As the title suggests, this game is a fun economic romp -- it delivers exactly what it says on the box. You play as a commodore in a merchant fleet; your job is to fit out a small group of ships with captains and gear, send them cruising through the asteroid belt hunting for valuable ores, and then deliver said ores to either an anonymous dock or to a couple of exotic planets that will pay you a premium if you save enough fuel to haul your junk all the way out to them.
To win, you have to correctly predict how many times you'll get to use each of your shiny new capital investments, er, starships before they go obsolete, so that you know when to buy more stuff and when to keep on truckin'. It's not clear why steel rusts in space, what with the lack of oxygen and all, but rest assured that each piece of 32nd-century technology is only good for an average of three or four rides before it falls apart into space scrap.
That said, the graphics are fabulous, the gameboards are intuitive and easy to use, there are few enough choices per player per turn that the game feels like it's moving along nicely, and yet there are enough options to add up to meaningful strategic depth. If you like Eurogames even when they don't feature explicit auctions or area-control mechanics (neither of which are present here), you'll like Starship Merchants.
The economic part of the theme succeeds wonderfully -- you feel in control of your fleet of merchant ships and its business decisions; there are no awkward 'forced' actions as in, e.g., Puerto Rico, where someone chooses Captain and you're required to ship goods even if you'd rather burn them than hand them over to the filthy metropolitan overlords. Neither is there much opportunity for players to arbitrarily favor or screw each other -- you can poach each other's ore reserves, and hire a pilot that someone else wanted, but your path to victory doesn't depend on conning other people into doing your bidding -- it's a game about economics, not politics, and that's refreshing.
The sci-fi part of the theme is a mixed success. On the one hand, we're definitely in (somebody's) future -- there are shiny ships, glowing mineral cubes, the blackness of interstellar space, and exotic planets with silly names who will pay you 4 Starbucks for a cargo hold full of space-mail. On the other hand, the world (galaxy?) evoked by the game isn't especially plausible, even as a fantasy. Although Deuterium (a relatively common isotope of Hydrogen) is valuable enough to be worth shipping across a few solar systems, your ships all refuel for free. Some "pilots" are such skilled negotiators that they can double the value of your cargo. There's only one asteroid belt, it contains essentially unlimited ore, and that ore gets delivered to 50 different planets (how? is there a warp drive? why does finding a single piece of ore sometimes take more fuel than traveling to a distant planet?) Each of your ships is required to find, exploit, and deliver its cargo in a single turn -- no matter how much surplus fuel or cash you have in the rest of your fleet, there's no way to keep a ship in the sky for a second consecutive turn. And so on -- the game is set in space, but it's not a 'hard' sci-fi, and it's not even a coherent fantasy sci-fi theme the way Star Wars or Star Trek or Galaxy Trucker would be.
Swoon. Vivid, full-bleeding-color, original artwork all over everything, with easily readable text, intuitive borders/markings, and an overall immersive and inviting experience. Minus a tenth of a point for making the Starbucks tokens all be different shades of teal -- the 20s and 50s are recongizably green and gold, but the 1s, 5s, and 10s tend to blend into each other.
I never thought I'd say this, but this game's soundtrack is even less well-developed than the CD included with Space Alert.
Rules (2 / 5)
On the one hand, some of the rules are pretty damn elegant. For example, you can pick up your own ore for 1 fuel, neutral ore for 2 fuel, and poach other people's ore for 3 fuel. Love it. On the other hand, many of the rules lend themselves to confusion, and the rulebook (while well-organized and showing off the same top-notch graphic design and art as the rest of the game) is *not* a model of clarity. Even after closely studying the rules, for example, it's not obvious how many loans you have to pay off when you visit the Shipyard or how many turns that should take you. The rules don't even attempt to explain how to use some of the gear available in the game, such as the Ore Scanner and the Grapples, neither of which has a function that's obvious from the card text. There's this weird thing going on where ore moves from your ships to Local Space to Known Space over the course of a few turns, and it's not even called "ore" in the rulebook -- confusingly, a token that can be physically placed aboard an individual scout ship is called a "mine."
Worst of all, some of the components included with the game actually have inaccurate text on them -- the errata doesn't just cover odd card-interactions; individual cards are wrong in and of themselves. The saving grace is that most of the time it's obvious what sort of general thing you're supposed to be doing: there aren't a lot of wonky upkeep phases or reinforcement tokens or anything like that. You start your turn, you do what it says on the handy cheat sheet included with the game, and if you don't quite understand what your booty does for you, at least you know how you're supposed to get it and where you're supposed to put it on your player mat.
Player Interaction (2.5/5)
There's some of it. You can poach each other's ore, and even when nobody's actively poaching, the threat of being poached will often motivate you to rush all your ore onto your ships rather than taking some otherwise more useful action. Every time you enter a zone (which is almost every turn), you'll usually have a chance to buy or trash something that one of your opponents may have wanted. There's a race to get to the shipyard at just the right moment to buy a discounted or high-tech ship, or at just the right moment to obsolete everyone else's fleet. There's another race to get to the dock first at the end of the game with a big enough lead to win -- declare the Final Run too early, and your friends will make more money on the Final Run than you collect in Final Run bonuses; wait too long to declare the Final Run, and someone else will end the game, stealing what could have been your bonus. So...our actions affect each other. We're just not directly cooperating or negotiating or politicking or even competing, really, except in terms of the final score. So if heavy player interaction is a must-have for you, don't buy this game. Battlestar Galactica it ain't.
This game has no private information, virtually no politicking, no dice, and cards that appear to be designed so that one is (on average) as good as the next. In my opinion there's a slight oversupply of grapples, ore scanners, and survey robots relative to pilots, especially in a 2-player game, such that you'd rather see a pilot flip when you enter the Market, but maybe that will change as my group evolves new strategies. Basically, everyone is on an even footing, and while it's theoretically possible to get screwed by not getting the cards that match your strategy, the odds are strongly against it. There are multiple paths to victory that *feel* different from each other -- claiming a couple of high-value mines and investing in refineries and pilots for that mine type is different than leasing a fleet of tiny scouts that smuggle high-value cargo in their empty holds, which is different from buying the best tug you can afford and hauling everything you can find, which is different than opportunistically picking up whichever resources happen to match the destinations showing...and none of those strategies is obviously better than any other. The playtesters and designers here deserve a lot of credit. There's just enough randomness that you don't see fixed opening sequences, and the rest comes down to your ability to skillfully plan and execute a reasonable strategy.
The only reason I'm docking strategy half a star is that because the tactical landscape shifts so often, there is really no ability to specifically out-think another player. No matter what you do, you can only move at most one quadrant per turn; there's no way to sneak up on another player if they're ahead of you in line for a key resource. With no bidding and barely any trading, you can't shrewdly corner the market. With no politics, you can't manage an ingenious alliance of unlikely bedfellows to take down a runaway early leader.
These are minor quibbles, though -- the features that keep the game one notch short of achieving EPIC moments of strategy glory are the same features that ensure that just about every game you play will be rich, rewarding, and entertaining.
My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
you can pick up your own ore for 1 fuel, neutral ore for 2 fuel, and poach other people's ore for 3 fuel.
Actually, you can pick up a mine from either your own Local Space or from Known space for 1 energy.
The only reason I'm docking strategy half a star is that because the tactical landscape shifts so often, there is really no ability to specifically out-think another player.
Thanks for the review!
I think the biggest way in which you out-think your opponents is by deciding which ships to buy and when. Often the winner is the person who manages to get into a position in which an opponent doesn't want to buy the next ship, but can't afford not to buy it either.
You're on the money about the money, and I've sworn never to play again except with poker chips, because I find the various shades of blue and green in sufficiently distinctive on such small tokens.
As for the rest, colour me unimpressed. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is another excellent game that Tom Lehmann has been involved in, where the game design has been let down by the graphic design (the other one is Phoenicia; I can't decide which is worse, the graphic design and components of Phoenicia or the rule boom for Phoenicia). The pilot cards, the upgrade cards, even the ships and destination cards are insufficiently distinct to convey the important information that they carry - for example, on the ship cards the mark numbers, the energy and hold spaces are all IMO less clear than they could have been, but someone elected to go with form over function. The dark little upgrade tiles are particularly grim.
Just like Phoenicia, though, it is an excellent game allowing me to look past my issues with its presentation.