey to the Center of the Earth board game

Each player has two sheets: one showing a map and the other a variety of scoring boxes to mark off in rows and/or columns. Two small decks of cards (exploration and tunnel) are shuffled separately; the three volcano cards are shuffled and placed face down, and the three character cards are placed face up. With that (and a pen/pencil) you’re ready to go.

There are four start spaces on the N,S,E and W sides of the map. As long as you’re playing with 1-4 people, each player marks a different one of these as their start point. Three symbols are marked in the other start spaces, representing possible escape points. The map’s central point is the centre of the earth, which you need to plot an (orthogonal) route to – and then out from an available exit. Spaces directly adjacent to entrances/exits are in grey, meaning only lines can go into them (more of which later). Otherwise, it’s a blank canvas.

A card is flipped over from both the exploration and tunnel decks each turn. One will show the row or column in which you can mark off a space; and the other what you can put in it. In most cases, this will be either an item or a tunnel. Tunnels are either a straight line or an ‘L’ shape (you choose the orientation). Items act as a handy crossroads. While connecting to them with tunnels will give water (see blow) or scoring bonuses. In this way, each round, you slowly create a map – but one where the points slowly piece themselves together (as in a game such as Railroad Ink).

Getting in – and getting back…

The two decks of cards in the Journey to the Center of the Earth board game also act as timers. When the tunnel deck runs out, each player must drink water – or perish. You start with two, and can connect to more as the game goes on. If all but one player runs out of water, they’re the winner. And as such it is possible for all players to lose on the same turn (although I haven’t seen this happen).

When the exploration deck is empty, you flip over a volcano card. All players then check the symbol on that card and block off that exit on their sheet. If you go through this deck a third time, closing the last exit, yup – you all lose. But again, I haven’t seen this happen. With both decks, if players are still alive, you simply shuffle them and go again. And if it is the tunnel deck, you also make the character cards available once more (see below).

The earlier you connect from your start space to the centre of the earth, the more bonus points you’ll get. And the game ends at the end of the round where a player also manages to escape. Players then add up their points for reaching the centre and escaping, as well as for items and water collected – losing points for any characters they’ve used. And most points wins; meaning, if you collected lots of bonuses, you could win despite not escaping – as long as you managed to stay alive.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The bonus characters allow you to manipulate the card draw each round, allowing you to slightly break the rules in exchange for a points penalty. But each character is tied to a tunnel card and will not be available (until the deck is reshuffled) once its partner card is drawn. This can create a fantastic tension, as if you leave yourself in the hands of these cards you’re taking an extra risk. But they can be absolutely crucial. These little things really make the game shine and hint at the amount of thought and testing that went into it.
  • The thinker: I find myself torn with the Journey to the Center of the Earth board game. There is a lot of luck and one player can be totally screwed over – especially if the other players get to scribble out lots of spaces near to their entrance space. But at the same time, it is a compelling puzzle that always feels a bit different and that doesn’t overstay its welcome. So while it is not really a ‘me’ game, I’ve enjoyed it every time. And there’s definitely more to it, skill wise, than your first play may lead you to believe.
  • The trasher: Two of the 12 tunnel cards see you passing your sheet to a neighbour, allowing them to scribble out a space on your sheet. This is absolutely hilarious and a needed element, as it adds an extra level uncertainly. And the fact everyone has to do it means players who aren’t so keen on ‘take that’ elements don’t feel as bad. It’s the rules, not a choice. It really elevates the game for me, but I’m still not mad keen. As while this interaction creates some great moments, otherwise it is a little too ‘heads-down’ for my liking. That said, the giggles mean I’m always happy to play it if suggested.
  • The dabbler: I like this one a lot! I struggled on my first couple of plays, as it really is very tricky to see how the hell you’re going to make everything join up. But I stuck with it because of the great atmosphere and tension that built up around the table as we started to panic and run out of exits, water etc. And once you get the hang of it this is a surprisingly easy game to play – but a bugger to master (or get lucky at lol). While the artwork doesn’t blow me away the map looks lovely and the card art does fit the Victorian novel theme.

Key observations

A few people have very negatively compared the Journey to the Center of the Earth board game to Cartographers. As someone who has enjoyed both games, I find this a daft comparison as the games are so different. If I’d gone into this thinking it was going to be like Cartographers I might have been disappointed. But why I would I think that? They’re such different games that a comparison seems nonsensical. That is a light, measured set collection experience. This is a daft, tense adventure. Chalk and cheese. In reviewing, few things annoy me more than this type of lazy comparison.

While I understand claiming this game is for 1-50 players, it really isn’t (for me). I like it with 2-4, as each player then has their own start spot. But up to eight is OK, as you still only have two players per entrance. Also, with too many players the shared experience will probably get a little lost. But that is personal taste. Mechanically, it does support a higher number of players – as long as you laminate a bunch of the sheets as soon as you buy the game.

There are solo rules in the box. These basically add a way to mark off spaces that would’ve been marked off by your opponent when you swap sheets. While this technically works, it takes away one of the things that really makes the game sing for me. However, if you’re keen on solo games it works just fine – you just try for a high score, with little extra faff added to the mechanics.

Conclusion: Journey to the Center of the Earth board game

I think Journey to the Center of the Earth is an excellent game. Every game I’ve played has caused oohs and aahs, laughter, swearing and more. I’m not sure what more you want from a 30-minute filler game. Can it be swingy? Sure. Can you sometimes lose and feel you could do little about it? Perhaps. But it is always a good laugh. And as with all the better light games, better players somehow seem to get better ‘luck’ than those who don’t do so well. It’s a definite keeper and one of my favourite Essen 2021 releases so far.

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