Discover – Lands Unknown: A four-sided game review

Discover: Lands Unknown* is a light, story-driven exploration game for 1-4 players. Each box contains five scenarios lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on both the scenario and luck (so you can’t pick one to suit your time constraints).

The recommended age of 12+ feels high, due to the game’s co-operative nature. As long as an adult is in charge it will easily play as young as 8-10 for your average gamer child.

The reason this information is is a bit woolly is because every single copy of the game is unique. Yup, you read that right – every copy has a unique mix of modular board pieces and scenario/event/character cards. So I should point out at this point that this review will include…

Below you’ll see images of my copy, as well as hearing vaguely about certain elements of the game that I feel need discussing. You have been warned – but I don’t think there’s much here in the way of spoilers that would, well, spoil the game for most.

You’ll get a selection of components: 34 modular map pieces making up two boards (you’ll have two of the six available landscape types, and each scenario plays out on one of the two boards); 12 of the game’s 36 character cards, plus four plastic character figures and cardboard character boards/trackers; 200+ more cards; 200+ cardboard chits, and two twelve-sided dice. These are mostly good quality (except the crappy plastic pawns). At around £40, it seems reasonably priced for what you get in the box.

The theme is variously Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Lost, every teen movie of the last decade etc etc, depending on the terrain types and scenarios you get. but one thing is for sure: you and your fellow players will be waking up somewhere unpleasant, with no idea of how you got there – or how to escape.

Teaching Discover: Lands Unknown

This will be an easy teach for anyone who has played any of Fantasy Flight’s small-card story-driven board games (Arkham, Eldritch, Fallout etc), as this is one of those but with stabilisers.

After reading some brief flavour text (one piece for the terrain type and another for the scenario), characters start on the one face-up hex tile of the map and each gets a turn at moving (during the day) before bad things potentially happen at night. Everything you want to do costs a stamina point (move, search, collect a resource, craft an item, trade etc), or more for harder actions (rougher terrain, or completing some story elements) – essentially an action point allowance game.

Tiles are flipped over and revealed as the players explore, at which point they’re populated with face-down cardboard chits. These usually just flip (once scavenged) to reveal a basic resource, although some will reveal a number (as do some locations printed directly into the tiles). Then you go to a card deck and read a short piece of flavour text, and/or receive a special item. Others reveal creatures which often give up a food or pelt if defeated, but can equally wound you in the process.

While the game proffers a lot of variety, in truth it has very few systems with which to fulfil this promise. Resources gathered are generic (‘food’, ‘stone’ etc), while crafted items simply add base game bonuses (fight re-rolls, extra stamina etc). Items found in locations tend to let you read a different card in particular story situations, moving the main story line along a little further each time.

Then at night, another type of card is flipped to see what perils await. You always either consume and/or lose some kind of resource, often move/spawn monsters, and sometimes have to each individually flip yet another type of (bad news) event card. On the plus side, anyone surviving will get at least six stamina to use the next day. You tend to be a little better off if you sleep at a fire, and these are scarce, which is a nice touch. Each terrain type also offers its own slight variation on the rules: on one of ours, for example, staying on roads could be more dangerous in terms of encounters.Your character board/tracker is the most ingenious thing in the game. It has four dials (this is a FF game after all): three to record damage and one showing your stamina. The damage dials each have a heart, water, food, poison and skull symbol. You start with three hearts, but whenever you need to eat or drink and don’t have food or water, or get poisoned or damaged by a creature, you turn one of your dials to the matching symbol. If you ever need to move a dial but all three have already moved away from being a heart, that’s it – you’re dead.

If you later find food, water or medicine you can cure one of that type of damage – but skulls are permanent damage that can’t be cured. As well as creatures doing this permanent damage, the game will occasionally throw you an event that turns one of your other damages into a skull, further hastening your demise. It’s a simple, clever system that does a really good job or raising your dread levels and keeps you constantly on the lookout for more resources (you can normally carry 10 items, but that limit rarely becomes an issue!).

Each scenario card will have a condition that needs to be met before moving to the next card – and each scenario will have (in our game at least) two to four cards per scenario. Players that die lose, players that meet the win condition of the final scenario card win – so one, some or all players can be triumphant in any given scenario. It’s a semi co-operative game, which gives you some freedom – but (in our experience) even then sometimes the scenario cards will force your hand. And yes, early player elimination (a game mechanism much-hated by many modern players) is a real possibility.

Once you have played through the first four scenarios, the fifth goes from being semi co-operative to a fully cutthroat, last-man-standing death match using most of the same rules as above (adding player-versus-player combat, while removing most story elements). This is intended to be the scenario you then repeat for any further plays you wish to have with that particular copy of the game.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Even accepting this as ‘Ameritrash’, surely there’s only a certain amount of luck any player can stomach? And I’m afraid you’ve lost me when the placement of a single tile, or the flip of one card, can add or take away literally 1-2 hours of game time – or eliminate a player with a few hours of play left to go. The game is deliberately brutal, which sets the right mood, but the level of randomness takes away any chance of genuine mitigation: nothing is certain, so you can’t even consider playing conservatively. It quickly becomes a crap-shoot, which doesn’t add up with the game’s play time.
  • The role-player: I was really looking forward to Discover, having enjoyed the storytelling aspect of many Fantasy Flight games. But unfortunately what we got was thin and cliched, with no replay value: there are only five scenarios and these have the same 10 ‘night’ cards, which you soon learn (you’ll probably go through them all at least once on every scenario). Where games such as Eldritch and Fallout sometimes offer story choices (like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game) on the cards, you don’t even get that level of interaction here: at best, you get to read another card without making any choices. It’s such as a shame, as I’d hoped for a step forward from the flawed but thematic Fallout – not a big step backwards.
  • The trasher: Don’t be fooled – this isn’t a semi co-op in the way you might hope. There’s no motivation to go it solo beyond being a dick, as your character or other game mechanisms don’t give you a thematic reason to be. Worse, sometimes the game makes you be selfish by you accidentally finishing a scenario and leaving the other players in the lurch. You don’t choose to do this – it just happens. That is unsatisfying for everyone! As for the PVP in scenario five, it’s OK but doesn’t change the dynamic: search, hope luck is on your side, then fight players using the same basic and heavily luck dependent system in other scenarios. Sadly, it makes for an unsatisfying finale – and it really was our finale with the game.
  • The dabbler: I found Discover: Lands Unknown very easy to learn and play, but it can be hard to stay alive! The game feels as if it forces you to move and gather quickly, which makes it tense but on the down side you can’t relax and do your own thing much – rather than being about survival, it feels like a race to the end because survival here is impossible. I liked the simplicity of the actions and the way the items and damage worked (crafting, making food etc) felt thematic – it’s just a shame the story was a little under-cooked! And unfortunately, while the story changed a bit each scenario, it didn’t feel different – no matter the wording, you just had to rush around and explore as quickly as possible.

Key observations

Fantasy Flight released two games this year with the ‘unique’ tag. The fact Discover is currently averaging a 6 on Board Game Geek, while KeyForge is rating 8, tells the story: this is not the right kind of game for this interesting production idea, due to the current level of technology available (both in terms of production and computation).

KeyForge is a card game, with a low cost entry level and a target audience already primed for buying multiple decks of cards. The adventure game audience is looking for a great story-telling experience out of the box – and unfortunately they’re not getting that here. And this means that, even if you buy multiple copies, you won’t get it either because – whatever the combination you get – the story will be thin at best.

So many things don’t add up. One of the worst is the hugely variable game length of 30-180 minutes, which would be OK if you knew what to expect going in each time – something you get in a normal adventure game. And having several co-operative scenarios leading up to a PVP experience? I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea, but it couldn’t have fallen flatter with my group – and from what I’ve read elsewhere, the majority of other groups who’ve worked through the entire campaign.

But the biggest problem is that the game experience is only going to be slightly different for each group, making the ‘unique’ tag feel a lot like snake oil. Players looking for a light, harsh adventure game experience may well find it here – but it will not be because of the game’s unique nature – and it’s hard to see a scenario in which making this simply a good standard game with a better, more coherent story wouldn’t have been a much better idea to pursue.

Conclusion

For great advancements to take place in any field, someone has to take the first tentative steps – and I applaud Fantasy Flight for having the vision to do so with unique board and card game experiences. But with first steps come falls, and while KeyForge seems to be generally succeeding Discover is having a much harder time.

But despite a pretty universal nose-thumbing from the gaming media, Discover – Lands Unknown is actually finding a decent number of fans. Analysis of its BGG ratings to date see 120 people rating it a 7 (its most common ranking), with 195 going higher than that and 305 going lower. Those aren’t great numbers, but far from damning.

I think it shows that a lot of people were wanting to try this game, due to its unique nature – but that a lot of those early adopters came away disappointing. Me and my group definitely fall into that camp – but at the same time, we all want to play KeyForge and are all looking forward to the possibilities this ‘unique game’ concept can offer in the future. So for me, Discover was a miss – but if you like light adventuring games which are high on pressure and luck but pretty low on plot, this may be the game for you.

* Thanks to Fantasy Flight Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of Discover: Lands Unknown for review.

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