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Matthew Baldwin
United States
Seattle
Washington
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I am not a geek. Well okay, maybe. But it's not because I love "Star Traders", despite the fact that it looks like the board game equivalent of a Star Trek Convention. It's a tough game to get my friends to play, because it seems so darned nerdy: with a plethora of counters, truckloads of science-fiction theme and cheesy jargon like "Stellors' for money and "Hyperspace jumps" for moves, prospective players are usually terrified that they'll soon be rolling a thirty-sided die to see if their Druid successfully dodges a Hammer of Throwing +4.

If you can get past the surface, though, you find a simplified train game, albeit with the requisite heaps of theme and humor that you would expect in any Steve Jackson game. Each player assumes the role of a intragalactic merchant, traveling from planet to planet in a future where wars are unheard of and "Traders" are the heroes of the cosmos. The board shows 36 planets: six clustered together in the center of the board, six more in each of five arms of the galaxy. Planets are connected by "jump lines": you can jump to an adjacent planet on an orange line, to a planet halfway down a galaxy arm on a purple line, and from one galaxy arm to another via green lines. The length of the jump line also indicates the difficulty of the jump, so to successfully complete an "orange' jump you must roll a 2 or better on a single die, a purple jump requires a 4 or better, and the green jumps necessitate a 6.

As the player scurry about the galaxy, they can pick up and deliver cargos, which pay off both in money and in "Prestige". These "contacts" vary throughout the game, and only one player can fulfill any given contract. This isn't to say that multiple players can't pick up the named cargo, though. But only the first player to arrive at the contract's destination gets the payoff for a contract; everyone else with the cargo is now just stuck with unwanted junk, and may have to pay a penalty to dump it. Players can also build bases on the various planets as they move around. Building bases earn the players Prestige, and when a player tries to make a jump to a planet with a base the jump is an automatic success if the player has the owner's permission. Traders obviously have permission to jump to their own bases, but if they want to jump to an opponent's they will probably have to pay a fee. And since only one player can have a base on any given planet, bases rapidly become lucrative investments.

This already makes for a neat little game, but Star Traders also contains requisite "Steve Jackson" twists. One is the set of "Trader Luck" cards. These cards may be played at anytime to give a player an edge (a few bonus Prestige points, a free reroll) or to bring woe down on the heads of opponents (taking over bases, stealing cargos, and sending them off on useless missions). The effects of these cards are usually humorous ("You used the wrong fork at the Duchess of Drachir's free-fall banquet! Lose 2 Prestige." In addition, each player has a unique skill. "The Navigator", for example, adds one to all his jump rolls, "Lucky Lou' holds more Trader Luck cards than anyone else and "The Hero" gets a bonus Prestige point form each cargo delivered.

Despite all this flavor, the game is actually quite simple to play. It's one of those jobbies where you can pretty much set up the board and start playing, explaining the rules as you go. Players really only need know the essentials during the opening act, and will have gleaned some of the subtleties by the time you reach the distinct middle- and end-game. Initially players will just shuttle around the galaxy, building bases and delivering a cargo now and again. As more and more bases get built, though, diplomacy begins to play a larger and larger role. Now almost any planet you wish to jump to will have a base on it, and you may need to bribe, incur debt or call in favors if you wish to jump there without rolling. Since several players will often be racing to the same destination with the same cargo, your bribe might be countered by other folks who wish to block your passage.

When a player has accumulated sufficient Prestige, he may petition the Emperor for an Imperial Mission. If successful, he takes the top contract card, and if he makes the specified delivery he is named the "Imperial Trader", thereby winning the game. The last fourth of Star Traders is usually occupied with this goal, as the players in the lead struggle to fulfill their final missions and the laggards throw up as many roadblocks as possible in the hopes of catching up. It's not unusual for the majority of the players to have their Imperial Mission by the game's conclusion, which makes for a tense and unpredictable finish.

Although I love the central mechanic of train games, I dislike the fact that most games play out like multiplayer solitaire. Star Traders takes the pick-up-and-deliver premise and mixes in enough opportunity for negotiation to keep player interaction high. Plus, there is very little down time between turns, and every dice-roll is cause for gut-wrenching all-around. 18xx fans are likely to dismiss Star Traders as just a dumbed down variant, but I find the simplification is more than compensated by the increased sense of excitement. And having an ultimate object beyond just accumulating x amount of money gives the game a vastly increased sense of closure.

Star Traders makes little attempt to be balanced, luck plays as important a role as skill, it takes over 90 minutes to play, the game doesn't take itself very seriously, and it's clear that the mechanics took a backseat to the theme in the design. If this was a German game, each of these would count as a strike against it. But when combined in a Steve Jackson offering, it just makes for the quintessential "American" game. And while I'm as big a fan of German gaming as the next guy, a round of Star Traders now again reminds me that when the object is Just Plain Fun, we Yanks can do it as well as anyone.
 
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Dan Blum
United States
Wilmington
Massachusetts
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Imperial Mission, bah. The Basic Game is too luck-dependent (in the endgame). The Advanced Game, where you need to build a chain of Imperial Stations, is longer but considerably better.
 
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