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Subject: "Money as a Blunt Object" -- a review and beginner strategy for Acquire. rss

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Teacher Fletcher
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Of all the games that I've been introduced to via BGG since I first joined in 2004, Sid Sackson's game ACQUIRE has been my favorite, and the game with the most staying power.

It's amazing that some numbered tiles, a corresponding board, stock cards and paper money can create this much tension and excitement.

You're never paralyzed with too many options in this game, but the decisions you do have to make at every turn are usually painful. Do you play this tile to bring your company closer to a merger, or that one to start a new chain? Do you buy stocks to increase dominance in one company or branch out into another one? After a merger, do you sell your stocks for liquid cash, hold onto them for future investments, or trade them in for dominance in the safe chain?

This game is a work of genius. In one design, Sackson created the modern tile-laying genre as we know it and invented the concept of majority-control , which is a staple of so many important games.

Let me tell you more about why I like Acquire.

Background

I admit that a lot of what drew me into euro-style games was the eye candy. A certain child-like wonder swelled up in me on seeing the photographs of the pastel camels in THROUGH THE DESERT, the wooden city in MEDINA, or the criss-crossing colorful trains in TICKET TO RIDE. I felt a little like that kid again, watching Saturday morning cartoons and ogling over ads for chrome-plated games like CROSSBOWS & CATAPAULTS and KEY TO THE KINGDOM. I wanted to play games again with that same tactile and visual wonder, but with grown-up strategy and depth under it all.

My reaction to the pictures of ACQUIRE's components were just the opposite. "What a dull looking game!" and "This looks like the kind of thing a teacher would make you play for 'edutainment' in accounting class!"


(Image by Flo711)

And yet, this made me more curious to play the game, not less. I figured there must be something substantive behind ACQUIRE if grown-up geeks rated the experience of staring at a board of black tiles with white lettering as one of the top 50 gaming experiences going. I promptly purchased a secondhand copy of the Avalon Hill edition on eBay.

Now, about that board. It's a 9 x 12 grid, essentially a big Bingo card with the columns marked with the letters A through I down, and the rows marked 1 through 12 across. There are 108 black tiles, and each one is marked to correspond with one slot on the board. (A-7, G-8, H-4, etc.) You throw these tiles into a bag and draw six as your hand.

Sackson's original rules state that the tiles on the board are supposed to represent "hotel chains." Let me tell you that is complete hogwash. They don't look like hotel chains, and it doesn't even make sense, thematically. Do hotels automatically merge companies when they are built adjacent to one another? Uh, no . . . .

Instead, I've always seen the board in ACQUIRE to be an abstract representation of company status and the potential for events in the game.

Let me be more clear. During each player's turn, he has to play one and only one tile. When one tile is placed othogonally adjacent to another already on board, a Company is formed. The player decides which of 7 possible Companies the tile chain will become. A player's "reward" for founding the company is one share of that company's Stock.

The Companies are demarcated in the above photo by the colored chips placed on top of the black ones. The number of tiles directly connected to the Company determine the Company's size. Size determines the Stock price, and the value of the Bonus payouts that may happen.

After a player makes his obligatory tile placement, he has the option to buy up to three Stock of any currently extant company. For pricing, he refers to a small reference card each player has. One Stock of Luxor when it is a 2-tile company may be worth $200, or $300 if the chain becomes a 3-tile Company. One Stock of Continental is worth $400 as a 2-tile company, and $500 when it is a 3-tile company. It's all explained by the reference card.

Merger Bonuses as The Bomb

This is a good point to stop and point something out: ACQUIRE is NOT a stock market simulation! Despite the shared lingo, if you play as one would play the stock market, by simply trying to buy low and sell high, you will lose the game! That's a beginner's mistake... they found a Company, buy up some Stock in it, and then rapidly add more tiles to the Company to try and jack up the stock price. A few turns later, the beginner is flush out of cash with no chance for income, sitting on his hands and wondering why he's wasting his time with such a crappy game.

That's because the key to this game is not inflating stock price, but rather CREATING MERGERS and benefitting from the MERGER BONUSES.

And that's where the second half of my board description comes into play: the board shows you the potential for mergers to happen.

A merger happens when any Company is joined to another Company by a newly-placed tile. The SMALLER of the two companies will be "merged" and disappear from the board, and the LARGER of the two companies will take on the tiles from the smaller company as its own, with the attendant raise in Stock prices. (If both companies are equal size before the merger, the player who places the tile decides which company is merged into which.)

Here's where you start to make big money: the stockholders of the SMALLER company receive Bonus Payouts, according to their Stock holdings in the company. The player with the most Stock (called "Majority Holder", although in reality he's the plurality stockholder since it doesn't matter if he has a majority of available stock) receives the top Bonus, the player with the second most (called "Minority holder" although it should be called second plurality) receives the next bonus (half the amount of the first Bonus), and everyone else receives... no Bonus! The Bonuses start at $1,000 and reach all the way up past $10,000, depending on the company size, so getting or not getting them is a huge deal! (When a chain is size 11 or greater, it is "safe" and can not be merged for the rest of the game.)

It's like the Alec Baldwin speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. "We're having a sales contest. First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado! Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired."

This means that having one extra Stock can mean thousands of extra dollars in your coffers. It's not an incremental change. It's huge! Jonathan Degann in the Games Journal called this concept "The Bomb", writing "What defines the bomb is that a small change in player actions has a disproportionately large effect on rewards. What makes it work is that it creates strategic consequences out of tactical decisions. It turns the effect of your decisions into something greater than the sum of their parts and forces you to focus on broad goals." I agree. The Bonuses are the explosive secret ingredient to ACQUIRE. It is why players will beat and claw over one another just to get that one extra Stock certificate.


Temporary Emergent Alliances and Slipstreaming

I love this term, "temporary emergent alliances", introduced to me by JC Lawrence, and for all I know coined by him. It means that in the course of the game, alliances between players will pop up without any negotiation, wherein it is implicitly beneficial to help one another. Sometimes the best move a player can do to make money for himself ACQUIRE is to help another player make EVEN MORE money. If you have 10 shares in a company and your opponent as 13, and you hold the tile that would merge the company and help you both get a bonus, it is usually correct for you to play that tile. Even though your opponent will take home twice as much money from the merger, you will BOTH be making more money than your 3rd and 4th opponents. Money is everything in this game, so you might as well get in on as many merger payouts as you can.

In fact, I've won games of this without winning any Majority Shareholder bonuses, but by winning many Minority Shareholder Bonuses in companies with all 3 of my opponents. They won bigger bonuses in fewer deals, in the process letting me make smaller bonuses in many deals. With so much money flowing in every turn, I was able to end up with the most cash.

I call this technique "slipstreaming", after the technique in bicycle or car racing whereby you intentionally fall behind someone to let them take the brunt of the wind resistance, then make a push for first place with your saved energy.

Many times in ACQUIRE I've done exactly this, deliberately given up the majority in a company that I did not have the tiles to merge and invested my money elsewhere. After my opponent overtook me for majority, he merged that company and paid us both off, which he may not have had the incentive to do had I now allowed him to take the bigger bonus.

Money as a Blunt Object

In this game, there are no Victory Points, or other victory conditions except to End Up With More Money. And having more money allows you to make more investments, thus helping you win more. Money is a blunt object that you can use to beat down your opponents. You want as much of it as you can get. If you find yourself flush with cash and you know an opponent is cash-poor, you can start buying up Stock in a company that you know he has already has a healthy Stock lead in. He won't be able to race you until he gets more money from a merger, so he'll have to sit there and watch you take over his company with a smile.

This fact leads me to what I believe is ACQUIRE's only substantive flaw: since money is the main weapon, there can be a Runaway Leader, or more accurately, a Dropaway Loser problem. The Dropaway Loser can miss out on the first three mergers of the game, say, and then have virtually no chance to get back any of the money he's invested and therefore no chance to invest further and compete in the game. He'll have to suffer through the game, and that is no fun.

Happily, this problem can usually be corrected with smart play. Not overextending yourself, and not making bad investments that can't pay off for you, will usually save you from becoming the Dropaway Loser. Here are some quick strategy hints for the beginning player.

Beginning Strategy Hints

1. In the early game, don't be the third person to invest in a company. There are only 25 shares and if everyone keeps buying you'll just be shut out in third place. Remember, third place gets nothing when it comes to bonuses!

2. Don't invest heavily in companies that are "far away" from other companies. Meaning don't buy lots of Stock in companies that don't have other companies nearby, especially if this company is near the edge or corner of the board. Remember you have to merge to get the bonuses and be able to sell off the stock, and that requires a company to merge into.

3. It is usually worthwhile to found a company, even if you don't intend to invest in it immediately. Go ahead and found Continental in the corner of the board, taking the free Stock, and just wait till you have more cash to go back and invest more in it. That free Stock could help win you the majority in the game.

4. Having 13 shares in a Company means you have a Permanent Majority, i.e. as long as you don't trade or sell any Stock you will always be the Majority Shareholder wherever that company exists. Companies can be refounded. If you have permanent majority, try to merge the company and re-found it elsewhere. You'll be on a freeroll to make more money. I think I've merged and re-founded a company I had Permanent Majority in up to 6 times in one game! Don't push your luck too far, though, as any Stock held in a company that is not at the board at the end of the game is completely worthless.

5. At the end of the game, all Companies will be paid at their current Bonus value, and all stock bought back at its current price. That means you want a piece of the big companies, whose bonuses can be worth $10,000 or more! When it becomes evident which Companies will be the mega-conglomerates, position yourself to have a small company in which you own a lot of Stock merge into it, and TRADE that stock at 2:1 into the big company. It's great to trade 2 shares of $200 Luxor for $1,000 a pop Imperial. DON'T buy mega-chain stock at face value unless it is completely necessary.

6. NEVER let another player be the sole stockholder in a company that merges. That means he'll get BOTH Majority and Minority bonuses! Make sure every chain has 2 shareholders, even if you just buy 1 stock in a chain to stop this from happening.

7. Pay attention to seating position. For example, if the Majority holder of a Company has 7 Stock, the Minority holder has 3, and you have 0, and the Majority holder acts immediately after you, it *CAN* be worthwhile to go ahead and buy into the company anyway, disregarding rule #1. That's because the Majority holder will act immediately after you, and may well merge the company while you are tied with the Minority holder. You will split his Bonus in half, slow his progress and get a bit of your own.

8. Prey on cash-poor players. Remember what I wrote about "Money as a Blunt Object". If you have money and he doesn't, start going after his companies. Shut him out. This game is NOT about being nice.

Concluding Thoughts

Those are my somewhat scattershot thoughts on ACQUIRE. Sadly, I've played this game less than 10 times in person. I have played it over 100 times online, via Kensit Technologies' program called NetAcquire. It's very good online, as the program does all the calculation and payouts for you, and you can finish a game in 20 or 30 minutes instead of the real-life usual of 90.

Some question whether to play this game with open stocks and money, or closed. I tend to prefer open online, so you can better track your opponents' moves in a faster game, and closed in person, where gut feelings and instinct can drive the game and you have no excuse for not paying attention to your opponents' moves.

Also, the Dropaway Loser problem is much more pronounced in the 3-player game. The 4-player game smoothes those rough edges considerably. For those reasons I considerably prefer the 4-player game and will never play 3-player online. I will player 3-player amongst friends, if we definitely can't find a 4th. Any Acquire is better than no Acquire.

On the BGG Scale, I rate the 4-player version of Acquire a 9.5 / 10, currently my highest rating I've given a game. I rate the 3-player version an 8.





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Peter Evett
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Acquire is one of the all-time great games. I have played this game FtF (over the past 30 years) at least 100 times. It does have a severe problem, and that is the dropaway loser problem you so neatly coined. In almost all games there will be a player who, despite solid play and decisions, will be cut out of the early mergers and run out of money. Running out of money for anything more than a couple of turns is fatal. Then the game might go on for an hour or so with no chance of victory.

Our eventual solution to this (especially in 3 or 4 player) has been to eliminate the Row 12 tiles. Making the board contain only 11 rows speeds up the game by 15-20 minutes and slightly increases the rate of merging. Thus, slightly less chance of dropaway, and somewhat shorter if dropaway loser happens.

Either way, enjoy! -- PAE
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Dave Slaven
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Has the phrase "dropaway loser problem" been used around here before? If not, I think it's going to catch on. We should remember where we heard it first.
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Matthew Barratt
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Quote:
Having 13 shares in a Company means you have a Permanent Majority, i.e. as long as you don't trade or sell any Stock you will always be the Majority Shareholder wherever that company exists.


You should also try to keep track of how many shares are needed to ensure you will have first or second place at the net merger. For example if two of your opponents have three shares in a company, then you need 11 to ensure a share in first place (because if you have 11 and one opponent has 3 then there are 11 available to the other opponent) and 8 to ensure a share of second place.

This is easier if you are playing with open shares, but you should try to remember the holdings in your key companies when playing with closed holdings.
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Dan The Man
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All that has been said is GENERALLY correct. However, with decent tile play, and a little luck (which one requires no matter how one plays), I have one won with a buy and hold strategy [not deliberately sought after, of course].

It can be done, if one buys the right shares with the early money and one controls some key tiles!
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Teacher Fletcher
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slaven41 wrote:
Has the phrase "dropaway loser problem" been used around here before? If not, I think it's going to catch on. We should remember where we heard it first.


I made it up for this review. I'd be happy if others found a reason to use it, as it describes a condition distinctly different than Runaway Leader!
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Teacher Fletcher
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paevett wrote:
Acquire is one of the all-time great games. I have played this game FtF (over the past 30 years) at least 100 times. It does have a severe problem, and that is the dropaway loser problem you so neatly coined. In almost all games there will be a player who, despite solid play and decisions, will be cut out of the early mergers and run out of money. Running out of money for anything more than a couple of turns is fatal. Then the game might go on for an hour or so with no chance of victory.


In my experience with 4-player games, that does not happen in 95% of games with competent players. It is much harder to avoid in 3-player, happening maybe 20% of the time with no real fault of the Dropaway Loser.
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Teacher Fletcher
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There is one additional strategy hint I wanted to include, let's call it hint #9.

9. Two companies of equal size that are near to one another is a dangerous investment proposition. (Let's say two size-3 chains, one unplayed tile apart.) That is because, unless you control the unplayed merger tile, each one has a 50/50 chance of folding up into the other. If you invest heavily into one but not the other, you are gambling! If your chain is not the one merged, now you have your money tied up in a size-7 chain, which you may not want. This is a hard play. I might suggest hedging your bets, investing in both equally, or trying to grab a majority in one while taking a minority in the other. Alternatively, I might stay away from those companies altogether and put my money into a "safer bet". Sometimes you can use the play of your opponents as a guide to what company is liked to get folded up. In all, this is a highly contextual play, and you need to see it pop up in many games over time before you have a feel for what is likeliest to pay off.
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Dan
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Bathtub Hoax wrote:

Background

I admit that a lot of what drew me into euro-style games was the eye candy. A certain child-like wonder swelled up in me on seeing the photographs of the pastel camels in THROUGH THE DESERT, the wooden city in MEDINA, or the criss-crossing colorful trains in TICKET TO RIDE. I felt a little like that kid again, watching Saturday morning cartoons and ogling over ads for chrome-plated games like CROSSBOWS & CATAPAULTS and KEY TO THE KINGDOM. I wanted to play games again with that same tactile and visual wonder, but with grown-up strategy and depth under it all.



That was a great article, but I just thought I'd mention that I thumbed it as soon as I got to this paragraph. That description is one of the best explanations of what motivates me to play game as an adult that I have ever read.

Thankyou for putting so much effort an thought into a great review!
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Teacher Fletcher
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I'm glad you agree, Dan!
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Teacher Fletcher
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Another thing I wanted to add to the review, is that games of Acquire have a LOT of Variety.

It can happen that 7 Companies are founded in early game without a merger, and you have this long standoff waiting for a big event.

Or, a merger can happen by turn 5. And every Company that gets founded gets re-merged into the same super-company.

Sometimes, a particular Company will never be founded at all.

This gives ACQUIRE a great deal of replay value.
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Clint DeSena
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Holy crap, that was an awesome review. I just traded for an older Avalon Hill version and CANNOT WAIT to play.
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Bob Wilson
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My thumbs up and one Geekgold given for a thoughtful review, and coining the phrase "drop-away looser".... BRILLIANT!!!

wow
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PO
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Thanks for this great overview.
I recently purchased the Hasbro version (2nd hand) & have been reading through the rules.
I've been a bit confused on some points & your review, particularly the comment [url]ACQUIRE is NOT a stock market simulation![/url] is really helpful.
Once again - thanks.
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Michael Kandrac
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I vaguely recall playing Acquire one evening about 40 years ago. With my metamorphosis from chess enthusiast to euro gamer thanks to BGG, I became aware of the importance of Acquire and was fortunate to obtain the 1999 Hasbro Edition at a TRU two-for-one sale.

As a game group organizer, I find that a lot of people are put off by the abstract nature of the game and the experience of being the "dropaway loser" in their initial experience. For this reason I've been successful in popularizing Acquire by using the payoff variant that pays a bonus to four, rather than two, shareholders. It changes the game significantly, of course; it is wise to diversify stock holdings to get in on as many mergers as possible. Once players have gained experience (and are hooked!) the official payoff schedule should be used. I like the game either way.

I just discovered the online play at http://www.gametableonline.com/ -- it is a truly gorgeous and intelligent interface.

Michael
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Steve Downin
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Gamegrunt wrote:
For this reason I've been successful in popularizing Acquire by using the payoff variant that pays a bonus to four, rather than two, shareholders. It changes the game significantly, of course; it is wise to diversify stock holdings to get in on as many mergers as possible. Once players have gained experience (and are hooked!) the official payoff schedule should be used.

Even with experienced players, if you don't get cash from at least one of the first two or three mergers, it can be tough to catch up to the rest of the field.

A nice compromise that I've found works well for experienced and new players alike is to use the "top 4 payout" variant for the first two mergers, only. After that, the game reverts to the regular payout schedule.

For those not familiar with the top 4 payout schedule, the one I like to use is:

Majority Shareholder = Majority Bonus.
2nd place = 75% of the Majority Bonus
3rd place = 50% of the Majority Bonus (same as Minority Bonus)
4th place = 25% of the Majority Bonus
Round Up to the nearest $100.
If there is no 2nd, 3rd or 4th place, simply don't pay out those bonuses.

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