Full disclosure: A review copy of Carthago was provided by Capstone Games.
In the spirit of broadening my horizons, I occasionally play some medium-weight games to sort-of dip my toe into the water of heavier games. To be fair to me, two of my favorite games are Millennium Blades and Spirit Island, so I do have some tolerance for heavier fare; it’s just hard for me to get them played consistently because I 1) don’t love the time investment (I’d rather play more games) and 2) don’t have a ton of groups that are interested in games of that weight. Not the biggest deal; just more observations.
Anyways, in that spirit, I present a review of Carthago. Normally I get all up in the business of games that are just “you’re trading around the Mediterranean”, but, I mean, it’s 800 B.C. and Rome hasn’t wrecked Carthage, yet, so I’m inclined to give it a pass on Antiquity (I’m vaguely done with the Renaissance). You’ll need to run around town, get some seats in the Forum, and improve your house if you want to be the greatest merchant in the land. Plus, you have no idea that people are going to use the phrase “salt the earth” to refer to how terribly Carthage gets sacked, so, I mean, better enjoy what you got while you can. Will you be able to be the best merchant around?
There’s a lot of stuff, but setup doesn’t take terribly long. Give each player a Residence Board:
Based on that color, give them an Action “disk”:
We have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a disk, but hey whatever. Next up are the influence disks:
Only take 11 of them. There should be two extra in every color. Add 8 of them so that every circle (not the square) on your Residence Board is covered. In the bottom-right circle you’ll put two of the influence disks.
Also, give players their Base Cards in their color:
These are different from the Trade Cards, which you should shuffle up:
Now, start setting up the boards. Almost all of them have to be built, save for the Actions Board / Rondel:
I have no idea what a rondel is and I’m not terribly interested in learning, so I’m just gonna call things rondels until someone inevitably explains the difference to me condescendingly. So excited for that day. You’ll notice that yours might have a hole in the center, whereas mine has the Round Marker in the center. I like it that way, so that’s how I have it.
Shuffle up the Achievement Tiles by decade (check the back) and place two from each decade below their relevant parts of the Achievement Board:
Now, assemble the Market Board and add 5 Trade Cards to the available spots:
Also, give every player 3 Trade Cards. Next, assemble the Harbor Board:
Use the parts as indicated by their player counts. Two pieces for two players, three for three, and four for four. You’ll want to put a boat in each of the docks:
Two boats should be off the end of the harbor (near the bag icon). At the other end of the harbor, attach the Warship Harbor:
Set the Guild Hall Board somewhere in the center:
You’re almost ready! Add the two silver markers to the Achievement and Round Boards:
They keep track of what decade / round you’re on.
Finally, take the “golden guild” markers (that’s what it says in the rulebook; don’t look at me):
Add them to the Action Board by discarding cards from the top of the deck until you get two different Action symbols (the boxes in the top-left of the card). Add one to each of the two different spots.
If you’re not playing with 4 players, you’ll add “neutral player” action “disks” to the Action board, as well, following the same pattern. Note that they can start on the same locations as Guild Markers, though.
Also, for each player you’re not playing with, take two of their unused influence disks and cover up the “6” and “7” in the same column of the Guild Board. No way you’re getting cheap seats, now.
As a last thing, each player in reverse turn order (last player -> first player) takes one influence disk from the topmost space in any of the three columns on their residence board and places it on one empty space in the trading or warship harbor. You may want to better understand the gameplay before you do that, though.
Either way, once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to dive in!
So, each decade has an Action Phase and then a Setup Phase between the old and new decades. The game ends after 3 decades (each with 5 rounds), so each player will get 15 total turns. Let’s talk about how the Action Phase goes and then we’ll cover the Setup.
So, during the Action Phase you can either Take an Action or Pass. If you pass, just do nothing and draw 1 Trade Card. If you have any cards on the right side of your Residence Board, move one to the left side to keep track. (Ideally, all other players are keeping track so you wouldn’t forget what round it is, but better safe than extremely sorry.)
Taking an action, however, is a different matter altogether. You can take any of the 5 available actions:
- Market (Stall)
- Residence (House)
- Trading Dock (Bag)
- Warship Dock (Swords)
- Harbor Delivery (Handshake)
I find it faster to call them that shorthand, but you should feel free to live your truth. Anyways, You must play a card with that icon (either Trade or Base) to the left side of your Residence Board. If there’s already another player’s disk, there, you must discard a card (of any type) per player disk already present (not including yours) to the right side of your Residence Board. Sort of a penalty for following behind another player, if you’d like to think about it like that. If any of those disks are for a neutral player (a player not in the game), after taking your action you must move them to the next space clockwise without a neutral player disk on it.
Similarly, you may encounter one of the Guilds. If you take an action on a space with a Guild Marker, you may take a bonus Guild action after you perform your space’s action. If you’d like, you can ignore your space’s action and just do the guild action; you must, however, still pay to go to that space. (You might as well do it, if you can, imo.)
Additionally, before, during, or after any action, you may use any number of face-up ships’ abilities that you control. When you do, flip them face-down. They have a variety of effects which are vaguely out of scope of this review. Rulebook’s online.
Let’s talk about the actions.
When you go to Market, you can do three actions, in this order:
- Take a Trade Card from the Market and add it to your hand. If you don’t like any of the cards in the Market, you may take the top card of the Market deck. You’ll see it either way; immediately refill the market if you took one of the Market cards.
- You may trade a card from your hand with a card from the Market. You cannot trade away Base Cards. You are totally allowed to trade away the card you got in Step 1.
- Choose a face-down ship of yours and flip it face-up. You can use that ability again. This is the only way to regain ship abilities. Also, uh, I’m not really sure thematically why this is related to the market, but, here we are. That’s how it works.
For the Residence action, you improve your house, which gives you more influence because people are jealous of the quality of your abode. Probably. Pay the cost for a column to remove all influence disks from the topmost spot on the column with influence disks. Note, this means you discard trade cards to the discard pile. As such, (and since Base cards have no type), you cannot discard Base cards this way.
You also gain a bonus, based on the column:
- Left Column: (Cost: 3 Dye / 3 Oil / 3 Glass) This column will give you bonus guild seats. If you’ve cleared two spots, you’ll gain an additional two seats, and after clearing all three, you’ll gain an additional three seats (total).
- Middle Column: (Cost: 2 Cedar) This column increases your strength, which helps you go on more dangerous expeditions with warships.
- Right Column: (Cost: 2 Jewelry) This column just helps you gain more influence disks. The second space has two disks, and when you buy that space, you gain them all. Pretty cool.
Again, your reward is just the bottom-most available column; it is not cumulative. However, whenever you clear a column completely, you’ll gain a bonus guild seat for the final scoring.
Trading Dock Action
Add an available influence disk to any unoccupied dock in the trading harbor. You may only have one disk per spot, and you cannot occupy every space yourself.
Warship Dock Action
Add an available influence disk to any unoccupied dock in the warship harbor. Again, you may only have one disk per spot, and you cannot occupy every space yourself.
Harbor Delivery Action
This is the doozy. Bear with me. You may deliver to the Warship and / or Trading harbors, and you’ll collect rewards if you can successfully do both. You may also do these in any order you’d like.
At the Warship Harbor, you choose a dock where you have an influence disk (you must have an influence disk here to use it) and return it to the space next to your residence. Also, pay a Trade card of your choice. Now, draw and reveal the top card in the ship pile. If your Strength is higher than its Danger Value, your expedition was a success! You’ll gain the ship (face-down) and rewards. If not, you failed, and you just get to draw a trade card.
Regardless of whether you win or lose, you may take the influence disk you just got back and spend money to place it on an Achievement Tile. As you might guess, the coin values on the Trade cards are how much money they’re worth, so discard those to do so. You must always take the cheapest available space on the tile, and you cannot take the 4p space if you’re not playing a 4p game. You may only have one disk on an Achievement Tile.
Similar to the Warship Harbor, you may deliver here by removing one of your influence disks from the dock. Unlike the Warship Harbor, however, you must discard a matching Trade Card (one with the same good type as the good type of the ship). If you do, take the ship and place it face-up in your play area. You also gain rewards. Move the ships forward to fill the empty space and add a new ship to the end of the line.
Whenever you gain a ship, look at its coin value (top-right corner). You’ll gain rewards of at least that value by revealing cards from the top of the Trade Card deck until the total coin value of the cards meets or exceeds the ship’s coin value. You then get to take all revealed Trade Cards. That’s pretty superb. If you take a ship face-up, you may immediately use its ability (or, rather, any time from now on, including this turn).
When you move onto a space with a Guild Hall, you may take a Guild Action. In order to do so, you’ll need to have at least one available influence disk. If you do, do one of the following:
- Gain a guild seat. Place the influence disk on an empty circle on the Guild Board (or in the 12-cost Guild Forum column, which can hold as many disks as you want). Pay trade cards equal to (or exceeding) the cost of the seat (between 6 and 12 coins). Once you’ve added a disk to the Guild Hall, it cannot be removed. Make sure you don’t run out of influence!
- Place on an Achievement Tile. Just like from the Warship Harbor Delivery, you can use a Guild Action to place on one of the current decade’s achievement tiles by discarding either 2, 5, or 8 coins’ worth of Trade Cards. Again, you may only place on each Achievement Tile once, and you must take the cheapest available space. These are scored at the end of the game.
So, once you’ve played 5 rounds, the current decade ends. This means that you can no longer gain Achievements for that decade! Hope you were planning well.
Either way, do the following actions to prepare for the next decade:
- Move the Decade marker forward to the next decade. Just in case, you know, you weren’t going to do that.
- Return the Round marker to the “1” space. Again, just in case you weren’t already doing that.
- Discard all Trade Cards in the Market and replace them with 5 new ones. You’d figure the merchants change their wares at least once every 10 years, and you’d be right.
- Advance the ships. This means the ship closest to the Warship Harbor goes to the bottom of the Ship Deck, and the other ships move forward to fill the gap. Also, add one more ship to the end of the line.
- Choose a new start player. The player with the most available influence disks is the new start player. If there’s a tie, the next player in turn order is the start player.
- Take your Base and Trade Cards you spent for Actions back into your hand.
- Income. You gain Trade Cards based on what decade you’re starting:
- Decade 2: Gain 2 Trade Cards.
- Decade 3: Gain 1 Trade Card.
- Remove the Action Disks from the Actions Board. You can leave the neutral player disks up on there.
Play continues until the end of the third decade! Once that happens, add things up as follows:
Total Guild Seats: Add the following:
- Each influence disk in the Guild Hall
- Bonus Seats earned from the left column of your residence board (0, 2, or 3 total seats)
- Each fully-empty column on your residence board is worth a Guild Seat.
Multiply that by the total number of ships you have (face-up + face-down).
Add the Victory Points you scored for Achievement Tiles. The player with the most points wins! If there’s a tie, everyone tied wins! That’s always nice.
Player Count Differences
Hm, so after some analysis (that’s a strong word), it seems like there’s no real incentive to play this with four players beyond potentially getting more spaces for Achievements and getting rid of the neutral players in favor of active players. On one hand, it means you won’t have spots arbitrarily blocked; on the other, it means that some places may just be unusable by virtue of being too expensive to use. Strategically, I think it’s kind of a no-op. Also, at two players, the Warship Harbor will only ever have one of each of your tokens in it, which makes the Ship Ability not particularly useful, unless you really just wanted to double up on the Warship Harbor for lack of something else better to do.
My major gripe is that there’s no real adjustment for player count in the game itself, as far as play-time goes. That means with more players the game will just take longer, especially if you’re teaching them all the game (which will inevitably happen). To that end, I’d just recommend playing it at two, unless you’re looking for a crunchier four-player game (which I’m usually … not looking for). 3’s not bad either.
- Boats. You want them; you crave them; you think of nothing else. You need boats to be successful, and boats are a great way to gain enough income to get guild seats or upgrade your house. It’s almost like that’s the whole point of the game, or something. The abilities the boats give you aren’t bad, either, but remember they’re effectively single-use unless you’re planning to hit the market a whole bunch.
- Try to predict and preempt your opponents. If you know what a player is going to do next, you can do it yourself, first, and make things very expensive for them. It’s cruel, but efficient. This is especially true of the Trading Harbor, since the ships advance whenever you gain one; if you aren’t paying attention, the strategy you set up might be ruined inadvertently (or on purpose) by another player.
- Sometimes you just gotta go for what’s cheap. It’s not always the most glamorous, but, you’re going to run out of steam pretty quickly if you keep spending cards on going to crowded action spaces. The worst thing you can do in this game is run out of momentum; you need just enough to get you through each gate. Naturally, this means you should sometimes focus on getting more trade cards or planning out a more careful strategy.
- I find starting with more strength to be helpful. This means you can often just go for the lucky flip at the Warship Harbor straight out of the gate (hey, sometimes it works). By the end of the game, especially if you get one of those +2 Strength boost ships, you have nothing to fear from the Warship Harbor and it’s essentially guaranteed points. That’s never a bad way to be. Plus, again, you need them for end-of-game points.
- Keep an eye on how much influence you have. Similar to running out of Trade Cards, running out of influence isn’t going to do you many favors, if I’m being honest. You’ll be unable to use the docks and unable to get Guild Hall seats; essentially, you cannot score points until you gain more influence. And since scoring points is how you win, it’s pretty straightforward to contend that you cannot win the game without gaining more influence. Keep an eye on it and don’t forget to fill up if you’re getting low.
- Don’t neglect anything. That may seem obvious, but there are huge penalties to forgetting about getting ships or getting Guild Hall cards. Mostly that you’ll, well, score 0 x something, which isn’t very high. Ideally you want to grow your seats and your ships at about the same rate and keep your points on that squared curve. You’ll need at least three of both if you want to do well.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Multi-use cards lead to a lot of interesting decisions. Do you play this for its good type, use it to perform an action, or spend it as currency? The tension that creates (especially if you don’t know when your next play will be coming) is palpable, and I think that’s one of the things about this game that’s the most fun.
- The Warship Harbor is probably my favorite. I appreciate the lucky mechanic of hoping your strength modifier is high enough to score, and it’s kind of exciting. Naturally, it’s deeply disappointing when you lose, though. That’s just the name of the ship-flipping game.
- The art is pretty rad. It’s very thematic, which I appreciate. Makes the whole game very pleasant to look at. The components are also pretty nice, as well, which makes the game very pleasant to play with.
- The variable Achievement Tiles add a lot of interesting ways to try and play. It also makes the game fairly expandable; I’m sure there are other interesting options you could go for with Achievements and incentivize certain behaviors. Or add new actions, but that seems more time-intensive.
- Relatively compact box. No space being wasted with this one, which I appreciate. Hate big, empty boxes.
- Once you know how to play, the symbology is pretty helpful. Getting to that point can take a hot minute, but it’s nice when the icons kinda just … work. SPQF is similar, in that regard.
- Like I said, the Anchor space isn’t all that useful at 2p. I suppose it’s nice if you have nothing else to do and want to queue up another Warship Harbor, but it’s not explicitly super useful, especially since it’s not like your opponent can block you out of the Warship Harbor.
- The multi-use cards do occasionally lead players towards getting their wires crossed, so you’ll see quite a few misplays in the first few games. While that’s expected, given the way the game is structured, enough early misplays can really knock you out of the running, which is never fun. That might cause players to not want to come back to the game, which would certainly be a bummer. I usually let players walk back a few actions (if it wouldn’t affect the downstream actions too much) while they’re getting acclimated.
- Doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a catch-up mechanic. If you failed to get boats in the first round, there’s not much to help you do more than follow behind other players, it feels like. While that’s not normally a problem, in a longer game that’s definitely going to be very frustrating for some. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised by this.
- I have a bit of an anti-preference for games that take significantly longer with more players. I prefer games with pretty constant play times, because it lets me budget a bit better when I go to game nights (or host them). If your play time is contingent on your player count (especially if it hits “longer” with more players) then it goes from being easy-to-play (as a 45-minute game would be) to “rather difficult” at 90. Flexibility is good, but being able to reasonably expect how long the game will take is better, for me. The only difference between player counts is that your opponents get turns instead of having them abstracted out, so the games will just … take longer, generally.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, Carthago is pretty good! If I’m being honest, it’s probably a bit outside of my personal game weight range, but I can still see that it’s definitely got some nice things going for it (and a lot of my friends who enjoy the more Euro-style games have seemed to enjoy it). I think the multi-use cards are its main selling point, and using them to do every action in the game is a pretty neat thing. My major gripes are the play time increasing with player count (rather than being roughly constant) and the lack of a clear catch-up mechanic, but even then those are definitely things that don’t necessarily bother everyone in games. Plus, even for a “heavier” game, it’s not too bad to teach, once you get used to it, which has helped me get so many plays in in a short amount of time. Always appreciate that. Anyways, if you’re looking for a game with some interesting strategies and nice components that’s a bit on the crunchier side, Carthago might be worth checking out!