I came. I saw.
I lost miserably.
Cartagena once housed pirates. I guess housing is not exactly the right word since these pirates were really held hostage in a prison. But like all pirates, they needed to roam free, unhindered by the shackles and chains that bound them down. No simple prison was going to keep them from their pillaging and plundering. What they needed was an escape. And escape they did.
The game is all about the escape. The pirates had to traverse a tortuous tunnel to a waiting sloop that would race them away to safety. The tunnel is portrayed by the board, and cards are played to help the pirates move along the tunnel. This is really a race game with aspects of hand management. The goal is to move your pirates without setting up the other pirates for the big moves that need to be made to win the game.
One of the nice things about this game is the ability to play in 2 different modes: Jamaica with more luck and Tortuga with more skill. Thus, the character of the game can be changed to reflect the temperaments and experience of the players involved.
Components: The modular board is made by 6 double-sided cardboard pieces representing the twisting tunnel that must be traveled. Each piece contains one of six symbols representing various tools used by pirates, including hats, bottles, swords, rifles, keys, and the Jolly Roger.
Also included is a cardboard boat representing the sloop that will take the pirates to safety. Thirty meeples are also included, six of five different colors. I suppose they could be called pireeples since they represent pirates.
Small cards are included with the 6 symbols on them (17 of each symbol). The cards are of fine quality, and the small size of the cards does not inhibit their use since players generally only have very small hand sizes.
Setup: The starting player is determined by the players, nominally by selecting the player who looks most like a pirate. The board is set up by placing the 6 modular pieces together to form a continuous path from beginning to end. Each player is dealt 6 cards and selects a color. The sloop is placed at one end of the board and the meeples that will be used at the other.
Game Play: On a player’s turn, they perform 1 to 3 actions, but there are only two choices for each action.
1: Play a card and move a pirate forward. The player plays a card from their hand and moves one of their meeples forward to the next available symbol shown on the card. Any positions occupied by other pirates are skipped. If all of the symbol played between the meeple being moved and the sloop are occupied, the meeple moves onto the sloop.
2: Move a pirate backwards and draw cards. The player moves a meeple backwards (away from the sloop) to the next position occupied by another pirate. They draw cards equivalent to the number of pirates that were previously on that space. There can never be more than 3 pirates on a space, so they can never draw more than 2 cards. If there are 3 pirates on a space that a player would normally move backwards to, they skip that space and continue back to the next occupied space.
The two alternate versions of the game use all of the above rules. Where they differ is in the availability of information, as described below.
Jamaica: All cards in hand are kept hidden from other players, so all players know how many cards everyone has, but not what symbols are on the cards. Cards are drawn from a face-down deck of cards. This version keeps a lot of information hidden, increasing the luck involved in the game.
Tortuga: All cards in hand are placed face-up in front of each player. Also, 12 cards are placed in a line face up on the table. Players draw from one end of the line, indicated by the arrow card included in the game, rather than from the draw deck. When the draw line is exhausted, it is replaced with a new 12 face-up cards. In this version, players can see what other players have in hand and play to keep them from advancing too far. Also, they can control what players draw into their hand by trying to control the draw line. Randomness is only introduced when a new set of 12 cards is flipped up. Thus, I deem this a near-perfect information game.
End of the Game: The game ends when one player has all six of their meeples on the sloop. They have escaped and win the game.
Explaining the Game: When explaining this game, I start with the theme. However, the theme is so weak that I quickly move on to explaining the 2 types of actions that players can perform and how the game works.
I do give a couple of brief strategic tips. Try not to run too low on cards (less than 4) until your last turn. Play your cards when you can move your people a long distance, and try not to let other players move a long way by skipping over your pieces.
Most importantly, I don’t let new players go first. I take that for myself.
Conclusions: This is a race game with some mechanisms similar to (gasp!) Candy Land, as has been pointed out by others. Only this does not play at all like Candy Land. Since players have 6 meeples, they can choose which ones to move to get the most benefit. Also, they can choose which cards to play rather than simply taking whatever comes off the top of the deck. The combination of these two factors rapidly increases the strategic value of even the Jamaica version of the game to a point where the game is very interesting and engaging. However, the game is still simple enough to allow for quick entry into the game.
The game focuses on a race where each player has to get multiple pieces to the finish line before everyone else. However, there are multiple forces at work on each player. Each player must maintain the cards in their hand so they can move forward at the same time as they try to jump pirates forward without setting up the people after them. Thus, each turn players generally make moves to progress pirates forward as well as moves to regain cards. But they must also remember to move pirates off of spaces so the person playing next will not be able to piggy back on the first player’s moves, gaining even more ground. The eb and flow of the pirates makes for an interesting dynamic.
The Jamaica version has some luck involved, but not as much as I initially anticipated. The luck involved ends up being much less than in other games, like Ticket to Ride where players can get stuck for multiple turns drawing to get the right cards. In Cartagena, the player will be able to use all cards that are drawn, although some are more useful than others. Much of the game is still about using the cards in hand to move as far as possible while still drawing cards and not leaving others set up.
On top of the strategies in the Jamaica version, the Tortuga version offers even more depth. Since all players can see what everyone has, they can try to collect cards or position their pirates to make the cards of other players less useful. This is done by abandoning valuable positions of the board, keeping cards to threaten piggy-backing, or adjusting card draws to keep other players from getting the cards that would be most helpful. This version adds much thought to the game, and with that comes an increased playing time.
The game scales well from 2 to 5 players, without a corresponding drastic increase in playing time. This is a relatively short game (20-40 minutes) for all numbers of players and either type of game unless you get a group of players prone to analysis paralysis. With 2 players, the pirates don’t move as far along the board, so each player will get more turns to get through the passage, but the turns come more frequently. With 5 players, many of the spaces are filled, and pirates will make quick progress towards their goal. With more players, there is more chaos, but not really more randomness.
I have found only two problems with the game. First, the theme is entirely tacked on. This is essentially an abstract game with a pirate theme. The theme is only present in the story, the symbols, and the little sloop at the end. With the Tortuga version, this really is just an abstract strategy game with very little randomness involved in replacing the card line. Some players may not like this nature of the game (like my wife), but it doesn’t really bother me.
Our biggest issue is with the player who goes first. In the rules, it ways going first is not necessarily a good thing, but it means that the player going first is at a distinct disadvantage. This player moves a meeple into the passage and has no way to recover the first card played. The next player can move a meeple in either skipping over the first player to advance their pirate further down the road or they can move back to the location of the first player and replace the card they played. Either way, the first turn of the first player essentially sets them up with a disadvantage. The disadvantage is so great that we started giving the first player an extra card, and even with this advantage they have never won the game. The only time we saw the first player win was when we gave them two extra cards to start the game, but that essentially made the second player go first since the first player moved their first pawn forward twice, leaving them with six cards and a piece on the board where the next player could not effectively use it. We still give the first player an extra card, but this does not make up for the disadvantage of the first move. This is why I do not let new players go first. Also, we make the person who won the last game play first on the next game. We consider it a balancing mechanism.
Overall, Cartagena is a great racing game, but the theme is fairly weak. Still, I really enjoy the game, especially the Tortuga version. We generally play the Jamaica version with people the first couple of times and then move onto the Tortuga version after they have a little experience. The learning curve for the game is very small. The game plays quickly, so it will rarely be the main event of the gathering, or multiple plays can be done to give different people the opportunity to take one for the team and go first. The planning and strategy are great, even in the Jamaica version. I really enjoy the game, and look forward to many more playing sessions. The simplicity of the game makes it easy to introduce to new players, even nongamers, and we have used it as a gateway game on occasion because some of the mechanisms are familiar and the game is simple. For the price (15-25$ US), this is a great deal, and we have had a lot of enjoyment from it.
Rating by Number of Players: