Heart of Darkness

Started by Silent Disapproval Robot, August 14, 2021, 10:48:32 PM

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Silent Disapproval Robot

Heart of Darkness is a 1-5 player game of exploration of Africa in the mid 1800s from Legion Wargames.  I was perusing an online store a few weeks ago and saw this title pop up.  I'd never even heard of it before but I was intrigued as I'd just watched the film Mountains of the Moon about a month ago. 

There wasn't a lot of info on it.  The only videos I could find were a few unboxings (which I ignored) and one series of playthroughs by a very excitable chappy.  Decided to take the plunge and it arrived yesterday afternoon.  I spent a few hours clipping the counters then set it up to run a 2-hand solo game in order to learn the rules.

If you ever played the old AH game Source of the Nile, you'll have some idea what to expect.

The basic concept is that each player controls an expedition into sub-Saharan Africa in hopes of of making discoveries that will please their patron and bring fame and fortune and not an untimely demise or trip to the asylum.

Players randomly determine initiative with the highest player selecting their patron and their expedition's starting location.  There are five different patrons to choose from and each one grants extra victory points if you find discoveries that are of interest to them.  Four of the five are very narrow in focus .  For example, The City of London financiers only care about mineral deposits.  The Fleet Street newspapermen want sensationalist stories so if you manage to find special encounters such as a lost Christian kingdom or an Elephant graveyard, you'll earn extra VPs.  The Royal Geographic Society is the exception.  They'll grant extra VPs for just about anything (Source of a river?  Sure!  Particularly scenic vista?  Yup!  Interesting species of plant?  Why not?).  The balancing factor is, if a rival explorer discovers something of interest to your patron before you do, you lose VPs.

Once each player has settled on their patron and their starting location (Angola, Mocambique, Zanzibar, Khartoum, or Fernando Poo), they then have to equip their team.  There is a staggering number of options to choose from but limited quantities of each good or service.  Players take turns selecting one item (or collection of items) at a time until everyone has spent 20 points. 

Options are:
Hire an extra porter
Hire an extra Askari guard
extra ammo
A rifle for the leader
a revolver for the leader
extra food
extra gifts
native guide
easel and paints
guide books
cannabis tinctures
construction materials
fishing gear

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few.  You're limited as to what your expedition can carry based on the number of porters you have (and if your health ever falls below a certain point, you'll have to ditch gear so they can carry you, assuming they don't just murder you in your sleep and make off with the goods).

Once provisioned, each team moves out into a neighbouring territory.  They're loosely defined by tribal boundaries and each region aside from the starting zones are named after the dominant tribe/culture.  Some are more hostile than others and this is indicated by the colour of the font on the map.  (red=bad).

You pay food (1 food for every guard and porter in your team, suffer discontent if you can't feed and then possibly desertions or murder) and then start exploring.  The first thing you do is determine what the dominant biome is in the region.  Some regions adjacent to starting territories have "suspected" biome markers and these have a 33% chance of having the reality meeting the expectations.  If not, or if no biome is suspected, players pull a chit from a cup.  The symbol on the chit matches one of the borders of the region.  If the border region connects to an already explored region, then the biome will be the same.  If not, you roll on a table to determine if it'll be veldt, savannah, jungle, or desert.  The game doesn't allow for drastic changes so a jungle can never border a desert so if you were next to a desert biome and drew a jungle, you'd replace it with a veldt instead. 

Next you map out watercourses if any exist.  Rivers make exploration and travel much easier so expeditions will tend to follow rivers.  For each river or riverfork that leads into a new territory, you draw a chit to see if the river continues or if you find its source.  Again, this is determined by chit pulls.  The river can continue through the zone, branch off into forks, or end in a headwater.  Some are generic, some are lakes, mountain sources, waterfalls, or giant swamps.  The latter types block borders but also provide victory points.

Once biomes and waterways have been determined, players then take turns doing more detailed exploration and this is the real meat of the game.

Each player has a 5x4 grid on their tableau and they'll use a draw bag to populate it with possible discoveries.  They'll then take turns moving through their grid 1 space/turn and drawing 2 possible events/encounters.  There are a massive number of possible discoveries and events such as: sudden storms, ambushes by warbands, exotic fauna and flora, mineral finds, hunting safaris, lost cities, mountain ranges, lakes, etc.  Some are good, some are bad, and some can be both or either depending on what you roll on the encounter table.  There's a huge variety but it can bog down a bit and it does feel like there's very little interaction between players.  Each one is just kind of doing their own thing on their own tableau.  There's a timer and each player needs to try to get to the end zone of their matrix before time runs out or they have and increased chance of suffering damage to their health and/or sanity.  (this might also be checked at the start of each turn depending on player order).

There isn't a lot of player interaction and what there is consists mainly of "take that!" type actions which can be fun as long as your players aren't the type to blow a gasket.  Every player has an "oh I say, bad luck old fellow" chit that they can toss at another player to make them re-roll one die.  The downside is that they lose their chit and the aggrieved party gets to collect it.  Extra bad luck chits can be used at any time provided the target player has a higher score than you.  You can also screw other players over by making discoveries that their patron is interested in, thereby making them lose VP.  If another player is ahead of you by 6 or more points, you can accuse them of behaving in a most unsportsmanlike manner and then pay 1 time and draw 3 events from the bag and make them suffer one of the drawn events.  If that doesn't work, you can decide to just make shit up and submit false discoveries.  This gives you 2VP but costs you 1 sanity.  The more insane you become, the more likely it is that your porters will desert in the dead of night.

If you ever reach zero sanity or zero health, you gain 3VP for notoriety.  Each other player then gets one last turn before the game ends.  Otherwise the game goes to 50VP.

It seems interesting but I get the feeling that it plays better solo.  The matrix exploration phase takes a long time to complete and there's going to be quite a bit of down time between turns, especially with a 4 or 5 player count.

2 player game.  The blue player has finished exploring the Congo and has followed a river upstream into Kimbundu.  The Green player has finished exploring Hehe and found gold deposits there before moving into Maasai territory.

The green player is following branching rivers through the deserts in the Maasai territory. Lots of forks to choose from.

Here's the exploration matrix for the Maasai territory.  The green player is currently heading east and has just encountered a missionary.  Further east, the possibility of a lost city beckons but just south of that is what could possibly be the highest peak in Africa.  Time is running out and there's a hostile warrior nation just south of the peak.  Is it worth the gamble to push on?  Green's patron is really only interested in mineral wealth but discovering a lost city or surveying the highest peak would certainly tweak the nose of that snotty blue explorer and his betters at the Geographic Society.


One of my favorite games as a young lad was Source of the Nile...so I tried to get my gaming group interested in this one...no luck...  Part of the problem is no TTS module (yet).

So maybe if more folks give this game some love, I can generate some interest.
Johannes "Honus" Wagner
"The Flying Dutchman"
Shortstop: Pittsburgh Pirates 1900-1917
Rated as the 2nd most valuable player of all time by Bill James.

Silent Disapproval Robot

There is a VASSAL module if that helps.  It doesn't with my group.