A Slice of 7th Heaven - 7th Continent Review
I received my copy of 7th Continent this past Wednesday, a full 672 days after the 1.2 million euro kickstarter concluded. Since then, I’ve played the co-operative exploration game 4 times and it’s been the only game I’ve been able to think about in my collection. Needless to say I’m enjoying it.
7th Continent is an exploration game, in a way no other board game has approached the subject before. The generic plot, which is only changed slightly by the particular curse you choose to break at the beginning of the game, is that you’ve recently returned from an expedition of the 7th Continent to discover that most of your fellow explorers have died or disappeared, and the sinking feeling that you’ve been cursed - destined to return to the continent to attempt to break the spell. As a player, you pick which of the curses you want to be afflicted with (or more than one if you’re feeling particularly daring), it tells you which of the hundreds of cards you should begin the game on, and you play.
The entire game revolves around one basic mechanic, a type of push your luck where you pick an action, draw a certain amount of cards (in most cases you can choose to draw more than the minimum to increase your odds of success), and see if you come up with the required number of successes.
That is almost the entirety of the gameplay.
As I attempt to explain the mechanic it’s shocking how simple this game is. There isn’t much more to this game than the push your luck mechanism - there’s a bit with inventory management, and another bit about your action deck / stamina (which I’ll get to later), but that’s pretty much it. You could realistically teach this game to a new player by saying “pick an available action, and decide how many cards to draw. That’s it.” So how can this game have such a hold on me?
Perhaps it’s the exploration aspect of the game, which I feel 7th Continent has mastered out of pretty much any board game I’ve played. Every thing you do in this game has a thrilling amount of uncertainty. When you look for the next area of terrain to move to, you could be greeted with anything from exhaustion to a grizzly bear - and those are only two of the more-than-100 possible terrain-based random events that can occur. As you clear away the fog hiding your next path, the continent unfolds in an amazing mosaic of illustrated cards, all blending into one another as you realize how vast (or how small!) the area you’re in actually is. You don’t know if you’re going to step into a tropical forest, a glacier, a desert, or find the coastline a mere two cards away from your starting position until you get there.
At least, you won’t know it the first time. Others have aptly described 7th Continent as “TIME Stories-esque”; a game where starting over is both hampered and improved by the fact that you’ve been here before. You’ve seen the starting island, you know where the best part to get to the next area is, or which actions are the most valuable, and you’ll probably make it past those first three terrain cards with little difficulty. Also like TIME Stories, you pretty much need to restart in order to progress in this game. You often won’t realize until it’s too late that the path you took is a dead end or the food you were looking for doesn’t exist - all information you’ll pass on to your predecessor, the next character you take on this dangerous journey.
Yet even then, you won’t have the same experience between plays, which is different from “flip the same 60 cards over again” gameplay of TIME Stories. Those random events are unique and varied enough to drastically change the end result of each game you play. The first game of 7th Continent I played, I didn’t even make it off the introductory island, dying of starvation while waiting for an animal to hunt. The second time I played, I managed to swim to a new area with the assistance of a life jacket (found in a random event), but perished shortly afterwards. The third time I managed to build a raft to set sail as opposed to swimming to shore, and ended up in an entirely different area because of it. I gleaned enough information from that 3rd play to have a good handle on how to beat the first curse, but wasn’t able to make it to the end. The fourth time I played, I cheated death a number of times, barely surviving on raw meats, until I was ultimately maimed to death by a grizzly bear after realizing the “optimal way” I was heading was a dead end.
All four of those stories were from the exact same starting place, with the only change being the characters I played with (which changes some of the available skills, but not by much). So those doubting the replayability factor of this enormous game have little reason to worry. Even when you start to realize that certain blocks of numbers are generally reserved for specific things (i.e. the early 100’s are status effects) you can’t be sure what you’re about to draw - there’s 5 of each status effect card for example, some of them with varying results. Pair that with more than 1,000 cards in the game and you’ve got a long way to go before this game starts to get monotonous.
On top of that, 4 games in and I’m still discovering things about the continent. In my most recent play I came across some parchment outlining some of the history of the continent - a stick figure drawing of a conflict and some idol worship, labelled “3/4”. I have no idea what the hell this is. Is it part of another curse? Is it some cool flavour text the designers threw in? Will it unlock some sort of hidden terrain upon completion? I honestly don’t know, and I won’t know until I play the game again. The game before last I came across a tertiary puzzle I have no idea how to solve - next time I see it, I might have a better idea from some other thing that happened to me.
The game plays like a masterfully written choose-your-own-adventure book, which speaks to the Fighting Fantasy inspiration the designers have often referenced. In this case, instead of a paragraph of text and one to three options of how to proceed, you get a snippet of flavour, an amazing illustration, and anywhere from 6 - 10 available actions from your terrain, your skills, your items, and the events in play. Actions are chosen from any white-box icon available on either the current terrain card, skill cards in hand, or items built. There are 29 action icons listed in the game, although these have little relevance on the game other than indicating which items may be beneficial when attempting them; those matching items will have the same icon in a brown box indicating they can be used. Think of it as a shorthand for asking the GM if your skill / item would help your roll.
You win this game by overcoming the particular curse you started out with, and you lose the game by dying. Your health is represented by the number of cards still available in your “action deck”, a shared deck of cards that’re used for those “draw cards to see if you succeed” tests I mentioned above. Once that deck is depleted, you’re now in “sudden death” mode - any time you perform a test, you use the discard pile; if you draw a curse card, the game is over. The odds of this happening are roughly 1 in 7 to 10 (depending on the number of players), and adds a really tense dynamic to the game. As soon as you’re even close to death, you know it’s time to start searching for some food (one of the only ways to regain action cards).
Acquiring states in this game generally lead to depletion of said action deck. If you acquire a new state (tired, freezing, worried, paranoid, etc) and it has a particular symbol, you discard a card from the action deck for each previously-acquired state your character has. In that way, the worse off your character is, the closer to death you get.
The thing I enjoy most about 7th Continent is the emergent story that seems to ooze from every action you perform. Each skill card and each item you use just seems to make sense. In one game, we had upset a Giant Rockworm (expansion content) by killing one of its young. Luckily it hadn’t noticed us yet, so we took the time to craft some crude weapons - a bow and a club specifically. Ferdinand was terrified of the beast, so Mary took some time to calm him down before we approached the beast, to ensure we would have a better chance of success. Finally prepared, we launched our offensive with bow and club in hand, and managed to force the giant away from our location so we could proceed to explore the island without threat of attack. All of this came from the same 5 actions of “decide how many cards to draw, and then draw them to see if you were successful”.
Possibly the only negative I could come up with for this game is the obscene playtime - one of my games lasted 6 hours across 3 sessions and I still haven’t beat the first curse before dying - but the designers have an answer for that as well. The truth is, even though it will take you several hours to finish a particular curse, the game wasn’t actually designed to be played for more than an hour or two per session and comes with a “save” mechanism - within a few minutes you can have the entire game packed up and put away, with everything important saved in the box to resume a few minutes later. What’s more, the game is actually designed to be used this way - when resuming you only put the card you were standing on back in play; all events, terrain, and otherwise discarded cards are placed back in the box, ready to be rediscovered. This is important as it resets aspects of the terrain, like hunting grounds (more game to hunt!), weather (expansion content), and events that may have previously blocked your path. While you could realistically exploit this mechanic, the slight overhead in packing and unpacking is enough to make it impractical.
I can’t say enough about this game! The artwork, the theme, the mechanics, the variety, the replayability, the ease-of-play, this game has got it all. There were rumors that this game was never going to hit retail after its kickstarter delivery, but luckily the designers recently announced a 2nd printing kickstarter with even more expansion content for the end of September - make sure to keep your eye out for it, because that seems to be the only way you’ll be able to acquire it.