Review: Free Trader

By Alex Connolly 16 Jan 2015 0
Kessel also-run. Kessel also-run.

There's a good idea floating around somewhere in orbit over Free Trader. The concept is potentially delightful -- it might be taken from a 23rd-century reality TV show. In a bid to pay off your starship, you've four months to accrue and deliver four increasing amounts of Vectorium, be it by trade or trouncing unsuspecting merchants. The pride of ownership awaits the crafty at the end of a jump-ridden frolic through the stars. Frolic is too jovial a word for the reality of Free Trader, though -- it leaves my FTL drives decidedly unspooled.

Not 4. 4 is for losers. "I've made some special modifications myself. For example, our Defense is 5."

Free Trader is a card game where the action takes place across six phases. Each phase, players snag cargo to sell across an expanding number of systems. Every turn demands a new planet card be placed on the table, with a mandatory jump in order to offload goods and keep the Vectorium currency flowing. Free Trader is a harsh mistress: it uses a single currency for every action. Planets that are further away have a heftier jump cost in Vectorium, which can hobble an early game if the cards don't come up in your favour. Smuggling illegal goods is more lucrative, potentially, but carries the risk of being sprung by system police if such an event card pops up, wherein the hot cargo is removed and a fine paid either in cash and/or ship modules.

Combat is the main rub, with players being set upon randomly by pirates or interstellar Invaders. It's a dice-centric affair, with modifiers being applied to weapon and defense tallies as they roll off the randomised conveyor belt. Sadly, it's as flavourless as the trading.

The dreaded Pirate 2. The dreaded Pirate 2.

Once you've got that down, there's little else to do but manage the Vectorium pool and hope you don't get gouged by the hyperspace tollways. The four discrete trading goods find a smidgen of market variation across the planets, but there's little here for the Hanseatic pretender -- there's too much randomness to ever feel like you're ahead of the market. There's a flaccidity to Free Trader and the absence of thrills makes this less space opera and more space public-access TV.

I gather Free Trader started life as a humble tabletop solitaire print-and-play affair, and it certainly shows in the presentation. I'm not hugely fussy when it comes to eye candy, but the game's presentation is one heck of a missed opportunity. After being greeted by a refreshingly brief transition from menu to game interface, Free Trader is excruciatingly utilitarian. Outside of the woozy, rolling wash of dark space synthesizer forming the single-song soundtrack, there's not much to soak up or pour over. Card art captures the imagination in the same way video card box art did back in the late Nineties, with characterless CG globs done sixteen different ways across the game's compliment of events, ships and planets. Many other games have made the crossing from tabletop to digital and come away enriched by the process, but Free Trader gains nothing from being an app.

Reviewed on an iPhone 5S.

Review: Free Trader

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