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Subject: A million in hopes, but two fitty in cash - A review of Ponzi Scheme rss

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David Debien
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Intro

Similar to Charles Ponzi who arrived in America with "$2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes", players start Ponzi Scheme with no cash, but big dreams. Specifically, that hope is to not crash and burn first. That's good enough though, isn't it? In fact, it's what makes the game brilliant and that desire to hold on just long enough, white knuckling it all the way, colors everything about this wonderfully tense little game. The sense of foreboding doom while outwardly projecting a calm confidence to the other players that your finances are completely in order are at the core of what makes Ponzi Scheme such a devilishly clever game.

I first discovered Ponzi Scheme browsing new games here on BGG in advance of attending BGG.CON in November of 2015. After hearing a little about the game, a highly inter active speculation game in which the LOANS WILL CRUSH YOU, I was intrigued. Upon arrival at the con, I quickly found out two things:

1: The game was in high demand and was getting solid buzz.
2: There was only one copy in the library for the entire convention.

After 3 days of unsuccessfully grabbing it in the library, I was delighted to find out that they had moved the single copy into the Hot Games area, where I was able to get it played 3 times in 2 days.

After the con, I discovered that the game was no easier to acquire than it was to play at the convention. Fortunately, I was able to make contact with Jesse Li, the designer, via BGG and purchase a copy directly from him. With luck, Ponzi Scheme will be re-published and see wider availability soon so that more people can enjoy this great game.

Components

Simply put, Ponzi Scheme is lavishly produced. The tokens are extra thick cardboard. There is a, completely unnecessary but entirely appreciated, wooden money block for storing the very nice paper money. I know a lot of gamers shun paper money, myself included, eschewing it in favor of chips.

In the case of Ponzi Scheme, however, paper money is the best solution for a game mechanism in which players pass around secret offers in a very handy leatherette wallet provided for that purpose. In the first game played the money will stick together a bit, but by the second game, they will be quite easy to separate. In addition, the paper is of very high quality and will endure more abuse than most legal tender I have had the pleasure to have pass through my hands.

Oddly, the loan cards themselves seem to be the most cheaply produced component, but since they don't get handled a whole lot, are completely serviceable. Please don't get me wrong, when I say the cards are "cheaply produced" they are easily equal to cards in any other game. It is just that standing them beside the rest of the game's lavish production they stand out a bit.

Theme or How Does It Feel?

Players represent scammers who take investment/loans, with the promise of outrageous returns (18% and up...way way up). These investments are supposedly, but not really, invested in industries. Players then engage in the buying and selling of these "industries" with each other in a sort of multi player shell game which really makes the game.

The Dreaded Loan Wheel. Image by Pallas Debien



Soon enough the "investors" demand their promised returns and eventually some or all of the players will be unable to pay the itnerest at which time their pyramid scams will be revealed for what they are and they will be hauled off to jail (i.e. immediately lose the game).

After the dust settles, any players who haven't gone bust will compare their erstwhile worthless industries and the player with the most "valuable" portfolio, plus a few paltry points for remaining cash, will be declared "winner".

I must say, Ponzi Scheme brilliantly captures the desperation that must be going on behind closed doors in the final hours of a Ponzi Scheme as the operators attempt to secure larger investments, usually at ridiculously high promised returns, while also pawning off their worthless and under performing stock to unsuspecting rubes, aka the other players.

A solid poker face is a must in this game as THE KEY to victory is to determine who will go out and WHEN, in order to plan to hang on no more than 1 turn after that other person. A will of steel and an outwardly calm face in the face of mountainous, ruinous and most importantly IMMINENT interest rate payments is crucial in throwing off the timing of your opponents.

Weakness will be ruthlessly exploited. If your opponents smell an inability to pay off your interest, they will make laughably low offers on your industries, which you will be forced to accept in a vain attempt to keep your scheme running one more turn. On the other hand, if they sense you have a strong position, then they will have to make much higher bids on your industries, or better yet, leave you alone altogether.

The fact is, everyone is doomed in Ponzi Scheme. The goal is simply to not be the first person to go out. Ultimately, and this is BEST PART, the person who survives the first wipe out with the largest pile of debt is likely have the most valuable industries and thus be called winner. In this way, the goal oddly enough, is to run the second worst Ponzi Scheme from the perspective of long term survival. Of course, several, or even all, player can wipe out simultaneously, throwing off this simple concept. Simply delicious.

Image by Chasseur d'Ours



Rules or How the Hell does this all work?

The rules to the game are simple and straight forward. Each round is broken up into 2 simple actions which players take in turn order. First, players take a single loan and receive an industry and some cash. The loans are then placed on a personal wind-rose of sorts, which will be rotated one tick once per round. When the current round marker on the wind-rose lines up with an investment, the player must pay the interest amount listed on the loan(s), after which each paid loan is moved to its new spot on the wind-rose either 3, 4 or 5 rounds into the future, to be paid again later when the time comes. Note that loans are never paid off!

Once everyone has taken a loan and received cash and an industry tile (note that passing is allowed, but I have never seen passing work out well), the round moves to the second phase, in which each player, in turn order, will make a single SECRET offer of cash to another player for an industry tile both players share in common. The player receiving the offer must either sell the tile in question, or offer to buy the similar tile of the offering player for the amount offered. Note that these offers are made in secret using a leatherette wallet included in the game. In this way, the otherwise trackable information of HOW MUCH MONEY DOES EVERYONE HAVE quickly disappears into a hazy murk of uncertainty.

Once this second phase is finished, everyone turns their wind-rose one tick, pays interest and, assuming no one goes out of business, play continues as above.

Note I have glossed a few details in regards to the replacement of loan/investment cards and a nice rule that can cause a market crash, thus forcing the round end time tick to be double, potentially causing players to have to pay far more interest than they otherwise bargained for in the current turn. To add insult to injury, during a market crash, everyone must loose one industry tile from among their most valuable industry - the type of which they have the most.

Eventually, as I have mentioned a time or three, someone or someones(or everyone!) will go bust. The surviving players score their remaining industries and get a few points for leftover cash. For each industry type a player has, they receive a score of 1, 3, 6, 10, etc for having 1, 2, 3, 4 or more of that type. But wait, you say, the loans only went to level 3, how can one have more than 3 of any type of industry? That is where clever buying and selling during the clandestine trading phase comes in!

Image by Chasseur d'Ours



Is It Fun?

If you enjoy highly interactive tense games of bluffing and negotiation, then yes this game is a hell of a lot of fun. If you do not enjoy games played more in the heads of the players then on a board on the table, then Ponzi Scheme is not the game for you.

If you prefer deep Euro's involving resource manipulation, victory point scoring, paying off your loans and building an empires to last through the ages, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you love the idea that everyone is taking ruinous loans that will crush you amazingly quickly and the only way to extend your worthless existence is to keep taking more and more progressively ridiculous loans, then pull up a chair!

My group loves making up little stories about the fabulous returns our Agricultural, Mechanical, Financial and Maritime industries are producing for us. All the while, we keep subtly mentioning a pressing need to be off to Argentina soon, where we will be inspecting our vast holdings to make sure they are performing up to par for our distinguished clientele. Of course, any such trip would be made with suitcases full of cash and lacking a return ticket.

Few things have given me more joy in gaming then guessing that a player is going out soon and holding him a tiny ray of hope in the form of an insultingly low offer on one of his best industries because at this time, money is king baby and industries, after all, are only worth points if you don't go bankrupt. I get a perverse joy in watching the frustrated mix of emotions play over their faces as they weigh the pros and cons of either accepting my offer or turn it around on me, thus digging a deeper financial hole for themselves. The best part is when the person you just mugged high fives you and talks about how good the trade was for both of you, in order to not give anything away to the rest of the table. Of course, you can expect to be on both sides of this coin, sometimes minutes apart. Priceless.


The Four Industries. Image by Pallas Debien



Number of Players and Time to Play

Sadly, Ponzi Scheme does not work with 2 players and I cannot fathom a variant that would fix this. While 3 players would work, I have not tried it nor do I intend to do so. Fortunately, the game is equally good with 4 or 5 players. The listed play time of 90 minutes is probably accurate for 4 or 5 players quite familiar with the game and willing to make snappy decisions in favor of setting a brisk pace. Allow for 2 to 2.5 hours for a first play.

I think here is as good a place to talk about analysis paralysis issues. Valuing the industries during the clandestine trading phase is almost impossible. Everything is positional. If the player making the offer has plenty of cash and few interest payments coming due soon, that allows them to make high offers on tiles they want. On the other hand, if you have 100 in cash and your interest coming due in the current round is 101, a $1 offer for your best tile is a deal you will be likely to accept. Also, industry tiles come and go disconcertingly quickly. So, amassing a large stock of tiles in the early game, spending large amounts for them, is not likely to win you the game as you will find yourself selling them off at bargain basement prices later in order to stay alive. All this to say, encourage players to set values on the tiles based on what they can afford and what they think their target can't afford to not take. Alternatively, an offer to buy a tile can actually be considered an offer to sell, in which case, set the price at the strategic amount YOU need right now and hope the target buys instead of sells. Crunching the numbers every time it is time to make an offer or consider one made to you is a fools game. Worse, it bogs the game down horribly and the fun gets sucked out quickly.

Interaction

Player interaction is at the heart of every action in Ponzi Scheme. The one time players interact directly with the game and not with each other is when they take a loan and pick an industry. The industry they pick will depend on who has what industries already, thus picking future trading partners. The clandestine trading phase is pure interaction. Few modern Euros achieve this level of interaction.

Image by Chasseur d'Ours



Fiddliness

There are relatively few components in Ponzi Scheme. The only thing approaching fiddly in Ponzi Scheme are the loans which must be tracked around the timing wheel (image above). Each round the wheel is turned and interest must be paid on any loans coming due. These loans are then moved to their new spot on the wheel, to be paid again at a future time. The game provides a genius marking card that keeps track of where everyone should be on the timing track on any particular turn.

Luck

The only source of randomness in the game is the order in which the loan/investment cards appear. This can have a minor affect on the players as they select loans and occasionally it can result in a player receiving a poor choice set. Also, the loan cards determine when a market crash happens and this can certainly have a strong impact on the game. That said, players have a lot of control over when a market crash happens and at any given time, some players will desire a market crash while some others will do everything in their power to make sure it does not happen.

Replay Value

After a few plays, it becomes apparent that each game follows a similar arc. In the early game, the pressure to pay loans is not yet intense, and so everyone takes the lowest loans available, grabs an industry tile and tries to find that sweet spot during clandestine trading to grab some extra industries. In the mid game, those who have done well acquiring industries are likely to have less cash and larger debt, so they become targets during clandestine trading. If these players make shrewd decisions, they can balance out their positions and keep the industries that make the most sense, while turning the others into cash.

So, does this similar progress of each game spoil the long term replay value? I don't really know at this point, but after a half dozen plays I would say that it does not. This is mainly due to the highly interactive nature of the game. Time will tell, but so far Ponzi Scheme continues to get plenty of requests and no one seems to be tiring of it at this time.

Conclusion

Ponzi Scheme is a highly interactive game, recommended by this reviewer for 4-5 players. A deep sense of desperation permeates this bluffing and negotiation game, where position matters more than anything else. Unlike most modern Euros in which players build engines and money is only a tool to get where the players need to go, in Ponzi Scheme, money is the tool of everyone's destruction and not even the winners will build anything that would survive a turn or two beyond the end of the game. The goal is simply to not go out first, and then to have built the largest empire of worthless industries at game end.

If the idea of trying to survive as long as possible, engineering someone else's destruction a turn in advance of your own, is your idea of fun, then this game of negotiations and bluffing is likely for you.

The rules are light, the rule-book does a fine job conveying the few rules and the components are stellar. The advertised play time of 60-90 minutes is a bit on the hopeful side. While this reviewer has been in games that play in under 90 minutes, players new to the game should anticipate 2 hours for the first game, and strongly discourage players from over analyzing the game state as it will avail them very little.

While there are a couple vectors of randomness, Ponzi Scheme should be considered a very low luck game and the players who do the best job of exploiting both their and other players positions should come out ahead in the end.

Despite its somewhat depressing theme and sense of doom along the way, Ponzi Scheme is quite a fun game as everyone tries to out think their opponents. Some role playing is strongly encouraged. After all, everyone is supposedly playing a confidence man and displaying an outward calm and supreme confidence in the face of oncoming and certain disaster is what makes this game such a charm to play.

My rating of Ponzi Scheme: 9 out of 10
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Tom Flatt
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Re: A million in hopes, but two fitty in cash a review of Ponzi Scheme
Excellent review! I, too, have had my eye on this title since I first heard of it. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have made any sort of appearance north of the border yet! Hopefully sometime soon!

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Michael C
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That bit about deep Euros rings a little false to me, because I think quite a few of us possessed by the min-maxing mindset love Ponzi Scheme once you accept how strange a system it is to try to assert your control over. (Not very random, nor opaque, but still somewhat intractable)

You've captured the motive force behind play & what it feels like on the table, and I think that given the chance it'll win over people from both sides of the aisle, as it were. (No need to cut the baby and try to genre-split things overmuch).
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Chien-Tsun Chen
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Nice review! Thanks!
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Martin G
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Now if only I could get a copy. Great review!
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Brad Keusch
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Was flirting with this one in an auction recently. Very much want to play but was also concerned about its staying power. Glad to hear you think it has some.
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David Debien
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Anonymousful wrote:
That bit about deep Euros rings a little false to me, because I think quite a few of us possessed by the min-maxing mindset love Ponzi Scheme once you accept how strange a system it is to try to assert your control over. (Not very random, nor opaque, but still somewhat intractable)

You've captured the motive force behind play & what it feels like on the table, and I think that given the chance it'll win over people from both sides of the aisle, as it were. (No need to cut the baby and try to genre-split things overmuch).


That is why I put in my own caveat, "on the other hand":

If you prefer deep Euro's involving resource manipulation, victory point scoring, paying off your loans and building an empires to last through the ages, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you love the idea that everyone is taking ruinous loans that will crush you amazingly quickly and the only way to extend your worthless existence is to keep taking more and more progressively ridiculous loans, then pull up a chair!

Apologies for the style. Most of my reviews do this, and I completely understand that a person can enjoy both kinds of games. I know this black and white way of thinking abut gamers is not completely accurate. I just like to point out why someone may not like the game I am reviewing, even though I clearly enjoy it a lot.

Thanks for the reading and commenting!
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Jo Bartok
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smoox wrote:
Nice review! Thanks!


Will you be at Essen Spiel 16 again.
I considered to buy the game but could only playtest it for short and had to leave cause it was late in the day and the halls were closing.

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Chien-Tsun Chen
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ionas wrote:
smoox wrote:
Nice review! Thanks!


Will you be at Essen Spiel 16 again.
I considered to buy the game but could only playtest it for short and had to leave cause it was late in the day and the halls were closing.


Yes, TBD will be at Essen Spiel 16 for sure. But Ponzi Scheme will probably not be there again. Good news is that it has been licensed to an US publisher and will be release in... maybe late Q2 or Q3. No solid plan now.

Btw, I have one extra copy, if you hate to wait for the new release...
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UA Darth
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Can you go into more detail about how luck is involved in the market crashes? Is it like Ra, where it is almost a push your luck element and you won't know for sure when it comes out?
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David Debien
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shadow9d9 wrote:
Can you go into more detail about how luck is involved in the market crashes? Is it like Ra, where it is almost a push your luck element and you won't know for sure when it comes out?


About a third, or maybe a fourth, of the loan cards have a bear symbol on them. AS loans are taken by players, new loan cards are added to the 3x3 grid. At the end of the clandestine trading phase, the new start player removes one loan card and a new card replaces it. At this time, if there are as many bear cards as players, then there is a market crash.

Now, players can control the rate of market crashes by:

1: Taking the bear loans when it is their turn to take a loan, thus removing them from the market...or not.
2: The new start player can remove a bear card as his 1 free card he can remove...or not.

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UA Darth
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casualgod wrote:
shadow9d9 wrote:
Can you go into more detail about how luck is involved in the market crashes? Is it like Ra, where it is almost a push your luck element and you won't know for sure when it comes out?


About a third, or maybe a fourth, of the loan cards have a bear symbol on them. AS loans are taken by players, new loan cards are added to the 3x3 grid. At the end of the clandestine trading phase, the new start player removes one loan card and a new card replaces it. At this time, if there are as many bear cards as players, then there is a market crash.

Now, players can control the rate of market crashes by:

1: Taking the bear loans when it is their turn to take a loan, thus removing them from the market...or not.
2: The new start player can remove a bear card as his 1 free card he can remove...or not.



Great. Thanks for the elaboration! Glad it isn't a random event card drawn.
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Eric Vancza
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I would love to get the extra copy you have
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K
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Well done, David, you've captured well what I love about this game. I've never played another game that puts me so deeply into the mindset of whoever I'm playing as, and this does it with pure mechanics, not gimmicky components. I look forward to more plays and more bankruptcies. I'm sure my investments in Canadian banana plantations will continue to boast unbelievable returns.
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Rebecca Carpenter
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My favorite game published in 2015.
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Dylan Posa
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This sounds great, but any gamer would probably need to keep their regular group in mind. I keep reading about "table-flippers" on forums, and I would think this would frustrate those types. Luckily, our regular group is a pretty rational lot!
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David Debien
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DylanP wrote:
This sounds great, but any gamer would probably need to keep their regular group in mind. I keep reading about "table-flippers" on forums, and I would think this would frustrate those types. Luckily, our regular group is a pretty rational lot!


While Im certainly not a table flipper, I can get frustrated in times while playing certain games. That said, this has never happened to me in Ponzi. The fact is, everyone is in the mess together in this one. We keep the atmosphere light and cheery as we all merrily drive over the fiscal cliff.
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Thank you for highlighting this inventive little gem. How can you resist a game where "everyone is taking ruinous loans that will crush you amazingly quickly and the only way to extend your worthless existence is to keep taking more and more progressively ridiculous loans"? A pity that the game is so difficult to find.

Would you say that the experience of playing Ponzi Scheme is similar to Container? That's another game where the players set the market conditions themselves but which I haven't had the pleasure of playing.
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Martin G
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Quote:
A pity that the game is so difficult to find.


A reprint (by Tasty Minstrel Games) should be on its way later this year.
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Now that's great news, thank you!
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David Debien
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nhjelmberg wrote:
Thank you for highlighting this inventive little gem. How can you resist a game where "everyone is taking ruinous loans that will crush you amazingly quickly and the only way to extend your worthless existence is to keep taking more and more progressively ridiculous loans"? A pity that the game is so difficult to find.

Would you say that the experience of playing Ponzi Scheme is similar to Container? That's another game where the players set the market conditions themselves but which I haven't had the pleasure of playing.


I have played Container twice. There are definitely similar elements in that players are constantly trying to guess how others valuate certain items.
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