Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Panic on Wall Street

Plays: 7Px1.

The Game

Panic on Wall Street is themed around stock market trading, in the non-computerised age, when buyers and sellers shout and haggle and behave no differently from a fishmonger at a wet market. Despite the theme, some of the mechanisms actually do not work the same way as their real-life equivalents. So you need to make sure you explain the concepts carefully so that players don't get confused by their own preconceptions.

Players are split into two groups - fund managers and investors. They compete separately within these two groups, and at the end of the game there are two winners, one richest player from each group. The most prominent part of the game is the trading. This is a real-time phase, timed by a 2-minute hourglass, where all managers and investors try to sell / buy shares. It is an open-for-all format. Strictly speaking, the managers are not selling the shares to the investors. They are merely selling the rights to earn dividends from those shares for one round. When an investor buys a share, he needs to consider how much dividend it might bring and how much he is willing to pay. A share can actually "pay" negative dividend, i.e. the poor guy who bought it will lose more money! When a manager sells a share under his control, he will of course try to sell it for as high a price as possible. There is a $10 per share commission that he must pay to the bank every round. That is his operating cost. For every share that he can't sell, it's a $10 loss. There is time pressure for both investors and managers. Investors want to grab every opportunity to make money, and managers want to make sure they don't end up with unsold shares.

The large cards are the shares. You can write prices on them with a dry-erase marker that comes with the game. The round markers are investor markers, indicating that the shares have been sold. Each investor has his own colour. All three shares here have been bought by the same investor player.

Once the trading phase ends, it is time to determine the dividend amounts. This is determined by die rolls. The die faces don't specify the exact dividend amounts, they just indicate how many notches the values go up or down on the game board. There are four types of shares, ranging from low to high risk and volatility. The higher the volatility, the more extreme the possible values for dividends. The more volatile share types (red and yellow) can "pay" negative dividends, but when the dividend amounts go up, you can really make a killing. Once the new dividend amounts are determined, investors collect dividends, then pay the managers, and then the managers pay the $10 share commissions to the bank.

Movement of dividend payout level is determined by these colourful dice. Red is the most volatile. It can go up 7 levels! That means it can go from one end of the scale to the other.

Before the next round starts, some new shares will be introduced, and the managers will buy them via an auction. As new shares are injected into the game, there will be more opportunities for both managers and investors to make money. They will also be able to diversify more if they choose to do so. The game ends after a fixed number of rounds, and the richest players (among managers and among investors) win.

The Play

I did a 7-player game, 3 managers and 4 investors, and I was one of the managers. The trading was quite a riot. It was a messy, noisy and chaotic free-for-all. As a manager, I always felt the pressure of time running out and not being able to sell all my shares. Every unsold share is a $10 loss. That said, I tended to set prices higher, trying not to cut my own margins too slim. There was a lot of haggling. At one point I even offered packaged deals - three shares for $50!

I sold those three shares on the right as a packaged deal to Allen, three for $50.

The trading phase may be the most prominent, but the game is certainly not only about that. It is an exciting and engaging execution phase, but outside of that phase you do need to plan your strategy beforehand, e.g. what shares to buy as an investor, and how to price your shares as a manager. Things may not always work out when the clock starts ticking, so you have to be flexible and be able to think fast. Sometimes you need to be adamant, but sometimes you have to react to how others are playing. I find that managers bidding for the new shares is quite an important aspect of the game. This is a long-term, strategic aspect of the game, allowing managers fine-tune their portfolios.

Red shares have hit rock bottom, while green shares are doing well.

All these standing up are the investors. Look at them all so absorbed. But in the end it was the cool cat sitting down (Ivan in black) who beat all of them to win. He observed that the green shares kept going up so he invested heavily in them.

The buying of shares, to me, is more or less just gambling. The investors can decide how much risk to take, whether to diversify. They know the current dividend level, and how volatile each share type is, i.e. how much the dividend level may go up or drop down to, but whether it will go up or down or not move at all is purely determined by a die and not by player actions.

The Thoughts

Panic on Wall Street will be remembered for its noisy and chaotic trading phase. I feel this is the central idea and the rest of the game is built to support it and to give it context. It certainly is exciting, and it works. Two things make me a little uncomfortable about the game, although I would hesitate to call them problems. Firstly, the fact that players need to compete in separate manager and investor groups. It would be nice to have them all compete together, as opposed to having this disjointed economic system. As a manager, I don't really care how well or how badly the investors do. It would be nice to have an integrated economic system, which would create more conflict between investor and managers. Separated competition means a 6-player game feels like two 3-player games.

The second thing that makes me uncomfortable is the lack of control over dividend levels. They are not driven by market forces or supply and demand. This is more a problem with my expectations than a problem with the game. The game tells the players probabilities and risks and rewards, and lets them make decisions based on these alone. The eventual dividend levels are modeled as something beyond the players' control.

All that said, I think this game is best played as a light party game with a big group, and the two concerns that I have will become non-issues when you are playing with a rowdy bunch of friends. The game becomes one of brinkmanship and of striking deals under time pressure. How much are you willing to pay for an opportunity? How much risk are you willing to take? In the end it is not about how much you transact. It is about how much you earn from the transactions. That's something to keep in mind throughout the game.


Lord of Midnight said...

I actually think separating players into two camps is in line with the theme. After all, those stockbrokers (ie managers) are usually not players and most players (ie investors) are not stockbrokers.

They have a small group variant for say 4 players where each player take turn playing Manager and then Investor. We find that variant to be a washout in terms of gameplay.

Anyway as you pointed out, the purpose of this game is simply to make noises and have fun... so for that, it hits the right spot.

I've one of Avalon Hill's older Stock Market Guru which has some supply/demand mechanics to it but the gameplay might seem slow (or maybe it's just been too long since I brought it to the table). Might be worth taking another look. :P

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Yikes, taking turns to play manager and investor doesn't sound appetizing at all to me.

Actually I don't mind that you play either investor or manager. What I wish for is at the end of the game, everyone compares wealth together, as opposed to doing this in two separate groups. I assume the game works the way it does now because the game can easily end up with all investors being much richer than all managers or vice versa.

Yeow said...

Suggest that
1) no player elimination. Can lend money with extra 20% to be deducted at the end of game
2) 2min crazy race for land lord to bid for land
3) investor get per share will raise the price of the share. but all dice rolls are negative. Who ever hold those share that reach 0 have to return all of that type back to bank.
4) each share only 10 pieces.