Round the Ragged Rondels

Buckle up for some [insert vague setting] action!

What’s a rondel? Good question, Geoff. A rondel is usually circular, but not always. It can also be ovaloid. Perhaps an ellipse, if you want to evoke a space theme. Certainly Scorpius Freighter wants to dazzle you with its space theme. You’re a smuggler, it shouts, so go smuggle! Avoid patrols! Buy upgrades! Make sales! Don’t pay attention to how badly we’re abusing these rondels!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Down below, I’ll explain what a rondel is and talk about Scorpius Freighter. Bonus!

The game lists the smuggleable resources as "sausages," "bones," and "ding-dongs." I don't feel comfortable.

Smugglin’. I guess.

First, let’s talk about rondels.

Picture the world’s fruitiest pie. On one side it’s got blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. On the other, apple. Maybe there’s a banana tucked in there somewhere. Perhaps some rhubarb, even though you’re smart enough to know that rhubarb is at best a fruit imposter. Some smartass put a tomato in there. But rather than being mixed together, this pie has been carefully segregated so that each slice offers its own fruit. As you count your way clockwise around the pie — always clockwise, unless this pie was baked by an iconoclast — you choose your slice, and with it a distinct fruity flavor.

A rondel is exactly like that fruitiest pie, but with different actions that get selected when you move a piece onto that wedge. Here’s the action where you fill up your cargo hold with illicit goods. Another step forward and here’s the action that lets you turn in those goods for a contract, or upgrade your ship, or tell one of your crewmen to get back to work. Take enough steps and you’ll circle back around to where you started, ready to begin the journey all over again.

Scorpius Freighter is a game about rondels. Plural rondels. Three rondels. And on your turn, you’re free to move along any of them, bumping that rondel’s barge forward by a space or two, and then taking whichever action you’ve landed on.

Like cake.

Filling my ship with pretty things.

This rondel-rounding is accomplished courtesy of your smuggler crew. Exhaust one or two of them, move the corresponding barge forward by that many spaces, and the indicated action is boosted by however many un-tuckered scoundrels you still have aboard. Simple.

Naturally, there are a few other details to consider. With three rondels in play, there’s no scarcity of places to go. But travel too quickly and you may push through a checkpoint, which will steal some cargo straight out of your hold. One cargo… unit. Cargo thing. Cargo pip. Whatever it’s called, it’s a slap on the wrist that clever smugglers will be careful to avoid. Meanwhile, there are upgrades to obtain and contracts to fulfill. Your ship begins with a few essentials, but you’ll soon want new cargo holds — because you cannot store medicine in a data vault, duh — and new components for their bonus actions, and to transform your weenie crewmates into super-studs with special abilities, and to decide whether you cash in your resources for contracts or side deals, and and and…

Okay, here’s the thing about Scorpius Freighter. On paper it looks like a lot. But by tethering every action to those three rondels, you’re only presented with at most six possibilities on any given turn. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’re never overwhelmed with options. The fewer crewdudes you spend on movement, the more benefit you’ll squeeze from each action — but again, it’s a choice between tiring out one guy or two. There are components and upgrades for picking up the slack, and you’ll definitely want to pick up a few, but even these are limited to a manageable handful at a time. At its best, each turn is pleasantly tactical, forcing you to make do with whichever actions lie within reach at that moment. Somebody nabbed that contract you wanted? Better do something else with your cargo. You’ll swing around again, but there’s no telling what will be available by your next turn.

Then again, that same streamlining is also one of Scorpius Freighter’s biggest problems.

Firefly doesn't have aliens.

This colorful crew could be in a star war.

Your crew is a good example. Everyone starts with their own set of four, each with their own powerful ability that kicks in just as soon as you upgrade them with some hard-earned credits. Some are based around specific resources, others let you move a little farther or boost various actions. The problem, though, is that your crew informs which of those already-limited actions are most worthwhile. If you’re running the crew that earns extra for selling data, that’s your most likely route. If you want to do something else, you might as well ignore your crew altogether. And if you can’t find a rare data vault? Tough luck, kid.

In fact, nearly every element seems tailor-made to aggravate. While some upgrades and storage holds are mighty appealing, others are pitifully useless, and the remainder are downright dull. Contracts and side deals both earn points, but side deals are easier and faster to accomplish, and churn out disproportionately more points considering the effort involved.

Even the rondels can be irritating to manage. They’re divided in usefulness, for one thing. The only option for gaining cargo — at least without having invested in special tiles beforehand — is found on the middle rondel, while the only options for scoring lie on the third. In both cases, it’s not only possible but common to find yourself taking turns you would have rather avoided, acquiring yet another pointless cargo hold that you can’t seem to fill.

But the biggest offender by far is that the whole thing proceeds at such a plod. You pick up a few resources (if your turn allows it), grab a good upgrade (if your turn allows it), bribe the cops (not as exciting as it sounds), sell resources for a few points (if your turn allows it), and circle the drain until the whirlpool releases its grip. Not only is it approximately as thrilling as staring at an airport baggage carousel, but this is the ideal situation. Miss an important action and it’s more akin to fumbling your luggage and having to wait for the carousel to trundle it back around.

Though Scorpius Freighter does its damnedest to make them boring again.

Upgrades are fun.

Sadly, Scorpius Freighter sounds more interesting in concept than in play. A game about smuggling? Played on not one, not two, but three rondels? With crew upgrades and ship design and cute plastic barges that gradually fill up with confiscated resources? It’s every kid’s space-dream.

Too bad it dashes those dreams on the rocks of stellar bureaucracy. When you get right down to it, smuggling is a chore. Better stick with moisture farming.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. You can think of it like a rondel, if that helps.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on December 12, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for your review on this game, concise, informative, and entertaining as always!
    Another spacey game I have is Periorbis, and I would like to hear your thoughts on that one, if you ever get a chance to play it, thanks.

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