Renowned Explorers: International Society is something I don’t think I’ve ever really written about, which makes me sad, because I’ve spent somewhere in the region of 20-30 hours playing it. With its new expansion – The Emperor’s Challenge – just released, and the game on sale for 50% off, now seems like a pretty good time to tell you why you should take a look at this sparkling little gem.
In my case, it helps that it’s exactly my sort of game. It’s a roguelike-lite-like-lite strategy game, with plenty of unlockables and a good number of possible paths to success, which immediately rockets it up to “I need to spend time with this” territory in my brain. The fact that it’s whimsical, cartoony, and with a very unique turn-based tactical combat system, only makes my brain crave it more.
In Renowned Explorers, you are a 19th century expedition leader trying to become the most renowned explorer in a global society of like-minded individuals. You pick your captain and their supporting crew of two, and then jet off to exotic destinations in search of archaeological finds and amazing treasures.
So, okay, you’re basically Indiana Jones. But how does it work?
To be boring and technical, it’s divided into three distinct slices of gameplay, all of which shine brilliantly. First and foremost is the expedition stuff itself, where you explore a grid of nodes trying to find whatever legendary treasure is in that area. You can see what’s in adjacent nodes – maybe an encounter, or a challenge, or a chance to get some side-benefits – but each step costs Supplies, so you’re not going to be able to explore the entire map. And while that might sound like some sort of horribly dull grid-based strategy game, it looks like this:
Challenges themselves mostly rely on what skills your erstwhile explorers possess. Rogueish talents are important if you want to sneak past some pirates to steal their treasure, while you’ll need a decent athlete to clamber up that rock face, or an archaeologist with a keen eye to decipher some ancient hieroglyphics. This mostly comes down to a roll of the dice (weighted one way or the other by stats), but the writing and graphics do a lot to make it feel like you’re exploring a pyramid or trekking through a sweltering jungle.
The second part is the “combat” – and I put combat in quotation marks because, thematically speaking, it’s not actually combat. It’s an encounter with people or creatures that want, in one way or another, to stop you; and violence is only one way of resolving these conflicts. It’s turn-based tactical stuff where you move your characters around and use abilities on foes, but it has one quirk that sets it apart from basically everything else: like so many other things, it’s all about Mood.
Essentially, while you can directly hurt enemies (the “Aggressive”), you can also opt to humiliate or insult them (“Devious”), or befriend them (“Friendly”). These work in a rock-paper-scissors fashion: Friendly is better against Devious, Devious is better against Aggressive, and Aggressive is better against Friendly.
It’s not quite that simple, of course, and the mood of the conflict – determined by what sort of actions both you and your opponents are taking – has an effect on everyone. If you’re both using Friendly abilities then the mood is “Pleasant,” which massively increases the damage of the first Aggressive attack. If you’re being Aggressive against someone Friendly, then the resulting “Brutal” mood gives you a bonus to your defence.
Moods will often swing back and forth in any given conflict, based on what you need. Healing abilities, for instance, tend to be Friendly, which can be a bit of a risk if your opponents are unrelenting Aggressive. Equally, your party will likely be focused on one or two types of action in particular, with your abilities in the third type being far more limited. Oh – and each individual character also has a status which bumps their stats. If they’re insulted, they might wind up saddened or enraged, lowering pertinent stats. On the other hand, excite them or impress them, and things might be a bit different.
Not only that, but the outcome of the conflict often changes based on how you resolve it. Let’s say you encounter a shepherd who wants you to bugger off from his fields. Resolving it in a Devious or Aggressive fashion is fine, obviously – but if you resolve it in a Friendly way, you’ll convince him that you’re pretty great, and he’ll lead you to a treasure. Of course, others respond better to the Devious or the Aggressive approach, and these are often the hardest ways to win those respective encounters. Or maybe that’s just my bloody luck.
And it’s all whimsical and wonderfully written. This is a game in which you’ll get into encounters with rude monkeys, or angry sheep; or you’ll insult pirates so badly they burst into tears and run away.
The third part of the game is the overworld-y bit, between expeditions, which is really a glorified (but glorious) menu. Here you can spend your various hard-earned resources to do some research, buy new gear, or hire retainers, as well as deciding which expedition you’re taking on next. These options do change the way you play: retainers and research often improve your explorers’ skills or grant bonuses on completing certain tasks (beating a Nature-themed challenge, or finishing an encounter in a Devious way), which feeds into your next expedition, which then feeds back into how much you have to spend back at base.
There are 11 expeditions in the base game, with two added in More to Explore, and another one added in The Emperor’s Challenge. These expeditions are a lot more than just levels with a bit more scenery.
Some of this variation is certainly more a “feeling” than anything else, because you are still looking for treasures and insulting your way through encounters. It’s really well-written, though. As noted, you’ve got angry sheep and rude monkeys. Your potential explorers are colourful caricatures. The expeditions themselves are on the fond side of stereotyping, whether you’re hiking through the Andes or hunting treasure on a desert island or Scooby Doo-ing your way through spooky Transylvanian forests. The flavour text, the encounters, and the challenges within are entirely unique to each expedition, which lends each of a them a really distinctive mental texture.
But it’s not all down to the stylings. Putting aside the fact that different expeditions are tailored for different groups and offer different rewards, a fair few expeditions offer up some genuinely unique problems. The deserts of Egypt, for instance, will drain your supplies incredibly quickly, and hopping from oasis to oasis (or finding friendly locals) is a necessity for survival. And, hey, maybe you’ll stumble across some of the lengthy and challenges that demand a party with a variety of skills to proceed, like the treacherous Red Pyramid.
The simple fact is that all three of these distinct (but linked) parts combine to make something that flows together incredibly well, and arguably works a lot better than the sum of its parts. Each segment – the tactical “battles”, the strategic exploration, and the management of the world map – is crucial to your eventual success, but skill in one part can certainly make up for a lack in the others.
Still, if it sounds tricky… well, it is. Renowned Explorers is very happy with its roguelike-lite-like-whatever roots, and going in unprepared or making rash decisions can lead to a rapid game over (which, yet again, is full of colourful text).
That said, it’s also a game that clearly wants you to enjoy yourself. At the start of each run you can decide whether or not you want to be able to reload saves or if you want permadeath on, and you can choose a difficulty level that ranges from a fairly casual stroll right up to the outright sadistic. There’s even a “Cheat Mode” that lets you skip battles, if you just want to enjoy the game’s style, and a decent tutorial eases you into the basic systems rather nicely and lets you figure out the rest as you play.
So there are an awful lot of reasons as to why I’ve spent over a full day playing Renowned Explorers. It ticks my boxes in terms of tone and style; challenge that minimises frustration; replayability; clever and unique systems; things to unlock and collectibles to collect. There’s plenty to explore.
Which is where I suppose we get onto the first expansion, More to Explore. Despite the name, this is actually an expansion that slots in quite well with the base game. Other than two new expeditions (which are, as usual, markedly different from the others in the game) it adds to the mechanics in two relatively subtle ways.
Firstly, it adds in Campfire Stories, which can be played after a certain number of turns in an expedition. These let your explorers sit down and share tales based on their past or their personality, and other than teaching you more about them, they provide unique buffs and bonuses. As it builds on the game’s theme, I naturally adore this.
Bizarrely, these unlock in a trading card game fashion. You earn booster packs as you play, and these booster packs contain more cards for the Campfire Stories. It’s… well, yeah, it’s a bit weird, but it adds some randomisation to your unlocks.
The second addition is in treasure bonuses, which are nice, but easily the least interesting part of the expansion. Every treasure you find nets you a choice between four semi-randomly chosen bonuses, which range from buffs lasting just for one expedition, to increasing the amount of currency tokens you’ll earn from things. Useful and welcome, certainly, but probably not the sort of thing that’ll make you say “Yes, this is why the expansion is worth £5.” (Although maybe it is for you. Maybe the thought of tweaking your build even more is actually what interests you the most. More power to you.)
Then we have the newly-released The Emperor’s Challenge. This is absolutely focused more on someone who’s spent, say, 20+ hours with the game. While there are four new explorers and a new expedition to take them on, the big thing is the titular Emperor’s Challenge game mode, which supplements your run with additional goals. These might be to gather a certain amount of Renown or Gold, or to finish a certain number of encounters with a particular mood. You’ll also get unique ones in encounters, challenging you to inflict a certain threshold of damage in a single attack, or whatever.
Completing these tasks earns you Porcelain Points, which are the key to victory in this mode. Any tasks you don’t complete (or take too long to do) will be completed by your rival, a smug arsehole called Rivaleux, and whoever acquires the most by the end of the game wins. In a normal game, victory is won by amassing Renown. Here, it’s done by – essentially – completing randomised challenges.
It’s a very different style of play, and one that’s arguably a lot trickier than Renown gathering, which offers multiple paths to success. The Emperor’s Challenge mode instead forces you to directly compete, trying to snatch victory from a foe – albeit one bound by particular rules. The only thing I dislike about it is that it’s the sort of game mode that would work tremendously well as some sort of direct multiplayer mode, which the game unfortunately doesn’t support. Not that I’m surprised – I have no idea how that would actually work, mechanically, barring maybe two people playing separate expeditions simultaneously and the goals updating automatically. But I digress.
In any case, yes, Renowned Explorers is a game that’s well worth exploring if you have any love for roguelike-lite-likes or replayable strategy/tactical games, and one that genuinely deserves to be renowned. If I’ve done anything to convince you it’s worth a shot, it’s 50% off on Steam until 17 May in celebration of the launch of The Emperor’s Challenge.