Fans of the hit series Firefly will immediately understand what’s going on in Star Cartel by Osprey Games.
Jayne Cobb: What’re we expectin’ to find here that equals the worth of a turd?
This light economic, smuggling-themed game for 3-6 players has players running illicit shipments of various goods, upgrading ships to increase capacity, and like any successful smuggler, skimming off the top to enrich themselves. The player who can amass the highest valued stash by game’s end, wins!
Filling Cargo Holds for the Star Cartel
The play area of Star Cartel consists of 12 random cards placed in a 4×3 grid with a track along the top to record the current value of contraband. Each card represents one of five different types of contraband, such as med kits and energy crystals. Each player has a starting ship with a set capacity of how much it can deliver.
Players take turns filling their ships by selecting one or two contraband cards at a time from the bottom four cards, and cards above “drop down,” a la Tetris. Many ships have special abilities which allow you to break a rule or two, because that’s what criminals do.
A filled ship means it’s time to deliver, and understanding how this works reveals all the interesting bits of strategy in Star Cartel.
What Will You Steal?
All that contraband you’ve been collecting is earmarked to line some crime lord’s pockets. But you’re a criminal, too, and frankly, you’re not getting paid enough, so some of those cards will go straight to you.
During delivery, the most plentiful type of contraband (add up the numbers within in each color grouping) gets discarded and increases the value of that item, with the corresponding token moving up two spaces on the tracker. The least plentiful contraband type in your delivery also gets discarded, and the corresponding token decreases by one. Among the contraband type(s) remaining, the player may keep all the cards of one type.
After delivery, you draw a new ship from the pile, which will be capable of carrying more contraband and be worth a few more points at the end of the game. The ship pile is also how game length is managed. When the last ship is drawn, each other player gets one more turn.
Strategy and Final Thoughts
Star Cartel is a game of finding balance and watching your opponents. What contraband will you deliver, and how will your selections impact prices? One player may intentionally drive down the value of a contraband type he knows you’ve been hoarding. Meanwhile, you’re trying to drive up the value of goods in your own stash.
I instantly wanted to play this game again. There are a number of different strategies to explore, and I really enjoy the pacing. There’s plenty to consider while your opponents are taking turns. You can study what your opponents are doing, and you can begin planning what cards to take. You might try to diversify your stash, so as to not put “all your eggs in one basket,” so to speak, or you might focus on just one or two contraband types. This can be risky when other players are likely working toward driving costs down on the contraband you’re hoping to score on!
I was really impressed with Star Cartel. While I wouldn’t mind some larger contraband cards — I have grown man hands after all — the quality of the game and mechanics are great and the rules are clear.
It’s also nice to own a light, intuitive economics game. You can teach this game in five minutes or less. In the end, running values up and down to enrich yourself and hurt your opponents, keeping a close eye on everyone, and managing your stash all come together in a very satisfying, strategic card game you can play many times in an evening.