Few places have inspired as many legends and stories as the mighty Mississippi River. From river cruises to trade, the “Mighty Mississip” has served as a vital artery for commerce and leisure in the U.S. for hundreds of years. Broadhorns casts you in the role of a St. Louis merchant needing to move your goods down the river to the proper ports. You’ll have to finance the expeditions, buy your boats and cargo, and then get everything delivered before it spoils. You might also pick up a little extra money by taking on some passengers who need a lift downriver. In the end, the merchant who makes the most money wins, puts his rivals out of business, and becomes the Jeff Bezos of the Mississippi.
How It Plays
Broadhorns is a pickup and deliver game where players are moving goods down the Mississippi River and selling them for gold. Players want to be efficient in their deliveries, as goods will spoil and there are rewards for being the first to fill towns with needed goods. As with any good economic game, there is a balance between spending money and earning it. The best players will walk this line by carefully investing in cargo and ships, and not taking on too many high-priced goods or aiming for unrealistic deliveries.
The rules for the game are simple overall, but there are quite a few steps and small things to know that would take me a while to explain and be boring. I’m going to settle for a quick overview of the high points.
Imagine that you are a merchant in St. Louis. You want to fund expeditions downriver in order to move cargo and sell it in ports that want it. Your first job is to get a boat. At the beginning of the game, it’ll likely be the smallest boat because that’s all you can afford and still buy any cargo. Then you’ll load up your boat with cargo, choosing from the available items in the market and paying market price. Those items are placed on the first cargo spaces on your player board. As the game goes along, they’ll move from left to right until you either sell them, or they spoil.
On your turn you can take two actions. You can visit a port and/or move your boat. Your boat can move up to the number of spaces shown on your boat tile. During the winter, movement is reduced by one due to slower current, while in the spring you gain one movement due to the spring water rush. You don’t have to use all of your movement points; feel free to stop at any time. You can move twice on your turn, and if you do you’ll receive a bonus move action. You’re flying now!
If you choose to visit a port, you’ll move to the port entrance space and then take your action. You can only visit one port per turn, so no moving to a port, porting, moving to another port, and porting again. Only once!
While you’re in port, you can sell your cargo. If there’s an open space for the cargo type you’re selling, you’ll move the cargo from your boat to the town and take the listed price in gold. If there’s not an open space, you can still sell it, but only for one gold. If you happen to have a matching delivery card (either in hand or in the town space), you get an extra two gold bonus. If your delivery fills up the last of the town’s available cargo slots, you get to take that town tile. It will be used for bonus scoring at game’s end. You’ll also get bonus gold indicated on the tile. When a town tile is taken, the player places one of its barrels on next open space on the season track, moving the game further through the various seasons and toward the endgame.
You can also buy cargo while you’re in port. You can buy the types indicated on the town tile. The price is the market price in St. Louis (the market where you began the game), plus the cost increase indicated on the town tile. Yes, it’s cheaper to buy stuff in St. Louis, but there are times the cost increase will be worth it to buy in port.
If there are any travelers waiting in the town or in your hand of cards, you can pick them up if you have room. When you deliver that traveler to their destination, you get the amount of gold indicated on the card. If you drop them off prior to their destination, you don’t get any gold and they hang out in the town until someone else picks them up. If you pass their destination without stopping, the traveler is discarded. (What? You thought they were just gonna hang on your boat until you went back to St. Louis and downriver again? No way.)
After you’ve moved and/or ported, you draw an expedition card from the deck. This may be a delivery card that will give you a bonus for delivering matching goods to certain towns, a traveler, a spoil card that affects everyone’s perishables of the indicated type, an ice card that let’s you negate a spoil action, a peddler that lets you buy any cargo type at market value +1, or a good current card that lets you move up to two extra spaces for each move action on a turn.
After everyone has had their first turn, subsequent turns begin by refreshing the market if the previous player purchased any cargo, and moving each perishable cargo item one space to the right on the spoil track. If the cargo moves off your board, you’ve lost it and it can no longer be delivered. Note that cargo does not spoil in the winter (the whole place is ice, why would it?) and it can spoil faster in summer if spoil cards are drawn from the deck.
You can end an expedition at any time, and you can make as many stops as you want before you decide to end it. If you end the expedition during a port action, you receive the scrap value of your boat (indicated on the boat tile). If you end the expedition and it’s not during a port action, you don’t get the scrap value of your boat and all undelivered cargo goes back into the draw bag. In either case, you move your piece back to St. Louis and begin again by purchasing a new boat and cargo.
I touched briefly on the seasonal changes that add some thematic considerations, but here’s a little more. In the autumn, there are no special rules. In the winter, cargo does not spoil, but your base movement speed is reduced by one. In spring, your base speed increases by one. And in the summer, all perishables are moved along the spoil track if a spoil card is drawn from the deck, not just the goods indicated on the card.
The game ends when someone puts a barrel on the last space of the season track. Play continues until everyone has had the same number of turns and final scoring begins. In addition to money already earned, players receive two gold for each cargo barrel still on their player board, plus the resale value of their broadhorn. Next, total the number of wreaths on any completed town tiles in your possession. The player with the most receives the largest bonus. If playing with two players, the second place player gets nothing. If playing with three or four, the bonus is reduced for second place (three player), and second and third place (four player). The player with the most gold wins.
Is This a Smooth Flowing River, or a Sinking Ship?
I’ll start by saying that pick up and deliver is not my favorite game mechanism. It never has been, and I’m not totally sure why. (Cinque Terre remains the only exception. This is important to note because I feel like Broadhorns shares some similarities with that one, which I’ll address in a minute.) Maybe it’s because many of these games don’t play well with just two players. Or maybe it’s because my first exposure to the mechanism was via Merchants of Venus, a game that so swamped me with bits and rules that I vowed to never play again. Whatever the reason, it’s a mechanism I always visit with trepidation.
So when Broadhorns crossed my table, I grudgingly took it on. But you know what? I was pleasantly surprised by the game. No, it didn’t convert me to loving pick up and deliver at large. I’m still not going back to Merchant of Venus. But it was better than many I’ve played, and not a total disappointment with two players. And that’s saying something.
I think a large part of its success with me is that it doesn’t overcomplicate things, yet it’s not a “simple” game, either. It’s what I would call “Gateway-ish” on the complexity scale. For reference, Cinque Terre feels like a true gateway pick up and deliver game, while Broadhorns is slightly more complex. But only slightly. It’s not deep enough to enthrall serious gamers for long, but it’s got enough going on to keep things interesting.
Like many gateway/gateway+ euro games, Broadhorns offers a few decisions to make each turn, and different ways to earn points. It’s nearly impossible to be completely stuck with nothing positive to do. If you can’t (or don’t want to) stop at a port, you can always move further downriver to set yourself up for the next turn. Once in port, you can buy or sell goods, or both. Even if there’s nothing to do cargo-wise, you may still be able to pick up or drop off a passenger. No matter what you do, turns usually move pretty fast as the options are limited.
The strategic questions here aren’t deep, but there are a few things to consider. Do you go for cheap ships to preserve your capital and just make shorter expeditions, or do you splash out for a bigger boat that can hold more cargo and go for longer expeditions? Are you keeping an eye on the season track so as not to run afoul of a slowing current or faster spoilage at the wrong times? Are you maximizing the price you pay for the goods you’re acquiring? Buying at the wrong time and for too steep of a price can put a dent in your capital. Make sure you’re looking downriver, as well, and planning when might be the best time to end this expedition and start anew. You also have to deal with a little randomness coming from the cards.
You’ll also want to keep an eye on your opponents. If they’re getting close to a big delivery or completing a town, can you get there first? Maybe you can try to drive the price of their needed cargo higher, making it less appealing to them. You don’t have to know what your opponents are doing at all times, as it’s possible to play Broadhorns more or less solitaire. But if you do want to interfere with your opponents, it can add to the fun.
No matter how you play, the economy in this game is tight and you have to carefully balance your spending and earning. Gold is both the currency of the game and your victory points. So every time you earn gold, you’re gaining points. Yay! But… If you want to buy cargo or a new boat, the money for that comes from your stash of victory points. Boo! It’s tough to balance spending enough to keep your expeditions viable and profitable, without spending so much that you go broke. To me, this is the most interesting puzzle of the game. Many games are won and lost by just a few points, so every point you spend and earn potentially matters. A lot.
Broadhorns adds a bit of engine building and racing, as well, but these mechanisms aren’t the main attractions. They only serve to bolster the pick up and deliver, and add to the theme. The engine building happens at the beginning of the game as players tend to deliver in towns near St. Louis. This earns quick, if not large, amounts of money that can go into upgrading a broadhorn, or filling an existing boat with more cargo. Once a stash of money is built, play tends to move further down the river as players try for bigger scores. As you move downriver, players who can afford to can continue to buy even more cargo, making a long expedition profitable as long as you’re able to buy the goods that are needed downstream.
The race aspect takes place on two fronts. First, you’re racing against time. Unless it’s winter, goods are going to spoil. You want to sell them before that happens so you don’t waste the money you spent to buy them. Second, there’s a race to hit all the towns and claim as many of the town tiles as you can. When you are the one to finish filling the town with goods, you get to take the town tile. Each tile has wreaths printed on it and these wreaths are worth bonus points during end game scoring. Since scores are often tight, this bonus can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Filling a town also moves the end game a step closer. There may come a time where you want to rush the end game by filling up a bunch of towns. You may not need the points, but you may want to stop others from getting them.
As a family-ish weight game, Broadhorns includes just enough randomness to keep things interesting. The cards you get will determine some of your bonuses, and whether or not you can avoid certain bad outcomes, like spoilage or a slow river. Skillful play can help you make the most of what you get, but there’s still a little bit of randomness that prevents someone from being able to rack up every bonus. Also, the town tiles change throughout the game, so you may be planning on a big score but if someone gets there first, the new town tile might not help you at all. This sort of thing will bother people who want perfect control and all-knowable information from the first turn. But in the context of a family/casual setting, it feels fair.
And speaking of the casualness… I love how this game feels to play. Although it’s thinky, it manages to still feel like a trip down a smooth flowing river. It’s not so crunchy that you can’t talk to the people around you, and it won’t break your brain. The thematic special rules make sense and turn an otherwise dry-seeming game into something that captures the feeling of trying to succeed in a changing, challenging environment. It’s never going to be as thematic as, say, Firefly: The Game, but the special rules do add a bit of oomph.
It’s this combination of casualness and acceptable randomness that make it feel like Cinque Terre to me. The two games use different methods to keep things “family level fair” (Cinque Terre uses dice and cards, Broadhorns uses cards, and changing seasons and tiles), but they share a similar easy-breezy feeling. They both manage to create a thinky and engaging game without over-complicating things or ruining the social aspect of gaming.
The components mostly get good marks. The barrels are fun to play with, and the art is colorful and bright. The cardboard is super thick, which explains why the box weighs so much when you pick it up. There are only two negatives in my mind. First, the board, while massive, warps a bit. I’ve laid books on it and back-bent it, but it still has a slight warp. (I had the same problem with Santa’s Workshop, another Rio Grande release with a huge board.) Second, there was a large quantity of chaff in the box. You know how when you open a jigsaw puzzle and cardboard chaff is everywhere? That’s the level that was in my box, and it got worse when I punched out the tiles. They shed chaff everywhere. After a few plays and the involvement of a Dustbuster things calmed down. This may have been unique to my copy, but just in case it’s not, you’ve been warned.
The rules are fairly simple, but they could have been expressed better in some places. The rulebook feels a bit like the writers tried to make it too easy, and left out or skimmed over some bits that would have aided understanding. It’s nothing that can’t be solved by reading it again and playing through the game to see how it all fits together, but it would have been nice if the book were a bit better.
Most of the negatives to the game itself will come from your expectations. If you’re expecting a genre-changing or bending game, Broadhorns isn’t it. This is a very basic pick up and deliver game that simply offers a new skin on an old mechanism. There’s very little new here. Also, if you’re looking for a heavy game that requires you to crunch out complex delivery routes, this won’t be your cup of tea. As I said above, this is family-weight or a little above. With that comes a certain level of randomness and ease of play that won’t satisfy hardcore gamers for long.
It’s fine, though, that Broadhorns doesn’t set out to reinvent the genre, or include a Frankenstein mash up of mechanisms just to put “more” into the game. If you’ve followed my reviews, you probably know that I’m not a fan of “more” just for the sake of more. If you’re going to throw a bunch of stuff into a game, it had better work seamlessly and refrain from bloating the game into a time sucking monster. I much prefer games that are stripped down to the minimum needed to make the game work, yet keep it interesting. Clean designs that encourage snappy play and avoid rules pain are tops with me.
In this, Broadhorns succeeds. It may not be the freshest face on the block, but it’s clean, interesting, and thinky enough to keep me engaged without drowning me in bits, rules, and convoluted mechanisms. It knows what it’s trying to do and it does it well. Not everything has to be all new or super complex to be good. Like a favorite pair of shoes or jeans, there’s value in something that’s comfortable and reliable, even if it’s not going to set records for style or flash. In the end, I liked Broadhorns a lot more than I expected to, and that like grew with more plays. If you’re seeking a pick up and deliver game that’s at or slightly above family-weight, Broadhorns might be for you.