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STARSHIP MERCHANTS

[In this issue, we welcome Eric Brosius to our pages. Eric Brosius has been a gamer as long as he can remember. When his sister asked him to play Chutes and Ladders, he resisted because there were no meaningful decisions. At the age of 6, he received a copy of Avalon Hill’s D-Day from a neighbor family who bought a copy at a local department store and couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t quite understand it at that age but it fascinated him and he worked at it until he got it, and he has been playing games ever since. Eric enjoys many types of games including Euro games, wargames, railroad games and dexterity games. But in his first review for GA Report, Eric reaches for the stars!]

(Toy Vault, 2- 4 players, ages 14 and up, 90 minutes; $34.99)

 

I’ve been playing Tom Lehmann’s games for a long time—one that I playtested, Fast Food Franchise, came out 20 years ago (and appeared in the Winter 1993 Gamers Alliance Report). Even when Tom designs a filler game, it has a learning curve. That’s a plus for me—learning more about a game with repeated play. I have played many games with Joe Huber, though I haven’t known him as long. Joe’s published designs have been simple and straightforward. Tom and Joe recently teamed up to design Starship Merchants, a pick-up and deliver game that is simple and straightforward, but with a bit of a learning curve.

In Starship Merchants, you buy, equip and operate starships, finding and picking up mines and delivering them to earn money. As usual in economic games, you win by having the most money at the end of the game. You can also use money to buy new ships and equipment, hire pilots and claim mines, increasing their value. You weigh the benefits of each expenditure against its cost, and against the other things you could do with the money. Liquidity is an issue; you can buy a ship on credit to conserve cash but it costs more in the long run.

A game designer’s task, like a sculptor’s, is to keep what is essential and omit the rest. Starship Merchants is an unusual pick-up and deliver game – it has no map upon which the ships move. Instead, the board is, in effect, a flowchart (albeit an attractive one) showing the four steps you follow as you play. In the Shipyard, you buy or lease ships (and pay off loans on ships you previously leased.) In the Market, you buy equipment, hire pilots and claim mines. In the Belt, you operate your ships, picking up mines and perhaps visiting distant locations for additional revenue. And in the Dock, you offload your mines, collect revenue and (perhaps) declare that you have enough money to end the game.

Each ship has a certain amount of energy available for its run in the Belt. If there were a map, you might use energy to move the ship but there is no map. Instead, you use energy to load mines into holds, to explore for new mines (pulling them out of the bag), and to travel to destinations that increase your payoff. The concept of location is stripped down to the barest minimum: each mine is either in some player’s Local Space or in “Known Space” in the middle of the board. It costs 1 energy to pick up a mine from your own Local Space or from Known Space but it costs 3 energy to pick up a mine from an opponent’s Local Space (sneaking in and out requires evasive maneuvers.)

Despite its simplicity, Starship Merchants requires many short- and long-term decisions. At the start of the game, you must buy a ship at the Shipyard. You can buy a Scout, with ample energy but just one hold of cargo space, or a Tug, with two holds but less energy (ship cards are 2-sided, and you pick which side you want at the time of purchase.) The Tug has more earning power in theory but the Scout can use its extra energy to explore for better mines and to reach valuable destinations. You may be able to add a Fuel Tank to a Tug (adding valuable extra energy) or a Mining Module to a Scout (adding an extra hold) but this is not always a sure thing. Adding a Fuel Tank to a Scout or a Mining Module to a Tug is less useful. You must also decide whether to buy the ship outright, paying face value, or lease it, paying 50% up front followed by two more 50% payments later. By leasing you can stay in the Shipyard for a second turn at the start of the game, buying a second ship to increase your earning power.

This illustrates another challenge you face in Starship Merchants: dealing with the implications of the fact that different players progress through the cycle (Shipyard, Market, Belt, Dock) at different rates. On your turn, you either move to the next space (in which case you may perform an action but are not required to do so) or remain where you are and perform an action. You may stay in the Shipyard for another turn to buy a ship (as long as you are not already at the ship limit, which is 4 at the start of the game.) You may stay in the Market for another turn to buy more equipment or hire a pilot for another ship, and/or to claim another mine. If you own one ship and move to the Belt, you typically run it and continue on to the Dock on your next turn. In contrast, a player with more than one ship usually stays in the Belt until each of them has run, running one ship per turn. A player with two ships often earns more money at the Dock than a player with one ship. On the other hand, a player with more ships takes longer to get to the Dock, and may need to explore for mines to fill their holds, leaving insufficient energy to visit lucrative destinations.

Another aspect of Starship Merchants you must deal with is that the ships available for sale grow in capability as the game progresses. When the Mark I ships available at the start have all been sold, the next generation, Mark II, becomes available, and similarly for Mark III and IV (each generation offers a choice of the Scout or the Tug configuration.) The purchase of the first Mark III ship makes everyone’s Mark I ships obsolete (so they can no longer run in the Belt) and the purchase of the first Mark IV ship makes everyone’s Mark II ships obsolete. This adds a key set of long-term decisions to the game. If you buy several Mark I ships, you hasten the availability of the Mark III ships that will make your ships obsolete. But if you buy just one Mark I ship, players with more than one ship may out-earn you. It is acceptable to let an opponent out-earn you for one spin around the board but you need a plan to catch up (perhaps by buying the ship that makes that player’s fleet of ships obsolete). A Mark III or IV ship will run for the entire game but it’s hard to get much use out of the last one or two Mark II ships. (For this reason, they are sold at a discount.) It’s common for a relatively simple game like Starship Merchants to offer interesting tactical decisions, but for me it’s the richness of the longer-term decisions that make this game stand out from others of its weight.

This obsolescence mechanism comes from the 18xx series of games (originally, from 1829 by Francis Tresham.) And in fact, Starship Merchants is descended from 2038, an 18xx game set in space designed by Tom Lehmann. Those who are familiar with 2038 might describe Starship Merchants as “2038 without the map or the stock.” Many people think there are three essential elements to an 18xx game: (1) buying stock in railroad companies, (2) building infrastructure for those companies on a map, and (3) buying and operating trains, using that infrastructure, to earn profits for stockholders.

For 2038, the 18xx pattern still holds if we replace the trains with starships.  Starship Merchants retains only one of the three elements: buying and operating starships. You don’t buy stock; you buy ships yourself rather than on behalf of a company in which you own stock. And there is no map; only a vestige remains.  But the game Tom and Joe have designed is a game with many interesting decisions, and it is simpler and shorter than any 18xx game; in our plays, Starship Merchants takes less than a quarter as long as 2038. In fact, Starship Merchants is a possible stepping-stone if you are intrigued by 18xx but find it a bit intimidating. The hardest 18xx concept for beginners to learn is that of the train rush—deciding which trains to buy, and when, in light of the fact that newer trains make older trains obsolete—and you can gain familiarity with this concept in Starship Merchants, where the train rush (actually, the starship rush) is a key mechanism. As an added bonus, while 2 players is an awkward number for most 18xx games, Starship Merchants plays well with 2.

A game of Starship Merchants ends when a player arrives at the Dock and declares the Final Run. In order to make this declaration, you must have at least 100 in cash and no outstanding ship loans (if you have at least 150 in cash, you must declare the Final Run.) This player does not win immediately but receives a cash bonus as the game continues until each player has arrived at the Dock. A player who has already arrived earns an additional payment each time his or her turn come around. When the last player arrives and receives payment, the richest player wins. Deciding whether to try to end the game quickly or buy another ship and increase your earning power is an important and non-obvious decision.

Starship Merchants offers an unusual breadth of decision-making for such a simple, straightforward game. It is accessible to a broad range of gamers (for example, my wife, a less avid gamer than I am, enjoys it.)  It plays quickly enough to fit into almost any gaming group’s schedule. At the same time, it presents decisions whose implications are not always obvious. I’m still learning new things after more than a dozen plays—something I’m always looking for in a game. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Eric Brosius


 

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