In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sponsored five expedition parties to explore the newly acquired Western United States. The first to reach the western coast would come home heroes and go down in history as the greatest of American explorers. This is the historically creative premise for Lewis & Clark: The Expedition.
You will lead one of up to five expedition teams to in an effort to be the first to reach Fort Clatsop in the western region of the United States. All players begin in St. Louis with a grizzled team of six explorers, a handful of resources and a few small boats to traverse the mighty Mississippi River. In an effort to stay one step ahead, you will assign your motley crew to gather or trade for resources, seek help and assistance from the native tribes, add more rafts to your fleet and employ willing adventurers on the way. Only once a your base camp reaches Oregon will you claim fame and future chapters in grade school history books.
All players begin with a crew of six members that will make up your initial hand of cards. These crewman can be assigned to gather the four basic resources with each member specializing in a particular resource (hunter gathers food, engineer creates equipment, etc.). Additionally, you will have at your disposal an interpreter who can negotiate with the native tribes and a captain who will chart your expedition's course on the river and through the mountains. Lewis & Clark is all about your crew members. You will make it to the West on their backs. You will grow familiar with them. You will learn their quirks and eccentricities. You will love them and you will hate them. You will see their flaws. And you will want nothing more than to leave them on the riverbank.
Lewis & Clark is a strong believer in the buddy system. Each character in your fold has a unique ability but can't execute it on their own. In order to accomplish their task, they will need the help in the field from either another character or from a native who's joined your crew. This is done by playing a character with his ability face up and another character card tucked underneath its strength side showing.
Along with a unique ability, every character has a strength rating from 1 to 3 that comes into play when assisting another character with their job. The higher the strength, the more effective the duo will be in their task. Lewis & Clark revolves around this decision. And it can be agonizing. Once you've played your character, whether for their ability or as a helper, they will no longer be available to you until you settle down for camp. So you have to decide if you want your interpreter to speak with the local chief or if you need him to help the woodsman carry lumber back to camp. "I'm sorry. I thought I knew what I was going to to," is a common refrain from players when it their turn comes up whilst turning this decision over and over in their head.
And while having a difficult decision come up so often can be a bit masochistic, it also imbues a certain sense of accomplishment that can only be achieved from overcoming a true challenge. First time players often began to find a rhythm after setting up camp for the first time. Like a newborn gazelle, each step afforded them more confidence until their clumsy first steps transformed into a gentle trot. From confidence to cockiness, the gentle trot becomes a full on sprint... into a brick wall.
About half way to the final destination, after having time to adjust to river life, the Rocky Mountains will throw a wrench into your well-oiled machine of a crew. Your good old reliable canoes won't be much help in the mountains. The transition from river to Rockies can be harsh and will require a change in strategy and likely a change in personnel. The white rapid hero will take a back seat to the sure-footed mountaineer. Without this change of pace, I fear that players would often hone in on a strategy early in the game and just run through the motions of execution. The change in terrain serves its purpose well and keeps players on their toes.
Rhythm also plays a large role in Lewis & Clark. The only way you can reclaim your characters into your hand is by setting up camp. But you will suffer an encumbrance penalty for an overabundance of resources and for crewman who were a bit too lazy. This means that you will have to manage the ebb and flow of gathering a mass of resources and quickly depleting them as well as putting your men to work if you want to make progress.
Rather than send a pair of your crewman off to their task, you can choose to trade with the native tribes for goods and services. It never proved to be an essential action, but it can be a helpful in a pinch and is a nice release for the frustration you may face when you don't have crewman available for your needs.
At its core, Lewis & Clark is a game about compromise. Every decision means forsaking another. Taking your time and increasing the size of your expedition means less time making progress. Using a character for his special ability means he is no longer available to assist others. These difficult decisions can be crippling to the indecisive. If you have a hard time choosing off a restaurant menu, this likely is not the game for you. But for those willing to explore their choices, they will be rewarded with a satisfaction that is rare to find.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the player interaction present in Lewis & Clark's. Aside from the typical denial of cards and resource spaces found in many games, your pace will be set by the other players. Forward progress is not a given and it is completely possible to make very little or even backward progress (which is a bit strange, quite frankly). If your competitors are content to take is slowly, then you have the leeway to do so as well. Also, when gathering resources you will often be prompted to look at the cards played by your neighboring cards. Your haul will be more bountiful if your neighbors have played similar cards. It's a bit clumsy and a thematic stretch, but it works well enough in keeping your head buried in your own hand of cards.
Lewis & Clark is a handsome production with difficult, but immensely rewarding decisions. The theme carries its mechanisms well and reward any explorers willing to take the journey.