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Chris Valk
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Tech-Bubble Review: Boom or Bust?

“Tech-Bubble” is designer Mike Nagle’s first foray into casual gaming; this excellent “push your luck” card game from the creator of the Flying Colors andAncient Battles Deluxe series of wargames proves that a talented designer need not be limited by genre. Appropriately enough, this game (along with Arctic Survival and BloodLust) also marks publisher Worthington Games’ debut outside the wargame market.

The game is set during the dotcom financial boom of the late 90’s and its eventual bust. Three-to-six players represent the industry sectors, such as software and telecomm, which dominated the technology-driven market of the time. As the bubble grows ever-larger, they attempt to make as much money off the market as possible and get out before it bursts – all while second-guessing the competition and tossing them the odd monkey wrench. Risk tolerance, luck of the draw, timing, bluffing, and a healthy dose of amorality are essential to win – much like the era itself.

Players of Unnamed Object will find much that is familiar here, as pushing your luck as far as possible and pulling out before disaster strikes forms the core of the game. “Tech-Bubble”, however, involves far more player interaction, especially of the “screw your neighbor” variety. There is more strategy involved, as well, as each sector has a unique special ability it may activate once per round, and the deck contains strategy cards that reward thoughtful timing. Of the two games, I find “Tech-Bubble” more involving, suspenseful, and enjoyable overall – but those that prefer less direct competition, prettier components, and lighter fare may not agree.

Components

Inside the box you’ll find a 55-card deck, a mounted gameboard, a sheet of thick, double-sided, 3/4-inch counters, and a rulebook.

The cards are the heart of the game. They are semi-gloss of standard size and thickness and should hold up well under repeated play. Graphics are four-color, bright, attractive, and easy-to-read. The cards come in several varieties:
*Sector Special Ability: Each player receives one at game start. These are reference cards listing the unique abilities of each sector; the Software Sector, for example, may force one or two other players to cover his losses during the current round.
*Gain/Loss: These globally increase or decrease players’ market investments.
*Bubble: These cards drive the tempo of the round and have two effects. They expand or deflate the tech-bubble, eventually causing it to burst (i.e., advance or retreat the Tech-Bubble marker on the gameboard, with the round ending the instant the fifth spot on the track is reached). They also multiply or decrease players’ investments.
*Hold Cards: Players may hold one of these strategy cards in their hands in hopes of ruining someone’s day. “Hostile Takeover”, for example, lets you steal another player’s current gains.
*High Stakes: When these are drawn, players may engage in market speculation by predicting the next type of card drawn; they gain 10 points if they are right and lose 10 if they screw up (presumably, this only affects shareholders and they’ll still receive an executive bonus at year’s end...).

The gameboard consists of three tracks: current round investments, total earnings, and the all-important Bubble Track.

Like the cards, counters are thick, bright, and attractive. For the most part, they mark player positions on the gameboard tracks. Players also keep “Stay In/Get Out” and “High Stakes” decision markers off-board in their “hands”.

Graphically, the four-page rulebook is well laid out and includes an example of play and helpful component overviews. However, it does stumble somewhat in content. The rules are vague in spots, and a Sequence of Play summary is sorely lacking, which forces players to read through the entire book every round until they have the rules down pat (which in all fairness should not take long, but it’s an unnecessary complication).

Gameplay

Tech-Bubble is played in a series of rounds equal to the number of players. Optionally, players may scale playing time by choosing a different number of rounds or ending after a set number of points – a nice touch. Our games have lasted anywhere between 20-45 minutes depending on the number of players and how quickly the bubble bursts each round.

A dealer is randomly determined at game start. This position passes to the player on the left at the end of each round. The dealer can have a significant impact on the game – when Hold Cards are played simultaneously, he chooses the order in which they take effect (more on that later).

Sequence of play is straightforward. Using the appropriate side of the “Stay In/Get Out” marker, each player secretly chooses whether to bow out of the round and bank her current investments or play the card draw; choices are revealed simultaneously.
The dealer then picks the top card and examines it before revealing.

The draw will usually be either a Gain, Loss, or Bubble card, which is then played face-up. Gain and Loss cards range from -4 to +5; all players that have not chosen to get out adjust their earnings up or down on the Current Round Investments track. A Bubble card also impacts earnings for better or worse; most importantly, it will move the Bubble Marker up or down the Bubble track. Investments may never fall below zero.

If a High Stakes card is drawn, players have the option to guess the type of the next card drawn and win or lose 10 points on the Investment Track depending on their prescience or lack thereof. Players make their selections secretly with markers.

If the dealer draws a Hold Card, she keeps it hidden. If she already has one, she passes it to a player who does not have one, or, if everyone has one, discards it. Hold Cards are played at specific times and typically involve annihilating other player’s hard-earned gains or, better yet, enriching yourself at other’s expense.

As noted above, the dealer decides the order when Hold Cards are played simultaneously. For example: Player A decides to get out of the market, which usually means he banks all his earnings. Player B, however, plays “Monopolistic Activities” which allows him to grab half – but Player C then plays “Crusading Attorney General”, which voids all of Player A’s earnings. The dealer will decide whether Player B can grab his cut before the AG raids or whether everyone loses.

Once the dealer has drawn the first card of the round and effects are applied, players again choose whether to stay in or get out. From now until the end of the round, players will alternate drawing cards in clockwise order from the dealer (this ensures everyone gets a chance at a secret Hold Card).

Eventually, someone will choose to Get Out. That player transfers their earnings from the current Round Investments track to the Total Earnings track, where they are safe from harm. That player is out of the round, although there are certain Hold Cards he could play from the sidelines.

The Round continues until the Bubble marker reaches the fifth space on the track; the market crashes and anyone still in loses all current investments. The round can also end if all players get out of the market. At the end of the last round, the player with the highest Total Earnings wins. The rules don’t address ties – presumably, they are just that.

Highly Recommended Variant

As noted above, players’ investments may never fall below zero and are untouchable after they leave the market. Therefore, if the bubble is small there is no real danger to staying in, plus you always have an accurate sense of your overall standing since Total Earnings only increase. This was not the case in the original design, which our gaming group play tested. Earnings were never completely safe, even after getting out, and the possibility of dropping into the red added a difficult wrinkle to the decision whether to stay in the market. We strongly recommend playing with this variant adapted from the original rules:

“Negative Earnings:
Players begin each round with 5 on the Current Investments Track rather than zero. If a player’s Current Round Investments drop below zero, the balance is deducted from their Total Earnings at double the rate. If the shortfall cannot be covered, the penalized player may “raid” the Total Earnings of other players to cover it.”

Boom or Bust?

“Tech-Bubble” is a winner with my gaming group. It can be taught and learned very quickly and enjoyed equally by casual and hardcore gamers of all ages (teenagers seem to get a particular thrill from decimating their parents’ investments – good practice for real life). What makes the design truly succeed is its combination of interaction, unpredictability, and strategy; luck plays a role, but less than in similar games.

Pros
*Easy to learn and teach. Suitable for adults and children (8 and over).
*Key concepts can be quickly grasped, so that less experienced players aren’t disadvantaged and feel like they have a chance to win.
*Everyone is usually in contention until the end (especially when using the “Negative Earnings” variant above).
*Special Abilities and Hold Cards add a great deal of tension and balance.
*Timing of when to get out of the market not as straightforward as other “push your luck” games. Involves strategy and thinking, not simply instinct and luck.
*The bubble adjustment cards are a brilliant mechanic – they may move the marker forward, they may move it backward, and it may be by a little or a lot. Very unpredictable and very suspenseful.
*Scalable playtime.

Cons
*Rulebook unclear in spots and cries out for a Sequence of Play summary.
*Attractive and clean components, but nothing that makes the title stand out from the crowd. This does not detract a whit from my enjoyment of the game, but having a “shiny” gimmick (like the tents and jewels in Incan Gold) is something of a given in the market the publishers are attempting to break into.
*Gamers not into “screw-your-neighbor” mechanics may not enjoy this game as much as “nicer” alternatives – but those that do will find much to savor.

Final Score on BGG Scale: 8 (Very good game; probably will suggest and never turn down)

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Steve
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I have always enjoyed Incan Gold, and this sounds like another quick winner wtih a bit more thought involved. Would have to be a bit more selective on who to game with, since a number of people I game IG with would not like the "screw your neighbor" aspect, while others would thrive on it. Thanks for the well written review.
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Mike Nagel
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Chris,

Thanks for the superb review!

For the education of Tech Bubble players, another issue that was left on the cutting room floor was the name of the dealer. Since the dealer is not really a dealer (simply the person who goes first during each round) he was called the "Mover and Shaker."

Just a little Tech Bubble trivia ...
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Chris Valk
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papiklfish wrote:
I have always enjoyed Incan Gold, and this sounds like another quick winner wtih a bit more thought involved. Would have to be a bit more selective on who to game with, since a number of people I game IG with would not like the "screw your neighbor" aspect, while others would thrive on it. Thanks for the well written review.

Thanks for the kind words. You put it in a nutshell -- a quick winner that rewards thought (and cunning!). I think you'd really like it based on your collection.

Speaking of which, as an aside, I'm currently working my way through all the Fafrd and the Gray Mouser stories (just finished "Swords in the Mist"). I had no idea there was a F&GM boardgame. Come to think of it, the "push your luck" mechanic would probably translate very well into a game featuring these guys...hmmm...
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Chris Valk
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mpnagel wrote:
For the education of Tech Bubble players, another issue that was left on the cutting room floor was the name of the dealer. Since the dealer is not really a dealer (simply the person who goes first during each round) he was called the "Mover and Shaker."

That's right, I'd forgotten about that. Actually, using a poker chip or pawn to keep in front of the current Dealer/Mover & Shaker is a good idea so no-one loses track.
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Peaceful Gamin'
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nice, C!
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Chris Valk
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salish99 wrote:
nice, C!

Thanks!
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Paul Owen
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LaggingEdge wrote:
Players of Unnamed Object will find much that is familiar here, as pushing your luck as far as possible and pulling out before disaster strikes forms the core of the game. “Tech-Bubble”, however, involves far more player interaction, especially of the “screw your neighbor” variety. There is more strategy involved, as well, as each sector has a unique special ability it may activate once per round, and the deck contains strategy cards that reward thoughtful timing. Of the two games, I find “Tech-Bubble” more involving, suspenseful, and enjoyable overall – but those that prefer less direct competition, prettier components, and lighter fare may not agree.


Now you've got my attention. I recently have come to really like Incan Gold, and I've always been intrigued by the theme of Tech Bubble, so now you've convinced me: This one is on my short list.
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