Life and Death at the Top of the World – Review of Expedition: Northwest Passage

Expedition: Northwest Passage

The HMS Terror. A frightening name–and a premonition.

Along with the HMS Erebus, these mid-19th century science ships vanished in the Arctic with expedition commander Sir John Franklin and their crews. The goal was the fabled Northwest Passage, a direct maritime route from England to Asia through the Arctic. In the wake of the failure of that expedition, horrific rumors of lead poisoning, madness, and cannibalism drifted back home, assaulting Victorian sensibilities.

Now, 166 years after Franklin perished aboard the ice-bound Erebus, French game publisher Matagot delivers Expedition: Northwest Passage. Based on the resulting rescue missions attempted for decades afterwards, the game tasks players with collecting information regarding the fate of Franklin and crew, discovering the Northwest Passage, and getting back to the base in Greenland.

Outfitted for the journey into the unknown

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  • 1 game board
  • 64 large, two-square exploration tiles
  • 32 small, single-square exploration tiles
  • 9 cairn tokens
  • 9 Inuit tokens
  • 10 Franklin wreckage tokens
  • 12 strait tokens
  • 20 cartography tokens
  • 4 Northwest Passage tokens
  • 3 Greenland tokens
  • 1 solar disc
  • 1 bag

Each of up to four players receives:

  • 1 player board
  • 1 ship
  • 1 sledge
  • 1 scoring disc
  • 8 crewmen meeples

German game designers and publishers once dominated the European board game industry. Today, the French have jumped into the market and are publishing (arguably) the best produced Eurogames. Matagot (distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee) deserves its reputation for beautiful games with superior components and stylish design. Game aficionados have raved about the quality of recent Matagot titles, including Kemet and the peerless collector’s edition of Takenoko, possibly the most spectacular board game produced today.

Expedition: Northwest Passage reflects Matagot’s exceptional quality, but it is not a beautiful game per se. The style reflects manliness, like worn leather boots and dinged brass compasses, and the feel of British 19th century exploration permeates the components. The wooden pieces include ships, sledges, and meeples wearing arctic gear. In addition, the design includes color choices for pieces that accentuate the theme: white, gray, black, and ochre (orangish-brown).

The larger map tiles are randomized and chosen from a high-quality drawstring bag made of sailcloth and printed with an image of Franklin—a thoughtful touch that furthers the theme and quality.

The game includes thematic artwork and graphic design, with detailed map tiles, readable player boards that explain the game play through comprehensible graphics and iconography, and readily identifiable–though small–reward chits.

Two rulebooks, English/German and French/Dutch, contain 6-pages for each language and clearly explain the play. The English rulebook is laid out logically, with an increasingly common split column design: rules in one wide column and examples in a sidebar. Even those readers who have never played a Eurogame or a game of this weight should have no trouble learning how to play.

How to mount an Arctic rescue

The goals of the game over the course of 10 rounds:

  • Collect and play two kinds of map tiles to create a water or land route from Greenland to the Northwest Passage
  • Chart new islands
  • Explore cairns and interview Inuit natives for clues to the Franklin expedition’s fate
  • Discover wreckage and new straits
  • Get back safely to base in Greenland

Each round of the game, players take actions that lead toward the goals with their seven crewmen (an eight marks turn order). The crew are assigned/apportioned to the ship, sledge, or both on the center of the player card. At the bottom of the card are actions a player can take within a round. Each action exacts a cost in crewmen. When used to perform an action, the crew meeples corresponding to the action cost are moved on the player card from active to resting and are unusable for the rest of the round.

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The possible actions (with crew cost):

  • Draw a map tile (1)
  • Refresh the four map tiles in the selection area and select one from the new four (2)
  • Place a map tile on the board (1)
  • Move a ship or sledge to one adjacent tile (1)
  • Transfer crew, ship to sledge or sledge to ship (1)
  • Explore Franklin wreckage or a strait (3)
  • Discover an Inuit or cairn (2)
  • Pass

Actions proceed in player turn order, one action at a time—unless a player wants to take consecutive actions, the additional actions costing one extra crewman per action. As many crewmen as are active and can meet the cost of the action can be used in a player round. If a player has no further active crewman, he must pass, or he can elect to pass sooner, even if he has active crewmen. A passing player moves his crewman marker to the next available open space in the turn order section. This will determine the next round’s turn order.

Players will select map tiles of either one square or two squares in size. The larger two-square rectangular tiles are double-sided, with the sides mirrored for eight possible orientations. The rectangular tiles may also contain icons for Inuit, straits, cairns, or wreckage, which when played immediately has the corresponding token placed there. Any token on the board is fair game for any player for later pickup and scoring.

The single-square tiles lack scoring options, but the six kinds are always available for selection and are good desperation choices when a player can’t finish a layout any other way. Players play map tiles on the board to form land masses and waterways. Any map piece that finishes/forms a complete land mass scores a cartography token and points. The tiles must conform to logical placement rules, which add a brain-burning puzzle element. Large tiles chosen from the selection area on the board are immediately refreshed by drawing a random tile from the bag.

One of the most unusual aspects of this game is the solar disk. It tracks the 10 rounds of play as it circles the perimeter of the play area, but it also determines which parts of the map are thawed or frozen. The bottom half of the disk is yellow and the top half blue. The dividing line on the disk is extended across the play area and the blue side above the extended line will freeze water—subsequently trapping ships or preventing water travel in the iced area. Likewise, a sledge caught in a frozen water area that subsequently thaws will lose the sledge and its crew if trapped in now-open water without land on the tile.

Players score points for exploring or discovering cairns, Inuit, ship wreckage, new straits of passage, or islands. Three divisions of the map board generate multipliers of 1x, 2x, and 3x, so what is found in a more distant area will multiply points. At game’s end, players score additional points for amassing the most straits, islands, or wreckage or for gaining at least one token in all five scoring options. Additionally, players gain points tokens of decreasing value upon reaching the end of the Northwest Passage and upon returning to Greenland. Abandon a ship or crew–lose points

A few more rules details exist, but the above covers almost everything. Expedition: Northwest Passage, despite its depth, is easy to learn.

That dripping sound? Not icicles but theme.

Board gamers often talk about theme, the governing story behind the play of a game. Checkers has no theme. The well-known Settlers of Catan has a theme of island colonization. “Dripping with theme” is a board gamer phrase reserved for games overflowing with thematic elements and play.

I’ve long considered K2 (climbing the mountain K2) and Flash Point: Fire Rescue (firefighters rescuing people in a burning building) two of the best games for integrating theme. When theme integrates well, the rules and game play flow out of the theme. They make sense. They feel intuitive, such as K2’s climbing impediments due to bad weather. A storm arises on a mountain, so no one climbs at full speed. It’s obvious, right?

But many games with good themes don’t always integrate them well.

Not so for Expedition: Northwest Passage. Not only do players get a sense of exploring the Arctic, finding the elusive Northwest Passage, and surviving in a desolate landscape, but the theme also supports the rules and vice versa. Move all the crew to the sledge and no one is left to pilot the ship to them if the ice melts and they end up on the wrong side of a waterway. Talk to Inuit witnesses or map new areas and get rewarded for doing so. This game flows, which contributes to how fast the players can play and how well they learn and own the rules. Few games provide players the gist of how to play in a simple look at the components, but this one does.

That brings up a word rare in gaming: elegance.

Expedition: Northwest Passage is so beautifully designed, its elegance in theme and play so obvious, it feels more like an experience than a game. Players feel as if they are indeed managing an Arctic rescue expedition.

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Watching the other guy freeze to death

I played the game with three and with two. The three-player game was a first-time run-through, including setup and rules explanation. It took about 100 minutes and contained serious player confrontation, especially with detrimental map tile placement. The second game, with two, took only 50 minutes and was more of a race.

What’s unusual about these plays is that all the players tried different strategies, and all strategies had merit. The second game had my opponent zoom toward the Northwest Passage destination to grab the 13-point first arriver token before I could. But I had consistently scored points through discovery and exploring so I took first place in straits, wreckage discovery, and cartography, plus added points by contacting Inuit and exploring cairns. Despite my lagging, I won in a rout.

As players expand their skills, more strategy will fall into place, such as maximizing tile placement with scoring opportunities in the 3x zone. A player must always watch the solar disk and plan accordingly, and tales exist of a few players getting back to Greenland with no ship but a full sledge! Expedition: Northwest Passage is packed with possibilities for winning—or for succumbing to hypothermia on the floes.


I’ve played dozens of 2012 and 2013 releases this year, and Expedition: Northwest Passages is not only one of the best games I’ve played this year, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played for thematic integration. Canadian designer Yves Tourigny deserves kudos for an intuitive design that incorporates puzzle-piece-like tiles, route-building, action allocation, and that unique solar disk action.

While the game has a lot happening, I think that despite its heavier weight, nongamers would enjoy it. That it is so intuitive helps nongamers learn it, plus everything a player can do in a turn is always there to see; no one needs to consult rules to figure out what is possible.

The components are fine, and a nod goes to Matagot for providing understated piece colors that both match the theme and prove friendly to those with color blindness. No one will mistake one color for another. The look of the game is spot on and everything in the box works. Even the box and insert are fantastic, with the insert looking like part of a wooden lifeboat.

When my three-player game ended, the other two players asked me the MSRP of the game—just $49.99. I say just because we all guessed $60.00. So, it’s a deal too.

What doesn’t work? Any tile placement game will drive OCD-sufferers to madness when tiles get bumped on the board and move out of alignment. Some games counter this with an interlocking frame or pieces, but not here. How bothersome that is depends on the players. Also, because of the puzzle-like nature of the map tiles, players prone to analysis paralysis may stall the game. Expediton: Northwest Passage is best for folks who play from the gut and don’t try to hyperanalyze every action. Lastly, the theme probably appeals more to men than to women. Can’t see a 14-year-old girl dying to play.

Outstanding game, with fantastic theme integration and simple rules, plays 20-25 minutes per player, and is a good value. How could it be better?

One of the best games of 2013. Get it.


Game Name: Expedition: Northwest Passage

Designer: Yves Tourigny

Publisher: Matagot/ Asmodee

Year: 2013

Players: 2-4

Ages: 14+

Play time: 60 minutes

Mechanics: Tile placement, Route-building, Action allocation

Weight: Medium – “A challenging game, but intuitive to learn and play”

MSRP: $49.99***

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Freelance writer, editor, marketer, and more. Enjoy birding, geocaching, reading, drumming, and of course, board gaming.

Been playing board games since the 1960s. Have owned all the classics--Dark Tower, Bermuda Triangle, PanzerBlitz, Fireball Island, Magic Realm, and more. Got into RPGs with D&D and AD&D back in the late 1970s.

Today, I'm primarily a Eurogamer, and I play a little Pathfinder. Favorite games include: Tzolkin: The Mayan Calendar, Airlines Europe, 7 Wonders, Power Grid, Lords of Waterdeep, Seasons, Puerto Rico, and Hanabi.

Expedition: Northwest passage combines creating a puzzle-like, tile-based map to the fabled Arctic maritime route; racing to discover clues to the lost Franklin expedition and explore the area; management and deployment of expedition members; and a thrilling theme perfectly integrated into the game. Great-looking, intuitive to understand, and quick-playing, it's one of the best European-style board games of 2013.

Dan Edelen

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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