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Subject: Expio's Free Trader variants - a review rss

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Frank Griese
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Over the last few months, Expio has posted numerous game variants for Free Trader. He is a dedicated fan of the game, and I felt his suggested variants have not yet received the deserved attention.

That's why I decided to give a short summary of each of them, and review them for both the Basic (v2) Free Trader rules and the Deep Space expansion. I also designed the special cards needed to play these variants (Linael's design). They are available in the files section. My secret hope is that TGov picks up on this and designs the appropriate cards for these variants.

Most variants Expio has posted here on BGG are based upon an elegant mechanism : a new planet card is added to the game, and when placed in the playing area, the card affects the surrounding planet cards.

Overall, I find that Expio's proposed variants all fit nicely into the theme and basic rules for Free Trader. None of them "break" the game, but I would advise against including more than one of them in your games...

They come to take our womans!!!!

Summary
Planets touching the "Space Invaders" cards are under siege. You can't trade at these planets anymore, and you will be under attack each time you travel to those planets, until you beat the invaders.
Card type
Two additional Planet Card called "Space Invaders".
Mechanics
Cards around the additional cards are affected.
Review
Basic game - A nice variation on the "Invaders" card that appeared in version 2 of the basic Free Trader game. Because the cards from Expio's variant will affect at least two planets each in the game (and usually much more) and have a permanent effect on them, it makes things more difficult. Recommended if you find the game too easy...
Deep Space - I felt the game flow was less affected by these cards because less planets will be affected and the x2 stats for aggression and defense make them very strong. Either you will avoid invaded planets in space or, if you are really adventurous, you will go for the 6 vectorium reward by trying to kill the invaders.

Tell me what is your ship and I will be able to guess your job.
Summary
A few alternative ship configurations at the start of the game.
Card type
None.
Mechanics
Change the ship stats at the start of the game, i.e. more cargo spaces but less weapons, or more engine and no weapons, etc. There are 4 new "ship types" to choose from.
Review
As the original game rules don't allow for different ship types to be used (i.e. you upgrade your ship, you don't buy another ship type), this variant only gives you an illusion of choice. By affecting the starting stats of your ship, you actually affect the difficulty of the game. Using the trader with a starting cargo bay of 5, for example, will make things much easier at the start of the game. This is not my favorite variant, but I encourage you to try out the suggested ship types if you are not satisfied with the standard setup.

Problem in the fabric of space and time (Oh my...! )

Summary
The distance between Planets touching the "problem in the fabric of space and time" is affected. You will have to spend 1 vectorium more to jump to adjacent planets within the affected zone.
Card type
One additional Planet card called "problem in the fabric of space and time"
Mechanics
Cards around the additional card are affected.
Review
Basic game - Making travel between adjacent planets more expensive will bring more challenges to the game - especially as you can not "eliminate" this card, so if it is in game at an early stage, it will affect the gameplay permanently.
Deep Space - Because of the game setup, there are less Planets affected by this card and I feel this makes a really nice addition to the game. In particular, it will balance the game when 2 Wormholes are available or if you use the optional Wormhole rule suggested by Expio (see below).

Pirate's Cove (Oh my...! )

Summary
As long as this card is in game, pirates are stronger both for aggression and defense. Once you destroy the Pirate's Cove, everything returns to normal.
Card type
One additional Planet card called "Pirate's Cove".
Mechanics
When drawn, the card is placed at the edge of the game area. When in play, the card affects the gameplay in general, by raising the Pirate's strength.
Review
Basic Game - Pirates can be a pain in the neck in the standard game, so this variant really makes for a tough game, as Pirates are even stronger than usual.
Deep Space - in the standard game, the Pirate's Cove card is placed far away from your ship, but with the Deep Space rules you will actually "discover" the Cove like a normal Planet, so you will basically engage immediately in a combat with it. I feel it doesn't work out as nice as in the standard game, and it probably would work out better as an additional Event card in this case. But then, you can't put it on the planet grid and beat it later... I would advise against using this variant with the Deep Space expansion, unless Expio changes the rules for his variant.

Black Market

Summary
Adds a special planet type called "Black Market" where you can only trade illegal goods and buy ship upgrades. But upgrades bought on the Black Market are unreliable, and you could end up getting nothing for your hard earned money.
Card type
Three additionnal Planet Cards called "Black Market".
Mechanics
The new planet cards are played like normal planets with special trading rules.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - If you like taking risks in the traditional Free Trader game, you will certainly love this variant as it gives you more opportunities to play the "smuggler" strategy (trading illegals).
It doesn't affect the game in a spectacular way, but it makes a real enjoyable variation on the usual trading options and ship upgrades, though more affordable, include a new risk. This mechanics might be an inspiration for more "planet" types with restricted or modified buy/sell and/or upgrade rules.

Variable prices
Summary
Some planets will encounter "famine": prices both for buying and selling goods will be +1 there. Other planets will encounter "surplus", which will lower the buy/sell prices there by 1.
Card type
Two special cards for "surplus" and two for "famine", shuffled with the planet cards.
Mechanics
When one of these cards is drawn, the player chooses which planet it will affect.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - because you have free choice as to which planet will be affected by the "famine" or "surplus", you might be tempted to place both types of cards on the same planet, which will neutralize it's effects. In case Expio confirms it is not allowed to place multiple cards on the same planet, you are in for a difficult choice. You will be limited by the planets already drawn (or discovered, in the Deep Space expansion) and you will have to sacrifice one planet (surplus), but could raise another planet's prices (hopefully those of the planet where goods are already very expensive). In the end, I didn't feel this brought much variation to the game and in my opinion, this is the weakest of Expio's variants.

Damage in the miss-jumps
Summary
Instead of rebuilding the universe's map each time you have a miss-jump, your ship arrives at the destination planet, but the ship will be damaged (like in normal combat).
Card type
None
Mechanics
Simple change in rules: you loose one module in case of a miss jump.
Basic Game & Deep Space - This variant is a matter of taste. If you hate the alternate universe stuff, you will be happy to tryout this alternative. If you love the original alternative universe rules, you won't see the point in changing the rules. In this case, why don't you just keep the alternate universe rule in place and add the "damage when miss-jump" rule on top (your ship arrives in an alternate universe and is damaged)? That's how I enjoyed it most... call me crazy !

The evanescent syndicate (Money and corruption)

Summary
You can "bribe" the pirates to lower their aggression and defense by 1.
Card type
One additional planet card called "Evanescent syndicate".
Mechanics
Travel to the "Evanescent syndicate" planet and pay a setup fee and an additional fee each turn. The Pirate's aggression and defense are -1 in combat. Invaders are not affected.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - it is unclear from Expio's original rules if the initial fee is to be 5 or 10 vectorium (he gives both amounts).
I felt 10 vectorium was near to impossible to pay, and at this price I rather preferred the risk of loosing one ship upgrade in combat.
At 5 Vectorium, it makes sense - so this is the rule I adopted. Basically, what it does to the game is give you an alternative strategy
to play : pay for less risk to get destroyed by pirates. A variant for those who feel the pirates are way too strong, in particular at the end of the game.

The templar bank (Money and corruption)

Summary
You are not limited to 20 vectorium during the game, but to pick up your savings, you will have to travel to a specific planet.
Card type
One additional planet card called "Templar Bank".
Mechanics
Travel to the "Templar Bank" planet to open an account, pay a setup fee and an additional fee each turn to be allowed to store excess vectoriums on your bank account. You don't have to be on the planet to make a deposit on your account, but you will have to travel there if you want to withdraw some money.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - the benefit of this variant is obvious: get rid of the 20 vectorium limit so you can save excess vectorium for hard times (we all have experienced the frustration of earning a lot and not being allowed to keep the benefits). On the other hand, you have to travel to the planet (i.e. loose one game turn, or more if you are attacked), so you take a risk here. Still, I really like this variant, and it makes more sense than just allowing for more vectorium to be kept by the player. The rules given by Expio are unclear about one thing though : he states "You can break the contract with the templar bank (...) when you run out of money." Did he mean "when there is no money left on the account" or "when you can't afford to pay the fee anymore" ? My suggestion is to change the rules: when you open the account, you must immediately put some vectorium on it, and once the account is at zero, the contract is automatically broken, so you will have to open a new one at the templar bank...

Wormhole (Travellers and mercenaries)

Summary
When your ship marker lands on the wormhole, it can move to any planet instantly.
Card type
One additional planet card called "Wormhole".
Mechanics
Additional rule that enables instant travel between planets instantly. Emergency jump rules are also affected, but based on the v1 rules. So you should skip this specific element with v2 of the Free Trader rules.
Review
Basic Game - This variant introduces a Wormhole in the universe. A nice addition, it makes the game a bit easier as all planets are within reach of the Wormhole.
Deep Space - the standard Deep Space rules already include Wormholes. But you can also play with Expio's variant, i.e. always add one (and only one) Wormhole card in the Deep Space card stack. So you know there will always be a Wormhole in the grid, and it enables you to jump to any planet. Again, a matter of personal taste, but it works nicely this way.

Escorts (Travellers and mercenaries)
Summary
You can hire escort ships that will protect you against Pirates and Invaders.
Card type
Two escort ship tokens
Mechanics
A few changes in the rules. Pirates and Invaders will attack the escort ship(s) instead of yours. Hiring an escort will cost you 3 vectorium setup fee and 1 vectorium per turn.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - this is a major change in the rules and gameplay. Having one escort ship will give you the opportunity to run away from combat without getting hit, whereas the evanescent syndicate
variant (see above) only had the effect of lowering Pirate's aggression and Defence values. Two escort ships will help you gain a maximum of 6 for weapons, so you are the strongest ship around. But again, like the templar bank or the evanescent syndicate, you will have to sacrifice a lot of vectorium to obtain this priviledge. The rules work nicely, though because of the short time you have in a game, sometimes you won't feel the need to buy escort.

A fire in the Abyss

Summary
Once the Nova card is in play, the planets around it are threatened with destruction. But you will get the opportunity to transport passengers who flee the catastrophy.
Card type
One additionnal planet card called "Nova".
Mechanics
Cards around the additionnal cards are affected. Additional rules that allow for passenger transport. Each Passenger you drop off at a safe planet will earn you 3 vectorium.
Basic Game - part of the effect of the card is permanent (after two turns, the Nova collapses) and planets affected are discarded. In a standard game, you can loose up to 8 destinations in the game, which really alters the game play tremendously. But in my experience, the card usually will affect only three planets as you will often place it in a corner of the game area.
Deep Space - Having Deep Space cards inbetween the Planet cards means that the Nova Card could affect no planet at all. In general, this variant will be less spectacular with the Deep Space expansion.
In both cases, with the standard rules as well as Deep Space variant, I felt this variant gave a nice twist to the game, with an opportunity for the player to do something else than trading goods between planets. I like this variant a lot, though I feel it still needs some finetuning.

A paradise in the dark

Summary
Two "colonizable planets" will appear in the universe. By defeating their defensive satellite, you can win a 10 vectorium reward.
Card type
Two additionnal Planet cards called "Colonizable Planet".
Mechanics
A special planet with a defensive system is added to the game. Defeating it earns you 10 vectorium. After this, the planet has no other use in the game (no trading here).
Basic Game and Deep Space - this variant left me a bit baffled. While it is nice to try and get a 10 vectorium reward, a rather easy task as the planet's satellite is weaker than the weakest Pirate in the game, once you do so the Planet becomes a dead piece of rock in Space. YOu can not trade at this Planet. The rules for this variant should be reworked, maybe by using tokens instead of Planet cards : a token placed on a planet makes it "colonizable", and you have to defeat the satellite before being allowed to trade at the planet.

Miners and Prospectors

Summary
Three asteroid fields give you each a potential revenue of 1 vectorium per turn.
Card type
Three additional Planet cards.
Mechanics
A new planet card type and additionnal rules allowing you to invest an initial amount of 5 vectorium to (potentially) earn aditionnal vectorium on each turn.
Review
Basic Game & Deep Space - A very nice variant, which fits perfectly into the rules. It is like a lottery (you pay and hope to win each turn), but the chances of getting back your investment are very high.
A very enjoyable add-on. This should be part of the original rules, really !
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Steven Kimball
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Thanks for posting these, Frank. I had no idea that there were any other additions to Free Trader beyond the Deep Space Expansion. And now with this whole ArtsCow promotion, I want to get everything in one shot! Have these variants been put into card dimensions instead of square tiles? Did you ArtsCow these as well? I haven't had time to research ArtsCow yet, but I'd be interested in piggy-backing off of somebody else more experienced.
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Frank Griese
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Yes, I have some experience with artscow, thanks to this Free Trader forum by the way.

Check out the geeklist I put up to share my experience:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/41583

I didn't change these cards, nor the basic game cards, to artscow size. But BGG user Kelley E. (xeromist) shared an artscow album with my Free Trader art :

http://www.artscow.com/ShareAlbum.aspx?Key=rwghsmle

I don't know if he plans to do the extension cards as well...
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Steven Kimball
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Maybe he can be coaxed/bribed into doing them as well...?
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Francisco Javier
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Thanks! I will try to change some obscure rules in the expansions (Example: Templar bank)
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