Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Q.E. (a.k.a. printing money)

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Q.E. is short for Quantitative Easing (not Queen Elizabeth). I had to look that up on Google. The first edition of the game was handmade with wooden components. Only a small number was produced, and not many people managed to buy a copy. The game had good reception, and that eventually led to a new edition being Kickstarted. The Kickstarter campaign funded successfully, and the new edition is expected to ship mid 2019. I played the first (wooden) edition, which had basically zero artwork. The new edition is much prettier.

Let's talk about the game. You are central banks of four countries. The world economy is in the doldrums. Giant companies are failing, and the central banks cannot afford to have them go bust. So the central banks must buy out the companies to save them, and to do that they are going to print money. They are central banks afterall.

We did a 4-player game. There are 16 companies in the game, from four different countries, and four different industries. These are evenly distributed. Throughout the game, the companies are auctioned off one by one. The game ends when all companies are sold. To start an auction, the active player flips over a company tile, and then decides how much he is willing to pay for it. The others then secretly bid for it. Naturally if you intend to buy it, you must bid a price higher than the active player's. The active player examines the prices offered by everyone. If someone other than him wins the auction, he announces the winner, but not the final price. Only the auction winner and the active player knows the final price. The other bidders only know that the final price is higher than whatever they have bid. That's all there is to the auction mechanism. Nothing complex. What make the auctions interesting are two things - (a) the unlimited money printing, and (b) the scoring.

You hold no cash. When you bid, you are free to bid any amount. You don't need to have any cash to pay for the company immediately. Remember, you can print money. This sounds ridiculous. The twist is that at game end, whoever has printed the most money automatically loses. Only the others will compare scores to determine who wins.

There are many ways to score points from the companies you buy. The companies themselves are worth victory points, ranging from 1VP to 4VP. A 4VP company is naturally much more attractive than a 1VP company. You are the central bank of a country. If you buy a company from your country, you gain some points. Before the game starts, you are secretly assigned an industry to support. If you buy companies of that industry, you gain points too. You also gain points if you are well diversified in the industries you are involved in. All these ways of scoring are meant to create value in the companies, and to create differentiation of value to different players. You need to think about how much a company is worth not only to you, but also to each of your opponents.

During the game, once per round you can bid $0 (i.e. give up on bidding) to earn 2VP. 2VP is not much, but if you are not interested in a particular company, or you don't think you can win it anyway, you might as well take the 2VP.

The rules are not complicated. However, knowing how much to bid is much trickier.

The tile at the top right is the company being auctioned off. The company tile specifies country (France, I imagine in this case), VP value (2VP here) and industry (automobile). At the bottom left, the active player (me, green) has set a price of $8. Red and black players have written down their bids and placed their bid tiles on the board face-down.

That's my country flag at the top left (England?). At the lower left, the automobile industry is what I have been secretly assigned at the start of the game. The oval marker at the top right reminds me that I have not yet claimed the 2VP for not bidding. Whenever I claim this benefit, I need to flip the marker over as a reminder to not do it again until the next round. The letter Q is the start player marker. The start player changes every round.

If you compare this photo with the first, you will notice that the price has increased from $8 to $60! This is inflation, and this is what money printing leads to.

The Play

This is a game of brinkmanship. How high dare you go? In the game we played, Allen and I were conservative, and that served us poorly. You do need to win companies to score points. You are not progressing if you don't win companies. You need to bid high to win companies. You just need to make sure you are not the one who spends the most money by game end. This is the balancing act. You want to be second place in the race, because the first place will crash and burn. You want to run fast enough to stay ahead of the rest, but you must not overtake the first place.

Jeff (right) and Player A (top) were more aggressive in bidding, and won more companies than Allen (left) and I ( bottom). At this point, the open price was already $80, compared to the $8 in the first auction of the game. The companies bought in the early game were real bargains!

I suspect inflation is inevitable every game, the question is only how quickly and by how much. Everyone is under pressure to bid higher and higher in order to win the companies.

By the end of our game, it was obvious the winner would be either Jeff or Player A. Both of them had decent portfolios of companies, while Allen and I had fewer companies. It was a question of who would be disqualified due to having printed too much money. We scored everything else and left the disqualifying step at the end, to keep things exciting. After we summed up our spending, it was Player A who had spent the most, so Jeff was the winner. Allen's score and mine were close as we built up to the final reckoning. There was a bonus for whoever had spent the least amount of money. It would determine who between us would win second place. After adding up our spending, it was Allen who had printed the least money, so he was the most prudent central banker, and I ended up last on the scoring track.

The Thoughts

Q.E. is simple yet thinky. You need to consider carefully how much to bid, and you need to guess how much your opponents are willing to bid. You need to evaluate how much a company is worth to your opponents. There can be a lot of serious contemplating and calculations when playing this game. This is certainly not a light and relaxing game, despite the simple components and few rules. It is almost like an experiment on economy and human psychology. This is a highly interactive game.

The second edition will be much prettier. Photo source: Boardgamegeek. If you are interested in ordering a copy, try this link.

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