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Talents – a new economic game

There was a discussion in the design forum at BoardGameGeek about designing a game starting with the mechanisms, or a new designer looking for suggestions about how to get started, or something like that.  Anyway, although my general design approach is to start with a theme and think of mechanisms to go with it, as a result of this thread I had the thought to try mashing up a Dutch auction with worker placement, and to see whether a theme could be found that could make sense of this odd combination of mechanisms.  (A Dutch auction is a sort of “reverse auction”, in which the price starts high and gradually comes down until a person stops the bidding and buys the item).  The one I came up with would have made my wife proud — the idea was that players were spending the day hunting for treasures at estate sales and garage sales.  At each sale, several items would be sold via Dutch auction, but the longer you wait for the price to come down at one auction, the less time you’re allowing to go and participate in the other sales.  I think this theme is kind of cute and maybe in some ways better than the one I’m pivoting to.  (And it isn’t really “worker placement” in the strictest sense, as the workers are more like “units of time”; perhaps it’s a bit more like Thebes, with its time track than worker placement).

Separately from this, I had the idea that it would be neat to have a series of games in Belltower’s line based on Jesus’ parables, and the parable of the talents seemed like it had potential for an economic game.  The parable of talents is found in Matthew 25:14-30, and is basically this:  a master gives each of his three servants some of his wealth, and instructs them to buy and sell with it while he is away, to try to maximize his profit upon his return.  Two of the servants double the master’s investment, and the master commends them, but the third buried the talent (a vast sum of money in the ancient world) to avoid any loss, and earns his master’s condemnation.

I’m interested to see whether this auction game could be the economic game about the parable of talents that I was looking for.  And here’s how it would work.  Each player starts with some money, and each turn, a player receives 12 “time tokens”.  There are a series of Dutch auctions; in each, one player presides, and draws and reveals a number of item cards equal to the number of players in the game less 1.  Then he starts the “clock” by placing a pawn at the maximum price, and gradually sliding it down, decreasing the sell price as he goes.  Each time it passes a “chip” icon on the track, all players who wish to stay in must pay one of their time tokens.  At whatever point a player wishes, he may call “stop”, pay the current cost, and take an item.  Then the auction resumes for the other players.  Players then have an opportunity to sell items they’ve collected, with sets of cards of a given worth progressively more the larger the set.  There’s a bit more structure to it than this, but basically, that’s it.  It’s a pretty simple game, that should play pretty quickly.

Design questions that linger include:

Should all of the item cards that will be available for auction each round be visible, or only those from the current auction?

I am inclined to start with only the current auction, to avoid information overload, but being able to see all of the items would help with strategic planning, so it’s something to consider.

Should the money come in the form of cards or plastic coins?

There’s something thematically cool about having actual coins, and actually there are some neat opportunities thematically above and beyond this, so I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.

Does a multi-item Dutch auction actually work?

Your guess is as good as mine!  If not, perhaps the auctions are for several items, or the auctions could each be for a single item, and perhaps instead of collecting sets of items, which have a rigid payout, you could be trying to fulfill “buy orders”, which call for a certain item at a certain price, but these change in value, or new buy orders are dealt out, each turn.