This new entry to the Android and iOS markets is a digital version of what’s been described to us as a Pen and Paper solitaire game. I’m not sure any of these terms fit well though. “Board game”, or “card game”, may be a better depiction. As far as the term “solitaire” goes… well I think in the digital world, we simply call that “single player.”
When starting a new game of Free Trader, our token is dropped on the planet Earth in the center of the game-board. Players may notice some symbols on the planet, some cards off to the right, and absolutely zero instructions or tutorial. Some reviewers have described this game as having a steep learning curve, but I disagree. Once you skim the instructions and figure out how the game is played, it’s pretty simple. It’s not that there’s a learning curve, it’s that the game drops you into play with absolutely no guidance.
Now, before I get into seriously trashing this title, I will first say, I’m a huge fan of card and table-top games, especially digital ones. I have played and enjoyed many obscure and low-budget titles in this genre, so I was expecting to like Free Trader.
Unfortunately, Free Trader manages to be ponderously difficult. This difficulty does not lie in problems with developing a strategy or reacting to events. Those things are rather simple to respond to and optimize. Buy low, sell high, upgrade your weapons first, be conservative. As helpful as these strategies are, you will still fail 99% of the time. Actually, I’m going to try another 10 rounds right now, just so I can make sure I wasn’t extremely unlucky with my previous 50 tries…
Nope, more failure, big surprise. The big problem with this game isn’t that it’s difficult. I love a challenge! The problem is Free Trader is unpredictably difficult, and most of the time there is no way to win. That is to say, a player has really very little agency over the outcome of a game. Get attacked by pirates or invaders in your first three turns and lose an important module? Doom! Unable to make any profit on goods for your first three turns because of random modifiers? Doom!
To win the game, you must successfully make four payments on your ship. This is a sum that starts at five but ends at 15 as the game progresses. A player may only ever carry 20 units of this currency at any time, so there’s no real way to get ahead.
Gameplay consists of moving onto a new planet, buying and selling, and revealing event cards at almost every step. Once a player has gone through all the event-cards in a deck, they are expected to make a payment on their ship. This is bad in primarily two ways.
#1) In order to successfully win a game, you must go through the same event-deck four times. This is repetitive. The small event-deck already feels like a limiting factor, but to then force players to go through it four times to win a game… sadism!
#2) Having a very limited event deck really discourages engaging pirates or invaders. Every round of battle takes two event cards which are used as modifiers for damage and defense. Engaging a pirate can easily blow the whole stack of event cards in just a few rounds. It’s also worth mentioning that the rewards for defeating a pirate are hardly worthwhile.
All these elements, while brutal, could work if there was just a little bit more to the game. You never really have extensive options. Buy or sell, upgrade or don’t upgrade, engage or run — that’s basically it. Having a hand for your own special actions or maneuvers, or maybe some kind of special items or equipment, these things would give the player enough agency for this to feel like an actual game, rather than a sadistic slot machine.
There are still a couple good things about Free Trader. It runs well, without any glitches. The card art is a huge improvement to the art featured in the original non-digital game. It’s easy enough to play for a bit here and there. Kinda like an overly complex slot machine, one can’t help but give it a pull or two, even if it often does leave one in disgust.
The sound runs from mediocre to terrible. Sound effects are fine, the typical sci-fi affair, blaster noises, some beeps and boops, predictable, but not bad. The soundtrack however, ugh! Silence would be preferable. The background noise is simply a series of repetitive sounds, maybe like a hyperdrive engine spinning up or something, but it’s rather obnoxious.
In the end, I couldn’t really recommend this game to anyone. Boring old solitaire is more fun and more fair… With such a bounty of free-to-play titles on the device markets these days, many of which provide much better entertainment, I can think of no reason why someone would want to drop $2.00 on this title.
Disclosure: The developers approached us to look at and review this title. They also offered us a free copy for use in our review. Unfortunately, due to some technical limitations of the Google Play Store, I ended up purchasing the game myself and played it on my Galaxy Note 4.
Brutally and often hopelessly difficult, not to mention simple and repetitive. There's simply not enough to this game to make it worth all the hopeless defeats.