Spice It Up: Caretos review

Where do legends start? I used to say as a scoutmaster that our troop traditions sometimes have different meanings to different people. To the eleven year old scout on his first campout, anything the troop did or said would be repeated on the next campout because “it’s a Troop Tradition!”. It is the power of suggestion added to the unknown that creates living memories in our mind, even from our first experiences.

Living in South Louisiana, we have had our share of legends passed down from the vieux to the jeune. George Rodrigue made a small fortune selling prints and paintings of his famous blue dog, which he based in part on the legend of the Loup-garou (and in part on his own dog, Tiffany). I can stil remember deer hunting with my dad in the wilds of the swamp land and hearing the wailing call of the black panther, which sounded so much like a woman in distress that we couldn’t help speculating as to whether those plaintive wails were the genesis of so many Cajun legends of boogeymen living on the bayous.

Legends such as these are fertile grounds for board gaming because the theme of humans versus the unknown is so universal. Every culture, every country, every people around the globe has tried to make sense of the nonsensical, to bring light to darkness, and — I think we’d all agree on this last one — told scary stories around the campfire just because we like the feeling of goosebumps sprouting on our skin like wild mushrooms after a rainy weekend at Chicot.

The team at MEBO Games knows this, and emphasized the unknown right on the cover of Caretos, their new Essen Spiel release. Note: we were provided with a review copy by MEBO. Caretos is based on legends of the northern regions of Portugal, where scary beasts lurk in the dark woodlands and mountains near quiet little villages, and villagers tell tales of travelers separating from their group only to disappear forever.

I was scrolling through W. Eric Martin’s excellent guide to the new Spiel releases, and the cover of Caretos made me stop. Three fanciful creatures, colorful yet scary, stared back at me. Intrigued, I clicked on the link and found out that MEBO is based in Portugal. I am a direct descendant of a famous Canadian father, Pedro Dasilva, first postmaster of the Canadian frontier, who himself travel to the new world from Lisbon.

I’ve always had an affinity for board games that have a link to that country, even if there isn’t a spot of Portuguese blood remaining in my family after so many generations. Games like Lisboa are instantly attractive to me just because of the strong theming.

So how strong is the theme in Caretos? Let’s find out.

Caretos is a 2020 release from MEBO Games designed by Paulo Pereira with art from Matteo Piana. To my knowledge, this game is the first contribution for both, and it plays 2-4 players in about an hour.

PRODUCTION:

I had no previous experience with MEBO Games before Caretos so was not sure what to expect, but I was pleased to find a top notch production. The board is large, bright and colorful, the cards are well made and have easy to understand icons that players will understand and remember in just a few turns.

But, the highlight of the production is the various characters and monsters and Caretos that make up the bulk of the game.

The player tokens are not the usual over the top minis, and instead are made out of some kind of see through plastic turned into beautiful standees. We have seen this technique used a little more lately in games like The Captain Is Dead, and here it is used to great effect to emphasize the beautifully colorful art from Mateo Piana. Throw in the campfire tokens and some gorgeous art on the player boards and I was definitely impressed with this package.  This game will make passersby stop and take a look just based on the artwork and colorful standees and brightly colored meeples alone.

GAMEPLAY:

Caretos is a relatively simple game, family in its weight but with interesting decisions that should appeal to any gamer. Players will compete as various Portuguese monsters trying to “scare” packs of travelers wandering from village to village, and to “capture” the villages whenever they get separated from the others and foolishly wander the backroads alone. (Cue threatening laugh).

Players have two monsters at their disposal, and each one has unique abilities that are triggered by a hand of three cards that players can play on their turns. Each monster has three separate powers, and players will have to choose which monster to activate based on the color of card that they play. The colors match the different actions on each monster, and playing a card to move your monster around to capture villages is an okay move.

A better move can be performed if players play cards with the same symbol on their next turn. This allows the player to activate both monsters, which makes for combolicious moves like scaring up a bunch of villages onto the various pathways by themselves, and then using the other monster to scoop them up. If ever your monster busts up a group of villagers singing ‘Wagon Wheel’ around the campfire, you will be rewarded both with a ‘campfire token’ (the only currency in the game) and the satisfaction of stopping villages from breaking out their best Ketch Secor impressions.

There is one more twist. The namesake Caretos are two of the colorful monsters from the box cover that are placed on the board and operated by all players. Some of the cards not only activate the monsters, but also force the player to move the Caretos, too. That could result in capturing villages (taking them out of the game) or even capturing player’s monsters! Player’s monsters are banished off the board, but the designers have clever, easy to remember mechanics to get them on the board right away — only one monster can be banished at a time, and there are campfire tokens that can be used as currency to move a monster back on the board if you don’t want to wait for another banishing to occur.

Already you can see some of the interlocking strategies. But, like the unspeakable legends from your own childhood memories, where the twisting dark turns through the fun house of your own neurosis reveal new levels of fear, Caretos has one more level of strategic interaction. Each player is provided at the start of the game with a set of private objectives — think “capture so many villages of a certain color” type goals — that can score them big points. Even further, there are public objectives that are available for purchase using those campfire tokens discussed above. Grabbing a few of those objectives, which center on ‘scaring’ various types of villagers, will likely mean the difference between being top monster and just another JV scrub.

By now, my description of the gameplay should also tip you off to another reason why I was so excited to review Caretos. The elevator pitch of this game in my mind is “Monsters Inc. in Portugal”, and playing the game definitely has that feel. We need more games that flip the script of “adventurer versus monster” and kudos to the designer for choosing a theme that is very family friendly and very accessible to any Pixar aficionado. (Go ahead and nickname one of your monsters Mike or Sully with my permission.)

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Come on, man. You already know I love Disney stories, you already know that I love one hour wonders with family friendly rules that allow Board Gamer Mom to have just as much fun as young Switch Playing Son. The danger of playing this game is that I was so predisposed to the style and theme that my plays and review would be on autopilot.

So I will take my role as cardboard critic seriously. I’ll point out that the rulebook is well done and organized with bright and easy to understand examples, but that there are a couple of ambiguous situations, albeit very few. The team at MEBO has been very involved online in ensuring the rules are played correctly, for instance, letting people know that anytime and every time a villager is separated from the pack for any reason, campfire tokens must be assigned to that villager.

I’ll also note that the game is light, not so much as to be frivolous, but in a way that on almost all of the turns there were really only a few obvious moves to make. That never bothers me — in fact, games that have two or three obvious choices to choose from on each turn are right up my alley — but I know that there are gamers out there that will see the box cover and the game description and think this is a lot deeper game than it really is.

Don’t be mistaken. The interplay between the two monsters and the Caretos can and should give you some great opportunities to plan out really cool combo turns. The addition of the private and public scoring cards, in conjunction with those special monster powers, should ensure that no game ever truly plays the same.

In our plays we have had players focus on cards or focus on gathering as many villagers as possible, or on buying as many public objectives as they can. There aren’t a million ways to win, but there are a few different strategies, enough that players should feel challenged to spot the solution to the puzzle in each game.

One of the Krewe compared this game to Five Tribes, because players are trying to plan out moves on the board to capture the different villagers. I think Five Tribes is way more mathy in its puzzle, with Caretos being more about the various monster powers than dropping off meeples all over the board. But, I think it is a valid comparison, just not nearly as thinky or AP inducing as Five Tribes.

CONCLUSION:

Caretos is a success in so many ways. I love the art, I adore the theme, and I’m intrigued at teaching more of my family and friends how to play the game. Sure, the gameplay is not anything so groundbreaking that reviewers will be screaming at you that YOU. NEED. THIS. GAME. But it has a theme and a game play style that does not look or feel like anything else in my collection.

In normal conditions, I play games like this with a bunch of different groups: family, our HS board game club, our weekly FLGS meet up, and my monthly scout dad group. I’m always on the lookout for games like this.

Caretos has an easy rule set that I can teach even to beginning gamers, yet has enough depth that the grizzled veteran gamers in our groups still have something there that they can sink their teeth into.

I have not explored enough of this game yet. I still want to show off this game to all of those groups above, but the pandemic has limited my opportunities. That’s the best recommendation I can make — Caretos has strong enough game play and strong enough connection to its theme that I am excited to show more people what it is all about.

I think if Caretos gets enough exposure, it could be a worthy addition to the pantheon of games that bridge family gamers and experts alike, and so far, it’s been one of my top experiences this year.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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