Monday, 7 June 2010

Hex Crawl Mombasa

We spent most of the day with friends playing Avalon Hill's flawed classic from 1977, Source of the Nile. Really unlike any other boardgame, Source comes with a laminated board of central and southern Africa as it appeared to Europeans in the late 19th Century, with only coastal hexes and Cape Colony mapped. The players mount expeditions to explore the interior, filling in blank hexes with randomly generated terrain as they go. The rulebook charmingly talks about playing the game in the spirit of the "new role playing games," and there is a lot of overlap in feel - from the hex-mapping and exploration, to the choice of different professions with different victory priorities and special abilities in play, to the way ridiculous random events can wipe out nearly a whole expedition. In fact, an older version got a glowing review from a key figure in role-playing.

Leaving aside the somewhat chaotic tangle of the rules, which true to 70's form are full of holes, typos and charming special circumstances and mechanics, the game is just too full of fun-killer moments to recommend playing without changing the rules for getting lost and recruiting funds in Europe. Sitting there for half an hour, rolling a die or collecting cards so you can start moving again, is not fun. A computer spreadsheet is also mandatory to handle the complex task of balancing cost and carrying capacity for expedition design.

Still, the game play reminded me that there is something glorious about an explorer mapping out huge stretches of the continent, only to die in a random ambush, his discoveries fading into ontological unreality ... or the largest exploring party ever known, financed by the proceeds of five elephant tusks, karmically being scattered to the four winds by a rogue elephant stampede near the mouth of their starting river. There also was a great overland trek where one party, defeated in a fight with natives, was reduced to just the explorer. Trapped behind large lakes and hostile tribes without a canoe, the explorer chanced swamp and desert, putting life in the hands of an uncertain water supply ... and eventually coming out in glory as the first European to cross from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean coasts. Only the very real chance of failure can truly gild success as it deserves.

This is a lesson we may be losing in the gaming hobby at large, with its Nirvana of studiously balanced rules and procedure guaranteeing a constant diet of fun and involvement for everyone. What that design ethic doesn't teach is patience, the ability to fill empty "downtime" with banter, work out the holes in the rules cooperatively, and take hard knocks with a grin. Ah, progress...

I'm not sure why some enterprising game company has not taken it on themselves to produce a less difficult version of Source. The fantasy genre could get rid of any and all sociopolitical objections to the "natives" and "voodoo", and the game idea itself is lots of fun. At the very least, a hex crawl through a jungle continent in a role-playing adventure game could be regulated by frequent consultation of the random events and findings on the cards.


  1. Blast from the past! I played this game once in the 70s. Recently I found one on ebay and bought it.
    I've been thinking of ways to simplify the expedition accounting by using tokens and sliders, inspired by the various accouterments of modern board games. I think bringing a laptop to the table would work but I don't think it would inspire enthusiasm to play the game. Hmmm.

    I've got friends that I play Puerto Rico and Agricola with. I've been hoping to con them into Source of the Nile... or maybe Junta! as another older board game.

    word verification: Kilisala. Obviously something your explorer just discovered. A new river? A tribe? A lost city?

  2. A Eurogame version of Source Of The Nile ... you mean it hasn't been done yet?!

  3. J. Eric Holmes did an article in Dragon called Lost Civilisations, which gives rules for Rider Haggard-like lost cities. It's available at BoardGameGeek:

    I think a 'Space 1889' like version would be interesting.

  4. @ Red: Our experience with the laptop was all good - it sure beat figuring everything out by hand, and the time saved was enormous. For players who have cut their teeth on Eurogames, you might consider running it almost as a GM, handling party composition and the complex mechanics yourself - but they will have to realize the game is more "fun" than "fair." I also suggest getting lost only on a roll less than, not equal to, the "lost" number, and allowing unlimited accumulation of cards in Europe.

    @ Paladin: Amazing no? I may have to do something about that.

    @ Anarchist: Yep, just saw that. Crazy mod! I'm not sure how a space version would proceed seeing that you could map a planet from orbit, but maybe a fantastic jungle-Venus with its thick cloud cover would do the trick.

  5. If you have that spreadsheet file still lying around, I'd appreciate it! redbeard dot seattle at gmail dot com

  6. Well, it was our host who devised the spreadsheet, but I've asked him to send it and will pass it on to you!

  7. @Roger:
    I meant Victorian-ish explorers, but on an Edgar Rice Burroughs-like Mars or similar environment.

    You could use the same mechanism as the 'Lost Civilisations' article (also used in the boardgame 'Tales of the Arabian Nights' I think), and have certain special encounters send you to a 'choose your own adventure' style sub-system.

  8. OK ... Tales is another of my favorites, so that would be great!

    I remember an old SPI magazine game called "Voyage of the BSM Pandora" that simulated a Star Trek-like space exploration journey in a paragraph game format, too.

  9. Great article. This is a game I'd love to get ahold of but it seems rare and expensive. Next time I talk to Mr. Wesely, I'll have to ask him how he feels about the game now. You didn't mention it, so I'm not sure if you are aware, the creator of the game is the same David Wesely who developed Braunstien which his friend Dave Arneson turned into Blackmoor which of course led to D&D.

  10. @DHBoggs: Yes, I realized that sometime after I wrote this. Another link to roleplaying via the wargames community ... Good luck getting a copy.