Friday, 14 May 2021

Traders of Osaka


The Game

Traders of Osaka is a 2006 game by Susumu Kawasaki. It was originally published as Traders of Carthage. Only in 2015 it was republished with a Japanese setting.  

This is mainly a card game, but it has a small board and four tiny wooden ships. There are six locations on the board, representing a sea trade route from Osaka to Edo (modern day Tokyo). The ships do not belong to any particular player. Each ship carries a different type of goods. The ships travel from Osaka to Edo, and whenever a ship reaches Edo, all players must sell all goods of the corresponding type, and score victory points. That ship then teleports back to Osaka. Okay, let's just imagine it travels very swiftly back because the hull is empty. When a ship reaches Edo, if there are other ships at either of the two great waves positions, they get damaged and must retreat back to Anori, the 3rd location. Goods of their corresponding types are lost, unless you can play cards to protect them. This affects all players holding those goods types. The only consolation is these ships start off from Anori, so they have an advantage over the ship which has just conducted trading in Edo and is now back in Osaka. 

Next to the board, you have to lay out two rows of cards. The first row is the farm, and the second row the market. On a player's turn, there are only 3 options. First, you may take one card from the market into your hand. When a card is in your hand, it is money. Second, you may buy all cards from the market, and put them in front of you. Cards on the table in front of you are goods. When you buy goods, you spend cards (i.e. money) from your hand. You also move ships of the corresponding goods. E.g. if you have bought 1 green card, you move the green ship 1 step. If you have bought 2 or more green cards, you move the green ship 2 steps. Now that the market is empty, you refill it by drawing 2 cards, and also moving the 3 cards from the farm down. That means by looking at the farm, you know what to expect in the next batch of cards available. 

The third option on your turn is to reserve a card. You have one reservation marker. You may place it on any card. No one else can then take or buy it. If your marker is on a card in the market, when you want to buy cards from the market, you must buy this card together with the rest. 

There are only 3 types of action. From reading the rules, I couldn't picture how the game worked. The critical moments in the game are when ships reach Edo. This happens when players perform the buy goods action. All goods in the colour matching the ship will be sold. The unit price depends on the highest valued card you have. Cards are either 2, 3 or 5. Even if you have just one 5 card, your whole batch of goods will be priced at $5. Total the value, round up to nearest 5, then divide by 5 to get your victory points. You retain one card for each victory point you score, and discard the rest of the cards. You also claim one achievement token of the corresponding colour. The next time you sell this type of goods, each achievement token adds $1 to the unit price. 

Having talked about how the ships reaching Edo work, let's now talk about what happens to those poor ships hit by the great waves. When these ships are hit, if you hold goods in the corresponding colours, you lose them all, unless you have the right cards in hand to insure them. In game terms this is called insuring your goods, but this is more miraculous than real-life insurance. You only pay insurance when disaster strikes, not before. Some cards have insurance icons, and each icon allows you to protect one goods card. You turn the goods card sideways (see photo above), and it will be protected from now on, never fearing any wave. If the ship gets hit again, it still retreats to Anori, but insured goods will not be lost. 

The game ends when any player claims his eighth achievement token. 

The Play

I asked Chen Rui to try this game out with me. I was surprised that it works very well with 2 players. I later found out that the consensus is that 2 is the best player count. 3 works well, but 4 is so-so. I had little idea how the game would work or feel from reading the rules. I understood the rules clearly, but couldn't piece them together to form an impression of what kind of game this would be. It was only after playing it that I could appreciate the intricacies and depth of this seemingly simple game. Every small detail is deliberately and skilfully crafted, with no waste and no fluff. 

The big picture view is you want to collect goods then send the right ship to Edo so that you can sell the goods and score points. The same ship may be carrying your opponents' goods, so you need to consider whether that ship arriving in Edo will help them more than you. To get a taste of how the game feels, I need to describe what goes through my mind when I perform some of the actions in the game. Let's start with the simple act of taking a card. 

This is the most straight-forward action. You take a card from the market into your hand, and it becomes your money. Your first thought will probably be this - if there is a $5 card, I should take it because it's worth the most. However, if you happen to be amassing goods in that particular colour, you would want to have at least one $5 card as one of the goods. You would need to leave that $5 card in the market so that you can buy it. Another consideration is when you take a $5 card, the total cost of the goods in the market will drop significantly, which means your opponents may now be able to afford buying them. If you have any intention of buying the current batch of goods, dropping the total cost like this is risky. It is always important to consider the cash you have on hand. When you are low on cash, you become unable to threaten your opponents. They know you probably can't afford to buy goods yet. 

Yet another consideration is insurance. $5 cards have no insurance icons. If you have goods which are at risk, it might be better to take the right $2 card which has two insurance icons. You need to keep in mind that if you don't take the $5 card, possibly your opponents will take it on their turns. 

That's not all. Deciding which colour to take affects ship movement. When you take a certain colour, chances of the ship of that colour advancing reduces. E.g. if you want to prevent the red ship from moving and there is only one red card in the market, take it, and that red ship will not move, at least until the next batch of market cards. However if you do want a particular ship to move, then you don't want to take cards in its colour. 

Now let's talk about reserving cards. If a card you want turns up in the farm, since you can't take it or buy it yet, reserving it is how you can ensure it will be yours eventually. That's the simplest situation. Reserving a card can be used in the market too. If you want to buy a card, but don't have enough money to buy all cards in the market yet, you can reserve the card you want. Reserving a card can help your opponents. Since they can't buy the card you have reserved, when they evaluate how much they need to pay to buy goods, it will be cheaper by that card you have reserved. At the same time, you are making things slightly harder for yourself, because when you evaluate how much you need to pay, it will be higher because you must count the card you have reserved. Reserving a $5 card can be bad, because the market will be $5 more expensive for you than your opponents. 

The whole game is about manipulating goods procurement and the movement of ships. You want to collect the right goods and advance the right ships to maximise your profits and minimise that of your opponents. You can look at this from two perspectives - quantity and quality. If you sell often, and at each sale you earn a little more than your opponents, these small wins will add up and secure your victory. You may also orchestrate a few big killings, which can cover the small losses in other deliveries. In my game with Chen Rui, she won via quality. For one of the mid game deliveries, she scored a whopping 10VP. Her goods were worth $6 each, and she had 8 cards. That came to $48, which was then rounded up to $50. Thus 10VP. 

At this point I had three green goods, and there were three in the market. If I could continue to buy more green goods, and also make sure one of them was a $5 card, I would make a lot from this batch of goods. At this point Chen Rui did not have any green goods, so the green ship arriving in Edo would not help her at all. 

The yellow ship had just visited Edo and was now back in Osaka. Now the green ship was the leading one, just two steps away from Edo. 

I like the art work. All $2 cards have two insurance icons (agents wearing hats in top right corner), and $3 cards have one. $5 cards have no insurance icons. 

This was a precarious situation. Although blue was just one step away from Edo, it could easily be overtaken by red or green. Among the three of them, if any one ship reached Edo first, the rest would be hit by waves and forced back to Anori. 

There were many blue cards on the table, so there was a high probability that the blue ship would move. To stop it from moving, you would need to take those blue cards into your hand to become cash. 

At this point I had many red and yellow goods, so I wanted to work towards getting these two ships to Edo. I had six achievement tokens. Two more and I would trigger game end, which meant I didn't have many more opportunities to score points. 

The Thoughts

Traders of Osaka is a very cleverly designed game. It is intricate, despite having few rules. There is much to think about behind every small decision. Rules-wise it's a light game, but gameplay-wise it's a mid-weight game. After my game with Chen Rui, she declared her brain juice exhausted for the day. This is a game with high player interaction. Before you make your move, you must think about the game situation you will leave for your opponents. 

This is an excellent 2-player game. I can understand why people like the 4-player count less. There will be less control. It's harder for you to plan, since the game situation can change significantly by the time your turn comes around again. 

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