Larry Levy:  Review/Preview of Darwin’s Journey

Darwin’s Journey

  • Designers: Simone Luciani, Nestore Mangone
  • Solo Designer: David Turczi
  • Developer: Pierpaolo Paoletti
  • Artist: Paolo Voto
  • Publisher: ThunderGryph Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 60-150 minutes
  • Times Played: 5, with review copy

Darwin's Journey Box Cover

Let me start this review by sending a big shout-out to a fellow OGer, Steph Hodge.  My buddy Ben got to go to his first Gathering of Friends this year and naturally was on the lookout for new things to try.  One of those was Darwin’s Journey.  Fortunately, Steph had her review copy of the game there.  Ben played it with her and loved it.  He asked if he could borrow the game and she not only agreed, but told him to keep it for a few months if he liked.  As a result, I, and the other members of our group, got the chance to try this much anticipated game out prior to its release.  Thanks, Steph—you’re not only a good gamer, but a great gaming citizen!

That generosity allows me to write a review that also serves as a preview, as the game isn’t scheduled to hit the streets until early next year.  So you’re getting two articles in one!

The reason we were so looking forward to checking out Darwin’s Journey (heretofore abbreviated DJ) was primarily the name on the box cover.  We’re all huge fans of Simone Luciani’s previous designs, so we were hoping for more of the same.  This time, his co-designer is Nestore Mangone, with whom he previously collaborated on Newton and Masters of Renaissance, two other successful designs.

The theme of DJ is a little unusual.  It’s based on the momentous voyage that a young Charles Darwin took aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos; his findings there were the basis for his eventual theory of evolution.  It’s a very attractive theme, but for some reason, the game is based on Darwin’s recollections of the voyage (as you can see, the box cover shows Darwin in his later years).  Thus, things are based on Darwin’s diaries, and not the active cataloging work he did.  I’m not sure why they felt this was necessary—maybe they realized that there weren’t actually competing scientists on board the Beagle!—but all the trappings of the initial voyage are there and it’s easy to immerse yourself in the expedition itself and ignore the peculiar sidestepping.

The game board is a big one and it needs to be, as it includes a crapton of stuff.  The board’s upper portion shows a large number of action areas, some of which change from game to game.  Most of them are organized into half a dozen diary sections, which are basically groups of related actions.  Below that are three of the Galapagos islands, with tracks where the players’ explorer tokens can move along.  Each player begins with one of their explorers at the start space on the first island.  Finally, at the bottom, are the ocean spaces near the coasts of those islands, where the player’s ships (and the good old Beagle) can roam.  Each player starts with their ship token at the beginning of this watery track.

The focus of the game are those action spaces.  Most of Luciani’s games feature Worker Placement, which usually isn’t my favorite game mechanic (it’s really been done to death).  However, he always seems to find a fresh twist for it and DJ is no exception.  Each player begins with 4 workers (with the possibility of unlocking a fifth) and each of them is different.  There are four main action types in the game (academics, navigation, exploration, and correspondence) and each is associated with a different colored seal.  Over the course of the game, you’ll be assigning one or more seals to your workers.  This is important, because for most of the action areas, if you want to choose it, your worker must have a certain combination of seals assigned to it.  In addition, you can sometimes get extra benefits if your worker has enough seals.  So not only are the workers all different, you get to decide how to differentiate your workforce.  It’s a very clever system and it works marvelously.

The game lasts five rounds and in each round, the players take turns putting a worker on an action space.  Once all the workers are assigned, a few benefits are gained, the players reclaim their workers, and then the next round begins.  At the end of the fifth round, endgame VPs are earned and the player with the most points wins.

Of course, since this is an Italian-designed game, things aren’t quite as easy as that.  Some action spaces are limited to only one worker per round.  Most of them aren’t, but if another worker (even one of your own) is sitting on any of the spaces of that diary section, you have to pay a placement penalty of a few coins.  So even if your chosen action space is vacant, if another worker is sitting on a related space, you might have to fork over some bucks.  Needless to say, money is tight, so you always have to take that into account.

That’s all well and good, but what do those spaces do?  Most of the actions revolve around the four seal type categories, so let me talk about those first.

When you place your worker on a space in the Academy diary, you get to add one or more seals to some of your workers (any of them, not necessarily the one you just placed).  At the beginning of each round, 12 randomly drawn seals are available to be chosen.  Some of these are free, but as the supply dwindles down (they’re not replenished until the end of the round), more expensive ones will have to be purchased, particularly if there’s a specific color shield you’re interested in.  In addition, the later slots for each worker have costs associated with them when you cover them up.  Hey, no one said education was cheap!  But your more highly trained workers will be able to activate more action spaces; there are also some benefits associated with workers who have a bunch of seals.  So educating your workforce can be well worth the effort.

Spaces in the Navigation diary allow you to move your ship token a certain number of spaces.  There are two principal reasons why this is desirable.  The Beagle will move forward to specified ocean spaces at the end of each round and there are benefits for keeping up with the Mother Ship.  In addition, if your ship crosses a certain threshold, you get to place an explorer on the second island; we’ll soon see why this can be valuable.  There’s a second threshold which allows you to place another explorer on the third island.  So ploughing the waves can set you up for some lucrative actions.

Spaces in the Exploration diary let you move one of your explorer tokens a certain number of spaces.  Land movement tends to be more involved than sea movement (there are some choices to where you move your ship, but most of the time it’s just full steam ahead).  On the islands, though, there are quite a few branches leading to one-way paths (so once you decide to take one path of a fork, the other path is off limits to you).  There’s all sorts of goodies available if you land on certain spaces, including earning money, VPs, and triggering actions (such as the right to buy seals or move your ship).  One of the more interesting possibilities is discovering specimens.  There are 16 different specimen tokens in the game, which represent plants, animals, and fossils unique to the Galapagos.  These are randomly distributed face up at the start of the game.  If you land on a space that contains a specimen, you mark it on your board and can make good use of it later (more on that in a bit).  Overall, exploring the islands can result in some extremely valuable rewards.  The second and third islands have even greater payoffs than the first one; in addition, there is usually less competition on them for discovering specimens and earning VPs (some spaces only reward VPs to the first player to reach them).  That’s why getting your ship far enough along to let you start on one of the later islands can be so worthwhile.

The spaces in the Correspondence diary let you send off letters, which is more significant than penning notes to your loved ones saying “Contracted Yellow Fever—wish you were here.”  At the start of the game, three envelope spaces are chosen at random.  Each of these gives a different reward to the player with the most stamps on them (stamps, envelopes, diaries…sometimes this game is a little too precious for its own good!).  Each space in this section lets you place a certain number of stamps on one envelope.  At the end of the round, the player with the most stamps on each envelope earns its reward, with the second most getting a lesser reward.  For each envelope, the rewarded players lose half their stamps, so if your opponents ignore this area, a single turn’s stamp placing could conceivably give you rewards for several rounds.  These rewards are all nice, but not indispensable.  Still, experience has shown that letting one player dominate the envelopes is not a good idea.

Those are the four main action areas, but there are others.  One of the most interesting lets you unlock actions.  At the start of the game, there is only one available action for each of the four diaries I talked about above.  However, there are two more powerful actions in each diary (for example, ones that let you buy more than one seal at a discount, or let you move more spaces during navigation or exploration), and these are locked at the beginning.  One space lets a player unlock the action of their choice, so that it’s available for all the players for the rest of the game.  It’s expensive, but there are two benefits for the unlocking player.  First, as part of their turn, the player gets to do the unlocked action without placing a worker on it, even if they don’t have the seals to qualify for it.  And second, choosing the right action to unlock can set you up for the future, either because it’s an area you’d like to focus on or because your workers have the seals to actually take it (or both!).  Needless to say, the more powerful actions require that the worker using them have multiple seals (for example, the initial Exploration space only requires one Exploration seal, but the others require 2 and 3 of them, respectively).  There’s another diary that has 6 different actions, which are randomly chosen at the start of the game.  Two of these are available from the beginning, but the other four have to be unlocked to be used.  These actions are all quite powerful, but they all require different mixes of seals to be used (for example, one might require 2 Academic seals and 1 Correspondence seal).  Making sure you have enough money to unlock actions and doing so at the right time is a big part of DJ.

Then there’s the specimens and the good old Theory of Evolution.  One action space lets you deliver a specimen that’s on your player board that hasn’t been delivered by anyone else.  The rewards for this vary—at the beginning of the game, it brings you mostly money, while later on, most of what you earn is advancing along the Theory of Evolution track.  The money infusion can be sizable and this is often the best way to ensure you have enough cash on hand to carry out your desired actions.  And the further you advance along the Evolution track, the more VPs you’ll earn at the end of the game.  But you have to plan for all this, by arranging to discover the specimens and making sure you’re the first to deliver them (which is another reason why playing in your own sandbox on the second or third islands can be so worthwhile).

Another way of earning points is by meeting Beagle Goals, which are objectives for each round that are randomly chosen at the beginning of the game.  These might be discovering certain kinds of specimens or having certain seals on your workers—they’re fairly varied.  At the end of every round, each player earns VPs for these, based on how well they match the objective’s criteria.  However, you only earn the full VP amount if your ship has advanced at least as far on the Ocean track as the Beagle has.  The further you are behind, the more VPs you lose.

I’ve probably only described about half the game (those crazy Italian designers love their detailed games!), but those are the most important features.  At the end of each round, the players with the most stamps on each envelope earns those rewards and everyone gets VPs based on how well they met the Beagle Goals.  Then, you take back all your workers and we start things again.  At the end of the game, there are some bonus VPs for players who have advanced their ship far along the Ocean track and everyone also earns their Theory of Evolution VPs.  As usual, the player with the most VPs wins and they get to be the first to poke fun at the ridiculously long beard ol’ Chuckie Darwin sports on the box cover.

So what do I think of this sneak peak of a 2022 title?  I like it a lot and I think most fans of Simone Luciani will enjoy it as well.  Obviously, there’s a huge amount going on and it’ll take you at least a game to figure out what the hell you should be doing, but it shouldn’t take too long for the farthing to drop.  The seal system which is at the core of the game works very well and it means that building up your workers requires just as much planning as assigning them.  As is often the case with the Italian designed games, you’ll carry out only a small number of basic actions (as few as 20 of them over the course of the game), but, if you’re playing it well, they can lead to a large number of triggered actions, which, to the players’ delight, can cascade merrily over various areas of the design.  In my games, I’ve done well by focusing on Exploration, but I’ve seen each major area be the centerpiece of a winning strategy.  It’s not a short game—our initial attempts weighed in at 3-3.5 hours—but now we’re managing to wind things up after only about 2.5 hours, which is fine with me for a game of this weight.  Overall, I think this stacks up very well with Luciani’s other games, which is high praise indeed, as he’s easily my favorite designer of the last 10 years.

Both money and actions are tight, but not to the point of strangulation.  In a lot of modern titles, you have to scratch and claw for every dollar you so badly need.  In DJ, there are quite a few ways of earning coins; as I mentioned earlier, you can get a bunch by delivering specimens, particularly early in the game.  Of course, the question then becomes if you want to devote actions to increasing your bank account.  So it’s an efficiency issue and learning how to get by without throwing money around too exuberantly is a useful skill.  It’s a similar situation with actions; there aren’t so many that you can afford to waste them, but there’s still enough that most rounds, you can accomplish quite a bit, particularly with the many cascading options available.  So it’s a tightly designed game, but not so much to be frustrating.

Replayability will not be an issue with this game.  There’s a ton of stuff that is randomly determined prior to beginning each game, including some of the action spaces, the envelope rewards, and much more.  The beginning setup has a significant effect on how the game plays, so you’ll always have a new challenge in figuring out how to best approach each session.

I’ve played DJ with both 2 and 3 players and, based on those experiences, I think it scales very well.  With 2 players, you have to pay the placement penalty if there’s a worker in the diary you chose or in a second, adjacent one.  The penalty is also slightly higher.  This means that money is just as tight (and essential) with 2 as with higher player numbers.  There are a few other adjustments to make up for the smaller number of players; none of them are drastic, but they keep the tension of the game high.  Finally, there is a fairly involved set of solo rules (by the master of such things, David Turczi), but I haven’t had the chance to check them out.

The theme works well, despite the strange time travel switch utilized—as I’ve mentioned, you just kind of ignore this and assume you’re out there with Darwin doing his Galapagos thing.  There is just one thing that nags at me.  The system of building up your workers to be able to use more and more powerful actions is a terrific one, but why did Luciani and Mangone choose to use it in this game?  It doesn’t seem to particularly fit the theme.  The time scale is all wrong, for one thing—even if you assume each turn lasts a couple of months, when would your workers find the time to get such training/education?  And what the hell is the source of all this advanced learning while your dudes are traipsing among the giant tortoises off the coast of 19th century South America?  It would have made more sense in a game with a much longer time frame, or maybe in a sci-fi setting, with futuristic ways of learning.  Or perhaps with robot workers, who could just download the latest “seal” and add it to their internal programming.  It’s just strange to me that they choose this theme for this mechanic (or vice versa).  Of course, game themes aren’t really that important to me and it all works in the end, so this is more the result of my overactive mind than anything else.

I’m assuming that the components for the review game are pretty much the ones that will be shipped with the final game.  If that’s the case, they’re all of professional quality and I have no complaints.  The board is packed full of detail, but with two dozen action spaces, three islands, the specimens’ grid, and various other play areas, I don’t see what choice the publisher had.  The good news is that, thanks to solid iconography and decently sized fonts, everything is quite clear.  There are an awful lot of icons used, so I’m hoping some player aids will be provided.  The colors are all easily distinguishable, although some of the specimens take a bit of squinting to identify.  I don’t think that anyone is going to be blown away by the game’s beauty, but the art is reasonably attractive and, what is far more important, it makes a complex game easier to play.  Functionality is essential for a game like this, so I’m pleased with the job the graphic designer did, with the good looks being a nice plus.

I’m not quite as happy with the rules that came with the game I played with, although I think ThunderGryph may be revising them.  But all I can comment on are the rules I saw and, as is so often the case these days, they are complete, but the organization leaves something to be desired.  They outline the game’s basic concepts at the beginning, which is usually a good idea, but that portion of the rules goes on too long, so that there’s too much information to absorb before you have any idea of how the game actually plays.  It took me several reads before I felt comfortable with the game and that’s less than ideal.  Unfortunately, that’s becoming the standard these days and, as rules quality decreases, watching instructional videos (many of them paid for by the publishers) becomes more and more essential.  That’s not my preferred way of learning a game, but I might just have to learn to adjust.  So a demerit for the rules as they exist now, but they’re not awful, they might get better, and most of you will probably take the time to watch the videos anyway.  So, yay?

Overall, Darwin’s Journey is an involved and crunchy Euro that’s another fine example of Italian game design.  It’s a challenging game to learn, with a reasonably long duration, but fans of games like this will be rewarded with innovative mechanics and enjoyable decision-making that benefits from advanced planning.  There are many ways of approaching the game and quite a few paths to victory.  I’m very much looking forward to the game’s release, which right now, is slated to be the Second Quarter of 2022.  Luciani delivers again (with the very able assistance of Nestore Mangone) and you don’t have to be an evolved gamer to appreciate the man’s genius.  If you agree, in a few months, you might be able to hitch a ride on the HMS Beagle and see for yourself!

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Craig M (2 plays) – I’ll start by saying that I have only played this online via TTS so I’ll leave any thoughts about the look of the game and its physical components out of my comments. Darwin’s Journey is most certainly an example of the Italian school of design. Whether this is good or bad depends on how you feel about Luciani’s previous games and Italian designs in general.  The mechanisms did not feel particularly innovative, but rather felt very familiar. I’m not a huge fan of learning games online (huge understatement really)  because I spend as much time or more trying to figure out how to accomplish things in a virtual setting as I do the rules of the new game. This often leaves me feeling extremely reluctant to play a new game online. With Darwin’s Journey the mechanisms and rules were easy to grasp because it all felt like something I had seen before across many different games. I’ll hold any further comments until I get a chance to play a game with a physical copy. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!  Larry
I like it.  
Neutral.  Craig
Not for me… 

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4 Responses to Larry Levy:  Review/Preview of Darwin’s Journey

  1. Jacob Lee says:

    I love reading long reviews for games I’m interested in. Thanks for sharing this. I was interested before and I still am now.
    I will also mention that a word I find hilarious in game reviews is “crapton”. Maybe it will become an official part of the language if we keep using it.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    You’re welcome, Jacob. And in my neck of the woods, “crapton” is definitely already part of the language!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Appreciate the near-recusal on a rating Craig… Playing a game solely online is an extremely different experience than playing in person, I agree, and I have to take any review based only on online plays (or even BGG user comments) with a big grain of salt.

    • Craig Massey says:

      I’d take my comments with a heaping teaspoon of salt Jeremy! That being said, I don’t think my general feeling about the game is likely to change all that much when I sit down to play an actual physical copy with my group – which I fully intend to do. If you enjoy the Italian school of design, even if not quite as effusively as Larry does then there is much to like about the game. If you are less enamored with the same school, then I would approach Darwin’s Voyage with more trepidation.

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