Panic on Wall Street!
By Britton Roney
Published by Marabunta
Disclaimer – I received a review copy of this game.
I have never received a review copy of a game before. This probably comes as no great surprise; while I’ve been writing game reviews for nearly twenty years, many reviewers have written more in a year – or even just weeks – than I ever have. And I’ve generally written reviews for whoever asked, and always after at least three plays – which I did not wish to commit to for a game I’d never played before.
Of course, I didn’t this time either. Dale was looking for a volunteer, and in a moment of weakness, I volunteered – with the proviso that I would play it (at least once), and I would write about it. The comments on the game on BoardGameGeek were sufficiently interesting to suggest that I’d enjoy the experience, if not the game.
Well, I’ve played it – once – in spite of the warning on the back of the box, suggesting that my enjoyment of German games made me unlikely to enjoy Panic on Wall Street!
And – it’s neither as good as the positive comments on BGG suggest nor as bad at the negative comments would have you believe. In brief, the players are divided into two roles, playing two simultaneous but separate games. The investors purchase shares in various companies, benefiting if a company does well and being penalized if it doesn’t. The managers try to sell the investors on their companies, taking as large a cut as possible, while also paying expenses for their companies and investing in additional businesses. The winners are the most successful investor and the most successful manager.
Overall, I’d recommend that those who won’t be completely put off by the randomness of the stock market try the game, though only those who are happy with that randomness will be likely to really enjoy it. It’s reasonably well produced, the artwork is well done, and the dice and money particularly stand out positively. For $40 (assuming that is the retail price, as it was for Masters of Commerce, which is apparently identical), the components feel consistent with the price.
Having completed the review portion of this article, what I really would like to write about is the design of the game. There are three main elements to the game design, and two of them work well. The third – doesn’t, for me, and strikes me as a lost opportunity. And, in fact, that was one of the main comments the group had when we played it – the game really feels like it could have used more development.
The first main element of the game design is the split between investors and managers in the game (unless playing with fewer than 5, which isn’t recommended). It’s an interesting idea – one I’ve considered, in a different style, a number of times myself. In particular, it is an effective method to support a larger number of players; I played the game with just 6, but I can easily imagine the game working equally well with 11, at just a small cost in time due to the added overhead. The rules seem to anticipate some negative reaction to having two separate winners, but I would not anticipate that reaction.
The second main element of the game design is the turnless deal-making. This has been compared to deal making in Pit, and they are related, but the trades in Pit are closely defined and well managed by the rules; here, things are much more free form And that’s not a bad thing; the timer does help to make this aspect of the game work very well – with the right set of players. In many ways, this is what makes the game – and the reason that it _is_ worth trying.
But then, there’s the third design decision. Actually, there’s a fourth – the auction of new businesses that only involves the managers, which is unfortunate but over quickly enough that it’s not a particularly big deal – particularly if the investors take turns leading the auctions. But the adjustment of stock prices occurs via – a die roll. A high risk business adjusts a minimum of two spaces, a low risk business a maximum of one space, and across a much more narrow range. As a result, the winner among the investors is the player who gets luckiest with their investments. Not much more, really; there’s enough competition among the managers that prices naturally don’t vary too widely. (Among the managers, the winner in our game was the person who overbid least for more businesses, but that’s very group dependent.)
But the problem is worse than that. The four dice have an average value of 0, 0, 0 – and +1/3. This makes green – the medium-low risk investment – the only investment which should, on the whole, pay off. Of course the rules don’t mention this – but if one investor figures this out, they should improve their odds significantly.
The worst part is that this same problem – randomly affected stocks – has been around for years. And it’s been _solved_ many, many times. Now, most of the solutions – from the complex one of 18xx to the clever method of Black Friday – wouldn’t fit in with the other mechanisms here. But that doesn’t mean that something clever couldn’t be devised, to give the players some reasonable understanding of the likely changes while still leaving a random element in the mix. In fact, by splitting the players into two groups, there was the potential to split the information in an interesting way, where the investors and the managers each know something – and can try to mess with each other with that information.
And thus, on the whole we’re left with a game that works well in some aspects, but not universally, and thus isn’t nearly what it could be. Which is unfortunate; other than the stock market, the rest of the game worked much _better_ than I’d expected.
Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Yu: I played a few rounds of the original version at Essen 2011. It was way too random for me – we aborted after those few rounds when all at the table knew it wasn’t their sort of game. There were plenty of folks there who liked it (and still do) – but I wasn’t one of those.
There’s another game that divides players into two groups and awards a separate victory in each group—Duplicate Bridge. Having two winners (actually, two winning teams) doesn’t seem to have hurt popularity there.