The game features teams of pirate markers racing through a random board depicting a tunnel. The pirate theme continues through the main commodities in the game: rum, guns, swords, hats, and flags.
The strategic decisions made by players are largely timing. The two main moves are pushing forward by playing cards, and dropping back to accumulate cards and establish tactical positions. There's no direct player vs. player conflict.
(There is a 2nd edition called Cartagena II that can be played with the same pieces if you're willing to mark the face of a few cards. It differs primarily in the end-game rule and that "dropping back" is now "advancing an opponent". I think that it is a little better balanced but also a little less kid-friendly because of the complexity. You can download the new rules from the Rio Grande site and play with the original set.)
The game suggests two variants in the rules. Even with all adults, I never play the "strategic" variant in which the draw deck is visible. That variant allows (i.e., forces) players to consider too many options and slows the game too much.
McGuire House Rules
Some simple changes make Cartagena a fast and fun game to play with young children without sacrificing its core strategic value.
1. Remove a few tunnel pieces during setup to reduce game length. The base game takes about 20 minutes with handicapped players. It can easily be reduced to about 10 minutes plus setup time by removing two tiles. That means that you can play two games in half an hour, including setup and cleanup.
2. Give weaker players extra cards during setup to give them a lead. Don't change the number of pirates or advance the pirates--because of the leapfrogging mechanic, moving pirates affects the game in complex ways. I currently grant my elementary school children six cards each at the start of the game.
3. For players having a very hard time with strategy, a simple rule change can reduce the worst case that players can get themselves into with poor play. The minor version is to add the retreat rule:
Retreat: A pirate may drop back out of the tunnel to the start and draw one card as an action. A player with no pirates currently in the tunnel may draw two cards as an action.A more dramatic version also adds the cave-in rule to increase the bonus for retreating:
Cave-In: When a tile at the start end of the tunnel has no pirates on it, it is removed from the game. Any pirates who aren't yet in the tunnel or the boat move up to being just before the end of this tunnel.I found that using a physical boat instead of the boat card/tile greatly increases the enjoyment of children when moving their pirates off the board. We use a Lego boat hull, but any toy about 8 cm or longer will suffice.
Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.