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Subject: A Merry Trip to the Fiscal Cliff rss

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Michael C
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Overview:

Ponzi Scheme is superb. It has the spirit of a shark, bloodthirsty & pitiless, that dies once it stops moving. You start off with nothing, and things go downhill from there. Ponzi Scheme presents an excellent study of game design by wedding the razor-sharp margins of economic & auction games to the more rogueish atmosphere of brinkmanship you’d expect from games heavier on player interaction and bluffing. If either half of that formulation sounds appealing to you, it’s worth a try, though perhaps not a buy*

*If hidden cash totals bother you, you might also be bothered by the clandestine underbelly of this phenomenal game. Swallow your reservations and try it anyway. Don't buy it sight unseen or unplayed, though.

Gameplay:

The game is played over turns that are split into phases, with each player clockwise going through the steps of each phase. Players pick Industry Tiles in one of four categories (Media, Real Estate, Transportation, and Grain) and select a Funding Card of an appropriate row (if you take the nth Tile of a type you must pick a card from that row). Each funding card give a much-needed cash injection and then goes on the respective player’s wheel o’ doom, used to track each card’s inevitable repayment schedule. So, if you grab a “17,” you will receive $17, but receive alongside the obligation to pay $11 every 3 turns of the wheel. Each card’s interest rate is politely displayed in tiny text, the better to understate the usury a player has to stomach. Fund Cards are sorted into the three rows based on number (lowest to highest), with the higher numbers commanding increasingly worse interest rates. The cards with a blue background are starter cards with more genteel rates. The Funding Board is constantly re-filled and re-sorted as cards are removed during play.



The game ends when any player (or players) cannot make a payment as scheduled on his or her wheel, with the non-bankrupted players counting their point totals to determine a winner. A stack of industry tiles is worth the triangular number of its members: that is, three Media tiles are worth 3+2+1, or 6. Five Transportation tiles are worth 5+4+3+2+1, or 15 (Players do this for each tile category, total their points, with the greatest sum winning). Leftover cash can be converted to Luxury Goods at a comparatively more inefficient rate.



The meat of the game is in the series of secret deals. Player A volitionally picks a player who has an Industry Tile type in common, names such a type (say, “Media”) and stuffs the envelope with an offer. ($16). Player B either accepts, and sells his tile to Player A for that price, or adds exactly that much cash to the envelope and returns it, thereby buying Player A’s tile. The price for these deals, then, is always symmetric as set by the instigator, which might trick you into thinking the exchanges are even-handed. Hardly. Players negotiate from uneven points of strength, with varying cash reserves and tile stacks (& therefore point values). Most importantly, once a deal begins, tiles must exchange hands one way or another.

There are also the roseate Bear cards, which can trigger a market crash, disastrous for all players but not equally so. If at the turn’s conclusion there are a number of Bear Cards on the market equal to or greater than the number of players, the market crashes. Players must return an Industry Tile from their most numerous type, and the wheel moves twice, instead of once. Certain actions make these crashes more or less likely, which adds to the aforementioned element of brinksmanship.

Production:

Exceptional, that is, to a fault. The game feels more like the limited run of a deluxe edition of a classic; the reality being the exact opposite. (i.e. A new, meritorious game that piques many interested parties but is nigh impossible to get ahold of). My favorites are the leather-finish wallet for deals, the cardboard fountain pen for the first player, and the finely embossed paper money. Most people reading this review probably care, like I first did, for the game’s innovative ideas more than its lavish trappings, but, hey, it’s got those too. Takes up quite a bit of space on the table. I hope a new version appears with a smaller, more steamlined set of components to better match the perfect tautness of the gameplay.



Strategy:

The crux of the game is the elemental, if volatile, tradeoff between the two resources (industry tiles and money). Figuring out what counts as a good deal is very difficult, even for veterans of economic games. I believe this core question is so labile as to be fundamentally insoluble (Or, to summarize, "It Depends".) All this just to say Ponzi Scheme is a truly great social economic game.

I will say that this game makes it easy to exploit the naivete of callow players. The best warning to give new players on their first playthrough would be to say “most games end in about eight to ten turns,” (give or take even beyond this range, I think) and to advise them to plan accordingly.

I’ve barely begun to sound out the strategic variety of this game, but in general, one can sort the schools of thought into two camps, the Hedgehogs and the Foxes. Hedgehogs, I confess, garner much of my sympathy with their straightforward, stodgy ground rules, seeking to minimize financial risk and making conservative deals to gradually advance their position. The Foxes, by contrast will fluctuate in their approach more speculatively, occasionally taking patently horrible funding tiles in order to leverage the huge (likely temporary) influx of cash and points into a dominant negotiating position for the imminent endgame. Foxes are less perturbed by the chaotic nature of Ponzi Scheme. These characters are, of course, extremist colorings of a graduated pattern of behavior along which most players will slide.

I am slightly concerned that the more reserved approach is superior but need more playtests to be sure. Two risk-loving players will fast oustrip other players but must try to ensure the other one bankrupts first, while guarding their points. Also, in what circumstances would a player opt to skip their Funding or Secret Deal phase?

This Reminds Me Of:

Modern Art (its finely wound, spare core elements), High Society (the poorest player cannot win), Neue Heimat (its frisson of cruelty) and Sheriff of Nottingham (intense, two-way negotation).
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Michael C
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Hi, I've been a lurker on BGG for most of the year, and this review is my first foray into a wider communal participation. So feedback would really be helpful for me as I start producing more reviews.
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Carl Johan Ragnarsson
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Overall a nice review, but I was left a bit in the dark around why the game is interesting, what the exact game-play mechanisms are and why the deals you are describing are difficult. Those are the things I'm interested in learning about in a review.

You compare it to Modern Art, but from your description, it sounds a bit like High Society or other games where the game end condition is adding a push your luck and bluffing element to the game, and there is not that much control in the hands of the players.
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Michael C
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On early plays, it might feel like a 'push your luck' type game where you don't know when the floor will fall out from under you, but once you get a few plays under your belt, you won't be unnerved by the game's pacing. It's very idiosyncratic, but players have tons of opportunity to steer the speed & urgency of play through two mechanisms, namely their choice of Funding Cards (bigger ones will trigger the endgame much faster) and the Start Player's ability to discard one card from the board upon receive the fountain pen.

Low money totals are doubly a position of weakness, because of possible bankruptcy and negotiation. For example, if someone offers you $30 for your 5th tile, you might have $52, but need $25 to pay loans later that turn, so you can't refuse the deal. The lategame is rife with these fine margins. The bluffing mainly consists of whether you'd prefer to buy or sell when setting the terms of a deal because deals that backfire set you back quite a lot.

I know my writing was very involved and yet also vague, because it is so very difficult to assess the basic value of tiles in this game. I'd love to see someone with a stronger math background or more play experience have a crack at it.
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Nathan Emch
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Michael C -- Welcome to the community!

I actually quite enjoyed your review, and found it to be very informative in its own way. While you may not have expanded too much on the technical minutiae of the game, you explained the basics well enough that I have a decent enough generalized picture in my mind of how the game works from a mechanical standpoint.

More importantly, however, you did an excellent job conveying the overall emotional tone and player interactivity level of the game. To me, your review speaks volumes as to the true nature of the game itself - and makes me want to try it out with all my crafty boardgaming friends!
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David Debien
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Anonymousful wrote:






If you build the loan offers in a snake fashion, rather than from left to right on each row, it makes adjusting the loan market easier when new loans are added to the game. Essentially, just load the middle row from right to left in terms of lowest to highest.

Thanks for the review!
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Marguerite Cottrell
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Having played this game a number of times now, the feeling of your review is spot on.

Not having to explain rules in a heavy-handed manner is just fine... that's what rulebooks are for.

Comparing this game to others is rather difficult as the info you glean when someone passes you an envelope is only going to help you in that one group, possibly in that one game. The relative value of a tile from game to game jumps significantly based on what loans are taken and in what order.

Player count matters a lot. the number of market crashes in a three player game is bonkers, so mentioning the flux between these games may have been helpful in explaining your enjoyment of the game (we've found 4 to be perfection, 3 to be crash-heavy silly games, and five can leave players too long without trades)


nice work and i hope you continue reviewing when the feeling hits you.


EDIT i also LOVE your hedgehogs and foxes example. We have 2 regular foxes in most of our games, and they win a chunk of the time. it's really about suppressing a player that tries to pull ahead.

Question for you: Do you play with money bonus' or luxury items? We usually play with luxury items and industry tiles for points only.
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Michael C
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If anyone is new to the game, we do the normal version where leftover money passively adds to your score, but the advanced variant really is so much more exciting and interesting that it should be used as often as possible. (I think of it as taking the training wheels off) It makes money even scarcer, though, so I don't use it if anyone's new, and since this is a young game, that's unfortunately been most games.

I haven't played with three yet, I imagine it could get quite claustrophobic.
 
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Brad Keusch
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Nice review, and welcome to the active community!

Now, does anyone have ANY idea how to get a copy of this game? There was a single copy at bgg.con that was literally being used 100% of the con, and the company's website is just a facebook page.
 
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David Debien
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anatana wrote:
Nice review, and welcome to the active community!

Now, does anyone have ANY idea how to get a copy of this game? There was a single copy at bgg.con that was literally being used 100% of the con, and the company's website is just a facebook page.


There were a few copies left in Taiwan. The designer's email address was given out and a few poeple reached out secured the remaining copies in a direct purchase from him (me included). My copy isn't quite here yet, but the tracking # has it in the US, so I may get it by X-mas (crossing fingers).
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Pas L
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Anonymousful wrote:
Each funding card give a much-needed cash injection and then goes on the respective player’s wheel o’ doom, used to track each card’s inevitable repayment schedule. So, if you grab a “17,” you will receive $17, but receive alongside the obligation to pay $11 every 3 turns of the wheel. Each card’s interest rate is politely displayed in tiny text, the better to understate the usury a player has to stomach. Fund Cards are sorted into the three rows based on number (lowest to highest), with the higher numbers commanding increasingly worse interest rates. The cards with a blue background are starter cards with more genteel rates. The Funding Board is constantly re-filled and re-sorted as cards are removed during play.



I don't follow here? It looks like the higher values have lower interest rates?

Edit: Nevermind, found it explained elsewhere. The payment schedule is variable by card, got it.
 
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