BLUF – A lightly-themed optimization boardgame that combines several different game mechanics into an easy-to-learn, fast-playing, somewhat satisfying race for points.
As a long-time Traveller RPG player and a fan of the TV series Firefly and movie Serenity, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Space Western. So it was a pretty easy sell when @tabletopbellhop posted a secret deals update and pointed me to Scorpius Freighter (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2018) for a nice bargain. Judging from the ad copy on the box back, it’s the perfect space western:
It’s been almost 100 years since the Scorpius system was settled. Over the decades, the Government has taken control of everything. Tens of billions of Sentients live in Scorpius with no hope of advancement, no hope of escape.
Except that not everyone in the Government toes the line; some still believe in freedom. A few bold freighter captains use the system against itself, handling their sanctioned job duties… as well as a lot of extracuricular activities like smuggling restricted medicines, passing censored information, and facilitating transactions below the Government radar. They are fueling the revolution.
And the Revolution is coming.
RECRUIT CREW – From the back alley brute to the elite educated, they are the best at what they do.
CUSTOMIZE SHIPS – Outfit your standard sanctioned freighter with hidden holds and an upgraded cockpit.
SMUGGLE GOODS – Conduct illegal transactions while dodging the authorities.
Sounds awesome, eh? Reality is Scorpius Freighter is a boardgame with a thin theme that drives component art and provides the barest of framework to hang several different game mechanisms off of.
Yet somehow it still works.
Contrary to my initial impression (desire?), Scorpius Freighter is not a pick-up and deliver game. Instead, on our turn you advance the Government freighter around one of three planets (rondels) and take the action of the space you land on. Usually this means taking a new compartment (card drafting) and placing it on your ship (tile placement). Depending on how those tiles are arranged and the skills of your crew (variable player powers) actions can be made more powerful (engine building). Your objective is simply to get the most points through placement of cargo (cubes) and finishing Side Jobs and Contracts (set collection). You win by gaining the most fame and fortune (points).
Reading that last paragraph closely you might note that I describe Scorpius Freighter in terms of very generic game mechanisms. That’s because there is no real theme used in play.
- Recruit Crew – In the basic game rules, one chooses a crew by taking picking a crew based on a homeworld. I guess this is done to ensure your crew is balanced in needed skills. You then place the crew into one four crew slots (Pilot, Co-Pilot, Navigator, Bodyguard) but it doesn’t matter at all where you place them. In-game you can pay for an upgrade. There is a optional rule to allow drafting your crew cards – the closest the game gets to recruiting.
- Customize Ships – Your ship is a 4×4 grid. As you draft tiles you place them on the grid. Placing certain tiles in proximity to others is advantageous. I guess if placement of tiles is considered customizing then it matches the hype. There is a piece of artwork in the corner showing your ship and name – the closest you get to seeing what the ship is.
- Smuggle Goods – On your turn, you can take certain actions to Pick Up Cargo. Then you can take other actions to Make a Side Deal or Fulfill a Contract. Nowhere does this invoke the idea of smuggling. The cargo cubes are colored not based on their type of cargo, but rather based on the Storage Tiles they can be played on. So what makes one orange cube different from another? Of the three tag lines this is the one that absolutely doesn’t resonate with me in game play.
If Scorpius Freighter has a saving grace it’s the components. Top quality. Thick tiles, a double-sided board with a nice recessed grid for placing your tiles. Cards with artwork that at least looks like somebody tried to base it off a common theme. Three Government ships with ‘confiscated cargo’ compartments make really nice countdown timers.
I really want to compare Scorpius Freighter to Firefly: The Game (Gale Force 9, 2013). I was hoping Scorpius Freighter would be a faster playing, smaller footprint, just as exciting skirt-the-law boardgame as Firefly. Alas, aside from the theme, there is really no relationship between the two titles. So I really have to look at Scorpius Freighter for what it is.
Optimization. Optimization is the best way to describe Scorpius Freighter. You are trying to optimize your movement around the planets. You are trying to optimize the placement of tiles on your ship. You are trying to optimize the collection of sets. You are trying to optimize your game engine to generate points.
Both RockyMountainNavy Jr. and myself went into our first play of Scorpius Freighter expecting to be a smuggler. We expected to misbehave. On the other hand, RockyMountainNavy T went into the game with no preset expectations. Which is probably why he won so easily. He was the first of us to see the game for what it is, not what we thought it was. He was the first to realize he needed to optimize his actions. He was the first to solve the optimization puzzle.
He finished in first place.
Yet, even with lack of theme in gameplay, Scorpius Freighter is oddly satisfying. Once you see the puzzle you also realize that the designers have cleverly put together several game mechanisms that can be leveraged in interesting ways. Although one is trying to optimize their actions, there is no one clearly optimal way of doing so.
If I have one worry in Scorpius Freighter it’s the end game trigger. The game ends when one of the Government ships has gone around their planet a number of times dependent on player count. When that occurs there is one last round of play. In our game, RockyMountainNavy T was far enough ahead he forced the end game. He won although the final score was a bit closer than he expected. I wonder if with more play the end game trigger will remain an enticing lure or will it fade away as experienced players all compete to optimize at a relatively equal pace.
If you want a great space western game that oozes with theme from the box to the components to play then pass on Scorpius Freighter. But if you are looking for a 45-60 minute, fairly low-complexity, engine-building boardgame that cleverly combines multiple gaming mechanisms supported by nice to handle components and a thin theme doesn’t bother you, then Scorpius Freighter could be your thing.