Image via Board Game Geek

Sky Traders from Fantasy Flight Games is an interesting game with some unfortunate problems.  I would not recommend it for 3 players, but I’m willing to try it again with 4, and preferably 5, players.

The basic mechanic is:

  • Action Round: each player has a turn to deal with Ill Winds, move his skyship [1], and then take an action such as trading, mining, or attacking
  • Guild Round: The players negotiate to adjust prices for the various commodities and also buy victory points.

Sky Traders has some nice production values, and some interesting mechanics bolted into the details.

In particular the timer for limiting turns to two minutes could make things more amusingly frantic, but I would want to be more familiar with the game before enforcing that rule.

However in the one and half(ish) games that I’ve played have revealed a number of problems.

First the game balancing seems marginal, particularly in the Guild Round, for a three player game.  It is telling that the special rules for a two player game simulate a 4 player council

Second, the aptly named Ill Winds event cards seem designed to be indiscriminately damaging rather than targeting the leader. Indeed several are constructed in such a way as to give the leader more of an advantage even when drawn by someone else.

Third, there are 5 player pawns, and maybe half a dozen NPCs in the skyship crew cards. Only one of the NPCs is female, and frankly I expect better than that in modern game design.

Fourth, the purchasing of victory points would be a nice mechanic were it not for the fact that being ahead lets you start rigging the market in the Guild Round.  Like the Ill Wind cards this is a design to help someone run away with the game.  The strong point here is that buying influence in the Guild Round does drain you of money to buy commodities in the Action Round, the weak point is that one good trade can net enough cast to buy 30 victory points in a hit.

This leads into, fifth, although 50 victory points looked like a lot when we started playing it can actually happen very quickly indeed.  If one player is locked out of key commodities then that player can be on zero when another wins, and another is 3-4 points behind.

Sixth, the “illegal” commodities [2] have much higher risk profiles but not necessarily the rewards to justify the risks.  Certainly by the second game all three of us were steering clear of those as much as possible.

I am possibly being overcritical here; it may be that the balance issues would diminish in a 4 – 5 player game. Enforcing the 2 minute rules might also enhance the experience of the game.

Overall I’m ranking Sky Traders as marginal, but may revise it upwards later if a 5 player game substantially improves the experience.

[1] Movement is on a hex map constructed at the start of play so the layout does change.

[2] Toxic waste and booze… both of which derive from the same source material in the in-game universe.  I suspect an Aesop. 🙂