Reviewed by Herb Levy
MONSTER EXPEDITION (Amigo, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 30 minutes; $19.99)
Monsters are roaming the land – but we’re not talking terror here. Rather, players, as new members of the Royal Monstrological Society, take a more scientific approach as they gather their camps to round up the most interesting and valuable monsters embarking on their own Monster Expedition.
This Alexander Pfister design takes place in the world created by Richard Garfield in his Carnival of Monsters (check out the Flashback in this issue). In this game, monsters have been spotted in three of that world’s regions: Aerie (yellow), the Depths (blue) and the Enchanted Forest (green). To capture them, you need to rely on improving your camps – and rolling dice.
A wilderness display is set up consisting of six monster cards and a “monster trader” card. A face down deck is created from the remaining 53 monster cards (the number in that deck depending on the number of players) with remaining cards set aside as a “reserve”. The top 3 cards from the draw deck are now revealed and included in the display so there are always 10 cards available. There are 11 dice in the game: one each of the three game colors (with values ranging as high as 10) and 8 “hunting dice” (standard six-siders with values of from 1 to 6).
Each player begins with a set of 3 supply camps. Each set (labelled I, II, III and IV) consists of camps (square cards) to match the regions of the game (yellow, blue and green) and these are placed in front of each player. There is an A and B side and all camps start on their A side. Each player also gets their own set of 9 tokens.
On a turn, one of the three camps is chosen. Each camp border shows the number of dice that my be thrown. (The colored die matching the camp is always part of this group, the number of black “hunting dice” varies based on the level of the camp AND how many sets of monsters have been captured.) These dice are rolled and players may “bank” any ONE number. (Banking multiple dice of the same number is allowed – and a good idea.) They may then roll again or stop. If rolling again, another, DIFFERENT, number must be banked. But if the numbers rolled are numbers already banked, that is a “misthrow” and there is a penalty: ONE die of the duplicated number banked is LOST! This continues until either the player stops OR there are no more dice to throw. At that point, we hunt.
Each monster has a listed value. They also have two Victory Point values, one for being captured and a lesser one if it is “caged”. Monsters also have benefits that can be very useful. Players now take the total value of the banked dice and spends it to “capture” one or more monsters from the display that match the color of the camp used in that turn. Alternatively, a player may purchase a “caged” animal. The backs of all monster cards show a cage (and a value of 10). Spending 10 of your banked value lets you take the top card from the draw deck. This is placed in the player’s area and remains face down. Using the monster trader is another option. The trader will let you have SIX caged monsters – at the substantial cost of 40! (Getting six caged monsters can means a nice chunk of VPs – but caged monsters do not allow players to use any benefits the monsters may have.) Now let’s talk about those benefits.
First and foremost, a monster may have a mask symbol (in yellow, blue or green or multi-colored). Amass a set of 3 different colors (and the multi-colored is, essentially, a “wild”) and the next time you go “hunting”, you can throw another black die. The more sets you have, the more black dice you can throw. Some benefits allow you to steal a caged monster from an opponent (randomly chosen) or, via a specific die roll or misthrow, immediately upgrade a camp.
Improving (upgrading) your camp is yet another way to gain more dice. Each camp has a certain number (1, 2 or 3) which, when banked, will allow you to rotate your camp 90º. The more it rotates, the more black dice you will be able to throw when next you use it. One camp in each set has another, higher, number. If anyone – the player or any of his/her opponents – rolls that high number, that camp gets improved too. (A camp may be improved up to 7 times! If you reached the end of the “improvements”, you are rewarded with 2 caged monsters from the top of the deck.)
Once one or more monsters have been captured, the display is refilled and the active player now marks these new monsters with his/her player token. Should that monster be captured on a future turn by anyone, that token is returned to its owner without penalty.
Play continues until the draw deck is gone. Then, the current round is finished so all have an equal number of turns. (If additional cards are needed to replace bought monsters or cages, that’s where the reserve deck comes in.) Add to your holdings any monsters in the display with your tokens. These monsters are considered “caged” and are scored that way. Players add up the VP values of all their captured and caged monsters. The player with the most Victory Points wins! Tie? Then the player with the most improved camps can claim victory. Still tied? Then the win is shared.
As with many (most?) dice games, high numbers are important but Pfister has achieved some balance here. High values are needed to capture monsters but it’s the low numbers, the 1s, 2s and 3s, that will improve your camps paving the way for rolling more dice to capture monsters of higher value – both in strength (30s) AND Victory Points. Push-your-luck is also a consideration but, unlike other dice games, a bad roll does not leave you “busted”. It will, however, lessen your chances at capturing a big value monster by reducing your hunting value so you have to be a bit careful. Or, of course, you can go for broke and take your chances. The game has a nice arc as you will roll and more and more dice as the game progresses; it helps that the dice are nicely sized, feel good in the hand and are easy to read. (Although, using white numbers on the yellow die is not as good as choice as opting to use black numbers for more readability.) Despite being able to swipe a caged animal from time to time, interaction is minimal but you do tend to have a rooting interest in opposing players rolling the big number you need to improve your own camp so that keeps you involved when it’s not your turn. That the game plays so quickly is yet another plus. The board in the game is just a resting place for the card deck and, although it reminds players of the values of the yellow, blue and green dice, is really superfluous.
It seems to be almost a given that if a game is successful, a dice game version of it will soon appear. Many of these just aren’t as engaging as the original. Not so here. Monster Expedition keeps the action moving, is easy to learn (the rulebook is excellent) and even provides a solo mode with multiple goals for when a gaming partner is not readily available. However you play it, be assured, it’s worth your time to go on this exploring expedition. – – – – – – Herb Levy
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