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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published May 28, 2003

By Jim Werbaneth

Shrapnel Games is nearly alone as an independent publisher of the turn-based wargames that were a staple of computer gaming for the first couple of decades of its existence.Their titles run the gamut from science fiction games, such as Space Empires IV, to the rigorously historical Horse and Musket game of eighteenth-century tactics.

Sometimes though the company will put out a game that does not fit the prevailing image, and Interstellar Trader 2 is one of them.It should be emphasized that this is not a wargame, though there are occasional, almost incidental battles with space pirates.Nor is there an opponent recognizable as such, not even a computer-controlled enemy.Instead, the player is a solitary figure, alternately fighting and exploiting circumstances, and ultimately in competition only with himself.

The center of gravity in Interstellar Trader 2 is strictly economic.The starting point has the player choosing a spacecraft based on his perceived needs for relative degrees of cargo space, room for passengers, combat capability, and endurance, the last dependent on the size of the fuel tank.He also receives a sum of cash, and takes to the stars.As the title indicates, he travels between planets, trying to fill his holds with goods bought low to sell high.

There is a wide range of commodities that can be traded between worlds.Something of a rarity in science fiction games, few are exotic; guitars and puppies are pretty standard.In addition, all take up the same amount of stowage space, so one cannot decide to carry a lot of small furry pets instead of a few big screen TVís.

Ultimately, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish between trade goods except their names.Yet a player has to differentiate between them, as what might be rare and valuable on one planet could well be dirt cheap on another.

It takes no thought at all to make money hauling passengers.Making landfall, a player might be presented with a number of passengers looking to book passage, and how much they will pay.The player agrees to pick them up, then gets the money.

One does not have to take them any particular place, and they leave the ship at the next stop, making room for others to take their berths.Passengers represent found money, as long as the player has room on the ship to accommodate them for a very short time.

A player has options other than trade to keep and invest their money too.He has access to a bank where he can deposit money in a savings account or take out a loan, both at fluctuating interest rates.He can also buy stock and invest in two mutual funds, both of which can go up or down with the fortunes of their companies and the interstellar economy as a whole.

Though offering extra options for economic strategy, the implementation is a little weak, and appears arbitrary.To begin with, players have very little information on which to base their decisions, just a few news headlines that pop up when visiting the ďInvestment Center,Ē and perhaps a random event in the course of the game.None of it seems connected, and there are no leading economic indicators in the game, nor an equivalent of The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times.

Considering that this is a game and not a purportedly sophisticated economic model, it would be as inappropriate as it would be unexpected to have mechanisms that might win a Nobel Prize for economics, or deluge a player with bits and pieces of news.However, a little more pertinent information, and a greater connectivity between events, would have greatly improved it.

A gamer too has the option, in fact the long-term need, to invest in his own ship.Normal wear and tear, not to mention violent encounters with pirates, cause damage that needs to be repaired at planetary shipyards.One can and in the long term must improve capabilities well, especially in regard to cargo space and weapons, expensive purchases that pay off in the end.Increasing the loads carried correspondingly raises the payoff when they are sold, and in general increases oneís flexibility to buy and hold onto trade goods.

Military power can be augmented by upgrading the basic weaponry and defensibility of the merchantman, or by acquiring special weapons and even escort vessels at the shipyard, in effect creating a trading fleet.In Interstellar Trader 2, pirates are a common problem.They will not totally destroy a playerís ship, but they will cause damage that must be repaired, and steal money.Naturally, it is in a playerís interest to keep this from happening.

Defeating pirate attacks can also pay off directly for the trader too, as the reverse is also true; a player often ends up taking an attackerís cash for himself.

This presents one of the gameís most interesting areas of decision.Macchiavelli would recognize the principle that military power can be used to acquire gold, and that building up oneís weaponry can be just as lucrative at times as increasing cargo space.Thus there is an implicit competition for resources between guns and cargo capacity.

When dirtside, the game also gives the player opportunities buy off pirates to prevent attacks for a few turns.Sometimes buying peace can be a good idea.But for a powerful ship flanked by battlecruisers, it can be the worst thing in the galaxy, as being attacked by weaker forces can be downright profitable.

Pirate encounters are random events that can prove to be good or bad.Most other random events tend to benefit the player.

Every planet has a prime ministerís office, and it is in the playerís interest to visit there first upon landing.Most of the time His Excellency will be too busy, sick, tired, distracted for a meeting.But he can also be a source of largess too.A friendly government might gas up a ship for free, donate an upgrade, add escort vessels, or simply put cash or shares of stock in a gamerís pocket.He might even manipulate prices to drive up profits.

What do the politicians want in return?Absolutely nothing.This is more like corporate welfare than bribery.

Other times, a rogue trader will offer to sell some item that is allegedly rare and can bring a good profit, or make an offer to buy everything that the player has in his cargo holds.Generally, these deals require less caution than one might think, as those commodities up for sale generally are very mcuh in demand at the playerís next destination and can therefore bring in a handsome profit in a hurry.Whether a rogue traderís price for a playerís own cargo is quite as good, that varies a lot more and calls for more discretion.

Interstellar Trader 2 also draws the player into games of chance on occasion.The emphasis here is on chance, as skill has nothing to do with the outcome.Critically, the player never loses money in the casino; at worst he leaves with his wallet intact, and frequently the issue is not so much whether he wins or loses, but how much he will win.

There is a last way in which a player can gain revenue, and that is through building toll gates on planets.These are expensive, at least as much as two or three ship upgrades, but produce income every time so other ship visits the world.

This might make Interstellar Trader 2 sound like a kind of Monopoly in space.There is a resemblance at times, one must admit.There is also a feel reminiscent of Avalon Hillís space trading boardgame, Merchant of Venus, and this one should appeal to players of that game.

At the same time, gamers should bear in mind that some of the characteristics and dynamics most taken for granted in other games are not part of the Interstellar Trader 2 experience.Most critical, there is no perception at all of any kind of coherent opposition.Even the most primitive computer game tends to have an artificial intelligence with a clear pattern of actions, albeit sometimes stupid actions.Interstellar Trader 2 has nothing of the sort; one sees the environment as one of randomly changing conditions, without any kind of guiding hand behind them.

There is also little sense that planets have character.Supply and demand are underpinning principles of the game, but there is no consistency, nor any pattern as to what worlds have to sell or want to buy.A planet that has a surplus of an item this time might be grossly overstocked with them a short time later.

In one way, ironically, there is a little too much consistency in the economics of the game.Planets with shortages or surpluses have them across the board, for all goods that they might trade.In a real-world economic system, one might expect to an agricultural economy to have large amounts of grain to sell at a good price but an appetite for finished goods and industrial technology, for example, and an industrialized system to have its surpluses and shortages reversed.

But in the galaxy of Interstellar Trader 2, there is no such phenomenon.Planets are either consumers or producers of everything.

There is another missing element, one that is surprising considering that commerce involves travel.The game has little sense of time and space.When picking a destination, one sees a display with ten planets, and the gamer picks one, any one, as a destination.He lands and conducts his business.

Even Monopoly and the game of Life give a clear indication of distance between squares, and the time it takes to travel between them.Interstellar Trader 2 does not.

Do these missing elements make it a bad game?No, not at all.

One has to understand what Interstellar Trader 2 is not.First, it is not a wargame, despite its pedigree.If a player wants a game of war with economic aspects, or for that matter an economic game with provision for conflict, he is best advised to look elsewhere.

Nor does the game have the mercantile trading dynamics one sees in Merchant of Venus, for example.There is little or no opportunity to set up consistently productive triangular trade patterns, and the game does not call upon players to make the sorts of decisions incumbent upon that.Instead, the more important questions involve whether or not to sell cargo, or hold onto it, taking a risk on a better price elsewhere, or when to buy goods.The strategic questions are more a matter of when than where or even what.

Interstellar Trader 2 functions on its own terms, and on the whole, it does pretty well.There is no denying the fun of it.There are some areas in which it could be improved, such as a more coherent economic model, and a clearer portrayal of spatial relationships.

Furthermore, there could be visual cues or at least other reminder of what kinds of conditions were last found at a destination world.Circumstances can change, and make for a challenging game, especially if the most recent information on a place is not as fresh as it could be.Yet Interstellar Trader 2 could benefit from a reminder of that intelligence and its age.

For all that, one has to return to the fun factor, and on this the game scores well.As long as one does not expect another game, Interstellar Trader 2 is good for a lot of hours of good, avaricious fun.