I’m a mechanics-first gamer. My attempts to short-change theme are legendary in my lunch games group at work. But every once in a while, a thematic game will get its hooks in me.
And the 7th Continent has its hooks in me.
Note: There are no specific spoilers in this review, but I do talk in general terms of things that might happen on the continent (none of them all that spoilery). Still, for those who wish to retain an entirely blank slate about the continent, you might want to move along. Also, this review is based on solitaire plays only (it plays cooperatively at higher counts), and I have included the What Goes Up Must Come Down expansion, and all its content, into my games.
The 7th Continent is based on the concept of the Fighting Fantasy series of books. Similar to Choose Your Own Adventure, players make choices, attempt skill checks, and receive the consequences of their choices. However, unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure books (and the Choose Your Own Adventure game), your consequences are (usually) less arbitrary, and there’s a full and satisfying game included.
The premise is that on your return from an expedition to the 7th Continent, it doesn’t take you long to recognize that you’ve been cursed. The only way to undo the curse is to return to the continent, the source of the curse and thus the source of your salvation.
What I love about The 7th Continent is that from the very beginning, there is an air of discovery. While your character may have traveled to the continent before, this is your first time, so everything is brand-new. You’ll poke your nose in every corner, search every cranny. Yes, you’re looking for clues for lifting the curse, but you’re also curious about this new world you find yourself in, with its different terrain types to navigate and mysteries to discover. It’s all a bit frightening because of unknown danger, but it’s also exciting as you find your footing.
But in some ways, this isn’t all that noteworthy. A plot that relies solely on twists and surprises is good–once. The challenge for a board game–at least for one as massive and expensive as The 7th Continent–is to make the game plot-driven enough to keep players engrossed but substantial enough to keep them coming back. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is usually read once and discarded. There’s a reason Moby-Dick is a classic: there’s something besides the plot that makes readers want to inhabit its pages.
And, really, that is The 7th Continent’s main achievement: it is a story and survival game that is consistently interesting even after you’ve seen a good deal of what it has to offer. Last year I wrote about Discover: Lands Unknown. It is a similar story and survival game, but after one play of Discover on each terrain type in my copy, the rest of the game was a slog. I dutifully played through each scenario, but it was out of sheer doggedness to get my money’s worth rather than the joy of discovery. The variety promised in each game box was a hodgepodge of precooked options rather than arising from player decisions. It felt like I had stepped into someone else’s story without the possibility to alter it.
Contrast this with The 7th Continent, where the tagline “YOU are the hero” should be taken literally, at least if “hero” means “decider.” You make the choices. You decide whether to go east or west, whether to reach your hand in that hole or not, whether to attempt a climb without the proper gear or not, whether to take a hostile view toward the continent’s denizens or not. And your choices affect what happens.
This is modeled through the ingenious card-filing system, where cards are “banished” (removed from play completely), indicating what most of us know through experience: by choosing one thing, we have chosen against the other thing. Sometimes we can retrace our steps and try again; other times, by choosing door #1, door #2 remains locked forever.
What I’ve described here doesn’t seem all that different from Discover. Obviously, any game with static content has to have static paths to follow. That decision you make to do X will always produce Y, right? Well, not necessarily. The 7th Continent remains compelling for a few reasons. The first is its sheer volume and thus variety. Whenever you explore, you may know the general lay of the terrain, but exploration cards (which create a similar effect to the fog of war in real-time strategy PC games) block each new piece of the continent, and before you can move on, you have to see what you might encounter there. Sure, that tree is where you’ve always known it would be, but today there might be a creature blocking your access, or a storm overhead, or you might hear a distant melody, or… That’s just it. It could be just about anything. You never know what you’ll find on the exploration cards. And while these cards might sound utterly random, they’re keyed to the different regions of the continent, so they all make some thematic sense with regard to what you’re doing and where you’re walking.
In addition to the variety of the exploration cards, there’s the variety of the terrain cards themselves. Many if not most terrain cards have multiple versions in the box, and these are not identical: you shuffle them when you have to draw them and put one on the board. Maybe you’ll find something new the next time you visit. The terrain cards are also different colors–green or gold–and you can only view the gold cards once there are no more green cards available, which might be banished because of player choices or exhausted through other means. Either way, the continent changes as you explore it.
There’s also the variety of playable characters (each of which has different strengths), the variety of equipment available, the variety of skill cards, and even, with the expansion, the variety of play modes–all of which give the game a different flavor and can even allow access to portions of the continent that were inaccessible before.
But for me, even the variety here isn’t what makes repeat plays interesting. Rather, it’s the masterful sleight of hand that the designers have employed to make even the same well-trod terrain seem new with each curse you attempt to lift. I’ve heard it said that magic is simply the art of directing attention, and the designers of the continent seem to subscribe to this point of view. Each curse has you paying attention to one thing, but the next curse might have you paying attention to something else.
For “The Voracious Goddess”–the recommended first full-length curse–I drew a crude map of the continent so that if I got lost, I could find my way back or find where I needed to go. I marked landmarks that I thought were important and starred places to revisit. When I finished the curse and started a new one, I pulled out my map again, thinking it would make the next curse simple. Instead, what I found was that I had been focusing my attention on the things necessary for “The Voracious Goddess,” and I had completely ignored what I needed to do for the next curse. The land was brand new to me as now the details that seemed inconsequential before were what I needed to pay attention to. And I’ve found this true in each curse. Even when you’re seeing the same portions of the continent, you’re seeing them with new eyes.
The game also cordons off portions of the continent using an ingenious banner system. You might be instructed to draw a specific card, but if you have a curse card or a specific item card, you can draw a card of a different number. Maybe a torch lets you see better in a cave, or a raft lets you more easily navigate water, or that distant sound has new meaning for you when you are cursed in this particular way. It’s hard to express why, but every time I get to draw a different card, it makes me feel a little like a member of an elite club. “Skip the line, friend. You walk over here.”
Beyond this, the game changes as you discover new aspects of the continent. You might discover that a certain plant’s berries increase your chances of performing certain tasks, or that another plant is poisonous to certain enemies, or that a certain melody, played on your makeshift pan-pipes, stirs feelings of nostalgia or regret. There is so much to discover in the box that you will continually find new and exciting things to do and try.
Of course, I mentioned earlier that the game is usually less arbitrary than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I chose the word usually because sometimes…well, it feels just as arbitrary. It seems like a good idea to explore this hidden nook! And instead you’re attacked. It seems like the game wants me to do this thing! But I’m punished severely for it. I’ll admit that on my first play of the game, I was annoyed by consequences that seemed to punish me for my curiosity. Isn’t this an exploration game?! Why is the game giving me negative feedback when I try to explore?!
First, an aside: I have young children, and most of my time on The 7th Continent has happened over naps or at bedtime. It’s entirely possible to die on The 7th Continent, and my foolhardy curiosity led me to many untimely deaths in The Voracious Goddess. But…I just kept going anyway rather than starting over. Yes, I know, this is cheating, and I should feel bad. But I don’t. The alternative was quitting altogether. I found out after the fact that there is a way to play on “Immortal Mode,” which lets a player die as many times as necessary but changes the game a little each time. I now play on Immortal Mode exclusively because I don’t have time or desire to start over each time I die. Of course, since my first foray on the continent, despite dying several times in that adventure, I haven’t died since.
And that’s what I want to highlight here: even if the game seems arbitrary, by playing it, you begin to know and understand it better. You become wiser. I now know not to rub that leaf all over my body , or to dig a hole in that spot, or to eat the roadkill I found. (These are invented examples, by the way.) So the next time you play, you not only have a sense of the lay of the land; you know what risks are worth taking and what smells are just red herrings. The game rewards future plays through hard-won lessons. Yes, it’s annoying to feel like you’ve been punished. But in retrospect…yeah, you usually realize why that was the case. I do admit that this won’t thrill all players–it certainly didn’t thrill me early on–but experience is your friend in a forsaken land.
So I think the narrative elements, such as they are, or the excitement of adventure helps keep The 7th Continent fresh. But story would be nothing without sound game mechanics, and here The 7th Continent also delivers. Several years ago, after my daughter was born, I played through Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. At the time, I enjoyed it, even though it was cumbersome and fiddly and upsetting, and for these reasons I gave up on the Voyage of the Beagle expansion three scenarios in. The 7th Continent is a compelling argument to never play Robinson Crusoe again. It does the interesting things that Robinson Crusoe does with far less rules overhead.
In Robinson Crusoe, players essentially budget their time. There are a certain number of rounds in the game to complete the scenario’s tasks, and each round hands players two pawns–essentially, a morning and afternoon–to complete them. But the game (as you would expect) throws all manner of nonsense at the players, and so they have to take risks on what they can get done. Two pawns means a guaranteed success, but you perform fewer tasks; one pawn means a chance at failure but you might accomplish more than you would otherwise. This basic system is brilliant, but what complicates it is all the other stuff that surrounds it in order to make tasks more difficult and the rules that change from scenario to scenario.
The 7th Continent’s action system is far simpler: each action requires revealing cards from your deck (which represents your life force). Revealing more cards makes it more likely you’ll succeed (you have to reveal a certain number of stars for an action to succeed), but you will get tired faster, and could even become exhausted to the point of death. You want to practice that tune and get it just right? Fine, but don’t blame me that you don’t have the energy to hunt. Want to spend all your energy investigating the flora of the continent? All well and good, as long as you have energy to contend with the wild beasts. Most tasks you can vary the number of cards you draw, but each action has a minimum number you have to reveal as well as a number of successes you need to show for that action to work.
Thankfully, there are items to help players succeed. Items can lower the number of cards drawn, increase the number of successes, or perform other necessary functions. However, the number of items per player is limited. Each item can be combined with other items of a similar type to keep your inventory manageable. (Players don’t have a mule to carry their stuff, so everything has to be portable.) This system is another ingenious aspect of the game, and getting the right inventions where you need them is an interesting hand management puzzle. Also, with each use, an item’s durability decreases, a memento mori that that walking stick you love so much will one day return from whence it came. This makes players more choosy in using items and also makes the risk/reward decisions more compelling.
Each curse in The 7th Continent can take several hours to complete–and the base game includes four–but there is a simple system for saving/restarting. It’s a little more difficult than the rules would have you believe–yes, stopping and restarting are both a matter of about a minute, but the rules gloss over the part where you have to refile all the cards you saw between sessions–yet still pretty easy and a huge boon to this dad, whose unattended game pieces might as well be scattered to the four winds. That being said, The 7th Continent feels like a weighty game, and I know that it’s probably not worth getting out unless I really do have at least 60-90 minutes of uninterrupted time to devote to it. The box is heavy and jam-packed, and getting everything ready to use makes you think twice before you pull it out for a quick stint.
This is probably the worst I can say about The 7th Continent: it is cumbersome to store, to setup, to put away. Honest Board Games’ characterization of The 7th Continent as Card Catalog: The Game isn’t too far off the mark. It is tedious to file cards, and sometimes, especially when you’re grinding out necessary tasks on the continent, flipping to the right card, pulling it out, and doing what it says feels like busy work. There are times you may spend an hour or two and not get very far at all–you’re at the end of your resources, and you haven’t discovered any clue that will help you. This is annoying, and frustrating, and can feel futile. But for me, the rest of the game is compelling enough that I’m fine with the refiling (I make it part of my put-away routine) and the occasional dead ends. (In fact, some of the most fun adventures I’ve had have been at dead ends unrelated to the curse.) The experience overall is good enough to justify these moments of monotony.
The components for The 7th Continent are very good. Mostly, you’re getting a lot of cards, sorted into a filing system, with some minis and/or standees. You may balk at the $80 price tag on Kickstarter or the inflated price on the secondary market for what amounts to ~1,000 cards and a few tokens. But come, now. Once you play this game, you can see the work that has gone into it. The art is evocative and unique on just about every card. I have yet to come across a broken “link” between cards, and there are lots of hidden surprises for observant players. Everything about the game’s production and design enhances the experience. I’ve played through four of the curses and am playing through a fifth now and have logged many, many hours on the continent. What this game lacks in bling it makes up for in actual value–a game you want to keep playing and that you can keep playing for many, many hours.
I purchased The 7th Continent secondhand for around what it sold for on Kickstarter. I wasn’t sure it was for me, but I thought I could recoup my costs if I didn’t like it. Currently, it is not in danger of being sold, and there is enough material that I haven’t yet explored that it doesn’t look like I’ll be finished with it anytime soon. The 7th Continent is one of the most exciting and immersive experiences I’ve had on the tabletop, especially when weighed against other solitaire board games. It is an achievement in what can be accomplished through the medium of cardboard, and I can’t wait to see what further adventures await me on the continent.