- By Matthew Dunstan and David Short
- Art by Víctor Pérez Corbella, Jay Epperson, and Matt Paquette
- Published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
- Players: 2-4
- Time: 45-75 minutes
2018 was a year of fine-to-good games, but few great ones. Scorpius Freighter arrived in December from AEG because I requested a copy, something I have generally stopped doing.
Why did I request it? I like space themes, modularity, and games with multiple interlocking systems. Scorpius Freighter ticked all those boxes and after reading the rules, it looked like a solid design with some new ideas.
The premise is most easily explained as the players are captains flying Firefly missions. There are no Reavers and the government is relatively benign, occasionally taking an item from your hold as a tax. The main competitors are your other players, but if you are looking for high interactivity, this might not be a game for you.
The hook in the pre-release buzz was that it had three rondels. Each six space rondel has a government ship on it. Your ship is your player board and is not represented on the rondels. If anything, this appearance of complexity scared me away because even a single rondel can bring out my analysis paralysis. The cool part about the rondels in Scorpius Freighter is that your turn effectively starts by moving the government ship on one rondel clockwise one or two spaces, thus there is not an overwhelming decision space. In addition, this is not a comboriffic game where moving a ship on rondel 1 will trigger a move of the ship on rondel 3, which in turn gives you another action which you also then have to plan.
I really like the decision space in the game because no one decision is overwhelming, but there is a sense of accomplishment by the end of the game that is greater than the sum of its parts. I will try to explain this without regurgitating every rule.
- You have four crew members on your ship. You must activate one or two of them each turn. For example, if you activated two the previous turn, you have two available in the current turn and you must activate at least one of them. If you ever have three or four activated at the end of a turn, they all reset to make all four available next turn.
- The number of crew members you activate each turn defines how many spaces you must move the government ship on the rondel of your choice.
- You move the government ship on the chosen rodel mandatory number of spaces based on how many crew you activated this turn. The three rondels are different. One adds modules to your ship, one activates modules on your ship, and one helps you complete contracts. All three have a single space to improve your crew – more on that later.
- The strength of the action depends on how many unactivated crew you have, so if you have four available crew members and activate one of them, you move the government ship one space on one of the rondels and take the action you land on with a strength of 3.
- After you take the action, your turn is largely over and you reset your crew and restock the board as needed.
The action you take is based on where the government ship lands on the rondel you used, so if you want to get new storage unit for your ship, you look at the first rondel and see that it is two spaces away from the ‘get a new storage container’ space, so you activate two cards to move the ship two spaces to get the storage container.
Your ship is represented by a 4 x 4 grid. Each space can hold a storage container or a piece of equipment. Certain rules about adjacencies make placement decisions interesting, but not paralyzing. Equipment can often only affect adjacent equipment or storage containers. It is more efficient to fill your storage when you have storage for the same item orthogonally adjacent to each other.
The basic actions on the rondels are,
- Add a new storage container
- Add new ship equipment
- Fill storage
- Activate equipment
- Complete a side deal
- Get/complete a contract
- Upgrade your crew.
For me, Scorpius Freighter works well because you can add equipment one turn, activate it the next turn, then complete a side deal or part of a contract, thereby earning you points.
Each of the three rondels has a specific space where when the government ship moves on it or passes it, it takes a tax from the player who moved it. The tax is somewhat minor and acts as much as game clock as it does as a punitive measure. The cubes paid to the government are placed on the ship and when any government ship has 4/5/6 cubes (2p/3p/4p), the game is almost over.
Things I like about Scorpius Freighter
The decisions build on each other without being overwhelming. Often a higher strength action gives you more choices, not more pieces. With a one strength action, you have to take the storage container in the one action slot. With three strength, you can choose any one of the storage containers in the first three slots. Thus you can plan ahead if you want the three actions, or if two will be enough because the thing you want is in the slot that only requires two actions to get. Honestly, this is easier seen than described. Each of the seven actions has this type of balancing.
You can create a strategy within the game. Wildly different ships can do well in different ways. A ship with large quantities of storage can complete contracts and side deals faster, but also requires less frequent refilling if configured correctly. Ships with more equipment may more efficiently take actions, but need to refill the storage more often. Equipment is quite variable, but you can see what your options are, so there is not the frustration of drawing blind and getting junk. In this case, if the equipment on offer is junk, do something different.
The crew upgrades are great. The game feels like it came with the first expansion already in the box. There are different crews to choose from and each crew member has different rule-breaking powers. Some let you take the action of the previous or next space on the rondel, get an extra cube, get an extra strong side deal action, etc. There is enough variety to keep most players busy – and if you want to, you can break the crew out of their preconfigured sets of four and draft them instead. Just a note that the upgrade crew space appears on each of the three rondels and has been popular in our games, as you don’t get the juicy benefits until you upgrade your crew.
It scratches the longer pick-up & deliver itch in a shorter time span. I like Merchant of Venus, Xia, etc., but they are weekend games for us. In contrast, Scorpius Freighter is a great after dinner game. At the same time, it is not an epic adventure, in that your ship does not visually move anywhere, so it is in many ways a logistics/efficiency game.
I could not find any downsides in the game design or the art. It represents a diverse world of crew members and a clean set of choices. If I had a knock against it, it is that the theme does not come through as much as it might. This game could have been an excellent game about almost anything that involves building an engine to gather and deliver resources. That said, I would happily play Florist Delivery Service or FedEx: the Game if it came in this box.
One aspect of having tiles available is that if no one is interested in any of the tiles on show, the spaces on the rondel that let you get stuff from that area become uninteresting. I am not sure if the designers considered and rejected an intermediate step of flushing the equipment/storage containers/contracts/side deals for 1 or 2 orange cubes, which act as currency in the game. If you could do this while still getting to pick from the selection of new tiles, it would cut down on the rondel spaces that feel useless.
Each year, I have have only a few “Love Its”, but this is one is very close. I would give it a strong like. It offers strategy, tactics, player agency, and fun in an extremely well designed package with great art bits, and even the insert.
On a broader scale, Scorpius Freighter is why I play new games. It was not heralded as the next hot thing. It was designed by some very good designers, but not the sort who most people blind-buy, yet it deliver a fresh feeling and tightly coordinated package that ticks all my boxes. I’m just so glad I found it and hope that if this review grabs you, you will seek it out and give it a whirl.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Nathan Beeler: I generally love rondel games, and I excitedly expected to love this one, too. The three rondels Scorpius Freighter presents lured me in with promises of a world of creative play. Shipyard is a multiple rondel game that I adore, despite a couple obvious flaws. I would keep a poster of Mac Gerdts in my locker if I had one. I dig rondels.
But what becomes quickly clear in Scorpius Freighter is that each rondel is so incredibly repetitive that you pretty much always have the same options; your basic two choices on each is usually either one or two spaces away from a ship (with three rondels there are only seven possible action spaces). Only the player upgrade space on each rondel breaks up the basic pattern. It feels like you always have the same options, and just the cost to choose them vacillates between one and two hands sort of randomly. And then there are the times when you just can’t choose the thing you want at all.
Further limiting your choice is the fact that in basic play (every rule has rule breaking special powers somewhere), you don’t even get to choose between moving one or two spaces as much as you’d want. Whenever you start a turn with only two active hands you can only choose to move a mothership one space. Choosing to move two spaces from a refreshed crew is possible, but it’s inefficient for the number of hands you’ll get. It’d be nice to think that you could set yourself up to have more options at the right time, to prep for a cool play at a crucial moment. And maybe someone more clever than me could. But there was just too much chaos in my games to know two or three turns out if a ship right space and I would have the right cubes then or the right tiles would still be there.
I don’t want to give the impression that the game is terrible. I actually kind of enjoyed the first play, and was looking forward to a second one, especially given that we caught a few minor rule mistakes. There is a bit of tactical fun to be had in trying to make the best of a bad situation. And sometimes, mostly through luck, things do come together in the right way so that you can do something really cool.
However, the wealth of variable player powers (another mechanism I love, in principle) made it seem like there would be many plays of this game needed to explore its depths. After the second game, and after playing as correctly as we could, the game felt nearly tapped. It was very samey: samey on a given turn, and samey between the two games. To be totally fair, we did not play with advanced rules like drafting or differentiated cargo holds. Since I don’t intend to play again, I don’t think I’ll know how well those rule changes work to put a spark of joy into the affair. I suspect the advanced rules wouldn’t fix the issue of the choices being rather dull, and I would just end up doing with it what I want to do now: say goodbye to it forever and put it in the past.
Dan Blum (1 play): I want to like this game more. I like many of the things it does. However, it feels really underdeveloped, with a lot of rough edges. One big one is that the rondels don’t seem to work well with three players – it seems likely that one player will have a very hard time taking a given action if the other players don’t let them, which can be a huge problem. The other big problem is that the relative value of goods doesn’t seem well thought out. Some goods production spaces are rarer than others, so the goods they produce are worth more – pink goods are the most valuable. The problem is that once a player is lucky enough to get one of the rare tiles that produces pink, they can produce them just as easily as everyone else can produce the cheap goods, but they can get far more points for them. There are other aspects of the game that feel too luck-dependent, but this is the big one.
That all being said I’d be willing to play once more because there’s enough going on here that I like, but not with three players.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue (5 play): I like both the setting and how the rondel system was implemented and modified. I also like quite a lot the idea at the base of the crew system: a simple way to offer different set-up. With the draft system it become much more challenging.
SF is quite good resource management game in the low-complexity range and I like it. Of course is a game more suited for casual gamers than real hardcore gamers because, like Dan says, it has still some small problem of balance.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Jonathan, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
- Neutral. Nathan Beeler, Dan Blum
- Not for me..