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The Bulls & Bears of Gaming

October 21, 2008

With the real stock market in shambles, perhaps it’s time to play stock market board games instead of gambling with the real thing. We’ve all seen our portfolios take a tumble recently, but there are a number of board games out there that will allow you to amass a fortune, growing your net worth to dizzying heights… if you time these faux markets right and manage to adhere to that age old adage – buy low and sell high.

Not every stock market or investment game is obvious or easy to spot. There are stock market games about shrimps protecting coral reefs and others where players are deities creating the Earth’s landscape on a blank canvas. I interpret the stock market mechanism in board games fairly broadly, but rather than try to enumerate the elements of the mechanism’s definition, I’m going to explain my understanding by way of examples. Specifically, I’d like to discuss three stock market games that I enjoy and two stock market games that I don’t enjoy, which will hopefully elucidate the genre as I understand it. (Not to say that any of them are good games or bad games in the abstract, but rather that I’ll hopefully be able to give you enough details about each of the five so that you can make up your mind for yourself about whether you might like to try any of them).

I’ll start with my favorite stock market game, a very good place to start, which is Richard Breese’s Reef Encounter. This, of course, is the game about shrimps protecting coral reefs, which I alluded to earlier. This 2004 release was originally self-published by R&D Games, but later picked up for a U.S. release by Z-Man Games and other international releases by both Quined White Goblin Games and What’s Your Game. Although these latter releases replaced Juliet Breese’s gorgeous pastel work with a more vibrant artwork that has had a mixed reception, I actually like both the original pastel color scheme and the newer vibrant color scheme, so I don’t think it’s worth the extra money to try to track down the original (except that the expansion – Reef Encounters of the Second Kind – which I enjoy thoroughly, is only available with the original color scheme unfortunately, at least for the time being). So what does this game that Breese says was inspired by the BBC show “The Blue Planet” by David Attenborough have to do with stock markets? After all, it’s a game of shrimp, parrotfish, polyp tiles, larva cubes, and algae cylinders. It’s actually an investment game where players are faced with the difficult decision of deciding whether to invest in pink, yellow, black, orange, or white polyp tiles. These five different color tiles all start off worth 3 points at the beginning of the game, but diverge over the course of the game so that they can be worth anywhere from 1 to 5 points each by the time it’s all said and done. Your net worth is ultimately determined by multiplying all of the tiles that you’ve collected by their values in the market once the closing bell has rung and then summing all of those products. While your portfolio may be collected in the belly of your parrotfish, the decisions over the course of the game are remarkably similar to those in a more traditional stock market game such as Acquire (which I will discuss more later in this article of course). That is to say, you are trying to gauge the other players to anticipate how their actions will affect the value of the various stocks in the market so that you can invest accordingly, hopefully ending up with a Google, not an Enron. Just because they’re called stocks in Acquire and they’re called polyp tiles in Reef Encounter doesn’t mean the essence is really any different. Then again, I’m listing the latter as one of my favorite games here and will get to why I don’t enjoy the former in a little bit, so there must be something separating the two. There are really a lot of different elements to love about Breese’s four-year old design.

The stock market in Reef Encounter is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up this fairly complex game. (Although I do maintain that it’s not nearly as complex as many people fear, but rather is simply intimidating because the rules are confusing due to the fact that they use lots of terminology, such as polyp tile, larva cube, and algae cylinder). One of the principal elements of Reef Encounter is actually its tile placement, which is somewhat reminiscent of Reiner Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates. Players in both have a hand of different colored tiles hidden behind their player screens, and on their turn they place those tiles onto the board in an attempt to form strong groups of tiles, which can be used to attack other nearby groups of tiles. The combat in Reef Encounter and Tigris & Euphrates certainly works differently, but the tile placement is vaguely similar. The combat in Reef Encounter is actually essential because that is what indirectly allows you to manipulate the stock market. Players can use the spoils of a successful attack on their neighbor’s coral reef to then play puppet master in the marketplace, pulling the strings to drive up the value of their portfolio and crash the market in their opponents’ preferred investment vehicle. If this sounds like fun, which I assure you after having played it 46 times I think it certainly is, then you should give it a try, either in person or on Spiel By Web.

Another unlikely candidate for a list about stock market games is one in which players act as architects being commissioned by cloth merchants, spice merchants, carpenters, and silversmiths to plan the build-up of a town and a magnificent castle in a remote region of undulating hills and fertile valleys. If that description doesn’t ring a bell, and it probably doesn’t even for those of you who have played this somewhat abstract game, it is Rüdiger Dorn’s Arkadia, published in 2006 by Ravensburger (originally known as Die Baumeister von Arkadia). Arkadia was actually nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2007, but inevitably lost out to a cuddly panda bear. Arkadia is actually a favorite of mine and is my second favorite game of 2006 behind Mac Gerdts’ Imperial. (Rüdiger Dorn has quite a knack for designing my second favorite games of many years, including Louis XIV, Goa, and Traders of Genoa in addition to Arkadia, although Arkadia is his first of those four not to use his familiar “walking” mechanism). But you might be saying to yourself, how can players acting as architects be a stock market game? Players actually have a hand of building cards, which show a shape (including various shapes reminiscent of the shapes in Blokus, Princes of Florence, or Tetris) and a color. The colors indicate whether the cloth merchants (red), spice merchants (greenish-gold), carpenters (black), or silversmiths (you guessed it, silver) commission the building. Players place buildings on the board by playing their cards (and refill their hands in the same way they draw cards in Ticket to Ride). Your goal is to skillfully position your plastic worker pieces around the buildings (both the buildings that you place and that your opponents place) in order to completely surround the buildings. Doing so will result in a reward of seals. Not the carnivorous marine animal, but rather the wax emblem type of seal. You’ll earn one seal of the color of the guild that commissioned the building per worker that you have contributing to the building, plus a bonus seal for the person who triggered the completion of the building. These seals are where the stock market comes into the game and are indirectly how you determine each player’s score at the end of the game. The crux of the game is that the conversion of seals to victory points (which incidentally the game calls gold coins for no particular reason since you certainly don’t spend them) depends on the color of the seal and the value of each color varies over the course of the game, just like the different color polyp tiles in Reef Encounter. Completing (i.e., surrounding) a building in Arkadia doesn’t just give you a bonus seal, but also allows you to manipulate the game’s stock market (and is the clock regulating the length of the game because it eventually ends after 20 buildings have been completed). All four color seals start off worth two victory points, but completing a building allows you to increase the value of a color of your choice by one and generally also decrease the value of a different color by one. The values of the four colors range anywhere from zero all the way up to six (although I’ve never seen the value exceed five in any of my 9 times playing Arkadia).

The key difference between the stock market mechanism in Reef Encounter and in Arkadia is that players must hold their stocks until the end of Reef Encounter whereas players can cash out their stocks during the game in Arkadia. This means that players cannot capitalize on fluctuating values in Reef Encounter to seize a golden opportunity to dump a particular stock, whereas Arkadia is all about trying to find those opportunities to get out when the price spikes before it falls (but hopefully not before it rises any further). This crucial difference actually prompted a friend of mine to observe that Reef Encounter is more of an “investment” game, whereas Arkadia is more of a “stock market” game. The difference being that investment games allows players to buy stocks that fluctuate in value, whereas stock market games allow players to both buy and sell stocks that fluctuate in value. Reef Encounter lacks the mid-game selling element that makes Arkadia a game of edge-of-your-seat timing. It’s certainly an interesting distinction, but I’m not sure I’d like to subdivide this already narrow category of games any further, so I’ll just refer to all of these games as stock market games. I mention the possible distinction between investment and stock market games though because the difference in terms of gameplay feeling between games that allow players to buy and sell versus those that just allow players to buy is significant. Players in Arkadia can sell their seals during the game at four moments of their choosing, having the option to turn in one of their four banners at the end of any of their turns in order to both gain additional workers and cash out as many seals as they’d like. In addition, players have a fifth and final opportunity to cash in any leftover seals at the end of the game. Arkadia certainly has elements of hand management and the spatial positioning of buildings and workers, but the most intriguing and compelling aspect of the game is the agonizing decision of when to turn in one of your four precious banners to seize an opportunity to cash out some of your seals for gold coins (i.e., victory points). You’re always on the edge of your seat in Arkadia because you want to make sure to dump your carpenter guild seals or your cloth merchant seals before they become the next Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers. Then again, even worse than watching the seals in your portfolio decline in value before you’ve had a chance to cash out, is the feeling of watching the price rise after you’ve already cashed out. Or is it? That’s the agonizing decision that you’ll be faced with in Dorn’s masterful Arkadia.

2006 was quite a year for stock market games. Not only did it give us Arkadia, but it also saw the release of Mac Gerdts’ Imperial (the second in his diverse Rondel Trilogy, which also includes Antike and Hamburgum). Imperial is a game about Europe in the Age of Imperialism. Players act as international investors competing to exert the greatest influence in Europe by using their wealth to invest in the Great Powers and control the politics of those Great Powers in the years leading up to World War I. The nations build factories, fleets and armies, expand, wage war, and levy taxes, but the puppet master controlling what each individual nation actually does on any given turn is subject to change based on which player at that moment has invested the most in that nation. This is the key to Imperial that makes it so unique and engaging. Most games of this type assign each player a country or faction at the beginning and players simply try to make their assigned country become the most powerful by the end of the game. Imperial’s twist on the genre turns the game on its head by disassociating players from particular countries, instead allowing control of each country to shift throughout the game based on the whim of the players.

Imperial is not a game of buying and selling, unlike Arkadia, but rather is simply a game of buying, in the same vein as Reef Encounter (so perhaps it is better labeled an Investment game than a Stock Market game). Players have the opportunity to buy bonds in any of the six Great Powers of Europe over the course of the game, but they are never allowed to sell those bonds (except to upgrade to a higher valued bond in the same Great Power, which certainly isn’t a chance to cash out since it simply allows players to invest even more heavily in a particular security). Just like in both Reef Encounter and Arkadia, the value of the bonds changes over the course of the game. On the other hand, unlike in Reef Encounter and Arkadia, the value of the bonds begin being worth zero times their face value and have the possibility of increasing all the way up to 5 times their face value, but never decrease in value (rather than beginning at some middle value as they do in the Breese and Dorn games and fluctuating both up and down). The method for manipulating the values in the stock market is also more complicated in Imperial than it is Reef Encounter or Arkadia. Basically the values of the 6 different types of bonds can increase in the market if the nation to which those bonds correspond manages to expand its influence on the map by building factories and controlling territory.

I’ve seen people accuse Imperial of essentially having player elimination because players may go for long periods of time during the game without controlling any countries. However, I dispute this notion because players have to remember that the value of their investments can still rise while someone else is controlling the country or countries they’ve invested in, as long as the controlling individual manages it well and isn’t shy about conquering and crushing their neighbors. Just because you don’t get decide what actions any of the countries take doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be involved in the negotiations. Dive right in to the wheeling and dealing. You should feel free to kibitz your way to victory in Imperial. Alternatively, feel free to play with only 3 or 4 players, not the 5 or 6 that the publisher claims the game can support. Based on my 9 times playing Imperial, I prefer playing with 4 players, although 3 or 5 works too. The notion that the game also plays with 2 or 6 players seems far-fetched to me, and the latter may be responsible for any feelings that there is essentially player elimination in this German game.

I enjoy Reef Encounter, Arkadia, and Imperial all very much (and actually include all three in my Top 30), but I’m not a fan of every stock market game. It’s time for the two that I promised at the beginning I’d discuss not liking. I’ll provide the same disclaimer I did at the beginning, which is to say that plenty of people enjoy these next two games and I don’t mean to claim that either of them are bad games necessarily, but rather that they’re not for me. Hopefully I will be able to give you enough details about them so that you can decide for yourself whether you’d like to try them.

First, we’ll get the elephant in the room out of the way. One of the forefathers of the stock market game genre, if not the forefather of the genre, is certainly Sid Sackson’s classic Acquire, originally published in 1962 by 3M (way back when they were known for more than just post-it notes). However, while I respect the incredible influence that Acquire has had on the development of modern board games, and I’m happy to have played it 6 times, I am fairly certain that I never want to play it again. I analogize it to my appreciation and respect for the music of Mozart or Beethoven, but my lack of any desire to listen to their music. Similarly, I appreciate and respect classic games like Acquire (and Chess for example), but don’t have any desire to play them any more. I suppose I have two major problems with Acquire. First, if you're not involved in the first or second merger, you’re going to face a serious uphill battle for the rest of the game. You need your company to go defunct quickly to get a majority or minority bonus right away, otherwise catching up seems like a far-fetched proposition since you need operating capital in the early game to get a lead in shares to secure a majority or at least second-place minority position in the promising companies. Second, more often than not, all 6 of the tiles you're holding don't do anything at all, and you can't help but place one of them completely randomly because none of them add to an existing corporation, join corporations, or present the possibility of forming a corporation; they're just off in the middle of nowhere. This is particularly true in the first half of the game. I have never understood what people see in this game. It's alright, but I feel like I must be missing something… perhaps nostalgia.

Second, the number one game that I was anticipating in the lead up to Essen 2006 was Gheos, designed by René Wiersma. After having read the rules to Gheos, I was expecting it to be my favorite game out of that new crop. Turns out I don’t know myself nearly as well as I thought since Imperial, Notre Dame, and Arkadia far surpassed Gheos in my estimation in the end. Based on the rules, Gheos sounded like a wonderful mix of the tile-laying from Carcassonne, the civilization building from Tigris & Euphrates (where players are not each assigned a color but rather everyone plays as all colors during the game), and the timing mechanic from Ra. It was a match made in heaven since those are all games I love. I was so willing to give Gheos a chance that I actually played it 14 times before eventually trading it away. In practice the game just doesn’t seem to work. The rules seemed great, but the game itself didn’t live up to my hopes. The problems with the game are difficult to describe, but basically it’s too chaotic and too difficult to come back from a deficit. The first problem is that it’s too chaotic because players can either play a new tile to expand the landscape or play a new tile to replace an existing tile. While you have to pay sometimes when replacing, there are many times when you can replace without paying, and the cost isn’t very large anyway, so the land masses are constantly shifting and rarely growing. This makes the lifespan of each civilization much shorter than in Tigris & Euphrates because they merge and split much more frequently in Gheos and have less of an opportunity to grow and flourish. The second problem is that it’s very difficult to catch up once you fall behind because the leader can simply take followers in the same civilizations and match the person they’re beating stride for stride to make sure the gap can’t be closed. The limited number of followers available in each civilization is a neat idea, but in practice it means the players, especially in a two-player game, won’t be able to differentiate themselves significantly if one player is trying to prevent that from happening. Finally, I have to say that the artwork is very distracting with all of the grain, sword, cup, temple, and pyramid symbols strewn across the landscape making it very difficult to read the map at a glance.

What makes this game where players are deities creating the Earth’s landscape on a blank canvas secretly a stock market game? It turns out that the followers people are collecting are effectively shares in a corporation and the civilizations are basically corporations whose value are based on the number of cup symbols on the tiles making up that civilization/corporation. Just like in Carcassonne, Gheos is a game without a board where the map begins simply with a single starting tile. Players have a hand of two tiles and on their turn choose one and add it to the map so that the landscape slowly grows. In addition, after placing a tile, players must choose between either founding a new civilization or taking a follower in an existing civilization. Finally, players have the option at the end of their turn of cashing in one of their three scoring tokens in order to take victory points based on their current status. The number of victory points is calculated by multiplying each follower that the player has by the number of cup symbols on the tiles making up the corresponding civilization. This feature of allowing players to decide when to score provides the same sort of interesting and difficult decisions as Dorn’s Arkadia discussed above (although players don’t cash out their stocks in Gheos, but rather they simply gain their value in victory points and hold onto their portfolio, unlike Arkadia where players have to turn in any stocks for which they want to take the value in victory points). In fact, this decision in Gheos of when to score is even more agonizing because unlike Arkadia where the timeline for the game is fixed at the completion of 20 buildings, the timeline in Gheos is harder to predict. The timing is reminiscent of Ra because Gheos ends after a specified number of Epoch tiles are drawn depending on the number of players, just like the way in which a round of Ra can end when a specified number of Ra tiles are drawn depending on the number of players. This creates a lot of fun tension as the pace of the game can seem to speed up or slow down depending on the rate at which these clock tiles are drawn. In the end, Gheos is a game with a lot of great ideas and mechanics but not a game that I feel works for me when all of those interesting ideas are ultimately put together because of the reasons discussed above.

Those are some of the bulls and bears of gaming. So if you’re sick of gambling on the topsy-turvy real stock market, then maybe it’s time to give stock market board games a try. There’s a wide range of options within the genre so there is likely something for everyone, whether you want to be anything from a parrotfish on a coral reef to a European Great Power. Your cloth merchant seal investments may turn out to be a bust and put your architect in the poor house, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the wild ride these games provide.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)