Posted by: gschloesser | July 28, 2011


Design by: Leo Colovini
Published by:  Winning Moves
2 – 6 Players, 30 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Cartagena is one of the substantial crop of games released at the Essen 2000 game show.  It is part of what is becoming known as the ‘3-C’ collection:  Corsairs, Carcassonne and Cartagena, all games released at the same time.  Although none of these games can be considered to carry great strategic depth, they have all proven to be quite fun and easy to play.  Cartagena may well be the ‘lightest’ of the three.  Still, in spite of its relative ease of play and seeming lack of depth (at least in the more luck-based Jamaica version), it is quite enjoyable. Also, it is one my wife has enjoyed, which is always a BIG plus in my book.

The theme is based (loosely … so what else is new?) on the “famous 1672 jail break of 30 or so pirates from the supposedly impregnable fortress of Cartagena“.  Players must scurry their 6 pirates through the cave to reach the safety of the waiting boat and sail away to freedom (accompanied by choruses of “I’m Sailing Away!” by the rock group Styx.).

The board comprises six double-sided pieces, 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 the path, including a pistol, pirate hat, skull, bottle, key and dagger. A deck of miniature cards has matching symbols, 17 of each sign.   All components are of high quality, although a bit lacking in artistic flair.

A neat feature is that the game has two versions by which it can be played.  One is known as the Jamaica version, and is the easiest and quickest method to play.  In this version, a player’s hand is kept secret and cards are drawn from the face-down deck when replenishing your hand.  

With the Jamaica version, players initially begin the game with six cards.  On a turn, a player may take up to three actions, which can be either:

1) Play a card and move a pirate to the next vacant symbol on the board which matches the card played; or

2) Move a pirate backwards on the board to the next space occupied by one or two pirates.

As mentioned, when playing a card, the player moves a pirate ahead to the next vacant symbol matching the symbol on 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.  The potential drawback of utilizing this maneuver, however, is that since you don’t know which cards your opponents possess (at least in the Jamaica version), they can also take advantage of the favor you have just granted them by leaping their pirates ahead through the caves … provided they have identical cards to the ones you just played..  

Option (2) 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 the space is occupied by three pirates, the player bypasses this space and continues his backwards movement until he encounters a space occupied by ONLY one or two pirates.  If the 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.

Moving backwards goes against the very fiber of most gamers embroiled in a ‘race’ game.  You want to move forward, not backward.  However, since this is the only method in which to replenish your hand of cards, you will be forced to move backward often.  Knowing when to move backward and which pirate to send scurrying in reverse are important to successful play.  It is certainly wiser and more beneficial to move pirates backwards to spaces already occupied by two pirates so that you can draw two cards instead of only one.  A favorite tactic is to move one of your pirates from a space occupied by three pirates, and then immediately have him fall back to that same group.  Thus, you expend one card to gain two.

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.

Hand management and the timing of card play are important skills in this game.  The temptation is to immediately play groupings of cards so that you can ‘leap frog’ your pirates ahead through the cave.  However, as mentioned, this often has the effect of aiding your opponents as well.  I’ve found it much wiser to wait till your opponents occupy most of the spaces matching the cards you possess, then play these cards to much greater effect.

It is also wise to keep your pirates grouped fairly close with the other pirates.  If you allow pirates to remain well behind the main grouping of pirates, then you will not be able to take advantage of lengthy leaps, bypassing spaces occupied by other pirates.  Instead, you will be forced to use many cards to advance them through the cave. 

The rules do allow for a more ‘strategic’ version, known as the Tortuga version. With this version, each player’s hand of cards is face-up, so each player can study which cards his opponents have when deciding on his actions.  Further, 12 cards are dealt face-up from the deck and when a player collects cards for moving his pirate backwards, he MUST take the cards in order from this row. A new row of 12 cards is dealt when all of the prior 12 cards are taken.  Other than these modifications, the rules and sequence of play are exactly the same as in the Jamaica version.

I much prefer the Jamaica version as the game flows much smoother and faster.  The Tortuga version does slow the game down considerably as players analyze everyone’s hand of cards, as well as the ‘draw’ cards, before making a move.   With players who tend to carefully analyze each and every possibility before making a move, the game can quickly come to a screeching halt.  For me, at least, Cartagena seems best suited as a reasonably quick filler or appetizer. Still, it’s nice to see a game provide several versions so players can choose the one which best suits their tastes or preferences.

Cartagena will never be a game which rises to the level of greatness.  Nor will it be a serious contender for the Spiel des Jahre, Gamers’ Choice Awards or any other major game awards.  Still, it has proven successful as one of those games which is can be played and enjoyed by members of your gaming group and by your family and friends.  There’s not a whole lot of games which can satisfy both these groups, so it is a welcome addition to my game collection.


  1. A moment to learn, a lifetime to master… Cartagena takes the cake for rules that are easy to explain, yet generates a great 20 minute filler experience. Neat stuff. (7/10)

  2. Good gateway game. (7/10)

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