(The following article is based upon research I recently had the opportunity to complete at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. I am indebted to Julia Rossi and Nicolas Ricketts at the museum for their tremendous help, to Dan Blum for arranging a tour of the museum, and to Wei-Hwa Huang and Michael Tsuk for their help in preparing this article.)
One of the least appreciated elements of the board game industry is the development of games. One reason it’s not well appreciated is that it’s largely invisible; there’s no good way a buyer can differentiate a good game that was delivered to the publisher ready to go from one delivered with major holes that the publisher had to resolve in order to bring the game to market.
Interestingly, the rise of Kickstarter™ as a method for publishing games has given the public a somewhat better understanding of the process. The great advantage of Kickstarter™ – the ability to bring games to market that otherwise might not be published – is also its great weakness. Most games on Kickstarter™ are not developed, but simply marketed; most aren’t even vetted by a publisher. This approach certainly _can_ lead to a good game. In spite of all of the complaints about Kickstarter™-funded games, most would agree that it has lead to the publication of strong designs, at least on occasion. But typically it relies entirely upon the designer to bring the game to a desirable end state.
To be fair, however, many publishers don’t really focus on development either. This has an advantage to the game buyer over Kickstarter™, in that a publisher will have vetted the game – though of course this does limit the choice of the consumer. But – again, there is often reliance upon the designer to have optimized the game, with the publisher focusing on manufacturing and theme.
There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück. They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted. This direction clearly started with Bernd Brunhofer, who founded the company, but has spread throughout the staff. This makes playtesting their games a real treat, as they are open to much broader changes than most publishers.
This is not to say that Hans im Glück always gets the development right. A friend once described the final step of the processes, when it’s time to get the game to the market, as Bernd Brunhofer tossing all of the ideas that have been created in the development of the game into the air, and publishing what comes down. But if you look at the success the company has enjoyed – including six Spiel des Jahres winners[i] – it’s clear that they’re doing something right.
It’s easier to point to the impact of game development by noting specific examples I had the privilege of playing during their development. Perhaps the best example is the company’s most popular game, Carcassonne. When I first played the game, no pieces were returned to players during the game. This worked perfectly fine – but led to a significantly less interesting game than the one that was finally published, as the need to cycle pieces back mixed with the inability to bring back some pieces leads to a far more interesting game, as there are more frequent and more interesting decisions to make.
Another good example is Müll + Money, released in English as Industrial Waste. This game was pitched to Hans im Glück by a first-time (and so far one-time) game designer as a tool for focusing attention on the environment impact of manufacturing. When I played the game, it was felt to be near completion – but even so, the game underwent a great simplification before publication, leaving the interesting core intact while shortening the game length and simplifying the math.
Of course, there are lots of “good” games in the world. The various organizations that reward excellence in games – the Spiel des Jahres jury, Games Magazine, the Cannes Festival International des Jeux, and so on – have no difficulty in finding many strong candidates each year. But more rarely, a perennial is released – a game which will sell well not only when released, but for decades after. Games such as Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride have a substantial impact upon the lives of the designers and the fortunes of their publishers.
But rarer still are the games which establish a new segment for the board game industry. Magic: The Gathering is such a game, having catapulted collectable card games into the public spotlight. Dungeons and Dragons is another, as is Tactics. But the genre-creating game which had the greatest impact for me personally is Acquire, the game which established the adult strategy game market.
Acquire, for anyone not familiar with the game, is a stock market game – but unlike most stock market games, one where player actions impact stock prices rather than random factors. Here, players form, grow, and merge hotel chains, earning money (and the opportunity to sell stock) only when mergers occur. Players receive money for the most and second-most stock in the chain being merged away, and can hold, trade, or sell their stock. As a result of this lack of freedom to sell stock at will, money can be very tight in the middle of the game. Eventually, when one chain reaches size 41 or all chains reach size 11 or larger, the game ends. Final majority and second place stockholder bonuses are awarded, players are paid for their stock, and the player with the most cash wins. The game has inspired many other games, including Wolfgang Kramer’s Big Boss. I wonder if it had any influence on 1829, which took the idea of other game actions driving stock prices much further.
I was first exposed to Acquire when I was about twelve years old, when my family visited friends of my parents. Their son, who was about five years older than I, brought out Acquire and roped my brother and me into playing the game. And in the course of that play, my whole opinion of games changed. I’d always thought of games as largely a children’s activity; games were ceasing to be interesting to me. But Acquire changed my mind; I was ready to consider games as an ongoing hobby, rather than a childhood passion. I soon acquired a copy, and it was regularly played with my friends. I was very disappointed when I purchased the Apple II version of the game, only to discover that it didn’t actually provide an automatic, computer-controlled player such as in contemporary games Lords of Conquest or M.U.L.E., but was merely a moderator which tracks player holdings.
While I didn’t play any games often during college, I did continue to pull out Acquire on occasion, and when I returned to gaming, Acquire was one of the games I returned to. I was very happy to get a copy of the game with wood tiles, in the days of rec.games.board.marketplace, and I was soon playing the game regularly again.
A number of years later, I heard of a famous and rare “World Map” edition of the game, published by 3M, the original publisher of Acquire. I eventually managed to track down a copy. And then I discovered, much to my surprise, a completely different set of rules. Instead of 25 shares in each hotel, the number of shares varied from 22 to 35. And players were _dealt_ shares at the start of the game – and then limited to the purchase of a single share per turn. These differences were fascinating – but made for a less interesting game than the one I knew. And, even more unusually, there was a mystery in the game – by all indications, the World Map edition had to precede the standard wood tile edition – but the copyright on the back of the World Map edition was 1963, as compared to 1962 for the wood tile edition. I didn’t worry too much about this, but it was odd.
Then, in 2012, I decided to play Acquire 50 times for the 50th anniversary of the game’s release. I kept some statistics from my plays, and discovered quite a bit more about the game as a result. It wasn’t surprising, but the game ended a roughly equal number of times due to each of the end game conditions – and about a tenth of the time on both conditions simultaneously. Much more startling was the fact that the average game of Acquire has 7 mergers, with 70% of games including 6-8 mergers; I would have guessed that there were significantly more. (For more information about the 50 games, see http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/98294/50-plays-of-acquire-in-2012.) But again, this quest lead to a mystery – Rick Heli asked what day Acquire was actually published. I didn’t know, and I had no good ideas as to how I might find the information.
Sid Sackson was a most meticulous man. I’d somewhat known this, from various articles I’d read about him over the years, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to see his diaries and files at the Strong National Museum of Play that I realized just how organized he was. His diaries contain a wealth of information – but also an index, making then easy to navigate. And his files are a marvel; he drafted his letters by hand, and retained those copies of all of his correspondence, allowing for easy reconstruction of discussions that took place half of a century ago.
In tracing the history of Acquire, however, there is one disappointment – his diaries only go back to 1963. I had previously read something of the game’s history, however; the game had its roots as a war game, named Lotto War.[ii] So after inquiring about earlier diaries, I was disinclined to spend a large amount of time looking though the Sackson collection – until Chris Kovac saw a note in the 1963 diary, on October 11, stating “Signed Contract for Acquire (Vacation)”.[iii] That didn’t jive with the game having been published in 1962 – and as a result, I spent the next 90 minutes going through Sackson’s correspondence with 3M and other material, looking to understand the timeline of Acquire. What follows is my understanding of that timeline.
It’s not possible to say just when the design that became Acquire started, from the information available, but by the time it was ready to show to 3M, the title he was using for the game was Vacation.[iv] Sackson heard of the line of games 3M was planning to produce on March 26, 1963[v], and showed them Acquire (under the title of Vacation) on April 2, 1963.[vi] This clearly precludes the notion that 3M published the game in 1962 – but then why does the box have a copyright date of 1962? My initial theory was that 3M had received the game in 1962 and the date was the copyright for the artwork, but that is clearly not supported by the diary entry on April 2nd. Looking through more of Sackson’s 1963 diary, however, a plausible explanation becomes obvious – Sackson likely registered a copyright for his rules for Acquire in 1962, and the date was used for the cover art. It’s also possible that the date was used to align with the three earlier 3M games, Twixt, Oh-Wah-Ree, and Phlounder – games that had already received test marketing editions at the time that Sackson showed Acquire to 3M.
The path from 3M looking at Acquire to their decision to publish the game was rather straightforward. On May 17 – six weeks after they first saw the game – 3M sent Sackson a payment to hold the game for further evaluation.[vii] About a month later, Sackson heard that 3M wanted to make changes in Vacation to reduce the cost of publishing.[viii] Unfortunately, there’s no direct record of those changes, though later correspondence suggests the likely nature of those changes. There’s no further mention of the game until September, when Sackson writes that 3M wanted to test market Vacation, under the name of Acquire.[ix] The only real issue to come up during this time was when Sackson, though his agent Alice Nichols, received the proposed contract; it put a cap on royalty payments at $25,000 and a reduction in royalties by 80% if a knock-off game impacted sales.[x] These issues were quickly resolved, and Sackson signed the contract for Acquire on October 11, 1963.[xi]
Production of the test marketing copies of Acquire was nearly complete at the beginning of November[xii] – there are advantages to controlling one’s own manufacturing. 3M planned to test market the game in eight cities: Shreveport, New Orleans, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Madison, Milwaukee, and Denver, with full color newspaper ads in the New Orleans, Saint Louis, and Denver newspapers.[xiii] Copies of the ads were sent to Sackson, and are rather fascinating in and of themselves – particularly the picture of all five games lined up, all at different heights and widths.[xiv] One of the important revelations I had when looking through the history of Acquire was that the “test marketing” copies 3M referred to are, in fact, what is commonly known as the “World Map” edition of Acquire. This was confirmed in a letter from Sackson to 3M, referring to the test marketing edition but offering specific comments about the World Map edition rules.[xv]
To understand Sackson’s comments about the World Map rules, one needs to first be familiar with the differences from the familiar rules for Acquire. First, the most important difference – on a turn, one (and only one) share of stock may be bought. However, in compensation, each player is dealt their share of 60 stock certificates at random before the game begins. To further complicate matters, the number of shares in each chain is unique, ranging from 22 up to 35, and players are not awarded shares for founding a new chain. There are other minor differences, such as Continental being one of the inexpensive chains, but that’s the majority of the differences.[xvi]
There are two other key points to make about World Map Acquire before proceeding to the process by which it transformed into the Acquire we know today. First, it’s important to note that World Map Acquire _is_, in essence, the game that Sackson submitted to 3M. This is clear from one diary entry made shortly after receiving his copy, noting that the changes to the payout chart worked well.[xvii] The lack of comment on other changes implies that there were no other changes; the test marketing edition is, in fact, nearly identical to the game he submitted eight months prior. The second matter worth looking at is the number of copies printed. There is no definitive information in Sackson’s papers to give this data, but there is a trail of breadcrumbs. Sackson received three royalty payments for Acquire prior to the broad release of the better known edition.[xviii] [xix] [xx] Unfortunately, these statements don’t reference the number of copies sold, but only the net sales, which totaled $2368.91. Fortunately, we do know the retail price of the test marketing edition of Acquire from the newspaper article; it ran for $6.98.[xxi] Given my limited knowledge of game distribution at the time, my best guess is that the net price was approximately 2/3 of the retail price, which suggests that 500 copies of the test marketing edition were printed. If one assumes a lower net price, it’s possible that 750 copies, or even 1000, were produced, but based upon all available information I would suggest that 500 is most likely. It’s also worth noting that Sackson’s advance on royalties, as listed in his royalty payments, was $75.[xxii]
In establishing the publication date for Acquire, I spoke with Zev Schlesinger of Z-Man Games. He mentioned that from his point of view, there is no such thing as a “publication date”, but rather just a printing date and a street date. But he did say that he would not consider a test marketing edition for these dates. The publication date, in his view, would be when the intended printing hit the market.
Having now detailed the path to the production of the test marketing edition of Acquire, the next step – and the most interesting part of the story, for me – is going through the game’s journey to the Acquire we know and love still today. This is where Sackson’s habit of drafting his letters – and saving the drafts – makes all the difference; as a result it’s possible to follow nearly the whole path.
Sackson’s first letter to Bill Caruson, a Product Merchandiser at 3M who was heavily involved with the company’s entry into the game industry, upon receiving his first copy of the test marketing game, is focused on improving the rules of World Map Acquire, as opposed to changes to the game.[xxiii] He mentions a rule apparently under discussion previously, where at one point the hotel chain marker _replaced_ the hotel marker on the board; as a result of that rule having been removed, there is an inconsistency in the World Map rules. The other corrections were incorrect numbers (likely the result of changes to the payouts) along with a strategy tip and emphasis on the short duration of the game Sackson wished to see added.
The real changes started to occur when Caruson suggested a few changes to World Map Acquire.[xxiv] The first suggestion was to not distribute any stock at the start of the game, but to give each player an additional $3,000. The second change is to allow players to purchase as much stock as they want on a turn – a suggestion most Acquire players can recognize immediately as an awful idea. Finally, Caruson suggests placing the tiles used to determine turn order directly onto the board; previously, players added them to their original hand of tiles. Caruson also notes that he feels the game plays better with four players than with more, particularly with his suggested variations.
Sackson’s reply is completely professional – an impressive achievement given how silly the idea of allowing unlimited stock purchases was.[xxv] He starts by agreeing that removing the dealing out of shares makes sense; he explains that he intended that the “shares” represent influence, rather than stock, but agrees to the change. He claims “strong objections” to unlimited purchases, and gives a detailed description of the effect of the rule with his group, where the first player founded a chain and bought 12 certificates, the second bought 6 in the same chain, the third founded another chain an bought 12 additional shares, and so on. This completely eliminated the interest in trading 2-for-1, save for any financial gain. Later in the game, a player would start a chain and buy all of the shares, to collect both the first and second place bonuses. Sackson proposed reducing the number of shares in each company, to a range of 18-30, and awarding two free shares to a player founding a company, returning the number of shares a player may purchase to one. However, to add variety players would be required to found companies in a randomly determined order, though companies which have been merged away may be restarted in preference to the next in line. One of the classic disagreements regarding Acquire is whether player’s stock holdings should be kept so that all players can see them, or “open”, or if they should be hidden, or “closed”. Of particular interest in the open-versus-closed holdings debate is a suggestion from Sackson that, as there are no certificates dealt out and therefore no unknown factors, players should fan their shares so that everyone knows exactly where they stand at all times. Sackson also noted uncertainty as to what happened when the initial turn-order tiles form chains; he suggested letting the first player name them. However, he was concerned that in general this change gave the first player a considerable advantage, and recommended against the change – but admitted that he did not feel strongly about it.
The next correspondence between Sackson and Caruson followed a call between Alice Nichols and Caruson.[xxvi] Sackson notes that with continued testing of his rules, he’s found that a player not able to form chains is effectively eliminated from the game. To address this, he suggests offering a bonus to the player causing the merger of two shares (actually, he crosses out shares and calls them blocks) in the surviving company, so long as that company is not safe before the takeover. A safe chain, merged into, provides a bonus of one share. To try to better balance the luck, Sackson suggests adding a set of 25 stock option cards, and giving players an additional $2,000 to start. The stock option cards are shuffled and dealt to the players, and kept secret until used. One additional stock can be purchased, on a player’s turn, by turning in one stock option. Also of interest is Sackson’s suggestion that the tiles might be replaced by pressed board, or even cardboard, so long as tile racks are added – a suggestion 3M never acted upon, but coincidentally carried out by Avalon Hill decades later.
Caruson’s return letter is, in and of itself, not very revealing.[xxvii] Caruson reports that Acquire is “one of the best games” 3M’s test panels have ever played. But, he notes, the basic concept of Acquire is so sound that “it doesn’t seem to make too much difference what we do to change the rules”. He attaches a copy of the rules, and notes the intent to have a full production model available approximately August 15. The rules Caruson references would look very familiar to anyone familiar with early editions of Acquire – it’s only when one looks carefully that one notices any differences.[xxviii] Sackson’s reply was almost immediate, trying to address a number of small but critical issues with the rules.[xxix] He noted that the purchase of shares was not explicitly after playing a tile, and requested a clarification. He also pointed out that the order for disposal of stock after a merger is important, and recommended starting with the player who caused the merger. Finally, he noted that it was not explicitly detailed what happens when there’s a tie for second place, or what happens if the a split bonus results in a spare $50 going to each player. It’s worth noting that the first and third of these rules were clear in World Map Acquire, and simply had become uncertain as the rules developed. All three rules were corrected before the game was published.[xxx]
That effectively ends the story of how Acquire came to be, in the form the game is known today. It’s not at all clear how the limit of three purchases a turn came to be, or when Caruson decided upon a flat 25 shares per company, but it is clear that the game went through significant and critical development between when Sackson submitted the game and when it came to finally be published, and that Bill Caruson played a major role in making the game a classic. It’s worth noting that the game was immediately and significantly popular; given the previous assumption about the net sale price, the net sales for the third quarter of 1964 (when the game was first available) show sales of more than 3,500 copies[xxxi], and fourth quarter sales topped 12,000.[xxxii] Those numbers would be impressive for a new release today – and also point to the fact that Acquire was really published for the first time in a general edition in 1964, not 1962, regardless of the date on the box.
So – is there a way for the level of development that occurred with Acquire to happen in the age of Kickstarter™? Some publishers certainly do develop their games at that level – if not going so far as the publication of test marketing editions. And some games go through significant development – Dominion, published by Rio Grande Games, being a good example. But could this be extended to more games? It certainly would add to the expense of publishing a game, which in an industry with margins as thin as often seen with board games, is a real issue. Though if the results are similar to those seen with Acquire, the costs could certainly be justified.
But a far larger issue would be finding a developer who can do as well as Caruson did with Acquire – particularly given that it’s clear that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, even if in the end he got things right. If a respected game developer can drive greater sales, the cost would be justified – but it’s not at all clear how one can become a respected game developer (at least at a level as to drive increased sales). There are certainly developers whose involvement would increase my interest in a game – but they’re already involved with publishers. Such a developer might be able to do better for themselves as an independent, but given that Kickstarter™ projects already seem to have little trouble attracting supporters – at least for the designs far enough along to benefit from development – it would seem to be a huge risk. But perhaps someone will find a way to make it work, and join the ranks of Caruson and Brunnhofer.
[i] “Hans im Glück Verlag” Wikipedia: Die freie Enzykolpädie. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 August 2013. Web. 27 April 2014. <http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_im_Gl%C3%BCck_Verlag>
[ii] Costello, Matthew J. The Greatest Games of All Time. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991. Print.
[iii] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. October 11 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[iv] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. March 27 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[v] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. March 26 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[vi] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. April 2 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[vii] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. May 17 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[viii] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. June 11 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[ix] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. September 9 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[x] Alice C. Nichols to Mark W. Gehan, September 20 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xi] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. October 11 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xii] Bill Caruson to Sackson, November 1 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xiii] Caruson to Nichols, November 1 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xiv] 3M; Bookshelf Games Advertisement, Saint Louis Post Dispatch. 8 December 1963 Reproduction. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xv] Sackson to Caruson, December 13 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xvi] 1963 Acquire Rules. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xvii] Sackson, Sidney. Diary. December 13 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xviii] R. D. Ebbott to Sackson, January 20 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xix] R. D. Ebbott to Sackson, April 20 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xx] R. D. Ebbott to Sackson, July 20 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxi] 3M; Bookshelf Games Advertisement, Saint Louis Post Dispatch. 8 December 1963 Reproduction. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxii] R. D. Ebbott to Sackson, January 20 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxiii] Sackson to Caruson, December 13 1963. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxiv] Caruson to Sackson, February 21 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxv] Sackson to Caruson, March 1 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxvi] Sackson to Caruson, June 3 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxvii] Caruson to Sackson, July 30 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxviii] How To Play Acquire …high adventure in high finance. 1964 rules (copyright 1963). Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxix] Sackson to Caruson, August 5 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxx] 1964 Acquire Rules. 3M.
[xxxi] K. A. Michaelson to Sackson, October 20 1964. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
[xxxii] K. A. Michaelson to Sackson, January 20 1965. Sid Sackson collection, Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong