Dale Yu: First Impressions of Ponzi Scheme


Ponzi Scheme

  • Designer: Jesse Li
  • Publisher: Homosapiens Lab
  • Players: 3-5
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 60-90 minutes

ponzi scheme

Ponzi Scheme is a game which is meant to relive the days of the original Ponzi Scheme – invented in Boston in 1919 by Charles Ponzi.  This type of scheme essentially promised investors that they would “get rich quick”.  Initial investors paid into the system and then were paid back using payments made from later investors.  These initial investors then helped attract more people to the program, getting them to invest more money into it which was then used to pay back the other previous investors.  The problem here is that there is really no money being made – just a bunch of it being cycled around, and at some point, things fall apart and there isn’t enough money to pay out the most recent set of schmucks who paid in.


In this game, players are in charge of their own Scheme – trying to make a quick buck off of their investors.  There is a funding board which has 3 rows of 3 spaces on it.  The starting cards (valued from 9-17) are placed on the board such the the three lowest valued cards are on the top row, the middle 3 in the middle row, and the three most valuable cards in the bottom row.  Each of these cards has a large number on it representing the payment the player receives upon acquisition of the card.  At the bottom, in smaller print is the amount that needs to be paid back and at which time point in the game it needs to be paid.  There are four different industries in the game, and stock markers for each are placed next to the board as well.

The funding board in the first few rounds of the game...

The funding board in the first few rounds of the game…

Each player also gets a Time wheel (well, really a hexagon) with numbers from 1-5 and a red arrow on it.  Players place their time marker next to the red arrow.  At the start of the game, players have no money nor stocks.  Players are given a screen with which they will hide the money they get later in the games.  Shares are always open knowledge.

The time wheel... The card at the red arrow has come due - gotta pay the bills!

The time wheel… The card at the red arrow has come due – gotta pay the bills!

The game will continue in a number of rounds until someone goes bankrupt.  At that point, scoring occurs. Each round follows the same pattern of six phases.

Funding – each player gets a chance to fund themselves from the market, though it is possible to pass.  To fund, you must choose a stock from the supply.  You cannot choose an industry if you already have 3 or more of them.  Then, depending on how many stocks you have, you must choose a funding card from the market board.  If it is your first stock in that industry, you must choose from the top (#1) funding row.  If it is your second stock, you choose from the middle (#2) row.  If it your third stock, you choose from the bottom (#3) row.  The stock card is laid out in front of your area so that players can always see what you have.  The funding card is placed next to the time wheel at whatever space is designated on that card, and the player takes money matching the large number in the middle of the card and places it behind his screen.  Finally, the funding board is replenished.  A new card is drawn and then the cards are organized such the three least valuable cards are in row #1 and the three most valuable cards are in row #3.

some of each of the shares for the four different industries

some of each of the shares for the four different industries

Clandestine Trading – Each player gets a chance to offer one clandestine trade, though it must be to a player who has shares of an industry of the active player.  The active player puts a secret amount of money into the trading envelope and then hands it to the other player.  This is essentially a bid to buy a share of the matching industry from the other player.  The other player must do one of two things – he can accept the offer, take the money and give up the share to the active player OR he can make a counter offer by exactly doubling the money in the envelope and then taking a share from the active player.  The active player may NOT refuse the counter offer.

The trading envelope on top and the super thick cardboard fountain pen (starting player marker)

The trading envelope on top and the super thick cardboard fountain pen (starting player marker)

Pass the Start Player Marker – the marker moves one spot to the left.  The new start player chooses any one card to discard from the market.  A new card is drawn from the deck and the market is reordered again.

Market Crash – there are 18 Bear funding cards in the deck (out of 72 cards).  If there is ever a number of Bear cards in the market equal or greater than the number of players, there is a crash.  All the Bear cards are removed and new cards are drawn to the Market.  Then, each player must discard a stock from the Industry in which he has the most stocks in.

Turn the wheel – now each player turns their time wheel clockwise by one space – UNLESS there has just been a Crash, and if so, then the wheel is turned 2 spaces.  Any fund cards that end on the arrow (or were passed by the arrow in a double move) are now due.

Pay the Interest – Players must repay the bank the amount printed on the bottom of each card.  Then, all paid cards are placed back on their time slot as designated on the bottom of the card.  Thus, once you take a card, you will have to keep paying for it over and over until the end of the game. If one of more players cannot pay the interest due, then the game ends.  All players who could not pay are bankrupt and cannot win the game.  All remaining players move into Scoring.

Examples of some of the cards

Examples of some of the cards

Scoring – Each player scores in arithmetic progression for each of the four industries based on the number of stocks they own (0 VP for 0 stocks, 1 for 1 stock, 3 for 2 stocks, 6 for 3 stocks, 10 for 4 stocks…).  Additionally, players get 0-4VP for the amount of money they have left at the end of the game.  The player with the most points wins.  In case of a tie, the tied player with the most valuable fund card on his wheel wins.

The game is filled with tension from about the third turn onwards.  This is mostly due to the impending wheel of doom and the mounting interest payments that need to be covered with each space advanced by the red arrow of doom.  Furthermore, the risk of a Market Crash and the obligate double movement can really get your tighty whities in a bunch when you realize how close you might be to going bankrupt yourself!

I think the key is trying to divine when you think the game is going to end.  If you think you can pinpoint it to a turn or two, you can make a bold move taking a big sum of money now that you might have to pay back in 3 turns.  If the game ends before you get to that spot, you’re golden – you’ll have plenty of money to make deals and you’ll also have money left over at the end for bonus payout.  However, if you misjudge the timing, you could end up being the one who goes bankrupt!

I found that this delicious sort of tension was manifest from about the fourth turn onwards – right after you start paying off your first interest payments.  The cards are set up so that they recur between three and five rounds each – generally, the cards with larger upfront payments are the ones which come back every three turns of the wheel though –  so you don’t want to pick these up willy nilly near the start of the game…

The clandestine trading is another tricky bit – and for me, it has much to do with where I am in turn order as much as how much money I have behind my screen.  We found that if you are first or second in turn order and you are involved in a clandestine trade, the other players will be able to sense who is now relatively short on money and then they can pounce and make an offer that you sadly cannot refuse.  Being able to make the final offer in each round in quite important because you will at least have a chance to fund yourself again in the next round before your opponents come after you with offers.

I found it very difficult to figure out how much to bid on some stock tiles – it depends on the game state, the relative bankrolls of the players as well as on the impressions that each player has to the timing of the game end.  If you’re trying to buy a tile, ideally you’d like to not overshoot the right asking price to save your own money – but if you don’t offer enough, then you           risk losing your own share!  As these shares are the main way to score points, you’d really rather not lose one in a trade unless your intent was to sell it for the money.

When I opened the box, I couldn't figure out what this was... A big hunk of wood

When I opened the box, I couldn’t figure out what this was… A big hunk of wood


The pieces in the game are well done, perhaps even over-produced (I can’t believe that I just said that…)  All of the cardboard is quite thick, and while I love this for the screens because it makes them super sturdy – the industry stock chits are the same thickness, and if weight were an issue, this could have been done on lighter stock.  The leather envelope for the clandestine trades is also of very nice quality – much more than I have seen in games recently. Finally, the bank of paper money is held in a block of light wood (possibly balsa?).  I actually couldn’t figure out what the hunk of wood was for at first, but it suddenly clicked about halfway through the first game.  It looks pretty cool, but it does add to the heft/cost of the game.   Rest assured that you are getting a lot of stuff of high quality in this game.  If you’re a parakeet, this is right up your alley!  (I should also note here that my copy of the game came with some extra (expansion) cards for Design Town – the game that has been released here as Flip City by Tasty Minstrel Games.

Here is the bank all put together...

Here is the bank all put together…

And a word of caution to anyone planning to bring this home from Essen – make sure you leave space for this in your carryon bag!  The weight of mine unpunched is 2,145 grams – that’s 4.71 pounds!  I’d definitely at least punch this one out and throw away the very thick sprues.  Once punched, the game now weighs 1,580 gm – a savings of about a pound and a half.   The game is still pretty hefty, but more manageable without all that extra super-thick cardboard.

The rules translation is well done – we had no issues at all with understanding the game right from the rulebook.  Additionally, there are player aid cards in multiple languages right in the box.  It is a bit tough to read the backside of one of them as it has a dark grey background with black text on it – but other than that, the game was easy to follow and play.

Here are the player aid cards. They are actually a bit more legible here because I upped the lighting. In our somewhat dimmer game room, it was nearly impossible to read. Grey text on a dark grey background?!

Here are the player aid cards. They are actually a bit more legible here because I upped the lighting. In our somewhat dimmer game room, it was nearly impossible to read. Grey text on a dark grey background?!

This has been the second big box game that I’ve played from Taiwan for this Essen season, and I must say that I am salivating at the rest of the lineup.  There were five or six games that seemed to catch my eye when I read the previews of them, and thus far I’m two-for-two!


Provisional Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. Craig V
  • Not for me…


About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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