After the prototype of Monumental stole our hearts towards the end of 2018, Matthew Dunstan is a UK-based board game designer who has our attention. Add into the mix pick up and deliver and engine building, and a game like Scorpius Freighter is one I’ve been very excited to play. Having said that, it is a game that we initially overlooked when its box art and name did not grab our attention, so we’re very happy that it got a little bit of love in the board game media space which made us take a second look.
Scorpius Freighter is primarily an engine building and resource management game for 2-4 players, which plays in around 60 minutes. With three rondels to choose your actions, you don’t quite get the pick-up and deliver feel, although with a bit of imagination you could see yourself taking resources from one planet to deliver to another.
Each player takes a player board, where they will build their ship over the course of the game, by adding square ties to the 5x5 grid. By adding some tiles, you can gain space to store cargo, whilst other tiles give you special actions. Over the game you’ll fulfil contracts and side deals to gain points.
Scorpius Freighter Gameplay
Each turn in Scorpius Freighter you will pick members of your crew to activate by sliding them under your player board. These crew members will act like pilots, moving one of the three ships on the central board in their orbits around their planets. Each space is a different action so you'll often want to move father to get the action you desire. However the strength of your action is determined by the number of crew who haven't been activated, so moving faster results in weaker actions.
Eventually you will have only one or even no crew who aren't slotted under your board. If this is the case at the end of your turn then all of your crew are pulled out from under your board, refreshed and ready for action. Every time a ship completes a full rotation of the planet it will confiscate a cargo cube, once a single ship has confiscated enough cargo the trade route will go into lockdown and the game ends.
Each of the three planets have their own distinct actions, although all planets give you the opportunity to upgrade your crew. The first planet is all about upgrading your ship, you can use one of its action spaces to acquire new cargo spaces on your ship. Performing this with a highest strength gives you more cargo containers to choose from. The other action space allows you to purchase upgrades, while these typically don't store cargo they do allow you to build interesting combos of their special abilities.
The second planet is focused on using your ship, one of its spaces allows you to fill your cargo containers. When you do this each cargo container of the same type that is orthogonality connected on your ship board gains one cube of its respective colour. Performing this action with greater power lets you fill multiple cargo sections, or the same section multiple times. The other action on the second planet lets you use your upgrades, activating their powers, performing this action with greater power lets you activate more upgrades.
The final planet is where you go when you want to trade in your goods. This is where you can perform side deals and contracts. Side deals are a market of four available tokens each of which require 1-2 cargo cubes. Performing this action with greater strength lets you fulfil more side deals in a single action. Contracts are similar but typically require more goods for less points. You can only own one incomplete contract at a time, but when you complete it you'll either gain a one-use power or some bonus points.
The final, shared action, is upgrading your crew, this requires you to pay an amount of money (with discounts when you perform the action with more power) to flip your crew over to their 'experienced' side giving you access to new abilities. Each crew has a different set of abilities and requires a different play style to win with.
When the game end is triggered, points are available for all completed contracts and side deals, as well as unique scoring mechanisms for each asymmetric faction, based on the powers of some upgraded crew members.
Fiona’s Final Thoughts
Scorpius Freighter is a fast game, with super quick turns. Every turn you only take one action and in a two-player game it's possible to plan this during other people's turns. With more players, the position of the ships on the board might alter too much to allow for forward planning, but even still the game should move quickly. All of the actions are simple and easy to understand, meaning that it's quite easy to build a strategy in the game and there are many strategies to choose from.
Based on the way that tiles are dealt into the markets, the available cargo will definitely influence the way you play and you might have to be quite flexible, which can lead to games with a very different feel. Every so often, this feeling is frustration, and there are often one or two turns in the game where there is just nothing you can do to move your strategy forward, but in general this frustration hasn't defined my overall game experience.
Whilst I love being tactical and manipulative with the rondels in a two-player game, I do find that there is one drawback to playing with two, which is the lack of refresh in the markets. The whole feel of the game can change and it feels like the balance can swing if there is only one pink storage tile that shows up and one player has it, making use of all of the pink side deals and contracts. With more players, there would be a chance to get through more tiles in the supply and see a higher percentage of tiles over the course of the game, possibly creating a more level playing field. It’s fun to try and find creative ways out of these challenging situations, but it can sometimes feel like you are hosed by the player who got lucky at the right moment.
Undermining someone's faction abilities is one way of bringing some player interaction into the game and the rondels also offer a way that you can manipulate others. In a two-payer game in particular, the movement around the rondel is predictable, so that you can see how far the ship might move and what actions you might have next turn. The most lucrative actions, like delivering on contracts are spaced just far enough apart to be frustrating, meaning that you can take actions that might block another player from taking their optimal action next turn. For me, this kind of passive, rather than aggressive player interaction is the perfect level, where I'm certainly not playing solitaire but I'm also not being punched in the face!
Scorpius Freighter delivers a satisfyingly crunchy game in a short length of time. Having said that, the game length is really well judged and varies by player count, to allow you enough time to get your engine built and running before the game ends. It doesn’t fall into the trap of many engine builder where it ends before you really get going. I love how the different factions give you different paths to victory to explore and how the game has inherent variability in the random markets, which make each game feel different. It’s a game I love and I highly recommend checking it out.
Amy’s Final Thoughts
Scorpius Freighter is a really dynamic game. The way actions are selected really puts an emphasis on reactive play. Since you are limited in your ability to move the ships, sometimes you simply cannot perform the action you want. Even if you could, you might find you don't have the strength left in remaining crew to perform it efficiently. You could waste time so that your crew are refreshed, but then the action might not be available at all. While this is noticeable in a two-player game if you played with more players the layout of the board would only change faster. The game therefore becomes one of seizing opportunities, and that is really satisfying, in fact it's even thematic. You really get that 'wheeler and dealer' feel of speculating on actions when the chance emerges only to hope it pays off later on.
We did notice a slight issue on a two-player game which is the comparatively stagnant main board. While the movement of the three ships was dynamic enough to keep you on your toes, the other elements tended to hang about a bit too long. Contracts didn't vary enough between turns, side deals often stayed the same for a long time and cargo containers aren't taken fast enough to ensure that all the cargo types were well represented. We had one game where victory was largely determined by being the one player who had access to the grey resource as almost all the contracts and side jobs demanded it for a good half of the game. This did only happen in one game though and the score wasn't a complete whitewash, so perhaps we were simply falling victim to a terrible shuffle.
Overall, I enjoyed Scorpius Freighter a lot. The action selection mechanic created a unique experience that gelled really well with the theme. There were no special rules or set up that ruined the two-player experience, though perhaps a small adjustment to refresh the markets more frequently might have helped improve matters. Still this didn't detract from the fluid, fast gameplay and high replay value.