ADVENTURES IN GAME TIME: Ponzi Scheme

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With the colossal implosion of Fyre Fest and the premiere of HBO’s new Bernie Madoff biopic, fraudulent behavior seems very top of mind. And for good reason: we love when our white collar criminals trip up. After all, there’s something exhilarating about watching a con take off soaringly, only to come crashing into the ground under the weight of its own hubris. Yes, it’s a pure joy to witness — at least as long as our money isn’t tied up in the mess (sorry, Kevin Bacon).

We all love the tried and true tropes of a long con gone awry: authorities closing in, criminals turning on each other, people committing acts of desperation. It can be great entertainment, but is it something any of us would want to live through? Probably not. Well, guess what folks: thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games, we can all enjoy the thrills of a Ponzi scheme without any of that inconvenient “illegality” stuff.

Enter Ponzi Scheme, a fascinating economic game by designer Jesse Li that simulates the delightful stress of SOUL-CRUSHING DEBT.

In Ponzi Scheme, players hone their inner Madoff as they take money from gullible, unseen saps and use it to pay off other gullible, unseen saps. Along the way, players make trades, “invest” in industries, and watch as their debts threaten to swallow them whole. Like all good schemes and/or musical festivals helmed by Ja Rule, the bottom must inevitably fall out. Someone will eventually run out of money, creditors will go unpaid, and kneecaps will meet an uncertain fate. In other words, Ponzi Scheme motors on until someone runs out of money — at which point, the game ends and players count up their riches. Whoever has the most value in their holdings wins, and everyone else sells their story to Harper Collins I guess.

How this all works is the nifty part of Ponzi Scheme. Players begin a round by approaching a central board of nine “fund cards.” These cards are financial opportunities — ways to fill the coffers of your depleting bank account — but they also present their own nefarious dilemmas. One fund card might bring in a mouth-watering $72 — perfect for keeping you afloat one more round. But its staggering interest rate means that you’ll owe $128 in three rounds from now. There’s no way you can pay that back… but it might not matter if someone goes belly-up before then.

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A typical fund card in my fleshy hand: this one will bring in $36, but will require a payment of $63 every five turns.

Nevertheless, you select your card, take cash from the bank, and try your best not to lose your mind as you hide the paper money behind an infuriatingly small player screen — perhaps the most annoying aspect of this game. Can’t we get a bigger screen? Literally, I CANNOT.

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The screen looks fine here, but…

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…it’s hard to hide the cash once it starts piling up.

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It’s not terribly difficult to peek at a player’s riches.

And so every round, players must weigh the funds, the interest rate, and the payment period that each card offers. Do you go for a safe option, which brings in a modest sum but offers a luxurious payment period of five rounds? Or do you do go for big capital up front that will require payment every three turns? It’s all tricky stuff, and honestly, it’s a puzzle I haven’t entirely “grokked,” as they say. But that’s okay. I love a puzzle I can’t grok. #grokkybalboa (I’m sorry).

Over time, players will have different debts to pay off over different timelines. I may owe $35 three rounds from now, $12 in four rounds, and $72 in five rounds. To keep track of this madness, everyone has a little hexagonal “clock” that represents how many rounds must pass before payments are due. Should you need to pay back a debt in three rounds from now, simply place your funding card by the “3” slot of your clock. If there already is a debt due at that time, tough titties: now you owe more. At the end of the round, everyone rotates their clock, bringing the Day of Reckoning ever closer.

And did I mention that you never, ever pay off your debts? That’s because these aren’t loans, per se. These are returns on investments — returns that have been promised to pay out repeatedly over time. So basically, once you pay out your “dividends,” you’re not off the hook. The funding card instead moves along the wheel to a new slot where it will plague you anew in just a few short turns.

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The red triangle on the “clock” indicates which payouts are due. In this example, the player owes $122 (gulp).

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Once paid, the fund card moves to its new spot where it adds on to whatever else is there — in this case, a pre-existing $12 payout. It could be worse: just look at what’s going to happen in five turns from now…

And this is where things get wacky. Remember the card that needs a payout every three days? Well, now its payment is due the same day as the card that’s due every five rounds. You didn’t plan for that, did you? Suddenly, you’re in the hole for $120, and even if you can scrounge up the pennies to stave off bankruptcy, the relief is short-lived. That’s because it’s already the next round and oh yeah: you’ve got four more cards that somehow are all due at this very moment, and they’re making that $120 look like a pittance. A pittance, I say! Are you stressed now? Because I am. CALGON TAKE ME AWAY.

Nevertheless, when players receive their new funds (presumably from new patsies whose money is being used to pay off the original patsies — hence, Ponzi Scheme), players receive odd little cardboard chevrons that represent a phony investment in an industry. I guess we tell our suckers that this is what we’ve invested their money in? I dunno. What matters ultimately is that there are four industries, and at the end of the game, the more industry chevrons you have, the more points you’ll get. Yup, the goal isn’t really to have the most money (although money nets you points too). The goal is to have the largest number of industry tiles. And that brings us to the heart of Ponzi Scheme.

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The four types of industry tokens. I think they’re shaped like chevrons because they sort of look like skyscrapers when they’re put together?

If the game’s signature emotional response is impending dread, and if the game’s coolest feature is its wheel of debt, then Ponzi Scheme’s most fascinating interlude is its “Clandestine Trade” phase. Here, players have an opportunity to make offers for other people’s industry tokens, and it’s all done with a healthy dash of theatricality. The order of operations is simple: a player first stuffs a thick, leathery wallet with cash and hands it to an opponent, merely asking for an industry token in return. If the offer is accepted, then that person pockets the cash and hands over their chevron. It’s a win-win situation: one person gains potential end game points, the other earns much-needed funds to help them survive the next round of payouts. Great!

But what if the offer is rejected? Well, then the tables turn. The rejecting party must match the offer, and in return, that person receives an industry tile from the original person. This means that someone who makes a lowball offer may find themselves losing potential points instead of gaining them. And therein lies the trickiness: how does one necessarily know what constitutes a “lowball” offer? Given that all players keep their money hidden behind those teeny, tiny screens; it’s always unclear how much money anyone has. And not knowing anyone’s financial situation makes it harder to set a price for any given deal. The only remedy is to watch other people’s funding and payouts like a hawk, and that’s easier said than done (mainly because we’re not hawks, and also because we have our own emotions and thoughts to tend to inside our heads).

This dance between money and points is a clever one. Everyone always needs extra cash, but all the money in the world is sort of useless without industry tiles. But along those lines, all the industry tiles in the world are useless if you’re going to go bankrupt next turn.

Sometimes, the clandestine trading becomes a matter of life or death, and making the absolute perfect offer is paramount. All you need is for your opponent to match the cash offer and send the wallet back to you, double stuffed. But what if you’re hoping for too much in return? Your opponent might call your bluff and take your the money, which leaves you in a bigger hole than you started with. It’s a delicate balance — one that I’m decidedly terrible at (but in the best way).

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Hands down, this is universally everyone’s favorite part of the game: stuffing cash in the wallet.

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In the advanced variant of the game, players may forgo a clandestine trade to purchase one luxury good, which is worth end game points.

Once everyone has had a chance to engage in this incredibly tense and opaque process, the round moves forward through a variety of phases — none of which really need explanation here. All that really matters is that the wheel advances forward and the march towards bankruptcy continues. (There’s also a “bear market” mechanic which sees the payout schedule advance twice in one turn, which can — and often does — royally screw you and your friends. That’s fun.)

The key concept to remember here is that you will lose all your money. You will be unable to pay back your debts. You will fail miserably. But as long as someone does all that before you, you’re golden.

Maybe that’s why I’m terrible at this game: my instinct is to hoard money and take small funding opportunities. But no matter how conservative I am, I inevitably wind up with one hellish round where all my debts crash down on me like a tsunami, and suddenly I’m left with nothing. I almost think the best players are the ones who take brash, wild swings — the ones who grab those huge dollar amounts, even if it means they’ll owe a steep $100+ in three turns from now. When that time comes, they’ll just take another huge influx of money. You need to spend money to make money, amiright? In a game about avoiding financial implosion, such a strategy seems counterintuitive, and yet it’s probably the best way to go.

Or is it? Because all the funding in the world doesn’t matter if you’re making bad trades. It’s all about finding that balance between money coming in, money going out, and how that translates into industry markers. That balance is impossible to pinpoint game to game. Like any real market, prices and values are dynamic. They’re constantly in flux. The only thing anyone can rely on is their instinct, and that may not always be such a good thing (especially in my case). It’s all sort of brilliant, if you think about it.

But is it actually fun? Yes. Mostly.

Ponzi Scheme is a stubbornly abstract affair. As enjoyable as it is to hand over a thick wallet of paper money to an opponent, one never truly feels like they’re engaged in a nefarious scheme. I suppose the impending sense of dread and doom creates a thematic tension, and that’s cool, but for some reason, Ponzi Scheme never really *pops*. I don’t always need thematic immersion to love a game, but in this case, it could have taken the experience from fascinating to thrilling.

To boot, let’s talk about those funding opportunities again. Every round, players have chances to take cards, which will bring them money to fuel their schemes. Notice I say cards and not people. This distinction is important because it reveals a simple way in which the game could have enriched its experience. The truth is, every card represents a person – someone who has foolishly turned over their money to our illegal schemes. And yet here I am simply referring to them as soulless “fund cards.” Don’t worry: I’m not about to go on some tear about overlooking the human toll from white collar crime. But what I will rant about is the fact that Ponzi Scheme is so steadfastly abstract that it botches a great opportunity for thematic immersion and storytelling.

Think about it: anyone who looks at Ponzi Scheme laid out on a table sees nothing but numbers. Lots of numbers. And some random chevron pieces.

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The funding board. Not exactly overflowing with personality.

What if the fund cards had been images of people? Or what if they even just had names? Adding personality to the fund cards would have gone a long way to add personality to this game as a whole. We wouldn’t just be taking cash from some anonymous bank at the side of the table. We would be taking money from Miranda Van Wittenhouse (which is a name I just came up with as I typed this). Imagine the fun to be had around the table, knowing that you were fleecing the prominent Van Wittenhouse family of its hard earned fortune. Suddenly, you’re spinning a yarn — the Van Wittenhouses, who hailed from the Netherlands and struck it rich as furriers in Nova Scotia! And maybe someone else is duping Lionel Patterson, Miranda’s wayward lover who met her at the opera and unwittingly ensnared her in the Ponzi scheme as well. Soon, you and your friends are speaking in silly accents, weaving tales of Miranda and Lionel, and discussing how he fell prey to a get-rich-quick scheme in order to impress her, only to imperil them both. You know, crap like that.

PS: I’m suddenly very invested in Miranda and Lionel.

Nevertheless, putting faces and names on the cards would have personalized the entire Ponzi Scheme experience. Players would feel like true con artists, not a bunch of friends engaging in an abstract exercise around a table. Even those strange chevron industry markers might have taken on more meaning beyond just arbitrary endgame scoring tokens. They would have felt like real investment opportunities! Or real fake investment opportunities. I still don’t really understand how they fit into everything. But regardless, missed opportunity.

And as a result, when Ponzi Scheme ends 30 minutes later, players will chatter excitedly about how close they came to losing everything, how their hearts were racing, and how they managed to pull off a few great trades. A winner will be declared, and you’ll all politely put the pieces back in the box and move on to another game. That’s fine. But it doesn’t seem right. Ponzi Scheme should be the sort of game that people clamor to play over and over and over again. Maybe THIS time I can pull off my scheme! Maybe THIS time I’ll make better offers. Maybe THIS time I’ll be lucky! [insert Cabaret musical interlude here]

But every time I’ve played, no one ever really wants to give it another whirl (and I’ve now played it with several different groups of people). Ultimately, the game is a neat simulation of crushing debt, and it’s a cool exercise in establishing value in a constantly shifting market, but beyond that, Ponzi Scheme can be a forgettable affair. I think injecting a bit more personality into the mix could have taken it to the next level.

That said, there are people who absolutely adore this game, especially at high player counts (the game goes up to 5). Their adrenaline pumps as they navigate this murky world of clandestine trades and freewheeling income. It’s definitely a cool emotional experience, and if deal-making and financial burdens are your cup of tea, then this game is certainly worth looking into. I’m still keeping Ponzi Scheme because it IS fun after all and perfect with some sturdy cups of booze. However, I recommend trying before buying. (And again, I’m referring to the game, not an actual Ponzi scheme).

Review copy provided courtesy of Tasty Minstrel Games

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2 thoughts on “ADVENTURES IN GAME TIME: Ponzi Scheme

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