You couldn’t miss it. As I walked up to my front porch, slouched and tired from not enough sleep and more than enough work, the large package was sitting there. This isn’t an unusual sight as cardboard shipping boxes containing cardboard gaming boxes arrive weekly at my suburban dwelling. This one was different because it was unexpected.
I hurried inside lifting with my legs instead of my back, and laid the thing out on my dining room table with a pietistic moment of silence.
A careful slice of the knife and there it was, that sleek black and gold cover staring me in the eyes with all the atmosphere of an Ingmar Bergman directed game of chess.
This happens often. I toss a wad of cash into the pot of a Kickstarter campaign and several years later a game arrives unexpectedly. It’s like a subscription box that delivers once a year and takes your arm as recompense.
You may have heard of the 7th Continent (cue church bells, doves, and Matthew Fox). It raised eight million dollars over two crowdfunding campaigns and has received much acclaim. As an experience it abandons players on an island and has you working together to lift a cryptic curse. And everyone absolutely loves it.
For good reason too. In many respects this is the ultimate exploration game as you cut through jungle, stumble through snow, and snarl in the face of the weirdest of beings. It’s captivating and overwhelming in the sheer amount of content you can discover over the course of play. One could literally set fire to the rest of their collection and dedicate themselves to the 7th Continent for the rest of the year. Probably the rest of all of your years.
Although I don’t actually recommend that.
Never have I so thoroughly committed myself to a game and felt so conflicted. This monstrosity in a box has provided me with double digit hours of wonderful discovery and adventure. It’s provided some really standup moments of shock and it continually surprised me with the elegance of its core ‘push your luck’ mechanism. In short, it’s a beautiful piece of design and an unparalleled experience – for 12 hours or so.
The 7th Continent thematically exists as a sort of heartbreak simulator. It accomplishes what Fog of Love couldn’t in that it presents a genuine emotional journey of courtship, love, consumation of that love, comfortability, annoyance, aggravation, hate, and eventually divorce. Yeah, that’s quite a bit of steps to unpack and work through. Relationships are complicated, yo.
The problem with a design predicated on exploration is that you need something to explore, something that will eventually be fully discovered and lose its purpose. Think about that for a moment. When the premise of your creation’s fun is in the process of discovery, the lifespan is outright limited. You’re working towards something, and that something is likely an unsatisfied ending. The damn finish line is the knife that’s going to kill you, not the 20 mile long trek.
People like to throw around that special phrase ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey’. Usually to sort of couch disappointment in a revelation that’s not up to snuff. I watched Lost, I know disappointment.
The 7th Continent’s solution for this problem of terminus is to throw it all at you. Not just the kitchen sink, but the loofah, the hand towel, the tiles, and even the blackened grout between them. What feels like the entire run of Dominion, Legendary, and Thunderstone is all crammed into a single box where you must meticulously curate and file each card so as to make retrieval during play minimally painful. By giving you so damn much to explore and wade through, you’ll never hit that unsatisfying end-of-the-line where you look back and question your life choices – at least that’s the theory. And while everything is fresh and exciting, that pain of leafing through cards and maintaining a perfectly organized library will be subdued and easily covered up. Eventually fresh and exciting turns to rote and monotonous, end of the journey or not.
The island feels enormous in the early days. You’ll push through alien territory and encounter bizarre vegetation and bizarre-er lifeforms. You’ll hit breathtaking pieces of geography and your mind will race with possibility. It all feels so damn wide open and refreshingly free. You can do whatever you want and go wherever you’d like.
That’s the premise at least. It’s not the reality, however, in that depending on a specific curse you choose prior to play – think of curses as very light scenarios or objectives – you will need to travel a specific path and head to specific points on the continent.
But what about that curious bit of flora off to the west?
Veer off course and the gods of the lost continent will smack you in the forehead with a sledge hammer. The worst part is you won’t even realize you’ve been jerked around and gutted until it’s too late. Sometimes this will even occur by accident as perhaps you’ve missed a clue or made a false judgment. Forgiving is not an adjective I’d apply to this release.
A key element of mainting a cooperative game, particularly one hinged on mystery, is a sense of tension. This design accomplishes that by utilizing your pool of action cards as currency and health. Whenever you want to move or perform a task you need to discard cards from the deck. Sometimes you’ll need to flip them one at a time and look for a certain threshold of stars that appear in the left margin, the requirement set by the difficulty of a skill check. Typically you may draw additional cards beyond what’s required to maximize your odds of succeeding at the cost of running through your deck faster.
This works well and feels extraordinarily smooth as a light ‘push your luck’ mechanism. The problem is that it’s fatally flawed when paired with the overall structure of play. When you eventually burn through your cards you risk the game coming to an end from a single flip. This is exceptionally tense and wonderful in its torture, that is until it actually occurs. There ain’t no way in hell I’m starting an eight hour session completely over because a deck of cards decided to spit in my mouth. Screw your faraway gods of a lost kingdom – as I said, I watched Lost and I’m not getting taken for a ride again.
Stomachs growling like an MGM mascot, our chins raise ever so higher as we come across a set of hoof prints in a clearing. Finally, we can hunt. The collective sigh of relief shakes the poorly insulated windows in my dark basement.
“So…how many cards are we going to draw?'”I let out with a wince.
“If we flip a curse we’re done. Let’s just reveal one and then I can add two stars with this card I’ve been saving.” Ben states with hope.
We nod along in unison as the plan is sound.
So you cheat, or at least you should because it’s downright absurd. I already get antsy when playing multiple loops in T.I.M.E. Stories and want to skip past the most repetitive parts, so I sure as hell am not going to sink an entire day back into re-exploring places I’ve already been.
“It’s all about the journey”, said no one earnestly.
The game foresees this problem and tries to handle it. When one of those wonderfully illustrated map cards comes onto the table you do so by referencing the number on its back. Often there are multiple copies of a given location which means the details may change when you visit it again. You’re instructed to draw the card from the pool randomly so you never quite know what you’re going to run into.
This clever trick does keep things somewhat fresh for an extended period of time, but it’s not a miracle and the features rarely change so drastically that they’ll re-instill that vigor from your first run through.
You can also hunt for food which integrates a resource management aspect into the game. When you kill beasts and acquire meat you will haul it raw, alongside your other limited inventory, until you decide to stop and cook it. Or you can scream YOLO into the jungle and consume the rainbow bird-gator hybrid rare. Sometimes this comes at a steep cost.
Finding sustenance allows you to shuffle cards back into your deck and prolong that horrendous abbreviated end-game. The tension that arises from the see-saw of cards in and out of your draw pile is captivating for a time, and that pressure certainly feels at home in the survival setting of the game. Unfortunately, like many aspects of this design that process becomes repetitive and work-like only a few hours into the expedition. When aspects of your game start to become a chore you have a problem. A game that was once aggravating members of your household while permanently setup on your dining room table starts to come off the shelf less and less. The joy fades and the yoke of ‘the man’ sets in.
When you view this commitment and the adventure from a bit of distance, it appears almost farcical. It’s as if we’ve been put into a reverse situation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. As we emerge from the underground, our eyes wide with hope, we discover a land of possibility that’s inexhaustible. It’s only much later that we realize this is in fact a facade and our confined dwelling was the reality to which we must return.
And now we’ve come to the most important part of the review. You want to know – “is that lack of fulfilling resolution a cost worth paying for a solid 12 hours of enjoyment? And what about that large price tag?”
‘You do it’ I murmur to Ben. There’s no way in hell I’m going to be the one to pull our hunt result.
Ben nods and the rest have no problem shunting the pressure to the tallest person in the room.
‘Here it goes…’ Ben affirms.