WBG Score: 6/10
Player Count: 2-5 players
Published by: Unique Board Games LTD (UBG)
Designed by: Izik Nevo
A Free Market in New York? Seems unlikely! But it does exist in Board game form at least. You may have missed this one from Unique Board Games. Released in 2020, this game has flown well under the radar for a few reasons I expect. But I am going to park all pre-conceptions and just talk about the game itself. Which is really rather good.
At its core. Free Market NYC is worker placement game with an interesting commodity speculation and action queue mechanic. And also with auction style nodding and area control! But we will come to that! You are playing as a business leader in the middle of the American great depression. Doing all you can to bring in trade and commerce to your home city. Make the most bucks and win the game!
The era and city does not really shine through in the game, but the sense of business does. You feel close to the prices of goods and the moving markets. The feeling of building your economy is strong throughout and keeps your focus and attention. Its fun to try and beat the system. Buy low. Sell high. And this is all done in a very familiar ‘gamer-friendly’ way. Imagine playing Century Spice Road but being able to buy and sell the cubes. And the prices fluctuate throughout the game.
At first glance, this game does appear quite complicated. The rule book and board look busy and intimidating to new players. But it can be learnt relatively quickly, an hour I would say. And taught in twenties minutes or so. It feels a lot at first to learn as there are 17 steps in each round. But this isn’t really the case. The first four steps are quick and more mechanical; more set-up in truth. And two of which you miss in round one anyway. And then the 13 steps after, well you can only choose to do three of these. So, in round one there are only five steps. There are a lot of available phases sure, but not a lot of things to do. Just a lot of choice. The rule book does not convey this clearly so it may seem intimidating and laborious if you assume as I did you need to go through 17 phases each round, but you don’t. I thought it important to clarify this.
Like any worker placement game, this is what makes the game fun. You want to have choices and feel your selections make a significant difference to your overall success in the game. The strategies you employ should genuinely influence your game. So, in most worker placements you have a lot of choices. Just like this game. But usually, it is a map with multiple locations and you place your worker based on what you want to do. In Free Market, it is a line of actions you go through from left to right in a linear manner. This makes it feel more mechanic and perhaps less appealing. But this is just a assumption, not an actual feeling when you play. It looks complicated. It is less visually appealing than what most are used too. But it’s essentially the same thing as many other work placement games, just with more structure.
I mention this as I think this is one major reason the game may not have been seen by as many people yet. If this was a more attractive modern looking board, and perhaps from a larger more well known publisher, I am confident this game would have sold a lot of copies. It doesn’t do the game any favours selling itself in this way. But if you can look past that and judge this game by its workings and not its cover, you may find a diamond in the rough.
Substance over style!
I appreciate aesthetics are a core part of the modern board game industry. But I bet you have a few games in your collection you would rate higher in terms on looks that actual gameplay? I know I do. Well, this is one I would suggest is the opposite. And that is fine for me. Style over substance can be disappointing. Substance over style can be rather joyful!
As you move through the 17 stages of each round, one player will place a large blue meeple on each space to signify which phase is active. Each payer in order then has to decide what they are doing on these phases for the first four spots, and then if they want to do this phase on the next 13. As you can only pick three of these in round one, and in later rounds, generally only up to five, you will be missing out more than you will be choosing. This creates genuine tension, and excitement to the game.
Most phases only allow one player to take the action. So, the fear for the first player to turn something down in order to open it up to the next players is a fantastic part of this game. Equally, the apprehension as the other players wait to see if the first player is going to block them from doing what they want is great to watch!
Control your F.O.M.O.!
The game levels this out too. The very first choice in the 13 optional steps is to get the first player token. And the final action is the ability to re-do any action from the previous 12. There are ways to control this F.O.M.O.! But its is there throughout, and builds up fantastically throughout the game, and is the core reason why the game is fun.
Your core focus will be acquiring commodities at the best prices possible. And then selling them for the most profit. But each part of this has its own mechanic to make it feel unique and important. This has caused some reviewers to suggest this game feels like a miss-mash of mini games. I disagree with this strongly, as each phase moves very quickly and feels intrinsically linked. And importantly, they all work for each phase they are employed.
For example, in the third phase, each player will bid in an auction style for the available crates (commodities) available at the shipyard. The minimum bid must be the cost price, but with all the market fluctuations available in the game, this could be well under the current re-sale value. You also have the ability through various means to influence and directly affect the market price in each round, both in and out of turn. This makes this part of the game feel exciting and very much alive.
Just pulling random cubes would be lazy. Taking turns to take one wouldn’t seem genuine. Buying them in turn order would be dull. The auction phase works. And importantly, I see this as being closer to how it works in real life. So why not employ this in the game? Its quick, fun and feels realistic.
Later in the round, when it comes to selling your products, you need to make sure you have a shop that sells this particular type of product and a truck to get it there. A roadblock could stop this and other players involvement in the ownership of that shop would affect your profits. This all feels very much how it would be in real-life. You couldn’t make this an auction like the purchase phase. It needs to be more area control and worker placement, so it is. Yes, this is a series of different mechanics, but they are all chosen for a reason. And they link up and feel right to me.
If you can see this game for what it is, I think you will really enjoy it. You are the boss, controlling your workers. Each worker has a different role. And you need to think about the right way for your truck drivers, buyers, sellers and political ‘pole-greasers’ to all behave! If you can think like that, and could imagine yourself enjoying that, then this well could be a game you will enjoy a lot.
If you cannot see past the board then I would suggest this is not for you. It is busy, and that is a shame, I think the designer wanted to make the game easier to understand with all the iconography laid two times for each phase, so players could read it no matter where they are sat round the table. Personally, I think this is not needed. You quickly learn each phase anyway, so I would argue you could remove all the icons. But I get why they are there.
In short. This game is an excellent idea, perhaps not brilliantly executed considering the current aesthetic demands in the board game industry. But I wanted to feature it here as I think it serves as an excellent example of a game that is a lot better than it looks and one worthy of your consideration. For people who enjoy a crunchy euro, this may not matter as much anyway. But if you want the next Everdell, this is not for you. However, if you are a fan of economic/commerce building games that build up tension and employ interesting and varied mechanics, and can look past the aesthetics, you will not be disappointed.