Ancient Carthage! Carthage was known for its status as a trading hub, yet the only thing I could think of was its wars with Rome.
And it turns out, Carthago neatly blends these ideas together. While there is no outright combat in Carthago, in order to succeed, you have to put on your ruthlessness hat as you outmaneuver the other merchants for position in the guilds.
Do you have what it takes to be a merchant in ancient Carthage? (Probably not.)
How It Works
Carthago is a hand management card game for two to four players. Players are merchant families in Carthage trying to gain the most wealth and prestige by improving their standing in the merchant guild. The player with the most points wins.
To begin, players receive the components in their color–a residence, action cards, influence discs, and an action disc. Players place the discs on their residence so all the spots are covered. The central ship market and trade card market are set up, and end-of-game scoring conditions are chosen. The guild markers are placed on the action wheel. Players receive three trade cards and place one of their spare merchant discs at one trading dock of their choice.
Carthago is played in three “decades” (rounds), and in each round players will get to take five turns. On a turn, a player will either choose an action or pass. If they pass, they simply draw a trade card from the deck. If they choose an action, they will place their action disc on any action on the wheel and play one symbol matching that action with a card from their hand, paying additional cards if any other action discs are on that space, and perform that action.
Actions include placing influence tokens at trading or war docks, shipping goods to ships at the docks where they have influence, taking and exchanging cards with the market, and improving their residence for both in-game and end-of-game benefits (and for additional active influence discs).
If the action space where the player places their disc has a guild token on it, the player may additionally perform a guild action, allowing the player to place an influence disc in either the guild or on an end-game scoring condition for that decade. (The guild marker moves one space clockwise if the player used the guild action.)
Each trade card in Carthago is multiuse and can be used as a matching card to take an action, spent as a good (either to earn a ship or upgrade their residence), or used as money for end-game scoring opportunities.
When players ship goods to ships, they will earn additional trade cards and get to keep the ship. Each ship has a special ability, allowing players to break the rules in some way.
At the end of each decade, players will get their cards spent for actions back, the trade card market will refresh, and players will receive new, free trade cards. At the end of the third decade, players earn points. First, they multiply the number of ships they have collected by the number of seats in the guild they have (including guild seats earned through their residence). Additionally, they score points for the end-of-game scoring conditions they’ve placed influence tokens on. The player with the most points wins.
Hurt So Good
The word I keep coming back to when I try to describe Carthago is brutal. Carthago is a game wound tight, where every action counts, where you are constantly pulled between efficiency and opportunity, and you might not feel like you’re doing anything right. Actions are precious, cards are precious, resources are precious. If Carthago is true to its source material, it’s a wonder trading in the Mediterranean is such a well-trod theme–how did anyone accomplish anything?
And yet, for all its brutality, Carthago isn’t a mean game, and it isn’t a long game. If it lasted longer than it does, or if players were actively sabotaging one another’s chances, the brutality in the game might be too much. But given its short length, its tense choices, and its clever gameplay, Carthago is a satisfying game for when you don’t have time for a full, several-course dinner but still want a sustaining meal on the go.
Multiuse cards is one of my favorite mechanisms. Indeed, Glory to Rome is my favorite game, and I like other games that use this mechanism as well. The key to making multiuse cards work in a design is making each choice painful: you need each card for several functions simultaneously, so every time you use a card, it’s a sacrifice. Carthago gets this balance right in two main respects. First, trade cards in the game are not easy to come by, and often you have to spend cards to get cards, making every card precious. Second, because cards are so scarce, you want all three options on every single card.
At the heart of Carthago is the action wheel, and while Carthago isn’t a “rondel” game in any meaningful sense (players aren’t restricted from going to any spaces), the wheel is a helpful image when wrapping your mind around the game. The actions in the game are so interconnected that you must perform them all, and you don’t necessarily perform them linearly. The wheel also helps with moving the guild tokens–you’re never in doubt where they’ll move next–and with moving neutral pieces, which you’ll need to do in games with fewer than four players.
Usually neutral pieces or dummy players are annoying, especially if they involve lots of upkeep, but they are simple to move in Carthago, and they’re necessary to retain the tight brutality of the design for every player count. Remember how I said that each trade card is precious? One of the reasons is because you have to spend additional cards to place your disc on an action space if there’s already another action disc there. (You get your trade cards spent for actions back, but that’s small consolation when they’re tied up in actions that round.) Players receive seven action cards at the start of the game to give them a fresh start each round, but these don’t go a long way if other players are constantly occupying the spaces for actions you need to take–and this is almost certainly the case.
This highlights one of the brilliant things about Carthago: players have to weigh the opposing concerns of efficiency and opportunity. The reason there must be neutral discs in a game with fewer than four players is that there always need to be four discs on the action wheel. Why? Because there is always at least one action you can choose without paying extra, and there will always be at least one and as many as three other actions that will cost you extra to use. This means that players need to have an overarching strategy–what actions do they need to accomplish this decade?–but that strategy should be flexible based on the actions that are occupied on the wheel and what cards are in their hands. If you can, it’s better to take an action that won’t cost you extra cards–cards are precious! At the same time, enough of the game fluctuates from turn to turn that you might need just this thing at just this moment, so it might be worth paying extra to get it, especially as the game goes on. Cards in the trade market get snapped up with every market action, and whenever a player ships to a dock in the trade harbor, the ships move down to fill in the space. Again, not spending extra cards to take an action is great, but it might be even greater to ship to the dock when you have the good card you need in hand, rather than waiting for the stars to align a second time.
Adding to the tension of the game is the guild markers, which move around once they are used. The guild markers sweeten the spaces they are on because they allow access to almost the only way that players score points in the game. (Players can earn seats in the guild through the residence action, although this has its own pitfalls.) It’s best to pair an action you wanted to take anyway with an opportunity to score, especially if you have everything you need to do so. And sometimes, you might need to punt on the action just to have access to the guilds.
The best games involve interesting trade-offs: the choice of one avenue means another path is blocked to you. You can’t do everything. And Carthago has trade-offs (and the accompanying FOMO) in spades. You can see this in the guild scoring. Much like Dominion, where the only cards worth anything at the end of the game are worthless (and slow you down) in the game, in Carthago, claiming a scoring condition will get you points at the end of the game but limit your opportunity to do anything while you play. In order to ship anything at the docks or score points at the end of the game, you have to use your influence discs. While influence discs used at the docks return to your stash after use, discs placed on scoring conditions or guild seats are out of commission for the rest of the game. Players can get new influence discs through uncovering spaces on their residence, but this is easier said than done: each player has only one residence card in their starting hand (meaning they will have to use trade cards if another player’s action disc is on the residence action), and every space on the residence requires spending trade cards to uncover. Every action requires the expenditure of resources to further your own ends.
Every action, that is, except the market. When taking the market action, you get one free card from a face-up row of five. Everyone loves free stuff, so the market action can be very attractive…until you realize that simply passing and spending no cards at all will net you one trade card. The benefit of the market action is stacking your hand to make your other actions more productive, as each market action also allows players to exchange a card with the face-up row and flip one of their used ships face up.
Ships are what add flavor to the game, and they are also the tried-and-true, straightforward scoring condition for each game. Every ship in the game has a game-breaking ability on it, and judicious use of these abilities can be the difference between hair-tearing-out merchant and prosperous aristocrat. Earning ships is often the result of careful planning, and getting the right ship’s ability at the right moment further hones the strategic decisions in the game. Sometimes it really is worth it to spend extra cards to take the action you want when you want it.
What has surprised me about Carthago is how the paths to victory are so varied within such a simple system. There are only two ways to score points: guild seats x number of ships, and special scoring conditions. Yet within these two ways there is some elasticity. For example, you can get extra guild seats by solidly pursuing a single strategy on your residence. Or you can focus on the special scoring conditions, each of which caps at 12 points, but 12 points is nothing to sneeze at. Special scoring conditions can target anything from spaces uncovered in the residence to unused influence discs to trade cards left in hand at the end of the game. All of the scoring conditions take work and planning, and it’s surprising to see a player who you thought had a clear advantage not win because another player was playing a different game in a less visible way. In one game, I decided to ignore ships altogether and go for the special scoring achievements exclusively. While this strategy ultimately did not prevail, it was strong enough to be competitive: I lost by 2 points to the player who focused primarily on ships. I like that there are multiple paths to victory. And you kind of need multiple paths for a game this brutal to work. With so many opportunities for your plans to go awry, there are plenty of plan Bs to savvy players who can spot them.
From what I’ve said, you should understand that I really like Carthago, and I do. But be advised: this game is not for the faint of heart. Like another game I reviewed recently, Heaven & Ale, Carthago feels at times like work. You have to overcome obstacles that the game and others players are throwing in your path in order to succeed. Furthermore, it can take a game or two to catch the rhythm of actions and cards and at least a round or two to realize just how strapped you are in the game. Like Concordia, the scoring system can sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention, and it can be a little more difficult in Carthago (versus Concordia) to see a direct link between what you’re doing on any given turn and the points you’ll score at the end of the game. Carthago is the kind of game that you’ll probably want to play a few times in quick succession to get the hang of–not because the rules are particularly difficult but because it’s not always easy to judge the merits of what you’re doing until it’s too late to correct course.
The components in Carthago are well worth the asking price. There are several heavy cardboard pieces that make up the main playing areas, as well as personal player boards. The publisher was thoughtful enough to include extra discs in the box in case some go missing. (I had to set these aside to make sure we were achieving the peak brutality laid out in the rulebook.) The cards have a linen finish and are beautifully illustrated in a style I love. The cards are a little thin, but they don’t feel cheap. Still, I had to sleeve my cards in order to get them off the table without damaging them, which I don’t usually have to do. The look of the game is stunning, but some players found some of the iconography confusing, at least at first, and the puzzle pieces for the ship harbor (which adjusts based on the number of players) were hard in my copy to fit together. Still, overall I’m pleased with the components. I have limited space on my shelves, so I always appreciate games that pack a lot of interesting decisions into small boxes. Carthago certainly is one of those.
The box advertises play for two to four players. As I said, if you play with less than four, neutral action disks will be placed on the board, but these are easy enough to manage, and they do simulate real players nicely. I do prefer the four-player game as the most dynamic, but the benefit of a two- or three-player game is that, with players who know the game, this would likely fit into a lunch hour, which is a boon indeed. There is also a fan-made solitaire version on Board Game Geek that I tried and was a good way to internalize the rules before teaching them to others.
Carthago won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and because of the constant feeling of being in a tight spot, it’s not the kind of game I want to play every day. That being said, this is a very good game that I’m willing to play if suggested and will suggest if in the mood for a punishing yet satisfying game. If you like quick games with meaty decisions and lots of bite, your ship has come in. Carthago combines some of the tightest hand management decisions I’ve faced with beautiful artwork, multiple paths to victory, and quick, interesting gameplay.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Capstone Games for providing us with a copy of Carthago for review.