Design by David Short & Matthew Dunstan
Published by AEG
2 – 4 Players, 90 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Rondels in space. Well, that isn’t the entire picture, but it is a large part.
Set in a galaxy far, far away, Scorpius Freighter by designers David Short and Matthew Dunstan has players fomenting a revolution in a planetary system that is experiencing heavy-handed control by an oppressive government. Players attempt to skirt the law by fostering and participating in a growing black market. While they share a common goal of ultimately overthrowing the government, each is also looking out for number one: themselves.
Each smuggler receives a board representing their freighter, which has 16 spaces for various upgrades, cargo holds and equipment. Three of these are filled to start the game, with the remainder being slowly but steadily constructed as the game progresses. There is also space for the four officers of the crew, with each player receiving a unique set. These officers give the players special powers and will earn victory points if they are upgraded.
The linear game board depicts three planetary systems around which players will move motherships (one per system) to determine the action available to them each turn. Each planet is surrounded by six or seven spaces, each of which allows a specific action. Players generally may only move a ship one or two spaces per turn, which does limit their choices. Fortunately, each turn a player has a choice of three different motherships to move (one per planetary system), so there is usually—but not always—a viable and useful action to perform.
The board also has space for the various types of equipment and upgrades players can acquire. These include storage units, equipment, side deals and contracts. Most of these require the expenditure of specific cargo (there are four types) to acquire. Four of each are visible and available at all times.
A player’s turn consists of:
Assigning crew members. Nearly all actions require a player to assign at least one crew member, but a player may assign more. Assigning two allows the player to move a mothership an additional space, which gives the player more options. Once three or four crew members have been assigned, they all reset at the end of the turn.
Counterintuitively, it is the number of unassigned crew members that usually determines the strength of an action, or increases the player’s options when performing an action. Each crew member has a “hand” icon, and a player’s remaining unassigned hands are important. This has proven to be a source of confusion for many players and does take a bit getting used to.
Choose one planet. A player may move the ship one space for each crew member assigned. Note that this is different from the usual rule wherein the number of unassigned crew members is important. Confusing. The player then performs the action on the space where the mothership was moved.
When moving, if the ship passes a specially marked checkpoint space, the player’s freighter is intercepted by the government patrol and the player must surrender one cargo cube, which is placed on the mothership. This is not only costly, but it also serves as a timer for the game end. Depending upon the number of players, when one mothership contains 4 – 6 cubes, the game enters its final phase.
Of course, the actions are at the heart of the game, and properly executing and managing them is the key to victory. Actions include:
Meet Informant. Promote (upgrade) one crew member by paying the required resources and flipping the card to its reverse side. The ability of the character remains the same, but it will now be worth victory points at game’s end.
Expand Storage. Storage units allow players to store the specified type (color) of cargo. The capacity of each tile varies from two-to-four cubes. There is an incentive to place cargo tiles of the same type adjacent, since when players gain cargo, one large area of connected tiles of the same cargo type is considered just one area, whereas a single cargo tile not adjacent to similar tiles is also considered one area. This is quite important.
Upgrade Freighter. The player may select one of the four available equipment tiles. However, he may only select a tile that is on a slot with a number equal to or less than his still available “hands” (unassigned crew members plus any bonuses). So, having more unassigned crew increases a player’s options. Normally a tile must be placed adjacent to a previously placed tile, but some tiles (with blue edges) have even more restrictions, as they must be placed next to other blue-edged tiles.
Equipment tiles provide a wide range of special abilities and powers, some of which can be chained and become quite powerful. The appendix in the rule book details each of these tiles. Ignore these at your own peril.
Pick Up Cargo. The player chooses a number of storage areas (explained above) equal to his available hands (there’s that requirement again!) and places one cargo cube of the corresponding type onto each tile in each area he selected. This is why large areas of similar tiles is important.
Operate Freighter. The player activates a number of equipment tiles equal to his number of available hands. He performs the actions allowed by each of these activated tiles. Again, these powers are often complimentary and when performed in the correct sequence can provide some amazing benefits.
Make a Side Deal. Side deals are agreements (contracts) with unscrupulous traders. Four are always available and they list the cargo that the trader desires. In exchange, the player earns the indicated number of victory points at game’s end. The number of side deals a player can execute is dependent, of course, on the number of unassigned hands he has available.
Fulfill a Contract. This is the only action that does not require available hands. The player selects one of the four available contracts and, if he has available hands, he may immediately fill one or more of the three sections of the contract by spending the specified cargo. A player does not have to complete all three sections on one turn; he can fill further sections when he again takes this action. However, the number of sections he can fill on a turn is based on the number of available hands (it seems there is no escaping that requirement). Some contracts offer an immediate benefit when fulfilled, while all earn the player victory points at game’s end.
Once at least one mothership has the required number of cubes, players play one final round and points are tallied. Players earn points from fulfilled contracts, upgraded officers, side deals, and one point for cargo still on their freighter. Of course, the player with the most points becomes the leader of impending revolution.
There is a lot to like in Scorpius Freighter. There are a variety of actions to perform, and choosing which one fits best each turn can be challenging. While victory points are only derived from a few sources, there appears to be a variety of paths that lead there. Acquiring equipment tiles that can be chained into powerful action sequences is challenging and sometimes rewarding. There is also the persistent challenge of maintaining enough “hands” so one can obtain desired tiles or fulfill a number of side deals on a turn. All good stuff.
However, the game is not without its issues. After playing numerous times, the same issues continue to be raised by players. One of the major ones is the difficulty in planning a strategy as often one’s desired actions are not available as the motherships are simply not positioned properly so that a player may move one to a desired location. It is important to note that each of the three rondels (planetary systems) contain certain types of actions. The first system exclusively contains actions that allow storage and equipment tile acquisitions. System two allows the acquisition of cargo and the Operate Freighter actions, while System three concentrates on side deals and contracts. So, it is quite possible that a particular action or actions you desire to perform may not be available when it is your turn. This can happen frequently, especially if your opponents keep moving motherships past the action spaces you covet. This can be quite frustrating.
There is a considerable amount of randomness in how the tiles appear. This can cause situations wherein it is impossible for many players to acquire needed tiles. In one game, only one gray cargo storage unit (gray) had appeared until the very last turn of the game. Thus, only one player was able to collect that type of cargo and fulfill contracts and side deals that required that type of cargo. At one point, all four side deals and all four contracts required that color, so only that player could acquire them. This truly ground the game to a halt for everyone else, ruining the overall experience. While this may be rare, it can happen. Perhaps a method regulating how these tiles appear could be devised to solve this issue.
I believe that Scorpius Freighter has some very good and possibly excellent ideas. I do, however, feel it could have used a bit more development and polish. While some in our group have praised the game, just about everyone with whom I have played found the game to be decent, but nothing exemplary. Sadly, in a world where each year we are bombarded with hundreds of new titles, a game truly has to be special to have longevity and warrant a place in one’s collection. I feel Scorpius Freighter falls a bit short of that lofty goal.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it):
2 (Neutral): Greg S.
1 (Not for me):