Cartagena is a fantastic strategic board game, notable for the fact that it clearly has a luck-based path to victory as well as one based on pure skill and finesse. The end result is that it allows beginning players to compete with advanced ones. The more experienced players have only a slight upper hand because the skill-based strategies are better, but taking huge luck-based risks often pays off handsomely. In this, the game is somewhat reminiscent of poker. The game was published in 2000 by Venice Connection and Rio Grande and was designed by Leo Colovini; it supports two to five players, taking between a half an hour and an hour for a game. It is also widely known as one of the three C's of German board gaming, along with Carcassonne and Corsairs.
The theme of the game revolves around the legendary 1672 escape of a large group of pirates from the fortress at Cartagena, where they were being held for their crimes. The board is composed of six double sided pieces, each of which pictures upon it a portion of a path. These pieces can be permutated in whatever way the players desire, giving billions of possible board permutations. Each section depicts six symbols along the path: a pistol, a pirate hat, a skull, a bottle, a key, and a dagger. The path leads from the starting point (the jail) to the finishing point (the boat). The goal is, of course, to get all six of your pirates, which start at the jail, to the boat. A deck of miniature cards has matching symbols on them as well.
One nice feature of the game is that there are two distinct ways of playing the game. The simpler one is known as the Jamaica version; the more complex version is the Tortuga version. The two versions are described below.
Players initially begin the game with six cards. In this version, a player's hand is kept secret and cards are drawn from the face-down deck when replenishing your hand. On a given turn, a player may take up to three actions; if you want to play fewer, you may. The two possible actions are:
- Play a card from your hand and move one of your pirates to the next vacant symbol on the board which matches the card played. You must skip the matching symbols that have a pirate already on it, whether it is your own pirate or another pirate.
- Move a pirate backwards on the board to the next space already occupied by one or two pirates. This is your only way of drawing cards. If the space you move the pirate to has one pirate already there, draw one card; if the space you move the pirate to has two pirates already there, draw two cards. If a space has no pirates or three or more pirates already on it, skip over it and keep moving backwards.
Moving backwards goes against the underlying idea of a race game, but you have to do it in order to effectively advance your pieces; it's a matter of one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward. Knowing when to move backward and which pirate to send scurrying in reverse are important skills for successful strategic play; you can also play a purely blind strategy and just hope for cards that net monstrous gains. One strong tactic is to always move pirates backwards to spaces already occupied by two pirates, especially if they are less than two symbols back on the board. One particularly clever tactic is to move one of your pirates from a space occupied by three pirates by dropping whatever card gives you the smallest gain, and then immediately have him fall back to that same group with your next action. Thus, you spend one poor card to gain two unknown cards.
Believe it or not, that's it. First player to get all six of his pirates into the boat is victorious.
This version is identical to Jamaica except that every player's hand is exposed. In addition, the top twelve cards of the drawing deck are exposed for the world to see when the game starts, but the players must take the cards in order. The exposed cards are not replenished until all twelve are taken.
This is one of those games with ubiquitous appeal; I cannot name another game that I have played with my kindergarten age nieces and nephews and also played with hardcore gamers at a gaming shop. Not only that, the rules are so simple yet are so flexible that you can implement as complex of a strategy as you want, but someone playing in a pure chaotic style can still come out on top. It is the relative chaos inside the very simple rules that makes Cartagena an excellent, simple board game.
If you like this game, I highly recommend Wiz War, which has a similar theme with more complexity, and Carcassonne, which is almost as elegantly simple as this one but invites a great deal more strategy. Both of these games, along with Cartagena, are great examples of what strategy games can aspire to be.