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Top Of The Table – The 7th Continent

by Matt Miller on Oct 06, 2017 at 04:30 PM

As a rule, I tend to stay away from extensive coverage of games currently in the process of crowdfunding. Especially in the tabletop gaming world, systems like Kickstarter have become one of the central ways many games finally see the light of day. However, with only so many Top of the Table columns every year, I want to point you toward games that have an established release and clear paths to being published and getting to your table – which isn’t always a sure thing with crowdfunding. 

I’m making an exception this week, as we dive headlong into The 7th Continent, Serious Poulp’s massive storytelling exploration game, and there’s a reason for breaking my rule. First, The 7th Continent, designed by Ludovic Roudy and Bruno Sautter, is already out and available to those who participated in its first Kickstarter a few years back. Second, its quality and innovation are not to be ignored; this is one of the most intriguing projects of the year, and it deserves your attention. Finally, The 7th Continent doesn’t have a traditional path to regular retail release. If you’re interested, you’d be advised to consider carefully the path to a copy available through its new Kickstarter; The 7th Continent – What Goes Up, Must Come Down is currently seeking funding up through October 19, offering a chance to either upgrade your existing copy with two new expansions, or snag a copy of both a new printing of the second edition of the base game and get the new expansions. 

So, what’s the big deal about this game? Why has it enraptured so many in the tabletop gaming world? In short, The 7th Continent feels fresh and innovative, and features a world and story that could take many dozens of hours to fully understand and play through. It draws inspiration from tons of sources, including choose-your-own-adventure books, video games, pulp “weird” fiction of the early 20th century, and any number of nods to other excellent board games. But taken in totality, Serious Poulp’s unusual game is surprising, refreshing, and absorbing to anyone with a sense of adventure and a desire for discovery. 

The core concept of The 7th Continent is straightforward. Played solo or with up to four players, you are individuals suffering under a mysterious curse. The details of the curse and the path to lifting it vary, but each curse sends you and your fellow players on an expedition onto a mysterious and unexplored 7th Continent beyond the shores of Antarctica. There, you will either find a path to lifting the curse, or (probably more frequently) succumb to the threat and be lost forever. 

The 7th Continent is mostly card-based, but dice are used for counting down item durability, small minis to indicate character locations, and reference cards to quickly identify the many icons

Saying much more about what you’ll find on The 7th Continent is a spoiler, and so I’m going to avoid too much about narrative from here on out. It is enigmatic by its nature. It’s that very sense of mystery and discovery that characterizes every aspect of the experience. The rulebook is straightforward and accessible (as is the official setup and rules video), but it does little to explain the lingering questions of what really happens in this game. Am I fighting something? Am I trying to conquer the continent? What is my character even doing in this place? Those are questions that are answered organically through gameplay, as you slowly build mastery over both your skills and an understanding of the strange landmass upon which you move. Discovery and exploration aren’t just the themes of the gameplay; they are built into the game’s structure and rules. 

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that The 7th Continent is a massive game, driven entirely by several hundred cards that depict everything from the terrain areas you are investigating to the characters you play and events and items that you encounter during the journey. Confronting an individual curse represents a long-term commitment of time across what might be multiple game sessions of three to four hours each, sometimes adding up to 12-20 hours for a single playthrough. To account for that, and echoing systems long used in video games, The 7th Continent uses a handy save system; with simple card partitions, players can slot away all their cards currently in play, and pick up again days or weeks later. In-fiction, the concept is played much like your characters are making camp together; when they pick back up the next day, the events around them might be slightly different, but the terrain remains consistent. It’s a brilliant and simple way to allow for continuous play. 

As a game begins, players group their character figures on a designated tile indicated on their chosen curse, and the exploration begins. Once again echoing video games, your terrain card indicates nearby events that can be explored represented by other cards, flipped on their backs to a foggy and gray visual very like the fog-of-war that characterizes many RTS games. Terrain cards might depict a strange and imposing cliff, or the entrance into a foreboding jungle. After resolving any of the events in any given direction, a specific new terrain card is pulled from the box (they are all meticulously numbered) allowing continued exploration. 

Some of the game's playable characters are original to this project, but others are historical or drawn from popular fiction

Gameplay is remarkably freeform. While cooperative in nature, there are no designations for turn order or when each player should try different things. One player simply opts to attempt something, and other players either join in on the action, or wait for a subsequent turn to attempt their own explorations. Character groups can stick together, or range out in different directions, though that’s often dangerous and unwise.  

Much of the game’s innovation lies in its action card system. As a game begins, players shuffle together cards unique to their character along with several more general skill and curse cards that represent the worsening influence of the damning effect on your character. Players draw cards from this deck to try and resolve actions successfully, but in the process, may also take one of the skill cards that was drawn to add to their hand, potentially lending help to a later action. You can often choose to draw as many cards as you want to ensure success, but here’s the catch; the draw pile is also the shared life force of your team of explorers. Once it’s depleted, subsequent draws to complete actions that reveal a curse card end the game, and you’ve lost.

Icons on the terrain and adventure cards indicate actions that can be taken, such as climb the cliff, or decipher the code. You might try to lockpick something, or climb, or fish, play music, fight, pray, or ski, or simply think and compose yourself – among over 2 dozen options. As new skills and items come into play, actions become increasingly nuanced and variable. That cliff you were attempting to climb is much easier now that you’ve crafted a rope from the vines in the next terrain card over. Moreover, there are multiple versions (selected at random) for the results of many of the events; succeeding one time may lead to one result, and succeeding a different time has a completely different narrative outcome.

After resolving a random event that's appropriate to the region (indicated by the gold roman numeral) a specific terrain card goes into place that syncs up to the art (indicated by the green number)

The 7th Continent is difficult to win. Really difficult. It’s safe to say most players will lose their first game, and lose frequently even in subsequent attempts. But getting caught up in that defeat is missing the point and the broader thematic connections. Like the choose-your-own-adventure books that inspired the gameplay, and the pulp-fiction stories by authors like H.P. Lovecraft that are the root fictional inspiration, imminent danger and even protagonist death aren’t unheard of. Sometimes, it’s that very dread that makes such stories so exciting, and that is replicated here. Losing a game of The 7th Continent might be a failure, but it’s also the fulfillment of a classic narrative structure. Many of those stories featured hapless adventurers whose own life-and-death struggles were tied up in capricious turns of fate.

New curses bring you back to the same strange continent, but often viewed through a new lens. That coastline terrain card may still connect with the same looming cavern, but the things you discover and learn are different each time. If by some miracle you manage to fully explore the hundreds of events and curses that are part of the base game, you can also dig into expansions that add new curses and locations, like The Icy Maze, The Forbidden Sanctuary, and the Swamp of Madness. The new Kickstarter aims to introduce more dramatic changes through new expansions; A Prison of Clouds sees you exploring the continent from a hot air balloon, and The Veins of the Earth takes you far beneath it. To put it another way, you’re unlikely to run out of places to explore. 

The miniatures are small, but detailed, evoking the personalities of the characters they represent

The 7th Continent demands a player group that is eager to cooperate and discover together. Unless playing solo, it’s important that everyone actively engage with the puzzles and clues, and work together to resolve the curse. The absolute sprawling scope of its game length, number of cards, and often opaque paths to success may rub some players the wrong way, especially newcomers to tabletop gaming. But for those who love storytelling, discovery, and looming Lovecraftian menace, The 7th Continent is a delightful departure into mystery. 

If the ambition and breadth of The 7th Continent is beyond what you’re looking to explore, I’ve got plenty of other recommendations for you. Hop over to the Top of the Table hub by clicking on the banner below, where you’ll find tons of additional suggestions for tabletop gaming with friends and family. And as always, drop me a line via email or Twitter if you’d like a personalized recommendation; let me know what you’re looking for, and I’ll see what I can suggest.