Welcome back to Cult of the Old, where I wax rhapsodic about some of my favourite games that you may have overlooked in your race to explore the new hotness, or perhaps, that came out years before you got into this excellent hobby we call board games.
Last time we learned about Vegas Showdown from 2005, and this time we go back even further, to look at 1994’s Cartagena by Leo Colovini (currently published by Ravensburger). Games take their themes and inspirations from a wide variety of sources, and Cartagena takes its from the true life pirate prison break from the fortress of Cartagena in Columbia.
I have been known to refer to Cartagena as “Candyland for grownups,” which is a phrase I stole from one of my colleagues, Joan. While it does a disservice to the game, it is an apt description in a few important ways. In both games players are travelling their pieces down a path by using cards that share the images of the spaces on the path. The outcome of Candyland, however, is predetermined by the shuffle of the cards*, and nothing the players can do in the game will change who the winner is going to be. In Cartagena, everything you do is going to affect the outcome of the game. Make smart choices and you do well. Make bad choices, and you won’t.
The goal of the game is to get all five of your pirate pieces all the way along the path and onto the escape ship. On your turn, you get to take three actions. There are two different action options to choose from: play a card to advance a pirate forward down the path, or retreat a pirate back up the path to draw cards. So, every turn you have a minimum of three choices to make: advance or retreat, advance or retreat, advance or retreat. For each of those actions you have to choose which of your five pirates will move, and if you are advancing, you will have to choose which card to play (the card you play determines which space your pirate will advance to).
In order to advance, play a card and move one of your pirates to the next empty space with the matching picture (play a lantern? Move to a lantern). If there are no matching empty spaces between the pirate you want to move and the escape boat, put your pirate in the boat.
In order to retreat, select one of your pirates on the path and move it back up the path until it comes to an occupied space. If the space was occupied by one pirate, draw one card. If it was occupied by two pirates, draw two cards. If it is occupied by three pirates, you cannot stop there, and continue moving up the path until you get to the next occupied space.
The temptation for new players is to use up all their cards quickly and make as much progress as that allows them to, but this is a mistake. In Cartagena you never want to leave yourself without cards, because you can easily find yourself in a situation where retreating (which you have to do to get more cards) is either a bad option (retreating a long way for a single card), or just not possible (if the only pirate(s) you have on the path have no pirates behind them). It is always better to forego forward movement that would leave you vulnerable in order to take advantage of a good opportunity to retreat.
Another mistake new players make is to play a bunch of the same symbol cards in a row, allowing them to get multiple pirates on the board in a hurry, with the last one played being the farthest down the path. Now this, in and of itself, isn’t a mistake; moving your pirates as quickly to the boat as you can is how you win, after all. Where the mistake comes in is that you have left an even faster route that can be exploited by the next player who has the same symbol in their hand. It’s a good idea to use one of your actions to break up that route so you aren’t leaving a fast escape path for an opponent.
Who is Cartagena for?
Cartagena is for families or friends looking for a game with simple rules and simple choices to make, but where the choices made will greatly affect the outcome of the game. The current version has components that play up the pirate theme (molded plastic figures instead of plain pawns), but the game play doesn’t involve violence, so it is entirely family friendly. The straightforward goal of getting your pirates to the boat will appeal to people who count basic games like Sorry, Trouble, Snakes & Ladders, and Parcheesi, etc. among their favourites, but its network of choices to make will keep more serious gamers interested. Cartagena was shortlisted for the Spiel des Jahres**, and it makes a worthy addition to the collection of both beginners and experts who are looking for easy to learn games, whether to enjoy for themselves or to aid in the conversion of non-gamers to the cult…er I mean hobby…that is modern board gaming.
*A modern update to Candyland has replaced the deck of cards with a spinner, but the end result is much the same: the player has no input into the outcome of the game.
**The Spiel des Jahres is the “game of the year” prize awarded by a group of German-speaking board game critics. First issued in 1978, it has become the most prestigious award of the board game world.