Review: Star Cartel
|Release Date||November 21, 2017|
Designer: Martin Boisselle
Artist: Michał Niewiadomy
Publisher: Osprey Games
Category: Economic, Science Fiction, Transportation
Price: $30.00 Osprey
Star Cartel is an introductory stocks and commodity speculation game from Osprey Games and designer, Martin Boisselle. Star Cartel is Boisselle’s first published game, but Martin has also self-published other titles—typically of economic flair, including 1862: The Pacific Railway Act, Dice Tracks, Escobar: 1992-1993, and more.
Osprey Games is an imprint of Osprey Publishing, originally established in 1969. Osprey Publishing is a longtime book publisher, including many prints of wargames and tactical historical military titles. The King is Dead is Osprey Games first printed board game. Osprey Games has also published titles such as Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, Frostgrave, Odin’s Ravens, Escape from Colditz, and the upcoming reprint of London, by Martin Wallace.
Star Cartel is a fast-paced, space-themed, stock guessing game. Players take on the mantles of smugglers, pick up illicit goods, and smuggle them through the…space black market. I’ve recently geeked out enough about space, so I’ll skip the lengthy opening convincing readers they need to invest brain power into thinking about the universe.
Where Farlight succeeds in teaching players the basic processes of bidding and bluffing mechanisms, Star Cartel succeeds in teaching the ebb and flow of evaluating stocks and guessing the market. Market evaluation sounds boring, but it’s not tedious like watching C-Span. I promise.
Star Cartel takes only a moment to set up and a few example rounds to teach. Players take a starting ship and use the goods deck to create four columns of three rows each. On a player’s turn, they take one card from the bottom row, and then have the option of taking the following card in the same column. It’s important to designate the teacher as a slot machine of sorts because as soon as a card is taken, the column shifts down, and a new card replaces the column so it contains three cards.
Once a player has hit the number of cargo space denoted on his ship or is unable to take a card because he’d exceed cargo space, the player ships his goods. This not only gives him one set of goods to ensconce for end-game scoring, but also shifts the values of certain goods on the market up and down. Each good card has a value between 1-4. The good the player has the most of is discarded, and the player moves that good’s value on the commodity board up by two. In opposite fashion, the good the player has the least of discards those goods, and moves that good’s value down by one. The player chooses between goods when tied, and of whatever is remaining after discarding, the player keeps one set of those goods for himself.
After shipping a good, the player tosses his current ship and upgrades by drawing the next available ship. This means more cargo space, potentially a special ability, and if the game ends, victory points for his ship’s value.
Once the Cassiopea ship has been drawn, each player gets a final turn to load and ship, and the game ends. Players revealed their hidden goods cards, and receive points equal to whatever the value is on the commodity board. Tallying this with their ship’s value, the player with the most points wins.
As those close to me will divulge, I’m usually reserved when playing new games for the first time. I’m always excited to try something new, but I need time to collect my thoughts and determine if I like a game.
That said, from aesthetic to gameplay, Star Cartel is exceptional. It’s equal to Paris Connection in terms of games I’ll always use to teach basic stock evaluation and commodity speculation to those new to it. I can see myself keeping Star Cartel around for the long time. It’s compact. It’s super simple to teach. Games finish much faster than you imagine. There is basically no downtime between turns. It’s beautiful to look at.
I’ve given you all the spoilers above, but Star Cartel is everything I want in an introductory game for teaching unfamiliar mechanisms to people. The commodity board is excruciatingly dynamic. Goods that seemed safe to invest in quickly approach the threshold of 9 value. If a good ever exceeds 9, the demand crashes and it shoots down to a 1 value. This means a hand of five guns might be worth 45 points one turn, and be worth 5 points the next turn. It can typically take an entire game to boost a value from the low starting value of 3 to approach 9. Players have to constantly worry about the goods they’ve chose to invest in.
Of course, it’s not only one player who’s likely concerned about their stockpiled good, but maybe another player or two need that good to maintain its value. This means players must carefully decide which goods to snag when loading, because picking up too many high-value cards can rupture the market and ruin the game for them. Because of market volatility, good players will constantly keep an eye on which goods others have loaded and try to crash the market against those goods whenever they can.
Another thing to watch for is how many goods a player ends up netting for end-game points. It’s easy to take only high value cards, but this fills the cargo space faster and makes for fewer cards in-between to stow away. A player might even take a solo point of their highest value good just to decrease its value by one on the commodity market. This is done as a safety net.
What makes Star Cartel so good is how quickly games go. There’s barely any time to sit and stew when you’ve lost out on your goods. There’s even less time to AP the board state and spend time evaluating the board too closely. What’s the point in overthinking it? The strategy should already be clear enough. Before you know it, it’s your turn again. As a downside, the “slot machine” player might not even get as much time to think of his own strategies because he is too busy dropping cards in rows and replacing them.
This isn’t to say Star Cartel is a thoughtless game with no strategy—it’s all about capitalizing tactically on goods, watching other players to see what they are storing, and ruining the value of your opponent’s goods. It’s vicious and hilarious, and the game ends so fast it’s time to play another.
Aesthetically, Star Cartel looks great. It ships in a small box covered in deep purples and enough 70s sci-fi grunge to make you pull out Blade Runner or something. The color palette of the game is fascinating. Each good has a unique look and background to get players on the same page quickly. This is one reason the game has such a fast pace, using these recognizable colors and symbols. Each starship has a bit of flavor text on the back that reads theme into the game, but you likely will never have time to read them. Each good also has an associated plastic piece that bumps up and down the commodity market track. The advantage here is this symbol is printed on each cards as well, making it hopefully easy for colorblind folks to play the game.
I’ve only positive things to say here.
Go quickly. Go pre-order a copy, October 24th is almost here!
A review copy of Star Cartel was provided by Osprey Games.
The Bottom Line
Star Cartel is a great introductory stock speculation game that’s still exciting for both new and veteran gamers. With fast games, great production, and easy-to-learn gameplay, Star Cartel will stay in my collection for a long, long time.