Board Game Review – Traders of Osaka

Traders of Osaka, a rethemed reissue of Traders of Carthage, is a comparatively light economic game with an enjoyable strategic depth behind concise and easily taught rules. It uses multiple purpose cards in several roles, minimising the array of components in a similar fashion to Glory to Rome, which is a design decision that can – as it does here – efficiently communicate a lot of information. If a card has multiple potential uses, any given draw will add that number of tactical options and so the market manipulation aspects of Traders are given complexity beyond chasing high value cards. The game also offers the potential for players to recover well from errors; unless a large number of mistakes are made in succession, a single setback is unlikely to completely put a player out of contention. Perhaps its greatest strength, though, is its use of open information to give players a lot of control over the game state and play strategically – while also making apparently hostile moves potentially profitable.

Each card in the game has three pieces of information – suit, value and insurance value. Each is important in a different yet intuitive way to the core point scoring mechanic. This in turn makes the game very easy to explain – the aim is to convert cards in hand (capital) into faceup cards in play (stock) and then turn those face down (profit). The complexity comes in how cards can be exchanged and acquired. On their turn a player may take a single card from the market and add it to their hand as capital, or buy the entire market by discarding cards totalling the cost of it all. Thus the first of the compromises that drive the game becomes clear – raising funds makes the market cheaper and so easier to buy but may also make it more or less desirable based on the suits remaining.

Each time the market is bought, the corresponding ships move. Each suit is represented by a ship marker, and once a ship reaches port that suit is scored by all players. If any unscored ships are not in safe ports, they sink and players must discard insurance cards to not lose their unscored goods. Each scoring round brings the end of the game closer, but also gives bonuses to subsequent scoring of the same suit. Although there is a lot to unpack here, it is intuitive design that is easily demonstrated. It adds easily comprehended depth – buying a market for certain cards may make it easier for rivals to score their own favoured suits and sink your own ship, while scoring a suit may benefit every player. Players can “attack” by this market manipulation, but as it will almost certainly bring the game closer to ending, it is a risky plan.

Even the scoring has strategic elements. Points take the form of face down stock cards. Players keep one point for every five value of goods they sell, calculated by multiplying the highest value card sold by the number of cards sold – so selling five 2 point cards is no more victory points than two 5 point cards. This is possibly the least intuitive mechanic, but it is still not unreasonably complex. As the game progresses, players gain bonus tokens that add to their selling prices – creating a tension between diversifying and specialising.

There is a lot of open information on display – players’ unscored stock, the positions of the ships, the market and a portion of the upcoming market. This encourages planning, and is aided by clear component design. With only a few different components communicating a lot of information, the game flows well. It is lacking theme, but sits in the company of games like Splendour that have simple, pared down components that are designed to be easily understood.

All in all, this is one of my most played games; quick, easily learned yet with a lot of depth and finely balanced, nuanced design.

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