Reviewed by Herb Levy

BROADHORNS: EARLY TRADE ON THE MISSISSIPPI (Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-90 minutes; $59.95)


In the early 1800s, the lifeblood of trade in the middle of the growing United States was the Mississippi River connecting northern and southern towns, bringing vital goods and travelers along the way. In this pre-industrial era, boats, because of their shape known as “flatboats” or “broadhorns”, carried these loads. Players, as merchants based in St. Louis, will be funding various expeditions down the mighty Mississippi, buying and selling cargo and moving passengers, with the goal of earning lots of gold. This is the world visited in the new design by Jim Harmon: Broadhorns: Early Trade on the Mississippi.

The game’s large board shows the Mississippi River and its bordering towns with room for a market and a “seasons” track. (The game starts in the autumn and continues through spring, summer, winter and then, a final, autumn.) There are six tiles for each town and three of each are randomly chosen and placed in their respective towns. (The rest are out of the game.) The market is filled with two barrels of each of the five goods in the game: flour (white), apples (red), pork (pink), furs (brown) and whiskey (tan). Remaining barrels are tossed into a cloth bag. Flour, apples and pork are “perishables” so time is an element of consideration for delivery. 

Broadhorns come in 20, 30 and 40 foot lengths, each with specific characteristics that include its cost, how many travelers it can carry, its speed, its value when “scrapped” and a card hand limit. Each player begins with a free “20 foot” broadhorn card. The boat is represented by a marker (in that player’s color) placed in St. Louis. Players also get a starting supply of gold, from 6 for the start player, 7 for the second player and 8 for both the third and fourth players, which is tracked by a player’s matching color marker on the perimeter scoring track. Finally, everyone draws 1 Expedition card as a starting hand. 

There are six types of Expedition cards. Delivery cards add value (in gold) to delivery of a specific good at a specific port. Traveler cards show passengers waiting to be picked up and transported to another destination where they will pay the player additional gold when they arrive. Good Current cards add to movement. Peddlers allow for a purchase of 1 type of cargo for 1 more than the current cost. Spoil cards makes a perishable good spoil quicker while Ice cards can be used to negate a drawn Spoil card or gain 1 more gold when a perishable good is sold. 

Each player turn consists of four phases: Refresh Market, Spoil Cargo, Take 2 Actions and Draw an Expedition Card. There are always 10 barrels of goods available at Market. Market values run from a high of 4 to a low of 1. When the board is seeded, two of each type are placed in the 2 and 3 slots. If goods have been bought so that there are less than 10 goods in the Market at the start of a player’s turn, goods are blindly drawn from the bag and placed according to type. If there is an empty space at the 2 or 3 level, goods fill in the 3 first, followed by the 2. If these spots are already taken, goods fill the bottom area with a value of 1. If, after being replenished, the market shows no goods of a particular type, that good is still available but valued at 4. If that good is bought, players dive into the bag and remove the bought good, adding it to their boat. 

There is room for a certain number of goods on each broadhorn and, when bought, they occupy the first, leftmost, space of a row. (The 20 foot boat has room for 3 goods, a 30 foot can hold 5 while the large 40 foot longboat can hold up to 7!) With Spoil Cargo, those goods on a player’s boat move one space right to show that perishable goods are starting to spoil. (Should a good manage to move farther enough so that it “falls” off the boat, that good has spoiled and is returned to the goods bag with no compensation for the unlucky player.)  And then players take 2 actions. 

Actions fall into two categories: Port action and Movement. Port involves selling and buying goods and picking up and delivering passengers. Movement is, well, movement as player can go down the river up to the maximum speed that their particular size boat allows. A 20 foot boat can move up to 7 spaces down the river, while a 30 footer’s speed is reduced to 6 and a 40 footer can only do 5. A player may do ONE Port action with ONE movement OR may do TWO movement actions (and receive bonus movement for that). 

A port action may be done ONCE in a town as your boat travels downriver. Every town tile depicts goods in demand there as well as goods that may be purchased at the site (often for a premium). First, you may sell goods on your boat at the town, moving your barrels to the appropriate space on the tile and collecting the specified amount of money listed there for your sale. Goods may then be bought at their market cost plus any premium the tile notes. These barrels go directly onto your boat. Then any travelers there may be picked up (if your boat can accommodate them) or dropped off (if that is their final destination) to collect the gold they pay. All of the goods wanted in town need not be delivered at once. But when a tile is filled, things happen.

If any of the goods on that completed tile is perishable (flour, apples or pork), the player completing the tile moves ONE barrel of his choice to the season track. This is the game’s timing mechanism and moves the game from season to season with game modifying results. (For example, during the winter, movement slows but perishables do not spoil as quickly.) The player who completes the tile also gets the gold bonus of the tile AND the tile itself. Tiles have “wreaths” on them. At the end of the game, players will receive bonus gold based on the relative amounts of wreaths collected. The new tile underneath is now revealed and in play. (Should all three of the tiles at a town be claimed, there is a pre-printed value on the board itself that becomes active – but no wreath collection then.)

As boats race down the Mississippi, there will come a time when you decide to end your expedition, either because you have run out of goods, have nowhere to deliver them, feel more enticing opportunities await upstream (you cannot go UP the Mississippi only down, no engines on these boats!), or just want to upgrade to a new boat. At that point, you “scrap” your current broadhorn (getting some gold for the “scrap wood”) and immediately buy another one which starts at St. Louis. 20 foot boats are free but the larger ones cost more (30 foot costs 4 while the largest 40 foot broadhorn will cost you 7 gold). You then finish your turn by drawing an Expedition card. (Your hand limit depends upon the boat you have)

As goods are delivered and perishable goods take their places on the season track, the game rapidly comes to its finish. When the final autumn season begins, all previously placed perishable goods on the seasons track are gathered and placed back into the bag! Play continues until the last space on the final autumn season is filled.  That round is completed so that everyone has an equal number of turns and we score. 

To the total of gold on the scoring track, players receive 2 gold for each good remaining on their boat as well as the scrap value of their current broadhorn. Then, wreaths on collected tiles are compared. The player with the most wreaths gets, in  a four player game, 15 gold with second place worth 10 gold, third worth 5 gold and fourth place earning no gold at all. (Similar gold rewards occur in two and three player games.) The player with the highest combined total of gold is the winner! (Tie? Then whomever has the most town tiles claims victory!)

Broadhorns benefits from a superior presentation. The board is big and beautiful, the tiles thick and nice to the touch and the goods, in the form of barrels, are simply fun! (Be aware that flour and whiskey, in their white and tan barrels, can look a bit similar so be sure to play in a good light.)

Broadhorns is very thematic and fits in quite comfortably with the familiar genre of “pick up and deliver” games. But Broadhorns is on a slightly higher level. Values of towns vary from game to game as will the availability of passengers. One of its strengths is the way players can affect the market. The choices of which perishable good to remove from play (albeit temporarily) has a subtle but significant fluctuation of market values which impacts on which goods to buy and which towns to visit to deliver them. Remember: gold is Victory Points and the difference between spending 1 gold or 4 gold for a good over the course of the game can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Multiple players can dock at the same port so there is no “blocking” someone from selling or buying goods there, limiting the “take that” nature of play. Although it is possible to complete a town tile on your own, especially if have a loaded 40 foot broadhorn,  the game has almost a semi-cooperative feel as town tiles get filled, quite often, through the assistance (begrudgingly) of opponents. 

There are also meaningful decisions regarding your boats and deliveries. Whether to race down river to unload goods for bigger payouts (in stops like New Orleans) or go town by town and make more deliveries but for lesser amounts of gold is also a consideration which can change from expedition to expedition as you scrap one boat to purchase another and begin the process all over again. All of this keeps the game fresh.

With superior presentation and solid game design, Broadhorns: Early Trade on the Mississippi makes life on the Mississippi something worth exploring. – – – – Herb Levy

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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