The explorer of Costa Rica is a selfish beast. Easily recognisable from their khaki shirt, sun burnt face, and condescending British accent, Costa Rica’s explorers are often found in packs roaming the jungle for easy film snippets to send back to the TV networks back home. However, this sub species of homo sapiens rarely displays the behaviour expected of a traditional pack animal. Indeed they seem willing, enthusiastic even, to stab their fellow explorers in the back at the earliest opportunity…
– excerpt from David Attenborough’s Costa Rica
Time: 30-45 min
Welcome to Costa Rica, famous for its positive environmental attitudes, exemplary biodiversity, and chain of acceptable coffee shops. It’s an unspoilt wilderness bursting with wildlife that has drawn in European explorers like moths to a lamp.
With the help of David Attenborough’s dulcet tones, we shall soon discover all there is to know about that most unusual of species: the explorer of Costa Rica.
Laid out below us now we see the full scope of Costa Rica’s wilderness. Its long stretches of jungle populated by capuchin monkeys and rare beetles, interspersed with mountain climbs and swampy lowlands. You can hear the cries of the toucan from above, as yet another pun abuses their name, and occasionally the call of a leopard echoes it. But it is the explorers that we shall be focussing upon this episode. You can see a gaggle of them assembling to the south.
From here they shall push into the unexplored regions, capturing images and film of the local wildlife to create the most impressive documentary for the TV networks back home. Little do they know that we are actually here to study them!
Each player gathered around the table controls a particular colour of explorer, complete with their cute little meeple hats; one in each of six expeditions spread around the far corners of the jungle. A long way from each other, you’d think! On your turn, you will be the leader of an expedition, taking the totemic pawn and choosing a tile for a single adjacent expedition to move to. You will flip that tile and be presented with the animal, or animals, you discovered there.
Twirling his machete with the confidence of experience, the apparent leader of this group presses forward into a knee deep swamp…
…to discover a breeding pair of frogs! A fine prize, but the group seems unwilling to head home so early. They press on.
Each player in sequence then gets a choice. To continue onwards into Costa Rica’s steamy jungle, or to grab everything that has been revealed so far and high tail it out of the jungle, taking their meeple with them. If everyone passes then the current leader chooses another, adjacent, tile and reveals that. Now the collected haul of tiles is that much sweeter, and more tempting. But if you leave then that meeple is out of the game for good.
Suddenly, the tables have turned! The collection is too tempting to pass up and we see our first betrayal! The green crested explorer has grabbed the groups’ film canisters and sprinted from the encampment!
The leader lets loose a tremendous cry: “Noooooo! Curse you!” A regular outburst in the jungles of Costa Rica. He had hoped for one more step, but now his expedition is over.
Once someone grabs the tiles and runs, the expedition immediately ends and it is the next player’s turn to lead one. This offers the temptation to cut short another players opportunity to lead as, after all, it’s never good to entrust your fate to other people. Importantly, everyone is always watching each other trying to figure out what they want to do. But it’s never easy either. This set of tiles might be good, but what if the next set is better? Maybe you should wait and let someone else leave, thin the herd a bit, as David Attenborough might say.
As explorers leave an expedition, an interesting change starts to come over the group. The explorer becomes more and more agitated, until, at last she is alone!
Free to roam her natural habitat unimpeded, the explorer races through the undergrowth, swinging from vines, free running off of boulders and skimming across the water, spoting animal after animal after animal.
Being the last explorer in a group is amazingly good! Because you can just keep going, picking up all the tiles! No one is around to stop you. Well, except, something is…
While the common, or garden, explorer is indeed a resilient fellow, able to suffer nearly all the hardships the wild terrain of Costa Rica might throw at him, there is one thing that will stop him in his tracks…
The itchy scratchiness of the mosquito!
A random distribution of tiles feature the nasty, horrible, mosquito. You can cope with one of them, but hitting a second nest will send the expedition leader scampering home immediately, taking the tiles with them. This isn’t awful, particularly as mosquitoes tend to flock (is flock the right word for mosquitos?) to the rarer creatures, but still feels like a punch to the gut when you weren’t ready to head home. It’s also one of the main ways a lone explorer ends their run of awesome conquest. Which means being the last member of expedition could be awesomely powerful… Unless your opponents are on the ball.
We take, once again, to the air, to witness the sprawling majesty of Costa Rica, and the surprising and impressive sight of explorer kettling. We see that the lesser yellow explorer to the East has lead his expedition in such a way as to cut off the left most group of explorers from the main body of the jungle.
Unable to face crossing already explored territory, that lonely band will begrudgingly traipse through that small island of terrain knowing, deep down, that their potential leavings will be mediocre. But this is an important decision point for our small yellow friend. Let us watch closer…
Oh yes! In a display of dastardly cunning the explorers of Costa Rica are all too famous for, he has marooned the rest of his party on the island with the already trapped band. A killer manoeuvre.
This is the real ingenious part of Costa Rica. By carefully carving out paths on your expeditions you break the jungle into different sections, potentially trapping explorers in small areas. In fact, ensuring a lone explorer only gets a small area to run rampant on is very important for everyone else! It’s rather reminiscent of Hey! That’s My Fish, and much like that game, it can be used to utterly brutal effect, as illustrated above. This makes your choice of expedition incredibly important.
Do you attempt to encircle another player? Do you need to get one expedition out of danger this turn? And it fits into your decisions of when to leave an expedition like a machete fits into its scabbard. You might want to get out of a doomed expedition as soon as you can, or sacrifice an explorer in one location to prevent that expedition from escaping or encircling another.
It transforms how approach push your luck games. Rather than the purely linear gameplay of a Celestia or a Diamant, you need to be thinking spatially. How does an expedition moving left or right affect your upcoming actions? Those simple early choices of direction, as they carve up the play space, influence the strategies of the entire table for the rest of the game. It’s tremendous!
As night descends the explorers, flushed with success, return home. The jungle explored. The animals, filmed.
They count up their finds and will discover who’s shady tactics have proven the most effective.
All that’s left to do once all the explorers have done their exploring is to count up points. Surprising to no one, you are looking to build sets of animals. You’ll get a healthy chunk of points for each set of all 6 animals, as well as a steadily increasing number of points for sets of individual animals, the bigger the set, the better. It’s obtuse enough that you can only ever have a rough idea of how the other players are doing and it always feels tight until the final count. I mean, unless you’ve made a right mess of things.
The expeditions, for now, are over. Peace descends over Costa Rica. But in no time at all they’ll be back again, exploring again, and the jungle will fill with the cat calls and laughter they are known for.
Costa Rica is a fantastic title. It is a tragedy that not more people are playing it! It sadly came out around the same period as a glut of great looking, smooth playing, push your luck games, like Celestia and Diamant, but in my opinion it outplays both of those. Sadly it suffers from fairly bland art work and, indeed, a more fiddly set up than either of them. But it’s also a more subtle, cleverer game too, and is different enough that if you really like push your luck titles and are looking for something similar but different, Costa Rica is absolutely worth looking at! And for those of you that haven’t played these other titles, what are you waiting for? Grab a camera and rush down to the jungles of Costa Rica!
Rating: 8 jungle snaps out of 10
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Matt is the lead author of the Creaking Shelves blog and likes to highlight the funny side of simulating the world with little pieces of cardboard and wood. A recovering miniatures game addict, he has been fighting up the long road to recovery by discovering all the wonderful games that don't require mountains of plastic!