Thanks to hawk-eyed Zerbique, I recently discovered Lonely Cairn: a solitaire PnP game inspired by the Franklin Expedition of 1846, Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. It immediately reminded me of the excellent TV series 'The Terror', and I set out to print it and try to survive the icy hazards.
The PnP only consists of cards and some tokens, so it's not difficult to build. The problem, however, is that the cards are not illustrated. Upon finishing my first play, I realized that this prevented me from becoming immersed in the theme. Gameplay is what counts the most, of course, but staring at text-only cards didn't work for me.
I didn't have the time to 'illustrate' all the cards but I managed to find and stick pictures on the 9 location cards. And let me tell you, it made a huge difference. I now enjoy having the ship sail from, say, King William Island to Erebus Bay and actually seeing what the landscape looks like. Hopefully the designer will repair this aesthetic omission (to his credit, he did include two nice ship standees).
So, what are we doing in this game? Each round is divided in four phases. In the Preparation phase, you draw a hand of 4 Supply cards. These are helpful things, persons or situations that you may employ to regain health, morale or do repairs. Most of these cards can only be used at specific times, so if, for example, a dangerous encounter hurts your crew, you may not be able to recover the loss immediately. In this phase, an ice token is added to the final destination, the Beaufort Sea. If the destination ever receives more than 8 ice tokens, you lose. You also lose if your health, morale or ship damage tokens run out.
Then, you set sail. As soon as you reach a new location, you add a number of ice tokens to the general pool. The further you move, the more ice accumulates and makes the journey harder. Each location also says how many Encounter cards you have to face when you get there. You draw them one by one from the Encounter deck and face their consequences. A storm will bring morale down, a polar bear may devour your people, and low temperature will cost lives too. Sometimes you get to choose between two unpleasant options.
If the central ice pool has less than 10 tokens and you feel confident you can press on, you Regroup and start a new Encounter phase. Otherwise, if the ice pool has 10 ice tokens, or you decide that it's better to halt and recuperate the losses, you remove all ice from the pool and start a new Preparation phase.
This is a simple game of risk management. The main decisions you have to make each round are whether you can afford to move the ship forward, and how to best use your Supply cards. I would have preferred to be able to use my cards in more ways, as I generally felt at the mercy of random draws. If the Encounter cards target one of your resources, and your Supply cards aren't helpful, there's nothing you can do to mitigate the effect.
This is not to say that it's a bad game, it certainly isn't. It plays fast and has its moments of tension, especially when you're close to the end. I would just like it to have a bit more meat on the bones, as I think the theme allows for more deck manipulation, various ways of dealing with dangers, and an overall richer experience. I am keeping these cards, and in my spare time I will try to find artwork to make them come alive. This Lonely Cairn deserves some dedication.