The government of the Scorpius system controls everything, but there are some freighter pilots who operate under the radar, distributing restricted medicine, information, and supplies while they’re fulfilling above board contracts. You can’t take the sky from this Scorpius Freighter.
What Is Scorpius Freighter?
Scorpius Freighter is a sci-fi smuggling game for players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 45–75 minutes to play. It had a soft release at Essen 2018 and made its way to the US in December with a retail price of $59.99; you can order directly from AEG, Amazon, or look for it at your local game store. Although the listed age rating is 14 and up, I think you could teach it to experienced kids maybe as young as 10. It’s a little hard to categorize the game type, but there’s a little bit of pick-up-and-deliver, a bit of resource management, some rondels, and tile placement—all mixed together in an intriguing way.
Scorpius Freighter Components
Here’s what comes in the box:
- 1 Game board
- 3 Motherships
- 4 Freighter boards
- 28 Crew cards (4 cards each in 7 different factions)
- 132 Tiles:
- 1 Starting Player tile
- 4 Standard Credits tiles
- 4 Standard Goods tiles
- 13 Cockpit tiles
- 12 Contract tiles
- 32 Equipment tiles
- 36 Side Deal tiles
- 30 Storage tiles
- 100 Cargo cubes:
- 25 Data cubes (grey)
- 25 Meds cubes (pink)
- 25 Goods cubes (green)
- 25 Credits cubes (orange)
The component quality is pretty nice overall: the tiles punch out easily, and the freighter boards for individual players are dual-layered to keep the tiles in place when played. Actually, they’re triple-layered, because they’re double-sided and have spaces on the back as well. The player boards also have a handy reference guide to all the available actions, though the text is a little bit small.
Overall the iconography starts to make sense once you’ve played a couple times, but a couple of the icons are a little too similar, and new players sometimes confused them. For instance, the “pick up cargo” and “expand storage” both use a crate icon (which, for a long time, I thought was just a “0” in a squared-off font), and the “upgrade freighter” and “operate freighter” actions both have a gear.
The tiles are mostly just text and icons, but there’s some fun artwork to help establish the theme, particularly on the crew cards. The crew cards are a mix of human-looking and alien characters, and there’s a fun mix of all sorts of them: big, small, creepy, and so on, with names that range from familiar to “yeah, that’s definitely sci-fi.” The main game board also has some artwork showing the various locations you’ll be visiting that correspond to the actions: for instance, there are shady people hanging out in doorways where you “meet informant,” and the “upgrade freighter” locations show spaceships parked in (presumably) space mechanic shops.
There’s also a nice touch with the freighter boards: although they pretty much function identically, each one has its own ship name and illustration, giving them a little more personality. The four slots at the bottom of the board, where your crew cards will go, are labeled Bodyguard, Navigator, Co-Pilot, and Pilot. Even though there’s no gameplay significance between the four slots, it can be fun to assign your crew based on what you think their personalities are like from the illustrations.
The three motherships are plastic molded ships, each with 6 spaces to hold the cargo cubes. Some of them are a tight fit, but they work for the most part, and are nice and large so you can easily see where they are on the board.
I approve of the packaging: the plastic insert has a space for everything, and there are even icons embossed in the various wells so that you know which tiles go where. The freighter boards and the main game board fit onto the recessed area, which is sized so that everything ends up flush against the top edge of the box. One nice touch is that the cardboard sheets are laid on top of the whole thing (with the lid slightly offset) when the game is in shrink, so that once you’ve punched it out and put things into the insert, the lid sits flush and you don’t have to worry about things shifting around inside the box.
I do have a few quibbles with some of the components, though. The backs of the tiles aren’t all totally consistent—we noticed that some tiles printed darker than others. While it doesn’t affect gameplay (since there are so many tiles), it feels like that’s something that should have been caught. I don’t know if the cargo cube colors were chosen for thematic reasons, but they’re not particularly color-blind-friendly; in low light, it can be hard even to tell the pink and orange apart. That’s not the end of the world, because the type of cargo you have is usually also indicated by the tile that it’s on, but there are a few exceptions.
Scorpius Freighter is GeekDad Approved!
How to Play Scorpius Freighter
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to have the best reputation (i.e., score) by smuggling goods and information before the government’s sudden but inevitable betraya—I mean, embargo.
The main board goes in the center of the table, with the resource cubes off to the side. The three motherships start, one per planet, on the spaces marked with the yellow checkpoint icons. Shuffle each set of tiles, and fill the various market spaces on the board: storage tiles at the top left, equipment tiles at the bottom left, contracts at the top right, and side deals at the bottom right. Place the rest of the tiles nearby in stacks.
After choosing a starting player (and giving them the starting player tile), players draft freighter boards and crew factions in reverse turn order. In the basic game, the freighter boards are identical, but if you’re using the advanced side, each one has a specific cockpit tile, as well as three spaces marked as “restricted access” that cannot be used. Each crew faction consists of four characters that have some synergy in their abilities; however, you can also play a version where they’re shuffled and drafted before the game begins.
Each player takes their starting cockpit and places on the marked space of their freighter board, as well as a hidden compartment tile and a lock box tile. These must be placed so that every tile is orthogonally adjacent to another tile. Each player takes 1 good and 1 credit and places these on the corresponding storage spaces. Your crew cards are placed below your freighter board, tucked slightly (so that you can still see the “hand” icon on each card). The order does not matter, though I usually place them in increasing cost order just for ease of reference.
On your turn, you do the following: Assign Crew, Move Mothership, Perform Actions, and (possibly) Refresh Crew.
Choose one or two of your available crew (the ones that still have the hand icon showing), and slide them up so that the hand icon is covered.
Choose one of the three motherships and move it clockwise around its planet one space per crew member you just assigned. If you land on or pass a checkpoint space, you got audited and some of your cargo was confiscated: you must pay a cube from your freighter and place it onto the mothership. (If you have none, put one in from the supply.)
After moving the mothership, you’ll get to take an action based on the space you landed on. The effect of the action will depend on how many hand icons are still visible on your crew cards (plus there are other effects that can give you extra “hands” toward certain actions). Note that you do not tuck cards when you spend hands for these actions.
Each of the three planets has a different set of possible actions to take. The only one in common is Meet Informant, which appears on all three: you get to promote one of your crew members by paying the credits shown on the card. For each hand you have, you get a 1 credit discount. Pay the credits to the supply, and then flip the crew card over—that crew’s ability is now in effect.
You’ll never be a successful smuggler in that hunk of junk. The planet on the left is the place to trick out your freighter with more storage space (Expand Storage) and fancy equipment (Upgrade Freighter). For both of these actions, you may take a single tile from the corresponding market; the number of hands you have available indicates which of the tiles are available to you. Once purchased, tiles must be placed adjacent to existing tiles on your freighter. Blue-bordered equipment tiles must always be placed adjacent to other blue-bordered equipment tiles (or your cockpit, which has a blue border). After taking a tile, slide tiles to the left to fill in gaps and then refill the 4-hand space with a new tile from the supply.
The middle planet is where you’ll put those upgrades to work. When you Pick Up Cargo, each hand you have available lets you restock 1 storage area: a “storage area” is a contiguous set of storage tiles of the same type. When you restock, each tile gains 1 cube of that type from the supply, so if you have a storage area with 3 meds storage tiles, you would get 3 meds (as long as there’s room for them).
The other action is Operate Freighter, which allows you to activate 1 equipment tile (or your cockpit) per hand. You may never activate any equipment tile more than once per turn. Equipment tiles have a variety of effects: some will give you extra actions of other types, gain particular types of cargo, or even trigger other equipment tiles so that you can operate more equipment with fewer hands.
Now that you’ve picked up some contraband (and some totally legitimate cargo, of course), it’s time to make the drop! On the rightmost planet, you can Make a Side Deal: each side deal tile has one or two required cargo and a point value. For each hand you have, you may complete 1 side deal from the row (refilling the space immediately) by returning those cargo cubes to the supply from your freighter. Take the side deal tile and place it next to your freighter board for scoring.
Each contract has 3 rows indicating the various cargo you’ve signed up to deliver. When you take Fulfill a Contract, you may fulfill 1 row of a contract per hand you have available on your active contract by placing the cargo cubes onto the contract tile. You may only have one active contract at a time, so you’ll have to fulfill all three rows before you can take a new one, but you can fulfill the rows in any order. (Taking a new contract does not use any hands, and can only be done during the FulFill a Contract action.) When you complete all three rows of a contract, return all the cubes to the supply, and then turn the contract sideways—you immediately get the bonus effect printed in the light blue rectangle. (Each row of a completed contract is also worth a number of points.)
At the end of each round (after everyone’s had the same number of turns), check how many cargo cubes each mothership has confiscated. If any of them have hit the threshold (4 in a 2-player game, 5 in a 3-player game, and 6 in a 4-player game), then the government shuts down interplanetary commerce because there’s been too much illegal activity. Play one more final round, and then the game ends.
Note: to make it a little more obvious when the game is ending, I suggest putting some cubes in the motherships at startup (2 cubes per ship in a 2-player game, and 1 cube in a 3-player game), so that the game ends when a mothership is filled, rather than having to remember what the threshold is.
At the end of the game, you score points based side deals, completed portions of contracts, and 1 point per cargo cube in your freighter (not including those on partially completed contracts). Some crew members also award bonus points for specific criteria. Highest score wins, with ties broken by most cargo cubes, then most experienced crew members.
Congrats! You’re now the backbone of the black market economy and people are counting on you. Hope you’re up to the task.
Advanced Play Options
The first advanced play option is to use the reverse side of the player boards, which have restricted areas where you cannot place tiles. Each of those has a custom cockpit printed on it instead of the standard “Fill 1 Storage tile to capacity.”
There are even more custom cockpits—you can shuffle the tiles and deal one randomly to each player at the start of the game.
Another option is to use custom crews: shuffle all of the crew cards together, and deal 6 to each player. Each player picks a crew card from their hand, and passes the rest to their left. Continue until everyone has picked 6 crew. Then choose 4 of those to assign to your freighter, and discard the rest. Using custom crews won’t guarantee that you’ll have good synergy the way that using the pre-made factions will, but you then have the option of taking on expensive but powerful crew, or getting several cheap crew that can be upgraded quickly.
Why You Should Play Scorpius Freighter
As you may have picked up already, it’s pretty fun to put a Firefly theme on this game, simply because it’s about smuggling goods in space under the noses of an overbearing government, hoping to be the “big damn heroes” for the people of Scorpius. But, whether you want to layer that theme on it or not, Scorpius Freighter is a pretty fun game that forces you to make some tough choices. Thematically, outfitting your ship, collecting cargo, and then delivering it for points all seems to click, though there are some abstractions that seem weird, like: are we all flying along with these motherships? Does one planet produce all the stuff and the other planet buys it all? That seems like a weird economy. But, honestly, those things don’t bother me that much when I’m actually playing the game.
It’s interesting that while you do load cargo and deliver contracts, it doesn’t exactly feel like your typical pick-up-and-deliver game. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how to categorize the game. BoardGameGeek lists it as including card drafting, set collection, and tile placement, but none of those seem like the primary game mechanism to me. Card drafting is primarily done when picking crew, though I suppose there’s a little bit of drafting when you take various tiles from the markets. Set collection is part of fulfilling side deals or contracts, but there’s so much other stuff going on to collect and then deliver those sets. And, yes, there’s tile placement in your freighters, but I probably wouldn’t sell this as a “tile placement” game either.
What stands out to me is the way you choose actions, which involves the planet rondels. Sometimes you’ll want to take a particular action, but you can’t get a mothership there on this turn. Or maybe you can get the mothership there, but then you don’t have enough hands left to take the action that you want to do. If the mothership is coming up on an inspection space, you have to decide whether it’s worth sacrificing a cargo to get what you want.
Because you can typically only move a ship one or two spaces, there’s plenty of room for interfering with other players. For instance, if you see that somebody has the cargo to fulfill a lucrative contract, you may be able to put the ship on or past a contract space so they can’t reach it this turn. You can also see how many hands each player has, so you can see that if your rival moves two spaces to pick up cargo, they’ll only have 1 hand left to do so, meaning they can’t pick up as much.
Depending on which actions are the most popular, you may find that one mothership fills up very quickly—then the question becomes, do I take an action on this planet, which will bring us closer to the end of the game? Or do I take a less-optimal action, hoping to keep the game going long enough for me to tick a few more boxes off my to-do list? If you add a bunch of storage spaces to your freighter, but then never put anything into it, the first mothership might fill up before you ever complete a side deal or a contract. On the other hand, if your crew cards will let you score for things like modifying your freighter or upgrading your crew, maybe you don’t care so much about actually delivering goods anyway.
When I’ve played, usually the three motherships tend to even out, because as one ship is filled, players become reluctant to overuse it, and start moving the others more. (Or, every time somebody moves that almost-full ship, you’ll hear groans from everyone else.) Eventually, though, all three are almost filled, and somebody will inevitably trigger the end. This makes sense, though, because to score points efficiently, you’ll need to fix up your ship, pick up cargo, and then get it where it belongs—that generally requires using all three planets.
I do like the puzzle of how to lay out your tiles in your freighter. You typically want to group storage areas of the same type, so that the Pick Up Cargo action gets you more cargo at a time. But you also have to group blue equipment tiles, and then there are certain equipment tiles that are affected by the number or type of tiles next to them. Throw in the advanced boards with their restricted access spaces, and it gets even more complex.
The rotating market means that there is a bit of luck to what’s available for purchase. In one game I played, there were just no data storage tiles for about half of the game, which made it nearly impossible to fulfill contracts and side deals that required data. Another player could get bonus points for side deals that included credits—but those side deals unfortunately were mostly at the bottom of the stack. You have to take into account the fact that you can’t count on any particular type of tile to appear when you want it, and make the best with what you’ve got.
Even though Scorpius Freighter is a little hard to categorize, it’s one that I’ve enjoyed. It helps if you like puzzles—figuring out the layout of your tiles, as well as the right combination of how far to move the mothership and how many crew to reserve so you have available hands once you get there. If you’re looking for a game that will give you challenging choices and do a little Firefly roleplaying, then find a crew, find a job, and keep flying your Scorpius Freighter.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.