Dale Yu: First Impressions of Cartagena (2017)


Cartagena (2017)

  • Designer: Leo Colovini
  • Publisher: Rio Grande Games
  • Players:2-5
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: 30-60 minutes, depending on version
  • Times played: 4 with 2017 version (one of each game type) – probably 50+ games in my life of the base game

I did not even know that there was a new version coming out of this classic game, and I was quite surprised to see it arrive on my doorstep from Rio Grande.  This had always been one of my favorite games way back when, though it honestly has found itself mostly on the shelf in recent years as most old games are wont to do in my collection.  However, the fact that I still own a copy says a lot about it.

In this new version, I was pleased to find that the original version as well as the main expansion in the box.  Even better – two new game varieties are also included in the box, making this a one-stop box for all things Cartagena.  The game tells a story of the great 1672 jailbreak from the fortress of Cartagena.  Each version of the game tells a different part of the story.


The Basic game is about controlling your group of pirates that are trying to escape the fortress jail through the cave tunnels underneath to their escape sloop.  I’ll paraphrase the description once penned by Greg Schloesser…

The board is comprised of six double-sided pieces (out of eight possible in this 2017 box), which can be assembled in a variety of fashions. Thus, the layout of each game will likely be different with each play. Each section depicts six symbols along a cave path, including a pistol, keys, jug, grappling hook, lantern and telescope. A deck of cards has matching symbols, 17 of each image.  The jail starts the path while the escape sloop is found at the other end.  Each player places six of his pirates on the jail space.

Players initially begin the game with six cards.  On a turn, a player may take up to three actions which can be some combination of:


1) Play a card and move a pirate to the next vacant symbol on the board that matches the card played.  If there are no vacant matching symbols, the player may move a pirate all the way into the boat. This, of course, is a favorite tactic: play several cards of the same symbol and ‘leap-frog’ your pirates ahead on the board. Of course, since you don’t know which cards your opponents possess, they can also take advantage of this maneuver.

2) Move a pirate backwards on the board to the next space which is occupied by one or two pirates. This is the only manner in which a player can acquire new cards. If choosing this option, a pirate must stop when it encounters a space occupied by either one or two pirates. If that space is occupied by just one pirate, the player draws one card from the deck into his hand. If it occupied by two pirates, the player draws two cards into his hand. Falling back in this manner is necessary in order to gain new cards, so it occurs frequently throughout the game.  When doing this, you skip any spaces that are empty OR have three pirates already.

3) In the rare case that you have no cards left, you can skip your entire turn and draw a single card.


Believe it or not, that’s it. The rules are that simple. First player to get all six of his pirates into the boat is victorious.  The components included in the box here allow to modify the Basic game as you wish – you can alter the length of the path from 4 to 8 pieces, you can also alter the number of pirates from 4 to 6.  You can even use the flip side of the path pieces (and the sloop) to replay the second part of the escape story – where the pirates land their flooded sloop on the shore of Tortuga Island and then must get their way through the jungle to the safety of the cove on the other side.


The next version of the game is the Morgan version – named after the famous pirate Captain Morgan – this is what was found in the Cartagena 2 game.  This game uses many of the rules from the Basic game with one exception.  In this game, you earn new cards in a different way.  Rather than moving your own pirates backwards, you now must move one of your opponent’s pirates forward to the next space with one or two pirates (and then drawing one or two cards accordingly).  It could be possible that you move your opponent’s piece to the end of the track.  If you do this, you get to draw two cards.


Now, whether you use the Basic rules or the Morgan rules, you can also further change the game as the “Whole Jailbreak”.  In this version, you make two smaller paths (each at least 3 tiles long) – one from the jail to the sloop using tunnel tiles, and a second path from the flooded sloop through the jungle to the cove.  The catch here is that there is only one sloop.  Players now have an additional action option – which is to move the sloop.  You are allowed to move the sloop from the tunnels to the island only if you have a pirate of your color on the sloop.  Note that you are limited to ever having three pirates of your color on the sloop.  Once you reach this limit, you must move them off the sloop onto the island before you can rescue more from the jail tunnels.  You are allowed to move the sloop back to the tunnels FROM the island only if you still have pirates in the tunnel.  As a bonus, if at the start of your turn, you have the highest number of pirates on the ship or tied for the highest number, you can move the ship once at the start of your turn without it counting against your turn limit of three actions.  When playing this version of the game, you can choose either method of card drawing (Basic or Morgan) or you can even assign a different type to each portion of the race!

A short course of the whole jailbreak


This is the newest form of the game, and one that I had not encountered until I opened the box this month.  In this version, all the cards also have special abilities.  When you play the card, you can either use it in the traditional sense to move one of your pirates, or if you say the magic words “Black Magic Woman” as you play it, you release its special abilities instead…

Gun – look at one opponent’s hand and take a card of your choice.  The opponent draws a random card from the top of the deck

Rum – Draw N+1 cards from the deck, look at them and keep 2.  Then distribute one card to each other player

Lantern – Draw 3 cards, keep one and place the other two back on the top of the deck in any order

Parrot – play 2 parrot cards as any other card symbol of your choice

Hook – Play together with another card.  You then can move two of your pirates which are in the same space to the icon shown on the second card.  This pair of cards counts as two of your three actions.

Treasure Chest – there are 8 treasure chest tiles in the box, one is randomly placed on each treasure chest space in the path. If you have a pirate on a chest tile, you can use this card to open the treasure chest – flip it over, you will either draw 1-3 cards or you might find the snake which causes you to move backwards to the first available rum spot.

The end conditions do not appear to change.

My thoughts on the game

Cartagena is one of the first games I can remember “playing to death”.  It was a favorite in one of my first game groups and rare did a game session go by without at least one play of this classic game.  I have taken a whirl with each of the four main versions offered in the box, and after this first go-round, I’ll have to admit that I still just love the basic version of the game the best.  The rules are elegantly simple yet the game offers plenty of tense strategy in a 30 minute time window.

That being said, I love the versatility that I can now have with the game with the additional board pieces as well as option to play the whole jailbreak scenario.  I could see that, in time, this two part race becoming the most favored version of Cartagena because it extends the game a bit, and when you use different card drawing rules on each part – it really makes each portion of the race feel different from the other.  As this game only gives you eight total tile pieces, the whole jailbreak scenario doesn’t end up to be that much longer than the regular six tile Basic Game – though you almost have to add in a tile’s worth of time with the extra logistics of getting the boat to and from the two sections of the board.

And, if that version might become the favorite, at this point, it’s pretty clear that my least favored version of the game will be the Black Magic Woman variety.  The special actions really seem to take away from the clean elegance of the original game.  Further, a number of the actions involve players drawing multiple cards from the deck and then figuring out what to do with them, and this really seems to add a lot of downtime to the game as some of these decisions can take a long time. For me, this added fiddliness and game time worsens the game rather than improving it.  However, the beauty of this composite Cartagena box is that each group can find the version of the game that they like to play the best.

The components are exactly what you’d expect from Rio Grande – good thick tiles that punch out easily, wooden pirate meeples.  The artwork is clean and functional – which is much in line with previous versions of this game.  And, best of all, all the bits come in a small Carcassonne sized box.

The only thing that I wish to be changed in this version is the title.  One of my other favorite games, Agricola, also now has multiple versions with the exact same name, and it can get confusing.  For my own sanity, I would have liked “Cartagena – ultimate edition” or really anything else to make it easily distinguishable from its predecessors.   I would definitely take this 2017 version over all the others as it combines everything into one compact box and gives the gamer a variety of ways to enjoy this great game.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Jonathan F.: If you can handle a slightly dry game, this a tremendous game with a small ruleset and delicious decisions. It also packs down nicely, as you could remove the bits from the box and just have 6 pieces of cardboard, a deck of cards, a sloop piece, and some pirateeples and you are all set. At the same time, it is slightly thinky, so it can be slightly twisty at the start with non-gamers.

Fraser: I heard about this from a FLGS just last week, what’s with the redoing it again was my initial thought.  I have only played the original and like that, but never tried Cartagena 2.  The Morgan version sounds good though, especially since it was technically possible to put yourself out of the game with the first edition.


BTW try googling 1672 Cartagena jailbreak, when I did it a while back all you got was BGG :-)


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Erik Arneson, Jonathan F. (basic version)
  • I like it. Fraser (original edition)
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu: First Impressions of Cartagena (2017)

  1. Louisa Berry says:

    Numerical inconsistency here? “Lantern – Draw 3 cards, keep one and place the other three back on the top of the deck in any order”

  2. wileyd says:

    Great review here. My friend has the original version, which never came with pirate pieces, so we’ve played with things ranging from Ticket to Ride trains to poker chips as our pieces. It is a light game that never overstays its welcome, yet not one I’d go out of my way to try and play.

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