Published by Gold Sieber
Designed by Klaus Teuber
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
About 60 mins
If there was one game announced at Nuremburg that had everyone itching to play, it was this one. Klaus Teuber has enjoyed a phenomenal string of successes in recent years, so the gamers, and the pundits, were waiting for yet another winner. Sadly, Entdecker isn't going to fit the bill. And rest assured this is not another Siggins vs Siedler situation, it's just that the game doesn't have much going for it. It is I believe designed purely as a family game: entertaining, fun, and marginally involving, but luck oriented, low on skill and never managing to shift out of second gear.
Entdecker is a game about exploration, and the game promises much in this respect. The board depicts a large area of the Pacific, gridded with squares. The players represent explorers trying to map the entire area, and to be first to discover new islands. Exploration is depicted by drawing and placing square tiles on the map. These might show open sea, or coastlines of islands varying in size and shape. All of the tiles have exploration routes marked on them, but sometimes these are one way - into a dead end. Other tiles are marked with question marks which as well as the usual geography, generate a random event. The player's task is to follow the exploration routes and find as much land as he can. When land is discovered, you can place units (scouts, forts, settlements) on the island in the hope that when the island is fully discovered you will hold the majority of units and score victory points - the bigger the island, and the 'finds' (potatoes, breadfruits etc) - the more points. As players explore, the map gradually fills and each island is resolved in turn. Victory points tick up around the side of the board, and when the map is full, the winner is determined. In our experience, all this takes an hour or less.
In more detail, players are given gold to start and everyone gets the same income top up each turn. Tiles cost gold to buy, and you can choose how many you explore in a turn - money permitting. Units cost money as well, and have the added benefit of requiring a payment if another player starts his turn from a tile you occupy. Exploration is simply a matter of taking a tile, seeing if it is legally playable (ie matching land to land, sea to sea on all sides) and then moving the ship onto it before drawing again. Your turn ends when there are no more exploration routes, you choose to buy and place a unit or you have used all the tiles you bought. You can choose any part of the map to start your turn, as long as there are unexplored areas and routes to them. In play, the players move in from the edges of the map, usually taking great leaps into the void initially. As each explorer places tiles, the sea and islands start to take shape, constricting movement and options, but providing 'forward' jump off points for later expeditions. Some islands will be tiny, but useful for the odd point, while others show signs of covering the whole map - at first it feels like you have found Australia, but with experience you find that they will invariably turn out to be many smaller ones instead. Throughout the game, you are looking to place your important, but scarce and expensive, units and make sure you are the player who completes the island so you can claim the 'find'.
I think I'd be right in saying that this isn't a bad sounding game. It has all the right ingredients for a tactical challenge, has a good theme and the mechanisms work well. Where it goes awry is having next to no interaction, a rudimentary skill element and, worst, a large dollop of luck. This latter manifests itself in both the drawn tiles, the 'finds' and the island formations. If you start the turn needing to move in from the edge of the map, or explore around an existing island, and happily lay out four gold pieces for four tiles, there is a more than average chance that you'll get a tile that either ends your turn, or takes you in the opposite direction from that desired. To an extent, you go with the flow, and everyone fills the map up pretty randomly. It doesn't feel like this, but that is what happens. Even buying just one tile doesn't help as the luck element is still there, and you just move slower. The random events are equally basic. If you take one, and eventually you'll have to, there is a 50% chance of a good event, and 50% bad. Admittedly you can usually take these as the last action in a turn, minimising the bad ones, but even so one player in our game found three treasure chests full of gold, and all I got was storms and revolting natives. Finally, because there is precious little skill or logic to island formation, as we've seen, the islands just seem to form in their own sweet way. You can sit there and decide whether to put a fort on, in the vain hope you'll be on the right land mass, but you may as well flip a coin.
All this would be fine if the net result gave you any interesting decisions to make to cosmetically temper the luck. It doesn't. Unless you are intellectually challenged, it is 99% obvious where to explore next, and deciding how many tiles to buy, or whether to build a settlement, is predictable stuff. About the only aspects that will give you any cause for thought are preserving money - which is scarce to say the least - and trying to work out whether an island will be a huge one, with mucho victory points, or a desert island worth but two. All this might be excusable if the game had any sense of real exploring, but again it doesn't. The sole atmospheric element is the gradual uncovering of the islands, with the formations of land, straits and lagoons providing a mild aesthetic diversion. But not for long. Again though, as I believe the game is targeted at the family audience, we need to make allowances here and not criticise the game, too much, for what it is. It does at least work.
Sadly though, for gamers, the only other saving grace, interaction, is also non-existent. Apart from the race element in trying to discover and control the most islands, there is next to no interaction between players. Events happen to you and you alone, you explore alone and there is nothing you can do to actively affect your rivals. For this reason it hardly matters if you are playing with 4, 3 or 2. Indeed, the best game we had was a two player session which not only moved along quicker, but had a much closer result - the luck element carries right on through to the victory podium. The only vaguely interesting choice is placing your units, either as claims on a hopefully large island, or as 'blockers' to prevent a rival following in your footsteps.
As one might expect with a Gold Sieber/Teuber game, the components are of a very high standard and even at UK prices, it represents good value for what you get in the box. Of course, one has to take gaming value into account as well, and here the game cannot be worth £25 of a gamer's money. Given the subject matter, I am not surprised to find that the rules have a few holes. The biggest problem is deciding on how to fill out areas of the map that are surrounded (ie can't be explored) because depending on which order you put the provided 'filler' tiles in, the surrounding islands take on different characteristics. So, while you thought you might have put a fort on a rival's island, when it comes to be completed you are in fact linked to another land mass... Again, the luck element.
Entdecker is a game that, I'm sure, will fit right into the German family market and will no doubt be a good seller for GoldSieber. What it isn't is a game you, as gamers, should get too excited about and almost certainly should play rather than buy. Like Siedler, the mechanisms are largely uninspired, the theme is again slightly abstracted, and it is has a considerable, even overpowering, luck element. All that said, it looks good, is entertaining, quick and makes for a passable 'mid session' game or closer. Personally, I can't see myself playing it many more times than the three I've already enjoyed, and I must say that one of those was to double check to see if I'd missed something - it has that slight nagging quality of having more to offer, if you are with me. However, I don't think I have missed anything, and this remains a largely unassuming game. So, a buy if you enjoy fast, simple games with nice pieces and a fun theme, but not if you like a little challenge with your gaming.
I'm going to chime in here and disagree slightly with Mike.
I found that the choices of where to explore were less than obvious. At the Gathering some folks played as though there were no other players at the table, exploring empty patches of sea. Others were much more aggressive and willing to crowd in on any patch of land that might close off soon.
In any case, the end result was more randomness and an unsatisfying degree of control. Some players seemed to enjoy playing the odds but, in general, the first lucky player to complete a largish island pulled ahead and the game became a procession from then on. Entdecker has gone round a bend for me that Mike clearly rounded with Siedler. Teuber is capable of better, more inventive games than this.
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell