I’ve been wanting to play Cartel for months. I think since I heard John Harper talk about the introductory text (which is amazing by the way). Karen has been waiting to play even longer! Since this game didn’t happen due to sickness and a few folks not making it out. I used my “skip the line” pass and Karen got the last spot. Yay!
The Sinaloa Cartel is the largest drug trafficking organization in the world, a sprawling network of narcos, halcones, y sicarias that moves billions of dollars of drugs into Los Estados Unidos each year. One of their prime holdings is Durango, Mexico, a small city ten hours south of the border that’s a crucial way station for anything moving north.
But holding the city ain’t easy: either la policía gets in the way, or some foolish pendejo thinks he can pull one over on the chingados that run Durango for los jefes grande. And don’t even get me started on Los Zetas…
You want in, cabrón? Fine by me. Just know that once you’re in…there’s no turning back
Mark started the game by talking briefly about the Sinaloa Cartel, narco culture, and then telling us a story about a mass abduction of students in Mexico. Nobody knew who did it and a huge search was sent out to find them. When they finally did discover the mass grave the realized after some analysis that this mass grave didn’t have the students that had gone missing. Let that sink in for a minute.
Lourdes, El Cocinero (the Cook) was going to do something with her life. She got out of Mexico to go to college in the U.S. studying chemistry. She had a bright future, but her own addictions brought that crashing down. When she failed out of school and had to return home with a mountain of debt, she was a disappointment to her family and herself. When AAA offered her an apartment, a car, a job, and a new life, she gladly accepted. Entirely owned by the cartel, Lourdes started the game in a bad way (more on that below).
Pepe, el Halcón (the Hawk) is a young runner who had been working for the cartel since he was old enough to hold a gun. Though the lowest on the totem pole in the cartel proper, Pepe still had a group of friend that thought he was the best thing ever. Pepe wasn’t smart but he did follow orders, he did have have a crew, and he also had a boyfriend who loved him very much!
Eduardo, La Polizeta (the Cop) is a federal agent that was investigating the same cases he was covering up! A tricky situation, especially in a cartel that isolates its members so he had no way of knowing who he was supposed to protect and who knew who he really ways, except his half brother Carlos who only knew because his lover Pepe, that had dealings with Eduardo, let it slip. But Lourdes? They were drinking buddies. Maybe something more sometimes, but never co-workers. At least not at the start.
Carlos, La Esposa (The Wife, in this case the husband) was Pepe’s lover and live in boyfriend. He wanted to so much for them and their family. And he believed that Pepe could give them all that… probably. Maybe not. Just in case, he got his real estate license and was trying to earn a little on the side. Just in case things didn’t work out so well…
Los Enlaces (The Links)
If it wasn’t already clear we were all in each others business. Carlos didn’t trust Lourdes because a) they used to be an item and it ended bad, and b) because he thinks she feels like she better than us all. Pepe had been doing additional work for Lourdes, hoping that would get him closer to El Narco, but so far she hasn’t shown him any signs that she was impressed. He and Eduardo also had a plan to made a deal on the side, something nobody would ever notice! Additionally Lourdes had a younger sister Alma who was very close but didn’t know she was part of the cartel. The relationship between those two became absolutely pivotal in the game!
An opening move to drive the game!
As Carlos I made my opening move and was loving life. [Whenever there is a stretch of downtime in play (or between sessions), roll with Hustle. On a 10+, you juggle your responsibilities with grace; clear your stress track.” just showed a couple a new house and we were starting to draw up the paperwork. I bought myself a new pair of shoes in celebration, and made a wonderful meal for Pepe and I to share!
Life for Lourdes however, was pretty much as bad as it could get. She drove way out into the desert, parked her car in the designated spot (aka the middle of nowhere) and did the 20 minute hike to her lab, an old semi trailer box buried under the ground. Only when she crested a small hill she found it had been dug up and was currently in the process of being excavated by the local police.
Calmly as she could, Lourdes, walked back to her car, and just before she got in it, Eduardo and his partner Reyes, who had just gotten the call that the locals found something, came driving by, and Reyes, recognizing Lourdes as Eduardo’s sometimes friend whipped the car around to see what she was doing out in the middle of nowhere.
And that’s how the game started!
Highlights of the game
Oh, it was so good, but I can’t put all the pieces back together in my head, so here are the ones that stood out the most:
- We were all so low on the totem pole. Lourdes was a cook for sure, but a cook owned by the cartel. I played La Esposa, a character who is normally tied to a person of power (like El Narco) but instead my love was El Halcón, about as low as you could be and still be part of the cartel. Eduardo had some real power but nobody knew who he was, so they might (and did) shoot him on sight!
- Karen in particular was remarkable in playing a low status character. She not only was terrified of El Narco, but she also had a sister Alma that she was trying to keep away from the Cartel. When Alma hid inside the closet and Lourdes too El Narco into her bedroom so they could talk without him knowing Alma was there or her hearing their conversation, Alma thought Lourdes had become a prostitute and tried to get her out of the business. The way she floundered from one disaster to the next was just amazing.
- Lourdes also through Pepe under the bus at the drop of the hat! When El Narco asked how the police found the lab, she knew that she didn’t tell them, so it must have been Pepe! It must have been!
- Pepe, meanwhile thought everything was good and so when he got the call to come pick up a package and to bring all of his crew along, he did not hesitate. Carlos was worried though, something was wrong, so he came along as his “driver”.
- And of course when Pepe, Carlos, Lola, Paco, and Raki (Pepe’s Pandilla) arrived we walked right into a trap. Automatic riffles pointed at all of us! Pepe, knowing he didn’t rat though, felt sure it would all be okay.
- When it looked like the call had come in, however Carlos was terrified and in order to save Pepe’s life (and his own) he made a huge scene, announcing that they were lovers, and blamed it all on Lola! Who, moments before the real truth came out was shot in the head!
- Meanwhile Eduardo had been trying to contain all of this mess on his end. First by hiding evidence from the bust and then by trying to help Pepe out of a jam. Only he came along, and he wasn’t known, and he ended up getting shot in the face (brutal and ugly, but not lethal) and put in a car, where he met with El Narco, and with Lourdes (they picked her up as she was brunching with her sister, another awkward scene) and sorted it all out.
Much of what is in the highlights. Also:
- Our table dynamic. There were so many offers being thrown out and accepted. So much building on each other’s offers.
- Mark said Lourdes turning on Pepe was the fastest he’d ever seen one player throw another under the bus. Probably the first 15 minute of play!
- For me, it was really important that playing a gay man who wasn’t out wouldn’t be done for laughs. And everyone at the table just got it! We played with the cultural norms and the tension that arose from breaking those norms, but never in a derisive or disrespectful way.
- The stress moves in this game are amazing. Particularly the drug moves! It was so great to seeing both Lourdes and Pepe praying (one for guidance, the other for absolution) in a sea of chaos.
- Introducing keys to the game were great. My character got experience when he transgressed over a family member’s boundaries in order to help them. That was amazing! Lourdes twice got experience for lying to her sister in order to protect her from the truth! That is so much more rewarding than highlighted stats or rolling a miss.
- There was a moment where Mark was playing the lieutenant who had just gotten off the phone with El Narco and I (Sean) was sure as he was going to kill us all if I didn’t do something. So I tried to “Size him up” and I got a 7-9 result which meant I only got one question. If I had two questions I would have asked “what does your character intend to do next?” and then based on that asked “how could I get your character to _________?” but since I on’y got one question I jumped right to “how could I get your character to believe Lola did it and kill her?” It was a crazy jump. Because I didn’t know if he was going to kills us or not, but finding out wasn’t a choice, so I just assumed the worst and aimed his wrath at her! Imperfect knowledge is a wonderful thing!
- The tone of the game, as Mark described it, was pretty amazing in it’s ability to shift from gritty crime fiction to telenovela. Yes, we were all part of a very dangerous organization and could easily be killed any minute by the police, rival cartels, or even our own bosses. However, amidst all that scraping to survive, we were also people with dramatic, sometimes melodramatic lives. The scenes between Alma and Lourdes, and between Carlos and Pepe, were very emotional, and it was great that Cartel makes a space for them!
What could have improved
After the game we bumped into Mark and he noted that the stress move of praying didn’t have enough fictional consequences. It didn’t tie you to any person or any specific action. We talked about revising it to require confession to a priest. Hot damn!