- Designers: Ase and Henrik Berg
- Publishers: White Goblin Games / Pegasus
- Players: 2-5
- Time: 45-75 mins
- Ages: 10+
Times played – 3 with review copy provided by White Goblin Games
Packet Row is set in the New York City Harbor area in the 1840s. Players in the game are trying to be the most successful trader. The main way to score victory points in the game is to put together successful trading expeditions – to do this, players need to get a contract, find the necessary goods to fill that contract and then charter a merchant ship going to the right location to deliver the goods.
The game takes place on four different action boards: the docks, market, guildhall and bank. On each of these boards, different cards are available. For instance, goods can only be had at the market and ship cards can only be had at the docks. In each round of the game, there are a certain number of cards available in the current round, and you also get to see (at least) two of the cards that will be available in the future on that board.
The start player (the Harbormaster) for the turn rotates around the board. Whoever is the Harbormaster on a turn chooses one of the four areas to play at first. The first choice goes to the player directly clockwise from the start player. He can either take one of the currently available cards and add it to his hand OR he can pass. This pattern continues around the board until all players have had a chance to choose to take a card or pass. If the harbormaster chooses to take a card, the round ends after that card selection. Players who did not choose a card earlier in the round lose the opportunity to do so in this particular round. If the harbormaster passes OR if all the cards at an area are chosen before the harbormaster gets a turn, then a new area is chosen. At this new area, only players who have not chosen a card yet this round are still active. This pattern continues until the harbormaster has taken a card (or in a rare occurrence, all four areas have been activated and the harbormaster passes at all four).
To say it another way, players can only choose one card in any particular round, and the round ends as soon as harbormaster player chooses a card.
As I mentioned earlier, each of the four locations has different sorts of cards on offer. Victory point cards can be had at all locations, but otherwise, the types of cards at each location is unique to the location.
At the guildhall – most of the cards here are contract cards. These cards specify a certain number and type of goods that need to be delivered to a specific location. Rewards for fulfilling a contract vary from 15 to 35 bucks. Assistant cards can also be found here. These cards allow you to choose a “future” card from the active area when choosing cards.
At the market – you find the goods cards. There are 4 different types of goods (fur, tobacco, grain and cotton). Goods cards have either two or three units of the specified good. Additionally, there are trader cards here which lets you use one type of good as a different one when fulfilling a contract.
At the docks – the majority of the cards here are the ship cards. Each ship has a specific destination where it sails. You can also get a captain card here which can be used to change the destination of a ship card. Gold nugget cards can be picked up at the docks; these are used as wild cards for any goods.
At the bank – you can pick up money cards here as well as banker cards which can give endgame bonus points for having the most money.
When a player takes a card, he must pay the cost in coins (if there is a cost for that card). Goods cards, gold nugget cards and Victory point cards are the ones which have a cost associated with them. Other cards are free to take and added to your hand – except for merchant ships which stay face up on the table in front of you.
At the end of the round (again generally triggered when the Harbormaster chooses a card), the boards are prepared for the next round. In every area which has been activated this turn, all remaining (unchosen) cards from the current area are discarded, the two future cards are moved down into the current area, and new cards are drawn from the deck to bring the current area up to the requisite number. Two new cards are then drawn in the future area of that board. If an area was not chosen this round, nothing happens there! Finally, the harbormaster token is moved clockwise and the new harbormaster starts the cycle again.
As you collect cards, you can fulfill contracts at any time as long as you have the necessary cards. It is even possible to finish multiple contracts at the same time. In order to complete a contract, you must be able to play the appropriate goods from your hand and place them on a ship going to the correct destination. Multiple shipments to a single location can go on a single ship. Goods cards can split their goods between different contracts. After the contracts are played, all those cards are discarded and you collect money as indicated on the contracts.
The game ends when the current supply area on a number of boards (2 out of 4 in a 4-player game) cannot be properly replenished. At this time, scores are calculated. There are three ways to score points
VPs on victory point cards purchased in play
- 1 VP per $10 left over
- 1-3 VP per banker card (# of VPs dependent on number of players in game)
My thoughts on the game
After three games of Packet Row, my rating of the game has been steadily increasing. It started out as a low “Neutral”, but is now firmly in the “I Like it” category. I like the combination of the chicken/press-your-luck mechanic in the card choosing with the engine-building feel of the game.
When you are the harbormaster, you are in control of the location, but you are always last in turn order to choose cards from that location. So, in order for you to get the card that you want, you may need to choose other locations first to get your opponents to take themselves out of the round by choosing other cards. However, if you can choose an area that everyone else will pass at, you might be able to choose the card you want while not allowing anyone else to get a card! There is definitely an art in trying to get what you want while limiting what everyone else gets.
When you are not the harbormaster, you need to try to figure out what sort of card the harbormaster is looking for as this will help you whether or not you are choosing a card at the current area or not. Of course, if you want a card at the current location, the decision is simple – just take the card that you need. It gets a bit tighter when the cards currently available are sub-optimal for you; that’s when you need to figure out if you should take something for the round or risk getting nothing in a quest for a better card.
There is also a nice engine-building feel to the game – not in the traditional sense as your hand of cards doesn’t really snowball as the game progresses but more in the sense that you have to figure out how/when to stop trying to earn money and instead spend that money on VP cards. Sure, you can always turn money into VPs at the end of the game (At $10-for-1VP), but a University card at $15 for 4VP is much better! You don’t necessarily have to wait until the end of the game to buy the VP cards, especially because some of the cards might show up earlier in the game that you want, but if you end up low on money without a completed contract to play, it could be a couple of long turns trying to collect the necessary cards or getting money from the bank in order to restart your engine.
I’ll admit that after my first game of Packet Row, I was a bit underwhelmed. The game had been highly recommended to me by some of my German game developer counterparts, and I was quite keen to try this one out. Our first game was late at night and was a 2-player game. There just didn’t seem to be that much tension in the 2-player game because missing a card in a round or taking a sub-optimal card just didn’t feel like as much of a punishment; especially because you became the harbormaster every other round – meaning that you pretty much got a card you really wanted at least every other round.
However, the game changes considerably with 4 and 5 players. While more cards are available at each location, it is a much trickier game to play. Decisions are harder – both as the harbormaster or a regular player.
The rules to the game are simple, and every round follows the same simple pattern. Choose an area, choose cards or pass, reset the board. Most gamers should be able to pick up the rules after a single example round. Our most recent 4p game took 50 minutes to play, and there is a lot of game here for something that plays in under an hour.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Yu
- Neutral. Mark Jackson, Lorna, Jennifer Geske
- Not for me…