Review: Space Dealer
Space Dealer is a new game by Tobias Stapelfeldt, published by Eggertspiele. The game is for three or four players (up to eight if you combine two copies) and it plays in EXACTLY thirty minutes. Using what is surely one of the most clever mechanics I've ever seen in a boardgame, all players play the game simultaneously. I've seen some real-time simultaneous action boardgames before but this is the first one I've ever played that actually gets it right. How do they do it? Read on!
First let's talk a little bit about what comes in the box. Space Dealer comes in that ubiquitous square box that has become nearly an industry standard. Inside the box, you will find all sorts of goodies. There are numerous wooden cubes and cylinders, lots of sturdy cardboard and ten one-minute sand timers. The artwork on all of the cardboard is quite well done and very appropriate to the science-fiction/space theme.
One thing that you won't find inside the box is a game board. Instead, there are several cardboard pieces which fit together like puzzle pieces. Some fit together to make rocket ships which the players will use to transport goods. Some make up a round track with planets on it which does double duty as both a scoring track and a game board. Some fit together to make representation of the players' home planets with spaces to place the cards which are used to represent the various characteristics and state of each world.
All of these components are pretty neat but the most unique game component is a CD which has a thirty minute soundtrack which serves as the game's timer. It's filled with theme-appropriate techno background music and the occasional robotic voice which announces how much time is left before the end of the game. I'm sure there will be those who prefer to play the game to a timer (especially after they've heard the soundtrack for the fifth or sixth time) but I thought that the soundtrack was a pretty cool idea and that it really added something to the game.
If there is one criticism that can be levied at the game components, it's that the sand timers are really not of the very best quality and it's common for them to be off by as much as a couple of seconds. Thankfully, this really isn't too much of a problem. I recommend that before your first play you time all of the timers and make sure that each player gets assigned one of the faster ones and one of the slower ones (and it's probably best not to mark which is which). A little variation in the timers isn't really going to affect the outcome of the game very much (if at all) so long as the average time of each player's timers is roughly the same.
As I mentioned earlier, Space Dealer is very unique in that it is a real-time strategy boardgame. There are no turns. Instead, all players play at the same time. It would be natural to assume that this would create chaos and pandemonium, or at least an awful lot of pressure, as players raced to do as much as possible before their opponents. Thankfully, this really isn't the case. The way this is accomplished is that every player is given two sand timers (which the game calls robots). In order to do almost anything in the game, you must first put a timer on that action. Only when the sand runs out will you be able to actually execute that action. This serves to slow down the game's pacing enough that players actually have some time to consider their actions before taking them. While the time pressure is certainly an element in the game, I never felt overly rushed.
At the start of the game, every player is given a home planet, a space ship, two sand timers, ten round cylinders (used for scoring) and a small set of cards. The cards contain upgrades and technologies which can be developed and added to your home world. Some of the upgrades are mines which generate colored cubes. Some represent generators which are used to power up the other upgrades (if you can't supply power to it, you aren't allowed to build it). Most cards also have an area which lists a demand which consists of a set of resources and an associated amount of victory points. If you deliver the correct set of colored cubes to someone else's planet and fulfil one of their demands, you get to put one of your cylinders on the demand space, scoring victory points for yourself and a smaller amount of victory points for the owner.
There are also decks of cards which contain more powerful upgrade cards. In order to get at those cards, you need to invest some time towards advancing your planet's technology level. Since that investment requires waiting for one of your precious sand timers, that's going to require that you put off doing something else that you might otherwise have been doing.
This game is basically a produce and deliver game. You work the mines on your world to produce colored cubes which you then deliver to other worlds in order to score points for yourself and to a lesser extent the other player. The game is balanced well enough that success can be achieved either by delivering lots of orders to other players, or by making your own planet attractive enough that others will want to deliver to you. A successful strategy will typically contain elements of both.
There are many games which have tried to allow for simultaneous play but this is the first game that I've seen which actually delivers. It helps that Space Dealer's game mechanics would probably work well enough on their own, even without the real-time element. It also helps that the timers are slow enough to give players time to plan ahead and react to what others are doing, yet fast enough that players are going to feel just a little bit pressed for time. Successful players will be those who can force themselves to think about a problem, formulate a plan and execute on that plan without too much hesitation.
This kind of thing has been done successfully in the computer gaming world for quite some time. When you stop to think about it, most real-time simulation games (such as Age of Empires or Starcraft) have similar gating mechanisms that serve to slow the game down to a manageable pace. In Age of Empires for example, you have to wait for a building to be built before you can use it, then you have to wait for it to produce units, and finally you have to wait for those units to get to the battle field. The sand timers in Space Dealer, while simple by comparison, really serve much the same purpose. What's most impressive to me is how very well this works.
Space Dealer is one of those games that I hope to be playing for a long time to come. It's unique and it's fun. It's also surprisingly easy to play, given the nature of the game. This is a special game and I highly encourage you to pick up a copy while they're still available. Games like this don't come along very often.