My trip to Essen was fruitless in the area that I was unable to get in a demo of the game.
Dion did purchase the game sight unseen so that was still a relief in a way that I was sure one day I would get a chance to play it. And play it we did. :)
Description & Mechanic
In Lewis & Clark ( Lewis ), players are competing to be the first explorer to set up camp at Fort Clatsop* (?)
*the board fonts are terribly unreadable
This is achieved through careful management of one's resources and action deck. Lewis features a deck management mechanic that is eerily similar to that found in Rokoko.
Players start with a basic deck in which each round they may choose to purchase help ( represented by cards ) that immediately gets added to the player's hand. Each turn a player must play a card from his/her hand with a modifying card ( or meeple ) that determines how often that action may be executed. Once all ( or nearly all ) the cards in a player's hand are used, the player will then be able to set up camp. This leads to the player receiving all their cards again to make new plays.
The cards are the main feature in Lewis. These cards dictate what action you may execute and apart from the starting decks, each card in the game is unique. These actions range from resource gathering to resource conversion, and also resource utilization. Some also provide ongoing benefits as long as the card remains in your play area. These may not sound like a lot of options but it really can be overwhelming as the resource collection rate and more importantly the resource conversion rate is very different on each card. There are 4 basic resources in the game and 2 advance resources. The basic resources are easier to collect but it's the advance resources that provide the most benefits. In the end, it's the right balance of collection and utilization that will determine the winner of the game.
The winning condition in Lewis is in a way a race to the end destination - be the first to set up camp at Fort Clatsop. But getting there is not as easy as it looks. Setting up camp requires a 2 step process. First is the movement of your scout. This is achieved by exchanging the resources to move the scout forward. This is the first management aspect of the game. Moving the scout requires collection and conversion of resources through clever card play. Resource collection is determined by the card you play and the various cards already played by you and your neighbors. Each card has a symbol that blosters the collection rate. Finally, the conversion of these resources help to advance your scout on the track. The track has river and mountain sections and this complicates the advancement as cards only allow you to advance on the river or the mountain areas only. Never both in combination.
The last management aspect of the game is the setting up of camp. This is not merely a shuffling of your cards to use again. When setting up camp, any unused cards or any excess resources on your boat will cost you time. So before you can move your camp to where your scout is, you will have to move your scout backwards for each lost time. This is sometimes the most difficult part of the game. A player who collects more than he/she can process from their cards is going to move up and down on the track to their dismay. The player who keeps a big handful of cards will also find the camp setup tiresome as the player will have to take more turns to fully utilize their cards before their camp may move. This is possibly what makes Lewis very tight and engaging. In a way, this is optimal hand control and resource control at its finest.
There is one more resource in Lewis that affects the play of the game and that is the Indians. These are meeples that allow you to modify the power of your played card and also gives you access to additional options on the board ( of which you will otherwise not get ). These actions range from straightforward resource collection to culling of your deck or using the ability of another player's card. I would say more but I really didn't use any Indians in the game, except for my starting Indian. So I really can't tell you how useful those spaces were as my strategy took another path.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my first play of Lewis. Yes I did win the game ( small boat and good characters, hence the title ), so you may decide to take my enjoyment with a pinch of salt. But if you know me, I never let my winning change my opinion of a game.
Lewis was fun for its streamlined gameplay ( play cards, get stuff, use them, set up camp, repeat ). But that does not mean that it is a simple game. The cards really make the game interesting and the sheer differences in the abilities only enhance how many different ways you can play the game. Also, The card play is fantastic ! The cards with greater modification power usually also have a greater ability ( and cost ). And the decision on how to use them can mess with your mind. There were many times when I wanted to modify a card multiple times but doing so meant I had to give up an important action. Oh the choices !
Had I focused on the board activity there might have been other stuff I wanted to do as well, but well, one strategy at a time. The fight for Indians can be fierce as they allow you to streamline your hand without forgoing important actions. That is something to consider in the future. But I can see offhand how well it can be mixed and match. I didn't increase my boat size either but that doesn't mean I didn't consider it. Dion had a giant boat as you can see above and I think if the game went on for another few rounds he might have been able to sneak out a win. ( who am I kidding, fat chance. Haha. That boat is waaaaay too big )
But really, a well managed boat size can also give you sufficient flexibility for good combos.
There is some downside to Lewis though.
My first impression was bad due to the card quality. In Essen they gave out another deck of cards because the cards in box are terrible. And indeed they are. But the new cards are not any better either. They are slightly thicker but for a game where the cards are a huge role, I think more could have been done to ensure that the cards survives wear and tear. I would be terrified to play the game unsleeved ( I don't sleeve all my games ).
One concern I had about buying Lewis for myself initially was the complicated iconography on the cards.
After our play, I'm two minds about it. For us ( experienced gamers ) we still had to refer to the card sheet multiple times. Not a whole lot that it slowed down the game, but still, it's not something I like to do in games. Iconography is supposed to make a game streamlined, not fiddly. But I can see that after one play I will more or less be able to identify the cards without any problem ( except a few ). So that might be considered a plus, but it depends on your familiarity with iconography. Not trying to toot my own horn but I tend to pick up iconagraphy really fast, even by just observing people playing. But as my other groups are not on the same level as most gamers, I would be reluctant to see how this sits with them, too much time might be wasted on the card explanations that I might get very bored of the game midway. So it's something to take note and decide for yourself.
For those who generally don't like race games, I will say that Lewis does not feel like a racing game. Sure you are trying to be the first to reach the end goal, but it's not a game where each player has a fixed set of rules to follow and cards to play to reach the end. How you reach the end is completely decided by you, and poor planning will see you at the tailend perhaps forever and forever. Racing games generally mean you are still moving along whether first or last, but in Lewis you move cos you're good at what you do. Of you're terrible you may not even move an inch. So think of it as perhaps a victory point game. And you win cos you got the most in the fastest possible time.
All that being said, I would love to see Lewis hit the table again.
It was a bit long but I felt very engaged throughout. Having played through a lot of the Essen games, I'm having a hard time ranking these babies. Is Lewis better than Russian Railroads ? That's a tough question which I will have to answer one day. But for now, I enjoyed it a lot, and it's something worth hunting down if only to give it a go to see if it's also something you might enjoy.