Grandfather Game: SHIP’S CARGO

ships cargo 2Dated: 19th Century
 Origin: Western (European-American) Society
Players: 3-9
Playing Time: about 30 minutes
Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: low
BGG Page: The Game of Ship’s Cargo

This is the third in a periodic series of feature articles on
“grandfather” or pre-modern tabletop games.

Short Version:
It’s a bidding and set-collection game, more or less in the rummy family, dressed up with a 19th century shipping theme/skin.

Play Summary:
ship's cargo 4
The entire deck of 45 goods cards is dealt to all players evenly, with odd cards removed from play. Each player also takes 12 counters of any kind for bidding. One player at a time will be the active player, or the “seller,” holding the one “ship” card, which is essentially a lead player marker.

The goal is to sell off unwanted goods from your hand to raise funds, which you will need for bidding on and and purchasing desirable goods from other players, all with the aim of completing two “sets.” A set is defined by any number of goods whose names all begin with the same letter, there being 5 cards to a set. Play proceeds with the seller offering an unwanted card from his hand, and all players making secret bids on the goods for sale by concealing any number (or none) of their counters in hand. Bids are revealed simultaneously, and the goods are then sold to the highest bidder (the rules do not provide for breaking ties). The winner of the bid becomes the next seller, and so on until someone “declares.”

Any player with one set of 5 may “declare,” thereby ending the game. All players reveal their hands, and the closest to two complete sets is the winner, who then receives three counters from each of the other players before beginning the next round.

The rules are a bit ambiguous in this manner over how the game is ultimately won. The fact that the winner of the hand receives tribute from the other players implies that multiple hands are intended to be played, with the ultimate objective perhaps being elimination/bankruptcy of all other players, or most counters at the end of a predetermined number of hands.

Game History:
I really can’t find anything resembling the history of this game or its publication. The copy I have is credited to a paper and card printer called F.G. & Co., and BoardGameGeek has a fairly limited publisher link HERE. However, that’s as far as I can get. The link to their homepage appears to be defunct, and I can’t find any semblance of their company on the internet anywhere else. My copy is dated 2004, so it’s possible whatever small company this may have been is now out of business. Here’s the descriptive text, from BGG, attributed to the company’s original website:

ship's cargo 3Inspiration for F. G. & Co. products comes from an extensive, ever expanding, private archive of museum quality antique games and ephemera. Focusing on innovative graphic design, Gianna Majzler and Darren Calkins reinterpret their picturesque collection into enchanting paper crowns, graphically detailed gift tags, stunning playing cards and games, whimsical wrapping papers, party favors and other inspired home accents. Thanks to F. G. & Co., contemporary players can enjoy the unique appeal of games like LA-Tee-Da Transformation, The Game of Ship’s Cargo and Mademoiselle D’Arville Cards of Fortune as welcome alternatives to intense electronic or all-too-familiar board games. Beautifully printed and presented in keepsake boxes, each retains all the interest and charm of their original graphics. 

In addition to delightful games, F.G. & Co. has created a full line of wrapping papers and gift tags culled from their library of colorful, amusing and whimsical vintage images… easily as appealing as the presents they’re wrapped about. Their latest edition of altered art gift tags, Welcome To Wonderland, demonstrates their reverence for classic literature as they interpret and present their own vision of Alice’s adventures. Other offerings include nostalgic puzzles of the nineteenth century plus paper dolls of and intriguing Cut & build booklets of the twentieth including a Make your own paper Eiffel Tower first published in 1937.

ships cargo 1Where I Come In:
We discovered this game by accident among my wife’s grandmother’s property. After Nana passed away some years ago, there was a bit of a ritual of family members claiming her possessions, not entirely unlike the the Sackville-Baggins’ looting of Bag End. I wasn’t much interested in plunder, although I did ask to inherit a wide and wonderful selection of history books, which I added to my academic library. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law thought I’d like to have this wooden chessboard Nana had. It was here that we discovered the copy of Ship’s Cargo, still factory-sealed in cellophane, inside the storage cavity of the chessboard. None of us had ever heard of the game before, and my brother-in-law thought we might have stumbled on a gold mine or some precious artifact, but I could tell right away it was a reprint. On the flip side of that, I can’t find any knowledge on this game at all, and it doesn’t appear to be on sale through eBay or Amazon, so who knows…?

By Today’s Standards:
It’s really not a bad little game. It definitely has a vintage feel to it, which is exciting in and of itself. The artwork is nice to look at and the cards are a nice sturdy stock with a good gloss. The rules are a little ambiguous in places, as mentioned, but that’s mainly owing to the vintage quality and the fact that they’ve not been updated at all. My wife and I actually got a good chuckle out of the “old-timey” tone, particularly with this line:

“This causes much fun, as the Players can offer as many as they please, or they need not put any counters in their hands if they do not wish. The seller is thus quite ignorant of what he is to receive.”

At any rate, the rules ambiguity is nothing that can’t be remedied with some quick house rulings—and this is sort of the norm for traditional card games anyway. The theme isn’t very deep, of course; it’s more decorative than anything else, but it’s a solid offering for a light, social game with a little bit of deduction and bluffing. Not knowing anything more about it at the time of this writing, I wonder if it isn’t one of the earliest examples of a transition from purely abstract to more thematic games, especially among playing cards. For a multi-player choice, it’s at least as good as Hearts or Spades and games in that ilk, while offering a little bit more thematic immersion. If you can get your hands on a copy, I’d recommend you do.


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