The Curious Expedition caught my eye a long while ago – what seems like years – with its crisp, quirky pixel art style and its thematic appreciation of grandiose 19-century exploration. Of course, I had no idea how the game might actually play and, more importantly, if it would be any fun. It’s a mixture between 4X-style simulation with hexagonal turn-based movement and the resource management of games like Oregon Trail. Strategy games are risky – not only in terms of development for their technical complexity, but in terms of balancing because they should be both aptly challenging and amply fun. The user needs to focus on turn-by-turn decisions without being bogged down by them. Maschinen-Mensch have built The Curious Expedition around that very balance in a way that’s nothing short of brilliant.
In The Curious Expedition, your most important decisions happen in the map, where you’ll find information about competing explorers’ progress, your party members, and your expedition. Sanity (at the top) is the most important resource; if it falls below zero, progressively severe happenings will likely kill your entire party. Some items restore sanity and can be used while not traveling. Party members are also vital, as they offer a range of benefits to the expedition ranging from increased line of sight, better prices when haggling, greater attack power, and several others. In general, play alternates between the map view and closer views when exploring particular sights. The player’s main goal during an expedition is to use their compass to find a goal that returns them home, but the greater goal is to acquire more fame than other explorers. Several unknown points of interest appear as the map is explored, but they’ll cost time and tools to reach – and might not even yield anything valuable when reached – and can easily distract the player from reaching their main goal.
Some points of interest provide several meaningful choices for the player, many of them relying on expedition variables. If the player has brought a missionary, for example, they might be able to increase their standing with the native peoples by delivering them to a village. If the player comes across a temple, they might find valuables with which they can return home; doing so decreases standing, though, which can turn natives hostile and impede future opportunities for diplomacy. Almost every decision in the game has pros and cons, demanding some predictive critical thinking on the player’s part, and the widespread integration of this design principle in The Curious Expedition is why it plays so well. Moreover, though certain areas of the world will always contain certain terrains and creatures, each individual area is constructed at the start of every expedition with procedural generation. Put simply, every play-through yields unique combinations of obstacles, handicaps, and delightfully unpredictable trade-off scenarios for the player.
While combat is typically a huge frustration to encounter during an expedition, its execution is both unique and fair. Each party member has dice that are used together in combat, and the player has a set number of dice rolls per round before their enemy takes a turn. It’s useful to combine similar rolls to amply actions: two or three attack rolls can be used together for a powerful attack, for example, or an attack roll can be used with an accuracy roll for a “precise attack” that also inflicts more damage. Items bought before or found during the expedition can be thrown into the mix too, adding additional dice and increasing the player’s chance of building powerful combos. Some animals are hostile and yield low-grade collectibles and meat; others are docile and provide medium-grade loot, and rarer creatures tend to be very powerful and give extremely valuable items for the player to bring home.
My main struggle during expeditions was managing inventory space. Storage capacity during an expedition is determined by the sum total of party members’ inventory spaces (another trade-off: party members with plenty of inventory space tend to lack useful perks and special abilities), and several items are indispensable, as they provide measures for the player to traverse various terrain types, explore various points of interests and, of course, stay sane. “But I want fame and fortune!” I found myself thinking, while dumping things like rope, torches and ammunition to make way for anything that seemed shiny or outlandish enough to make me rich or bolster my reputation among 19th-century 1st-world citizens. Problematically, it’s hard to predict which fame-or-fortune items will be wanted at the museum or auction house when the expedition over – and these items can often represent enough notoriety or coin to make the difference between victory and defeat. A player seeking long-term success might sell more items, fattening their wallet for future expeditions, while a player with an eye on the scoreboard might gift more items to the museum to instantly boost their fame – another trade-off!
For $15, providing hours of intriguing, choice-driven, replay-able, and overall curious game play makes The Curious Expedition a fun and worthwhile purchase for anyone with a thirst for exploration. I couldn’t find anything that took away from my quest for fame and fortune, save for the occasional repeated point of interest or animal encounter. Well done, Maschinen-Mensch; I foresee myself embarking on many, many more expeditions.
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