Crypto Cartel is set in the murky underworld of the illegal drugs industry. The 2–8 players are essentially drugs barons building up their criminal empires and converting them into cryptocurrency.
You are dealt a hand of cards but you have to resist the natural temptation to sort them: cards have to be kept in the order you receive them. In your 'production phase', you always play two (or three if you choose to) to the three production lines that form a tableau in front of you. Three production lines means you can only ever have three categories of cards in production: you can add identical cards to those already in a production line but if you have to play a card from your hand and there isn't a matching or a spare production line, then you have to close down production of an existing line - cashing it in for the cryptocurrency value of any set of matching cards that you've built. Cards all show a coin icon on their reverse, so you simply flip them to keep score and add to your cryptocurrency bank, with other cards from the set discarded.
The other aspect of Crypto Cartel is a trading phase. You draw three cards for public view. If there are any you can use yourself in your production line then you can take them but you'll otherwise be offering them to the other players who can trade you cards from their hands (resisting any natural urge to change the card order!) in return for any of the cards you are offering to trade. Cards taken by any of the players in trade must go into their production lines not their hand. This therefore becomes an interesting mechanic: any deal you make is almost certainly going to be helping an opponent... Perhaps you should've read Donald Trump's 'The Art of the Deal'...
If this all sounds familiar, it's because the core mechanics of both the production and trade phases are pretty much identical to the equivalent phases in Uwe Rosenberg's popular card game Bohnanza (Amigo), which was originally published in 1997. In Crypto Cartel, designer Andy Mazeika has changed the number of cards in play and, with art by Allan Ohr, the theme is much darker, but it does still feel more like a reskin than an original design. As in Bohnanza, the draw deck functions as a game timer, in that it is shuffled and recycled twice and ends the game only when it is exhausted for a third time. In Crypto Cartel, the reshuffles are where certain extra cards are introduced into the mix, and this game also makes use of a separate Silk Road deck. Silk Road cards can only be drawn when you turn in production lines, and it's only once the Silk Road cards have their impact that the game play begins to feel distinctive from that of Bohnanza. The Silk Road cards up the interaction and the opportunities for 'take that' raids on other players. They can also provide a means of screwing up a trade that may benefit opponents but leave you in the cold...
Crypto Cartel has had quite a controversial ride. Tho' the Silk Road cards, in particular, ultimately turn it into a more aggressive game than the jocular bean-farming themed game Bohnanza, the similarities of the core mechanics have attracted accusations of plagiarism. When Crypto Currency was originally launched on Kickstarter in 2018, Andy Mazeika very clearly acknowledged the debt the game owed to Uwe Rosenberg's original design; it's just a pity that that hasn't carried through to the published rules. In our view, many of those who have criticised Crypto Cartel would have been more accepting if the game were presented more openly as, at least in part, an homage to Bohnanza that takes the design from that game and gives it a twist that ties in appropriately with Crypto Cartel's darker art and theme.
Crypto Cartel is well produced, with a huge stack of cards packed in a very solid plastic shipping container- shaped box with sliding lid. If you are one of the many fans of Bohnanza and are attracted by this game's darker theme, then you will get a kick experiencing the direction that the Silk Road cards take the basic mechanics.
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