The Lost Expedition
A game by Peer Sylvester
Note: The most cursory of historical research went into the writing of this fictionalized session report on the card game The Lost Expedition.
My dearest Slimane,
I cannot conceive of a place so different from Geneva and my beloved Algiers than the province of Mato Grosso. But I speak neither of the tropical weather nor the lush environs of the city of Cuiabá; I refer here chiefly to the commotion that my fellow explorers, Messrs. Roosevelt and Chapman Andrews, have precipitated as we prepare for our expedition through the Amazon interior. We are but three souls, and yet between the two of them they have created a hullabaloo of unloading and transporting materiel to rival arrangements for war. Even the press has followed us from Manhattan–from one riverine city to another–and so perspiring journalists, pen and paper clutched in fingers swollen from the heat, skulk about the teeming docks.
Nonetheless, the papers consistently omit one important detail about our expedition. For we are encircled and enclosed and en-fussed over by an entire cavalry’s worth of assistants—Roosevelt’s standard retinue, it would seem—porters, carriers, raft men, guides, and the indefensible luxury of two mess cooks. Why, I crossed the Saharan desert with naught but a sulking dromedary and a waterskin!
Men. I shake my head in disbelief.
Did I say Roosevelt? Does this name not sound familiar? Why yes, the third member of our illustrious band of explorers is none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the former president of the United States of America himself! As you can imagine, his presence has made social interaction somewhat constrained. Though he insists that we call him “Teddy,” asking that we treat him as a fellow adventurer, Mr. Chapman Andrews and I still address him as “Mr. President.” It is rather difficult to pretend he did not formerly occupy the loftiest of political perches.
Though the President—former President, I correct myself—is known for his well-known love for the wilderness and all things masculine and military, I have my doubts, and fear that the presence of Mr. Roosevelt may be a liability to our adventure. I would not be in error if I compare him to one of those lumbering hippopotami half-submerged in the Nile, with only his eyes and prodigious snout peeking from above the water. But at least a river horse includes water as one of his natural habitats, and I have suspicions that the President may not, unless he is lolling in a clawfoot bathtub.
As for Mr. Roy Chapman Andrews — or is he Andrews Chapman? I forget — I hear he is steadily climbing up the ranks at the American Museum of Natural History, but I have not had the opportunity to converse with him much, since he was preoccupied with loading and unloading the equipment — empty birdcages, snares of different kinds, glass terraria. He is an old desert hand, as I am, so I feel a rough kinship with him. But when I pointed out to him the possible inadequacy of our rations — only four tokens each of food and ammunition for the entire expedition! — he calmly replied that food should be plentiful in the jungle, having had extensive experience the world over (neither the Arctic and the Gobi are rainforests, I wanted to add), and that no doubt we would encounter “amicable natives” with whom we could trade.
“But the unpredictability of the cards we are dealt—“ I began, but he had started walking away, dismissive of what may have seemed to him as womanly chatter.
Alas, I had a similar experience with Mr. Roosevelt. He had seen me in passing, and, without hesitation, asked if I could “brew a pot of coffee for the lads.” Can you imagine? (Though it is quite possible he had first mistaken me for one of the (male) apprentices. He will not be the first.) He seemed sincerely apologetic when I informed him that I was his fellow explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, but I cannot help but think they see me as a mere mascot, an ornamental bauble for the press to write about. I fear this is a suspicion forever to be harbored by my fellow women, to be treated as simply that of the fairer sex. Why, if they only knew of my carousing with the kif sellers of Marrakech!
And of course, as we are about to push off the dock, Mr. Roosevelt must deliver a speech, for the benefit of the newspapers: “This will be the last expedition into the Amazon, for we will map the river to its source,” he announces to the weary crowd assembled in the heat. “The very last.”
“It’ll be the lost expedition if we are not careful,” I mumble under my breath.
- We set off on our journey and — what luck! — we come across an abandoned camp. The President, to my surprise, acquits himself nicely with his camping skills, or shall I say, scavenging skills, allowing us to acquire more. The camp itself, however, is a sober reminder that others have been on this trek before — and have all failed in their quest.
- Presently we come across the Kalapalos, from whom we receive even more jungle and navigation skills, letting us progress further into the green. Our interpreter informs us that another tribe resides just an hour’s trek southwest.
- We come across a circle of mud huts populated by the Xavante who, having had prior contact with other city dwellers, did not look surprised at our presence, and pointed us in the right direction. I must pause here for a moment and decry the unfortunate tendency by the press — and by those supposedly more enlightened politicians and explorers of all stripes — to call the natives as “savages” who “lack” civilization. Their vast scientific knowledge of the jungle, the complexities of their tribal and political arrangements–calling these indigenes “primitive” surely says more about the speaker and his lack of enlightenment. And surely they would find our own cultures as backward and incomprehensible as some of us do their own! The reputed bloodthirstiness of the natives, I wager, would be entirely warranted, for we are trespassers in their territories, after all.
- From afar we hear the sound of rushing waters, and as we draw nearer, both Mr. Campbell and Mr. Roosevelt voice their hesitations, seeing the river in front of us. “We should walk along the bank and find a narrower part of the river to cross,” Mr. Campbell says. My maps, however, show that this is the safest point to cross the river, and I can see the gentle slope on the opposite bank, suggesting a shallowness in its depths, but I volunteer to walk further north, on my own, to explore the territory. Anything, really, to get away from these men. The trek, alas, wears me out, so I lose one health, but the River Crossing lets us avoid a Mudslide, to which we would have surely lost our supplies. But I was right.
It is now evening, and I cannot imagine a darker, blacker sky. Beneath the canopy of the huimbas we cannot see a single star. No constellations to guide us, no moon, just the oppressiveness of the cicadas and the unbearable humidity: a damp and hot blanket thrown against the stars.
I do miss the desert so. It is where my heart will always be: the endless shimmer of heat; the sun, both cruel and benevolent, penetrating my skin; sleeping in the desert under the belt of Orion and Canis Major; the melodious cacophony of the bazaars. But the Brazilian jungle holds such rich treasures, Slimane, that I wish you were here to witness them: a sudden flash of turquoise in the trees when a spangled cotinga takes flight; crimson strands of heliconia; and innumerable shades of green upon green upon green! The jungle breathes, like some vast sentient organism; it whispers like the desert, but it also chatters and squeaks and roars, much to my utter delight.
- Foolhardiness in foreign countries, it seems, is a chronic American impulse. Mr. Roosevelt, the stubborn goat, has decided he must climb a tree to get a better Vantage Point and, despite our protestations, he hauls himself up a couple of branches — and promptly injures his arm in his pursuit of more Jungle skills. This was not a wise trade. Furthermore, in his attempt at descent, he plunges through the branches and falls upon his would-be helpers, injuring me and Roy. The incident would have been comical under different circumstances, if one deems the fall of a two-hundred pound man upon one’s head, with leaves aflutter, to be a source of amusement. A mortified Mr. Roosevelt suggests we change paths, and we are too bruised and angry to disagree.
- Curses! Roy and I have an Infected Wound, reducing our collective health by two, but we make the most of it by acquiring a Camping skill. I have been in worse scrapes myself, but my wound seems to fester more rapidly in the tropical heat. Along with the nigh constant swarms of mosquitoes that seem to follow us wherever we go, I feel we are trapped in a green inferno. Already some members of our expedition have deserted us, enraging Mr. Roosevelt, but I cannot be angry with the deserters. They are simply not as desperate as we are to find the fabled city.
- Our blind trudge into the darkness could not have been made more miserable by the arrival of a fanged visitor: Vampire Bats! We lose the previously acquired Camping skill, but Roy is more adept than I expect and manages to snare one of those flying bloodsucking rodents. At first he refuses to dispose of the bat, preferring to keep a specimen for his museum in New York, but we prevail upon him to make the rational choice, and so the bat ends up on a spit over an open flame. It tastes like chicken.
- We come across the Amanaye, a people who have intermarried with Portuguese speakers. With some relief, I watch as Roy pulls a portion of the barbecued bat out of his rucksack to offer it to a native, who does not refuse it, and who seeks one more of our rations. We part reluctantly with two food items, but the man points the way in exchange, and we go deeper into the jungle. I see too that we have lost three more members of our party, preferring to stay behind with the Amanaye. I do not blame them.
- We come to a river where I detect some unusual splashing in the current. Piranhas! Those fabled man-eating fish of the Brazilian rainforest! Roy, as is his wont, cannot contain his excitement on encountering a new species, but in his haste to acquire a specimen with a precariously balanced glass jar, his right pinky finger is ferociously nibbled, and he loses one health. I tell him he will be forever unable to lift the finger while sipping a cup of tea. He is not amused, but Mr. Roosevelt and I are. Nonetheless we are able to go deeper into the jungle.
- The events of the evening are wearing us down, but one final trial awaits. Towards dawn we hear a stirring in the leaves, and see a pair of glowing eyes in the light of our torches — the unmistakable presence of a Jaguar. It is a terrifying and beautiful beast, and we are momentarily petrified in our tracks. “Enough lollygagging,” Mr. Roosevelt says, with the preternatural calm of an experienced big-game hunter, and lifts his rifle to his shoulder. There is a deafening explosion, and the jaguar flees in fright. We gain a Jungle skill, but Roy cannot help thinking about the bullet.
It is dawn. The sunlight, struggling through the canopy, illuminates the drawn faces of my fellow explorers, haggard with exhaustion. I recognize the look in their eyes. It is desperation, and I know, without having to peer into a looking-glass, that I resemble them. Wolf eyes. Hunger and thirst together.
We have stopped conversing about the lost city. This is for the best. We have also banished all thoughts of returning to Cuiaba, for we have come so very, very far. Roy has turned withdrawn and sullen, and sucks on the same sodden cigarette like a babe with a pacifier. Teddy — I call him by his Christian name now for we have grown closer, united in our miseries — has lost his rough and ready demeanor, and has taken on an air of grim determination. This, to me, is concerning, as it suggests he may stop at nothing, including the untimely demise of one of us, to achieve the object of his quest.
And so perhaps will I. The city is close.
- Roy, ever so curious about his surroundings, recognizes a species of Psychotria, and he enjoins us all to smoke it. You are certain, I ask, peering at the bunched leaves, that these leaves are not meant to be used as a poultice? Roy is quite certain, having learned of these Healing Herbs from a Peruvian shaman. To tarry in this manner seems contrary to our grand aim of finding the lost city–and of course, finding food and medicine and ammunition for our collective survival–but the spirit of scientific inquiry momentarily possesses us, and we agree to partake of the herb. The smoke filling our lungs is vile, and we fall to the ground, coughing and heaving like consumptives. But an unmistakable feeling of euphoria descends upon us — a sensation of heaviness in the limbs twinned with lightness in my mental capacities, as if my worldly cares have melted in the air. It is an experience I am familiar with, akin to mushrooms in Morocco. Teddy is frightened, and grips my arm in his confusion. Roy is evidently experienced in such matters, lying back contentedly, a look of stunned bliss on his face. I am granted an otherworldly vision: jaguars and snakes lying together, bearded dwarves waltzing amidst the galaxies, and an Ambush at the end of our path, to my dismay. And in my languorous stupor, we miss the Old Pathway on my map, which is quite unfortunate, for I was relying on the pathway to penetrate the interior even further! Nonetheless our spirits are lifted, and we gain two health — extremely difficult to procure under any circumstances.
- Several hours later, we walk further, emboldened, until we hear the sound of rushing water, far more powerful than the river we had crossed at the beginning of our expedition. In our haste, and no doubt our growing weakness, we drop one of our food rations at the Rapids, and our path is prolonged (Insects at the end of our journey), but onward we go. We are very close, but must face even more adversities! Our food supply is dwindling perilously.
- After we cross the rapids, we encounter a group of fearsome gentlemen, their faces dyed crimson with crushed berries, as if gearing up for war. The spears and arrows they point at our direction make their intentions clear. It is the Hi’ Aito’ Ihi. I am convinced, my dear Slimane, that we have come to the proverbial end of our road, and that these words I hurriedly scrawl on paper will forever be lost in the jungle, and that I shall never see you again! Teddy, ever the statesman, bravely steps forward to propose a trade, but an arrow is loosed by an anxious tribesman and strikes Teddy on his left shoulder. A commotion ensues, but we manage to convince the Hi’ Aito’ Ihi that Teddy is a powerful man, and, with the gift of our remaining ammunition, we are shown further into the forest. One step nearer, but Teddy is one injury away from disaster. He manages to stagger forward. No good can come of this; I can see the newspapermen, hovering like vultures over carrion, having a feast if an American president were to perish deep in the Amazon jungle.
- We could not be luckier. A Deserted Outpost! No doubt curious of human habitation, a Cougar appears at the end of the path, but we take the opportunity to let Teddy rest, gaining one more health, and we acquire more Camping skills.
- And finally, we come to a village, and we recognize the Tapirapé, and I exclaim in joy, for they are the heralded guardians of the lost city! Because of our jungle skills, they instruct us to climb the crest of a hill, and though elevations are the last obstacle we want to encounter, we wearily trudge to the top of the hill.
- I have seen the pyramids at Giza at sunrise, and the shimmer of unearthly mirages at Chott el Djerid. But I will surely remember at my deathbed the memory of hacking away at lianas as we rose through the jungle canopy, of the fire in my companions’ eyes as we inched ever so closer to our goal, of the mysterious stillness of the insects as we climbed, as if to underscore the solemnity of our impending discovery. For as we crested the peak we saw the spectacle below us, and as the sun was close to setting it seemed as if the entire valley was aflame with a hushed golden light, and we saw building after building, temples upon temples, boulevards and city squares, a feat of engineering to rival the citadels of Manhattan and Casablanca and Peking combined. For the lost expedition had found, at last, the lost city of Z.
What the game’s about
In the Lost Expedition, you control three adventurers with different areas of expertise (the jungle, navigation, and camping), forging a path through the Amazon rainforest to the fabled Lost City of Gold, with the scantest of resources (food, ammunition, or health) at your disposal.
I love the immersive quality of the game. The Lost Expedition had me going down a rabbit hole looking up Roosevelt’s expedition, the flora (and psychopharmacology) of the Amazon rain forest, and Isabelle Eberhardt and Roy Chapman Andrews. (What fascinating people! Too bad they weren’t quite contemporaries–Eberhardt died in a flash flood in 1903, 10 years before Roosevelt and Cândido Rondon went to the Amazon–and therefore couldn’t team up, Avengers-style, to go exploring together in real life.) That, to me, is a mark of how powerful this game is in evoking a different time and place. The way the gameplay is structured around discrete and thematically similar events makes it ripe for a coherent narrative to emerge (unlike, say, in Arkham Horror)—and the fruits of that writing exercise are what you see above.
The crisp and colorful ligne claire art by Garen Ewing (and check out the Hergé-style typeface) is gorgeous, showcased splendidly by the tarot-sized cards. (The larger size of the cards is helpful, because the resource iconography can be a little confusing, but that’s a mere quibble.)
Mechanically speaking, the game at first glance seems like a simple matter of being at the mercy of a stacked deck and minimizing the effect of random perils. For the jungle is the toughest of enemies. Each card, comprising different stages through your journey through the jungle, has its cost: sometimes a very steep one, in terms of resources or expertise (which ultimately boils down to health) or even a combination of the above.
But there’s actually a fair amount of crunchy tactics that are under the player’s control, especially involving the swapping or skipping of cards. Both the Morning and Evening phases give the player the ability to play the randomly-drawn cards—either from the six in your hand, or from the adventure deck—and position them as optimally as possible to allow you to travel down the path.
The tension ratchets up as I send my increasingly hungry explorers deeper and deeper into the jungle. The story that emerges eclipses the game mechanics; The Lost Expedition becomes less about resource and hand management and more about desperation and survival. Doom is not inevitable, although most of the time—my win rate is currently at 22 percent—you simply die trying.
Death is swift; my sessions average about 19 minutes. It’s only when you figure out that an explorer’s death is practically inevitable that you start specifically concentrating on the Move cards that allow you to advance. The game’s win condition—getting to the Lost City— does force you to play aggressively, that is to say, megalomaniacally, like Klaus Kinski as Aguirre. (Sometimes I’ve chosen to do a “sub-optimal” move by keeping a character alive instead of advancing into the jungle.) My victory above was my first and only time to win with three explorers, and I was extremely lucky I had selected it for a session report.