Sunday, July 3, 2016

Tom Lehmann & Joseph Huber's Starship Merchants: Not What They Wanted

I’m not going to lie to you. I found Starship Merchants at a garage sale.

The price was $5, and the game was still in the shrink. Judging from the rest of the titles on the table, all still in the shrink, my best guess on what occurred is this: Someone tried out the Board Game Bento “loot crate” and what they received was not what they wanted.

What Did They Expect?

Judging from the forum posts, most gamers were expecting the next big space-themed “train game” from the great Tom Lehmann.

And they didn’t get it.

Instead, Starship Merchants is a focused economic game without the exploration, route building or stock manipulation of the traditional uber-heavy train titles. It was too heavy for the people who wanted a light game. And too light for the people who wanted a heavy game.

A lot of wanting and not much getting, which is sad because there’s actually something good here for people to get if they want it.

Starship Merchants is a race for profit in a nice, streamlined package. It’s super easy to setup, you just need a few people for opponents (I think it plays fine with 2), and it doesn’t take all day to play.

Snowballing that Sweet Asteroid Belt Money!

Starship Merchants has a business cycle, comprised of 4 quadrants you must travel through.

The Shipyard is where you buy new ships. The Market is where you buy upgrades for your business. The Belt is where you collect resources. And the Dock is where you deliver your goods for money.

Collecting resources. The M1 Scout has an upgrade. The M2 Tug has a pilot.
Each ship you buy allows you to collect more stuff as you pass through the Belt. And the upgrades in the Market provide simple extras like scoring better mining opportunities or making a little extra when you cash your resources in at the Dock.

As you get more money, you will probably buy more ships (I think it’s a safe bet) and use those ships to get more money. Once a player has earned 100 space dollars the last turn takes place and the players count up their cash.

Doing Your One Thing, then Passing the Turn

Becuase the business cycle is broken up into 4ths, you usually can only do one specific thing on your turn. Buy ships. Buy upgrades. Load up resources. Sell resources. It’s a simple action, you’ve got the opponents’ turns to figure out what you’re going to do, and hopefully it won’t take you very long to execute once the turn passes to you.

The inexperienced player is going to get hung up trying to do the "best move math" but if you are willing to wing it the turns really fly by.

In addition, the $100 threshold for winning comes up quick as long as people are making good investments to increase their earning potential. The time on the box reports 90 minutes, but I think you can zip through this game a lot faster than that.

Your Technology is Obsolete

While much of the game is streamlined, there are some obvious unexpected train game elements thrown in to foul the reception for this game among the casual crowd.

Reaching Mark III makes all Mark I ships obsolete
There are loans you can take out for the ships. In fact, the very first decision the beginner player has to make is whether to lease or own their first spaceship. And that beginner player is probably not going to have enough information to make an informed decision, and will have to hope for the best.

There are also multiple tiers of ship technology! Graduating to the next tier makes the lowest tier of technology obsolete. Which means throwing your oldest ships in the trash, possibly at the exact worst moment. Another sore spot if you aren’t expecting it.

Run Some Numbers with your Money-grubbing Pals

Starship Merchants sets up fast, and plays fast for its level of complexity. The choices on the board are stretched out so you don’t have to absorb too much on your very first turn.

If you’re used to the idea of infrastructure “rusting” when someone buys the next new model, you’ll love the more advanced economic aspects of Starship Merchants.

I found this game an unexpected hit with my son, and I think it’s largely due to him having an open mind. He saw this as a “business simulator” which I had to agree was the perfect description. He didn’t pause for a second over the obsolete ships.

And the collecting/delivery portions of the game are as simple as counting up the numbers on the mine tiles and collecting your money.

I did have to explain the concept of retro-futurism. If you like having pilots will bullet-shaped helmets, this game is for you.

Ignoring the Tom Lehmann pedigree, I am actually more interested now in searching out other titles from Joseph Huber. He's responsible for Rio Grande’s Burger Joint and short-and-sweet business games seem to be his specialty.

Once you get over not getting what you wanted, you might want to get Starship Merchants.

Make sure to check out the garage sales.

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