There we were, traipsing through a remote Caribbean Island searching for, among other things, the (in)famous Captain Roche’s lost treasure. Things had been going well for us. We had made several discoveries – including of one entirely new species of beetle, which the team’s resident loud-mouth rogue, Kiri “Kiwi” Paakariki, was both not impressed and slightly disgusted by – and had much to show for our expedition already. Captain Roche’s buried treasure would make for excellent icing atop that cake, and almost certainly catapult us ahead of that arrogant Rivaleaux in the Society’s standings.
One must have their priorities.
We were traipsing through the jungle, ever nearing our goal, when the masked wrestler and team muscle Dolores Garcia happened to look up and spy a huge shadow falling over the group. We scarce had a moment to react before we were beset by a massive ape, which our expedition’s captain Anna Proskiriakova fittingly dubbed “titan ape,” and an veritable swarm of chimps.
Things were looking almost immediately grim. Between the ape’s collosal blows, which nearly put Kiwi out of commission, and the constant taunts of the swarming chimps sending our team into a near-unthinking fury, we were starting to think this might be the end of our little expedition.
But Dolores refused to give up. With a mighty cry of “I AM LUCHADORE!” she leapt at the ape, managing to pin him for a moment to allow Kiwi to escape being made into a permanent – and slightly squishy – fixture of the ground upon which she stood. Encouraged by her moment of reprieve, Kiwi did what she does best: she continued to hurl taunts at the ape, who was so enraged that he was unable to properly defend himself from Dolores’ assault. With Anna dispatching the rest of the infuriating monkeys using one of her borderline-unethical experimental concoctions, Dolores was able to wrestle the massive beast to the ground and subdue it.
With the magnificent beast bound by as many ropes and chains as our crew could manage, we carted it onto our ship, planning to bring it back to England to showcase on stage and from the experience, Anna had much to write to the scientific journals, debunking the previous theories about the size limits of the Caribbean apes. Kiwi had an excellent story to tell around the seedy bars and Dolores…well, her eyes shone all the brighter and she could be heard to mutter, “I am luchadore,” to herself proudly for the rest of the expedition.
If you let it, Renowned Explorers: International Society can tell a million stories like the one above. A quasi board-game with turn-based, hexagonal combat, Renowned Explorers – brought to you by Abbey Games, the geniuses behind the surprisingly good puzzle/god game Reus – puts you in the role of the captain of a team of explorers hoping to make their name in an old-timey explorer society (the titular Renowned Explorers Society) during the Age of Discovery in the 15th Century. You are charged with forming a team of three unique individuals (out of a total pool of 20) with different strengths and advantages that you will put to use in trying to be the best darn team of explorers you can be.
Each of the 20 potential party members has unique and varied skills and abilities. You could choose the more-than-slightly-mad scientist Anna Proskuriakova who is well-versed in electromagnetics and engineering…and able to electrocute anyone who stands in her way if they’re not terrified into fleeing by her insane cackle first. Or the adorable Austrian stage magician Hildegard Haas, who can charm even the coldest (or most violent heart) with her honeyed words or a well-timed magic trick. Or the aggrivating Kiwi Paakariki, whose cutting jabs can cause enemies to go into a frothing frenzy.
And the best part is, each of these strengths manifest just as you would expect them to. Anna is an exceptional attacker who can also intimidate her enemies into a terrified state. Hildegard is very good at making her enemies rethink their desire to attack her team through her charm and stage tricks. And Kiwi can distract an opponent by sending them into a mad, frothing rage…making them more vulnerable for one of your beefier explorers to take out.
This is where Renowned Explorers shines and may even be revolutionary. It makes debates and rhetorical approaches to conflict fun…all by simply turning them all into a combat scenario where you use words as attacks as much as your fists. Sure, in a lot of fights you are exchanging physical blows with people you disagree with. But you may just as often be debating with a bunch of loud-mouthed hick villagers about the merits of science and the study of ancient artifacts. Or trying to trick some simple rube out of their treasures. And Renowned Explorers treats all of these as combat scenarios, with your words – either friendly or devious – being used as rhetorical “attacks.”
You see, instead of hit points, characters in Renowned Explorers have “spirit,” which is broken as their resolve to fight becomes weaker. Punching them in the face is a sure-fire way to do this…but so is convincing them that your cause is just. Or just hurting their feelings until they run away. Some of this can seem a little silly (Kiwi causing someone to go into a murderous rage shouldn’t technically end the fight but it does), but it’s a fascinating concept that is overall handled really well. And the light tone of the game and its charming, cartoony graphics go a long way to forgiving such suspension-of-disbelief silliness.
At the very least, if the idea of rhetorical combat doesn’t excite you as much as it does me (and I’m willing to admit that I’m pretty weird), Renowned Explorers is a more-than functional and enjoyable turn-based strategy game that will almost certainly appeal to all fans of the genre.
Naturally, your characters level up as you progress and gain additional abilities that benefit each of the three approaches. Kiwi can enrage whole groups of opponents standing around her. Anna can throw experimental concoctions that explode and hurt groups of enemies. Hildegard can cheer her allies on and heal them. The leveling trees are simple – consisting of two choices for each level – but their simplicity doesn’t hurt the game any and I think anything more would make the game a little too complex. But I’m willing to admit that more in-depth skill trees could be nice.
One of the more genius things that Renowned Explorers does is not tying your conflict resolution methods to your team or any overall rewards. Say you have a diplomat-heavy team but you actually want to fight your way through a few encounters, either because the situation seems more fitting for violence or because your team is actually surprisingly strong with their fists. Or because you just want to punch someone. You can do that (in fact, there are diplomats that are surprisingly good at fighting, like Charles Templeton, the rough-and-tumble Manchester butler). And you’ll still be rewarded (mostly) the same. Ultimately, you’re not punished for playing the game your way.
Each encounter – or, more accurately, each reward or conflict resolution scenario – is tied to a specific approach. At one point, you have to retrieve an ancient artifact from a wary and slightly-crazy abbess in Scotland. How you do that is entirely up to you. You can choose to sweet talk her if that is your team’s strength, convince her that it’s better off in a museum than in her dusty old abbey. Or you can burst in and punch the old crone in the face. Or intimidate her into giving it up and make her cry. The game accounts for all three approaches and each resolution scene is slightly different depending on how you play out the scenario.
I was even surprised to find out that the resolution “story” is slightly different depending on who you bring along. In the above abbess scenario, I had the Luchadore Dolores along and, our team being remarkably brute-force heavy, we decided to break in and beat up the old woman (hey, the Age of Discovery was a brutal time!). In the end, we got what we wanted, but the game pointed out that Dolores, being a woman of faith herself, was wrestling with guilt over what the team had done. I’m not sure how this affected the game mechanically, but it was a nice touch that helped to engross me even more in my own story.
You can choose how to resolve each scenario based on a number of criteria. You can choose to play the entire game deceptive, if that’s where your team’s strengths lie. Or you could adapt your tactics to each scenario, either to match the tone of the story you’re trying to tell or to try and counter your enemy’s approach…because they can choose to be aggressive, friendly or devious too.
That’s right, sometimes the enemy will be the one trying to be reasonable and friendly (or wily and deceptive)…but the result is no less dire. If you let yourself be swayed by their charismatic tactics or distracted by their deception, the fight will be over just as quickly as if you just let them beat you senseless.
So adapting your approach to your enemy’s is a valid (and sometimes entirely necessary) tactic. You could choose to match friendliness to friendliness…but you could also choose to stab your friendly opponent in the back. Each approach is strong and weak to another approach. If your enemy is trying to sweet talk you, your first attack will take them off guard, dealing extra damage…if you don’t mind being a bit of a jerk. On the same token, if your enemy is swinging a sword in your face, it may not be the best time to try and negotiate a peace treaty with them…but you may have a lot of luck teasing and taunting them if your team is good at that sort of thing.
Or, you know, just punch them in the face back. It’s ultimately all up to you how you want to approach each fight. Some approaches are better than others (some enemies are resistant to certain attacks) but for the most part, you can complete every encounter any way you choose.
Outside of combat, Renowned Explorers plays like a board game and as fun as the combat is, the non-combat stuff is equally enjoyable. You explore various locales looking for treasures and artifacts to bring home to the Society and leapfrog your standings so you can overtake your rival, Rivaleaux (subtle, Abbey Games), and become the greatest explorer in the society. You do so by moving your team from space to space, unlocking encounters (combat), reward tokens, even special scenarios that give you a chance to improve your characters – either permanently or temporarily – by utilizing each of your team members’ strengths. These scenarios can vary from having to elude a pack of wolves to cataloging a new species of jungle flower to finding treasure in an abandoned Scottish estate to trying to scale a mountain to find out if treasures lay on top…and here too, your choice of team becomes integral.
Besides being skilled in one or two different combat approaches (aggressive, devious or friendly as mentioned above), each character you choose to bring along also has a background with skills and talents that help with these overworld, out-of-combat scenarios. Scouts tend towards roguish qualities or survival skills, so they can help with challenges that require you to sneak around or survive in the wild (as much of what you do is in untamed parts of the world, this is understandably important). Scientists can be good at different disciplines, from physics to biology to chemistry, or can be engineers, well-versed in fixing machines or putting together contraptions that help you out. Speakers can be diplomats or beguilers. Fighters can be athletes or brawlers…it adds even more to consider when putting together your team which, in turn, makes the possible combinations even more endless and adds nearly infinite replayability to the game.
And even then, you’ll find the occasional oddities – like the aforementioned Charles Templeton who is almost as good with his fists as he is with his words. It adds a lot more flavor to the character selection process and you could spend hours just starting and restarting to try out all the characters to learn their strengths and weaknesses.
Mechanically, there are many things that Renowned Explorers very does right from a design standpoint and causes it to stand out as exceptionally well designed and one of the ones that stands out as being particularly clever is having four separate character “classes” (scout, scientist, fighter and speaker) but only allowing you to bring three individuals along with you on your quest to be the very best (like no one ever was).
This forces you to be very careful in your composition because naturally one “class” must be omitted. So you must try to decide if it’s worth giving up a scientist to bring a good speaker along…or perhaps trying to find a fighter with some experience in survival so you can eschew having to bring a scout with you. You could even feasibly bring a group of egg-head scientists if you wanted. There are advantages and disadvantages to every option, which makes every single game of Renowned Explorers (which, as the opening screen is quick to point out, is meant to be played multiple times) unique and makes trying different combinations an absolute joy…which, in turn, defuses your anger when you fail in your quest again. Because overall each session is short and sweet and it’s fun to start over!
About the worst thing I’m prepared to say about Renowned Explorers is that there isn’t more to it. I wish there were about twice as many places to explore and a hundred more things to find. I will admit that I haven’t “beaten” the game…I’m not entirely sure where it ends after many, many hours invested over the holiday weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more after you overtake Rivaleaux in the Society standings, but the game does seem to be building to a climax at that point, so it also wouldn’t be unfitting if it did end then too (or maybe enter into a sandbox mode? I don’t know).
But even if it didn’t end at that point, this is one of the rare games that I absolutely beg the developers to come out with copious amounts of DLC because it can only get stronger with more content – more maps to explore, more explorers to explore them with, more skills, more surprises around every corner…and that has to count for something in the game’s favor.