Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
Format: Rondel, Tile Placement
Number of Players: 1 - 4
Copy Provided By Publisher
Buckle in, dear readers, for what is likely to be a long and steady stream of content from our time at PAX Unplugged. And first up on the shipping manifest, releasing this month, is AEG’s new title all about shipping goods, both legally and illegally, IN SPAAAACE! I’ll spoil my conclusion up front and say that Scorpius Freighter is definitely a good game. But why? Who would get the most out of a game like this? Don't worry, we’ve got you covered.
Setup is clean and snappy. Too often with crunchier games setup feels like a chore, but not here.
One Good Turn Deserves Another
Our spacefaring future, at least in games, is always portrayed in one of two ways: a dangerous but budding land of opportunity, or a bleak dystopia with people surviving on the fringe. Scorpius Freighter is a bit of both, though overpoweringly neither. There’s an all-powerful and all-controlling interstellar government keeping things on lockdown, and it’s up to freighter captains like you to bring goods both legally and secretly on the side to where they’re needed most. That’s the story in the rulebook, but in practice Scorpius Freighter stands less on its theme and more on its gameplay mechanics. If you want a game where you feel the creaking in your ship’s hull as you scrape asteroids or light up the dark of space as you exchange laser fire with enemy ships, you’ll probably be better served by titles like Xia or Firefly. If, on the other hand, you want a game about generously getting stuff, and all the enjoyment that comes with building an engine that moves that stuff around to get even more stuff, that’s more where we’re at here.
Generous, in a single word, is in fact a great way to describe Scorpius Freighter. The game uses a rondel mechanic: three circular action tracks that pieces move around. Whatever you land on after moving, that’s what you do for the turn. If you’ve never played a rondel game before, in practice, while you’re agonizing over not being able to take a particular action at a particular moment because it’s a little too far out of your reach, you always end up being able to do something. Go ahead, grab an extra upgrade now instead! Take your time filling up some more cargo and maybe make a bigger sale later. Snag a sweet system upgrade for your ship (more on that in a bit). You’re always getting something on your turn, so in a lot of ways this game, while mildly crunchy, is easy to play. This game resembles others I love for the same reason, like Dice Forge: it has that sort of generosity in giving out resources. Relax, and let’s just have a good time playing. I could easily see Scorpius Freighter slotting like a resource cube in one of its rondel ships into anyone’s casual game night.
The art in the game is rather pretty, but in practice we found ourselves looking more at our cube engines than where our ships were landing. Still, the board is something nice to look up at.
Build For Success
The second little game-in-a-game you play is how you customize your space freighter and build your little wooden cube engine. If the main board with the rondels is one half of your game, the other half is found in your personal player area. Pleasantly recessed boards hold the upgrade tiles that represent your ship’s systems, and throughout the game you’ll be grabbing new tiles to slot in. These range from extra cargo bays, to secret compartments, to converters that transmute resources, to all manner of automated systems that add all kinds of extra efficiency to your setup. Some of these tiles benefit from being next to others. Some are exactly the opposite. The strategies you choose to load up on are completely up to you! Well, unless someone else beats you to the market for your pick of add-ons.
Slot some crew into your ship and you’re all set to fly! The game recommends you take matching crew cards to start, but you can quickly branch out into drafting these cards which add yet more bonuses and strategy to your setup, assuming you can use them by upgrading to their “experienced” sides. Crew also double as both the thing you commit to move on the rondels as well as how powerful your actions are; think of it this way, the more crew you commit to move the farther actions you’re able to reach, but the more crew you keep in reserve the more hands you have to do work once you arrive. The way all of these elements combine, after just a few plays, has my mind already boggled at the possibilities.
The tax man, stealing our hard earned cubes!
Is It Spaceworthy?
Overall, everyone I’ve shown Scorpius Freighter to, both in Sprites and Dice and at our local game nights, has loved it; and oddly enough, I think I’ve played this game more with people who don’t like crunchy strategy games over the more thematic stuff. They’ve all ended with comments like “we definitely need to play this again.” There’s something very satisfying about building an engine, watching that engine run, and getting loads of stuff. This game does it about as airtight as the freighters you fly through the vacuum of space. At Sprites and Dice, one of our favorite “introduction to worker placement” games is Lords of Waterdeep, and I could see Scorpius Freighter fitting that spot for rondel games. It’s accessible, easy to learn, satisfying to play, and just crunchy enough to keep people wanting to come back to try just one more strategy.
I do have a couple of small nitpicks as far as the game goes that I feel are worth mentioning, and of course you won’t please 100% of the gamers 100% of the time with any game. So here are some considerations before you toss this one into your shopping basket or online cart.
For one, the rulebook is—just ok. It’s not terrible, and it’s not hard to read through, but it does leave me with some rules questions. For example, it took a couple of playthroughs to realize tiles that said “affects 2 non-adjacent tiles” referred to themselves as the target of the rule, not the two tiles affected being next to each other (we were eventually clued in by overlaps with how other location-based tiles worked). We’re still not sure if a new equipment tile can be triggered during the same action that placed it (as part of an earlier tile’s ability during the same rondel action resolution). It’s nothing that I don’t expect a post-release FAQ to fix, so these concerns are minor overall, and in the mean time we’ve just house ruled and moved on. But considering this game is amazing for crowds of newer gamers or the strategy game disinclined, it’s a shame that rules aren’t a bit tighter. I could see a little frustration seeping in if a newer group wasn’t taught by a more experienced player.
We also found the orange and pink cubes to be nearly indistinguishable from each other in low light, so color blind gamers beware.
The game, while very good, is still ultimately pretty light as well. I don’t personally find that a negative, as I think the accessibility and level of depth are draws for this game, but I can understand how game groups that favor heavy strategy might find that a detractor. Then again, maybe such groups would find it a good “first course” to game night, so your interstellar mileage may vary. And while the box art and premise look really evocative, at the end of the day this is a game about getting tiles to get cubes to exchanges those cubes for points. Do you have room in your game library for what could be another of these types of games?
A player board with crew. Everything is easy to keep track of, and the feeling of slapping a tile down into the recessed board never gets old.
I’ll just say it again here that any complaints I have of Scorpius Freighter or its rulebook are very minor. This is, frankly, a very solid game that’s equally easy to learn and play. I love it both as a relaxed, lighter title when my groups aren’t up for heavier games, as well as something that’s easy to introduce to pretty much anyone and still get a satisfactory crunch out of. It straddles a very fine line and does so masterfully. Whether it will be a good fit for you and your group/family/game night is more a consideration of how many of “these types” of games you have in your collection already. For me, I don’t think this one will be leaving my shelves anytime soon. It’s a solid introduction to rondel games that stands well on its own merits after several plays. I look forward to making this one a regular in my game bag for our local board game nights in the future.