The open-world video game genre has exploded in popularity since it first appeared in the 80s. I could name tons of options in the genre, but chances are you know what I’m talking about. So it should come as no surprise that tabletop games are keen to ape this concept. Giving the players the option to do whatever they want, whenever they want sounds like a win all around, right?
That’s what Earthborne Games thinks with their new exploration card game Earthborne Rangers. This campaign-style game will have you take your ranger (or team of rangers) on adventures throughout the valley to help its residents.
You begin Earthborne Rangers by building out your basic deck. Each ranger has a class, 4 attributes (Awareness, Focus, Spirit, and Fitness), and cards based around these (items, abilities, etc..). Then you pop open the campaign book, read the first entry and you are on your way.
The campaign is played over a series of days, with each game session taking one “day”. The basic turn structure will have you first drawing a card from the path deck. This is how you interact with the world. Inside you might find a monster hunting its prey, an inhabitant of the valley that needs help, or maybe just an obstacle, say a rockslide, that’s hindering your progress. After that, the rangers get to take their actions.
On your turn, you can either play a card or perform a test. Playing a card is simple, and requires you to discard one or more other cards as payment. Some are one time events, while many others are gear cards that will give you bonuses and powers to make your life in the valley a little bit easier.
Performing a test is the crux of the game. Four standard tests are always available, each tied to one of your four abilities. They allow you to interact with the environment around you, someone you’ve met in the valley, draw cards from your deck, or exhaust a being in your way. In addition, many cards also have card-specific tests that will let you do unique things.
To perform a test, you first commit any number of energy tokens from the matching aspect (you can also discard cards with matching icons). Then you draw a challenge card, which will modify your test result by +/-2. Your result is how much progress you make on the test. If it’s enough to hit the limit, you “clear the test”, which usual lets you hop over to the campaign journal to find out what happens next.
Players keep taking actions until they decide to rest for the round. Once the round ends, you may travel to a new location if you have enough progress on the active location. Player then regain all their energy tokens and each draws a card.
The day can end in a few ways: choosing to camp for the night, if your draw deck runs out, a ranger suffering three injuries, or a person of the valley being cleared via harm instead of through progress (it’s your job to protect them after all).
How do you win or lose? More on that later.
I’ve played quite a few board games with the promise of an open-world experience: Xia, Tainted Grail, Fallout, Sleeping Gods, and Discover Lands Unknown (to name a few). And while they definitely have a bit of an open world spin on them, none of them compares to the freedom that Earthborne Rangers gives you.
Throughout my plays of the campaign, I was really impressed with just how open the game is. While the campaign definitely throws plot points at you on certain days and benchmarks, it also doesn’t seem to care if you follow them or not. The plot will march on whether you complete missions or not.
If you want to just wander around the valley and see who you meet, the game is fine with that. One day you might be chasing a predator that’s hunting citizens of the valley, the next you might be helping a new resident find a perfect home. Earthborne Rangers is actually more about the journey than the destination.
In fact, that’s probably the most important thing to know about the game. If you aren’t going to immerse yourself in the world and it’s inhabitants, than this probably isn’t the game for you. Mechanically, Earthborne Rangers is fine, almost repetitive. You draw cards from the path deck, perform tests to clear them, repeat. With a few exceptions, most cards don’t have a problem with failing the test, other than just sucking up time from your day. So if you are the classic eurogamer that just wants to math out the best results for each test, you’ll get bored pretty quickly here.
However, if you like a thematic experience that sucks you in, the world of Earthborne Rangers can come alive. One interesting aspect of the test resolution comes through at the end. At the bottom of every challenge card is an icon. Once a test is resolved, you look around the game and activate any card with a matching icon. Sometimes it will be the sun fatiguing you, other times it might be a predator card that gets moved to a prey card and has its lunch. Yup, sometimes cards will interact around you instead of with you. This definitely helps the world feel alive.
So far, playing Earthborne Rangers has been a treat. However getting there wasn’t so easy. The rulebook is… a little rough, to be generous. In our first game we really struggled to wrap our heads around what we were doing. There is a prologue that helps you build you deck and get started, yet it also requires someone to have read the rulebook first and learned how to play. This feels like an obvious misstep here as a teaching prologue would have fit perfectly with the game.
The other issue is that the game, specifically the journal, contains errors and errata. Thankfully, Earthborne Games has released an online journal (with glorious hyperlinks to jump to specific entries) that has the most up-to-date text. I’d HIGHLY recommend using that over the included paper one. The other thing I appreciated was that the journal was somewhat succinct in its text. Too many times games get overly verbose and players eyes begin to gloss over as they are taken out of the action. Most entries here tell you what you need and get you back on your way, which I was grateful for.
But despite these production issues, Earthborne Games pulled off something truly unique here. The mechanics, while simple, never get in the way of the game experience. There are tons of locations in the valley to explore, some of them are even marked as “pivotal”, which means they have their own specific cards that will be mixed into the path deck, while the others get random cards from the valley. This means that you won’t always know what you will encounter at a location, helping the world feel a little more vibrant.
I’m already way over my word count, but there are a few other points I want to touch on. One is that, mechanically, you might run into issues progressing depending on what kind of ranger you build. There are a few different archetypes, some are great at exploring, while others may be people persons. Regardless, you’ll need to do a little bit of everything in the game. So if you don’t have an easy way to fish through the path deck for a card you need to interact with, it can be a lot of turns of draw, do nothing, next round, repeat. On the same token, you might have a great scout, but lacking in interpersonal skills, which means that when you find the person you’ve bene looking for, you constantly fail at talking to them because your spirit skill is terrible. This can lead to lots of repetitive challenges where you hope to eventually get the right random bonuses. This can be mitigated some in multiplayer, but if you are solo gamer, you’ll definitely have to think about how you are going to work around that.
Finally, I want to talk about the components of Earthborne Rangers. The game prides itself on being FSC certified, which means it was produced sustainably. In fact, there is no plastic in this game… at all. No shrink wrap on the box or cards, no baggies, no minis. Even the insert is cardstock (and also kind of crappy). So when you are done with the game, you could theoretically toss it in the bin (or recycle it) and let it decompose. Not that I recommend that route. However, it does lead to the quandary of sleeves. This is a game that’s begging to be sleeved. For one, the cards are printed on a somewhat crappy stock. But more important, you will be building and shuffling the path deck A LOT. Every time you travel, you build a new path deck, shuffle it, and start drawing. As any good sleever knows, the mash shuffle is the best shuffle. So I’m torn on keeping the product in line with its sustainable goal and just wanting an easier time shuffling the cards.
Before I sat down to play, I had no idea what an ambitious project Earthborne Rangers was. Both in the scope of what it was trying to do with its gameplay and also with how it was produced. Is it perfect? Defintely not. But it’s really good. As an open-world adventure board game, I’ve not seen anything like it. You can truly go wherever you want and do whatever you want. How do you win? That’s the rub. Sure there is the overarching campaign, but you can also let that take a back seat to just exploring the valley at your leisure, building up your ranger deck over time, and just meeting the people of the valley that need your help. If you are the type of person that loves being sucked into a thematic world, this is it.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – A truly unique open-world board game that will allow you to live your life as a ranger however you see fit.
• Production values are a bit lacking
• Rulebook and prologue could use some TLC