While a colorful board and some nifty components can disguise a fairly abstract board game, theming simple card games is tough. Perhaps in recognition of this, some designers give their card games absurd themes (bean farming, anyone?), while others just pick an interesting premise and slap it on ("you're, uh, archaeologists, yeah, searching for Lost Cities...". Still, every once in a while a designer cooks up a simple card game and actually finds a theme that suits it pretty well. Such is the case with Dirk Henn's "Showmanager".
I usually describe Showmanager as "rummy-like" to new players, although that's not entirely accurate. You do, however, draw cards and attempt to makes sets -- in this instance the sets are the casts for four musicals: Wolf (which requires three actors), Queenie (which has four roles), King Lear (five roles) and Ballet (six roles). Each card in the deck shows an actor, and while any actor can be used for any role most are "suited" for specific parts. The actors all have nine points of talent, which can be divided amongst two or three roles or all go into a single role. The actor "Ladwig Laber", for example, has a a 5 for the role of Martin in Ballet and a 4 for the role of Sir Wuff in Wolf. "Hermine van Rent", meanwhile, is only suited for one role (Zofe, in King Lear), but has a 9 for that part.
On a turn, a player either hires an actor or puts on a show. Four actors are always available for hire: the first is free, the second costs $1000, the third $2000 and the fourth $3000. To hire an actor just pay the price and take the desired card into your hand. The actors that were "above" the taken card slide down to fill the void (so if you took the second actor, the third and four actor shift downward) and a new card is drawn for the $3000 slot. To put on a show, you play, from your hand, one Actor for each of the roles in the show: if you were putting on Wolf, for example, you would need an actor for the roles of Wolf, Bella and Sir Wuff. Ideally each actor will be suited for the role he is cast in; if none of his talent points are allotted towards his role, however, he is considered "miscast" and has a value of 0. The overall value of the show is the total of all the actors in their respective roles, plus some bonus points if no actors are miscast.
Scores are recorded on a small board which shows five cities. Each of the five cities with it's own unique scoring scale, with slots for the shows that will be put on in that town. New York, for example, awards 22 points to whomever has the best show in town but 0 points to the person with the worst. On the other end of the spectrum is Troisdorf, which gives a modest 14 points to the person with the best show but still awards 4 points to the person with the worst. If the player is the first to put on a given show, he gets to decide what city it will open in. Deciding where to open your show is relatively easy: if you think your show is going to be the best of the bunch, put it in New York or another city on that end; if you think your musical is going to bomb, stick it in Troisdorf and at least reap a few points for your effort. When a new show opens in a town, all the previous shows are reranked with the highest-rated show always in the first spot followed by the rest in descending order. The trick is that once a show opens in a particular town, all showings of that same musical must open in the same town. (This doesn't make a whit of sense from a thematic standpoint, but oh well.) So if I open Wolf in Hamburg, that's where you are going to have to put Wolf as well. At the end of the game, each player will receive points in accordance to where they shows are ranked in each city.
That's pretty much it, although there are two other actions a player can take on a turn which really liven things up. First, he can take out a loan (although "loan" isn't really the right word, since the player never pays back the money). To do so, he picks one of the shows he has already put on, takes this show off the scoring board, subtracts up to 10 points from the show's rating and then puts it back in the hosting city (reranking the shows in that city to reflect the altered show's new value). Then, for every point the player removed from the show's value, he takes $1000 from the bank. So if I had a show ranked at 36, I could drop it's value down to 31 and receive $5000. Most players will have to do this at least once, since money is spent freely and this is the only way to get more.
The final action you can take is to fire all the available actors. You can do this before you hire an actor or put on a show, and you can do it as many times as you like. To do so, pay $2000 to the bank, discard the four faceup actors and deal out four more to fill the vacancies. Of course no one wants to fork over $2000 in cash if they can help it, so if you don't like the Actors available you may just want to try and convince the players before you to spend their money and do it for you. "Clear the board! Clear the board!" goes the chant in most Showmanager games I play.
If all this seems like a lot of rules to you -- well, you're right: it does seem like a lot of rules. But, really, this is what you are doing on your turn: drawing a card or making a meld. Yes it has a somewhat convoluted scoring system, and yes the "loan" and the "fire the actors" rules do throw a wrench into the works, but actual play is about as simple as can be. Which isn't to say that playing well is easy. Much of the game comes down to shrewd money management: knowing when to fork over the big bucks for an actor, when to take the freebie to conserve funds, when it's worth $2000 for a new set of cards and when to plunder a show (and for how much) to keep your finances afloat. And yet despite the fact that money is often the key to success, you never feel like you are bogged down in bookkeeping. There is so little number-crunching that it's easy to forget that you are, to some extent, playing a resource-management game -- and that's the way it should be in a game this light.
One rather grueling rule states that, after you put on a show and discard the used actors, you can hold no more than two cards in your hand. Because of this stipulation players pretty much have to concentrate on one show at a time. But if you are working on one show and a particularly attractive Actor for a different show arrives in the Talent Agency, it's tough not to spring for him, intending to "carry him over" to your next production. That's where you've got to be careful: if your hand gets cluttered with Actors for your next show, you may not wind up with enough thespians for your current show and have to make do with some miscasts.
I like Showmanager, but it often seems to go a little longer than I'd like. The first time folks play they often take a while learning all the complexities of the game -- which is to say that it takes folks a while to realize that there are no complexities, really. When playing with experienced players the game moves at a much more reasonable speed, although a single soul who isn't paying attention can slow things down for everyone. I usually pull out Showmanager when I feel like playing a card game, but still want something with a little more kick than, say, Rage! or Schnappchen Jagd. And you can roleplay for added entertainment: when you put on a really atrocious production of King Leer, be sure to act out some key scenes and give your opponent's some idea of why it was such a critical failure.
Despite all the trappings, Showmanager is essentially a simple game that's fun to play. And that's all that really matters. As they say, the play is the thing.
S W E E T !
A very nice summary of the game. If I was learning it all over again, I'd hope someone would show me this article first.
We never say "Clear the board!" Our chant is "flip 'em! flip 'em! flip 'em."