Star Traders Dev Story
Begin at the Beginning
As I mentioned elsewhere, I began attending playtest sessions for Steve Jackson Games from the birth of that company around 1980. By the mid ’80s, I was working for SJG as a developer and editor. One day, Steve made an announcement — actually, two announcements. First, SJG had license the title “Isaac Asimov Presents” from a series of short story SF anthologies that Asimov and Martin Greenberg edited. And second, the first game in the series would be designed by whomever created the best game.
This was an incredibly gracious offer by the lead designer and head of a major game company. About four to six of us submitted proposals, and after several rounds of development and review, Star Traders was chosen. I don’t remember all of the discussion and development that took place, but I do know that all of us — especially Steve — significantly improved my original design.
I like train games — pick-up-and-deliver games — a lot. Two of my favorite games are Rail Baron and Empire Builder, and I still pull out the well-worn boxes to play them from time to time. But they don’t have as much interaction as I’d like, and they don’t have as much of a climax as I’d like. In designing Star Traders, I decided to create a game like those, but different. Having contracts in common (rather than each player having his own contracts) definitely upped the competition between players, since only the first player to deliver gets paid. So did cards that you can play on yourself and each other, speeding yourself along or impeding your opponents.
For a climax, we added the Imperial Mission. First you have to petition the Emperor (which succeeds only on a 5 or 6 on 1d6, but there are ways to boost your die roll), and then you have to successfully complete an Imperial Mission that he gives only to you. Generally, by the time someone wins, nearly all the other players are attempting to complete their own Imperial Mission. Games usually come right down to the wire.
A third difference is that rather than traveling along rail lines each turn, you are jumping from world to world. Either you make it or you don’t — there’s no “halfway there” in space.
So the game was released, and it did sorta well. Some people loved it, but not enough. (You haven’t fully experienced life until a young woman, upon learning your name, immediately kneels down on the floor in awe at meeting the designer of Star Traders. Seriously.) It actually did as well or better in Germany. It went out of print within a few years, and reverted to me a few years after that.
From the mid ’90s to a couple of years ago, I made sporadic attempts to get someone to publish it, and made occasional passes at improving it. Some of its features were realistic, but they weren’t fun. For example, when you were ready to jump, you had to declare where you were jumping, and if your roll failed, you went nowhere. In today’s version you roll, and then decide where you’re going, based on what you roll. Similarly, you used to have to deliver your cargo to its original destination, even when someone else had beaten you there. If you didn’t, you suffered a penalty. Now, if someone beats you to a destination, you simply offload the now-useless cargo and continue on your way.
Some of the features (especially the Personalities) were not as well balanced as they could have been. I dropped a couple, and changed all the rest to better balance them. By definition, the Personalities can’t be exactly balanced (because they have different types of effects and because the way the game plays out is different every time). But balancing the Personalities has been a major objective, and I believe they’re much more in line with each other now. Today, I’m figuring we’re close to where we want to be when I’m told by some that a given Personality is underbalanced and by others that it’s overbalanced. It really depends a great deal on how well someone is playing the Personality’s ability and how each specific game develops.
Star Traders today looks a lot like the Star Traders of thirty years ago, but it’s changed — a lot. For example, the board still has 36 worlds, neatly corresponding to the 36 possible rolls of two 6-sided dice. But most of the names have changed — it used to have seven worlds named after SF authors; now nearly all of them are. I combined the Contracts and Trader’s Luck cards. It used to be that the game had 72 Contract cards and 65 Trader’s Luck cards. Now it has 108 combined Contract and Trader’s Luck cards. Combining the cards meant that we could effectively add many more cards to the game (and could even sort them for level of play) while actually reducing the total number of cards in the game, but it also meant that you couldn’t depend on certain Contracts or Trader’s Luck cards to appear — they might have been played using the other half of the card.
And so on. At this point, just about every rule in the game, from initial setup to final victory, has been tweaked, if not completely changed. Someday when you have a couple hours of time and I have a large glass of tea, we can go into all the other changes in detail.
Until then, I think you’re really going to enjoy the new, improved Star Traders!