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Thursday 6 May 2010

Who'd Be A Merchant Banker?

Best known for War on Terror, the boardgame, TerrorBull Games has followed up that controversial yet critically acclaimed combination of world politics with satire with another snarky poke at our contemporary international state. Not about its politics, but about its economic state as everyone from the banks down to the potential house buyer overextended themselves and so caused the world’s financial systems to wobble, wobble some more, and then collapse. Those institutions that managed not to collapse all too often went to their respective governments and asked for help in bailing them out, and in too many cases, the men at the top of those intuitions walked away with millions in their pockets. In the latest game from TerrorBull Games, you play one of those greedy fat cats.

Designed for two to four players aged twelve and up, Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers is the game in which as banking executives they try to keep their bank afloat whilst embezzling their bank’s assets and paying themselves enormous bonuses. When the “Credit Crunch” comes all they have left to survive on is the use of government bailouts that might just extend the financial life of their banks. The object of the game though, is not to be running the last bank afloat, but to be the banker who has walked away from the Credit Crunch with the biggest personal fortune.

The game is divided into four colour coded decks of cards. The first are the orange-backed Workforce Cards which represent a bank’s ability to process debt. The type of debt that they can process can be low (green), medium (orange), and high (red). Each Workface Card has one number – in millions – indicating how much it costs to run per turn and another number to indicate how many Asset cards can be lent against that Workface Card. The higher the type of Debt that a Workforce can process, the greater the number of Assets it can hold onto.

The pink-backed Asset Cards make up the largest deck and can be played either as Asset Cards or as Action Cards, but not both. All are marked with a monetary value – again in millions – with some marked as being cash or gold, or shares in arms, oil, or reconstruction companies. Primarily, such Asset Cards are lent out as Debt on Workforce Cards, but they can also be kept in a player’s Bank – represented by his hand of cards, or stashed away in his personal fortune – the point of the game. If an Asset Card can be played as an Action Card, it has some extra text to indicate what it can do. For example, “Portfolio Shake-Up” allows a player to rearrange all of his Assets lent to his Workforce, “Hedgefund” lets a player bet his Assets to gain more, whilst “Government Investigation” lets you pat another player down looking for hidden Assets that have been stashed away.

The purple-backed Trust Cards represents the faith that the government and the public at large has in a Bank. They remain face down for most of the game, but can be turned over at any time – usually when the Bank is running short of Assets – to receive a Government Bailout Package represented by a number on the back, between two and five new Assets. At worst, this Bailout Package can be useless and offer “No Help!” whatsoever.

Lastly, the blue-packed Event Cards mainly provide a means to gain income, represented by Asset Cards paid out as interest on Debts held – the higher the risk, the greater the payoff. They also have other effects such as “Bonus Time,” which has all of the CEOs voting to reward themselves a bonus of extra Asset Cards; “Bad Debt,” which forces every CEO to discard an Asset; and “War,” which grants a CEO more Assets if he holds shares in arms, oil, or reconstruction companies. The Event Cards also includes the dreaded “Crunch” Card which forces every CEO to show that he can cover the Debts he has with the Assets held. One Event Card is drawn at the end of each player’s turn and it affects every player.

Game set up is simple. Each player receives one Workforce Card, placed face up on the table; a number of Trust Cards, placed face down on the table; and several Asset Cards, held in a player’s hand as his Bank. The number of Trust and Asset Cards vary according to the number of players – fewer players mean more of each. The top card from the Workforce deck is placed face up.

On his turn a player can do four things. First he manages his Workforce, either increasing it and so gaining both a Trust and a Workforce Card; liquidating it and so losing all Debts attached to the Workforce Card as well as losing a Trust Card; or doing nothing. Then he pays his Overheads, covering all of the Debt he has attached to his Workforce Cards with Asset Cards from his hand. Then he can loan out any remaining Asset Cards as he wants, placing them on his Workforce Cards as he chooses. Lastly he turns over a new Event Card, the details of which apply to every player.

In addition, a player has a number of options that he can do at any time. These include flipping Trust Cards to gain a Government Bailout and thus more Assets; swapping, lending, or selling Assets with another Bank; playing an Action Card; and Embezzling Assets. To Embezzle an Asset a player must get its card from his Bank – or hand – and hide it somewhere. If the Embezzler is caught in the act, then the Asset is returned to his hand and he loses a Trust Card. A successfully Embezzled Card is added to the player’s personal fortune and counts towards the winning conditions at game’s end.

Lastly, if a player is subject to Audit or a “Crunch” Event Card, he must show that he has enough Assets in his Bank to cover the Debt lent out on his Workforce. When this happens and player does not have enough Assets in his Bank he either goes Bankrupt or he goes to the Government for a Bailout. The latter involves a player turning over one or more of his Trust Cards, receiving the indicated number of Asset Cards until he can cover his Debt. Should a player have neither enough Asset Cards nor enough Trust Cards, then the Bank is Bankrupt, and the player is knocked out of the game. The failed Bank is then put up for auction by the remaining Banks.

Play continues until all but one Bank has failed. The CEO of this surviving Bank receives a bonus to his personal fortune with extra bonuses received for any Trust Cards still held, but he is not necessarily the game’s winner. The actual winner is the CEO who has managed to accrue the largest fortune, this fortune being a combination of bonuses awarded – for example, by the “Bonus Time” Event Card, and whatever Asset Cards a CEO has managed to embezzle.

There are a couple of odd rules about the game. The first is the means of determining the starting player – whoever is the richest goes first. Which is a bit of a rude question. The second is not really a rule, but a suggestion that the players all wear three piece suits just as a fat cat banker would, the reason being that it provides more sleeves and pockets into which Asset Cards can be embezzled. Even considering the fact that not everyone owns such apparel, embezzling cards and getting them into pockets with everyone else watching is actually pretty difficult.

Embezzling though, is not the only means to win the game, though a CEO could just go for broke, embezzling as many Assets as he can before his Bank goes bankrupt. Crunch can be won by remaining solvent and gaining bonuses in play and at game’s end as the surviving Bank, maintaining one balance between Assets lent out as Debt and those in the Bank and another balance between Assets in play and his greed and thus need to embezzle. This is not easy as the game is meant to emulate the spiral into bankruptcy that sees Asset after Asset pass through the hands of the CEOs as they lends them as Debt, uses them to pay Overheads, and lastly to prove that can cover those Debts, all the while hoping for interest payments that will help finance their Banks. Getting to the end does mean knocking other players out of the game and that is one unfortunate aspect to Crunch because it does leave any such players with nothing to do until the end. Even so, the game is more interesting when there are more players because more Event Cards are turned over and a CEO has to survive longer between the periods when he can act.

What is interesting about Crunch is that as each Bank overextends itself and spirals into inevitable collapse, it is possible to create a narrative that apes the story of the financial crisis of the past two years. For example, if a CEO decides to reduce his Workforce and so discard the Assets loaned on that card, he must also discard one of his Trust Cards as both government and the public loses faith in the Bank. The CEO could avoid this by playing the “Bury the Story” Asset/Action Card, but equally another player could counter this with the “Investigative Journalism” card. This gives you a story or narrative, and there are any number of Action Cards that interact during the game like this, all modelling the flux and flow of the financial events of recent times.

Physically, Crunch is a nicely done card game, the cartoon illustrations done in full colour with each sharply catching the flavour of the card it illustrates, usually to humorous effect. That said, some of the illustrations and thus the humour are slightly adult in nature, so Crunch might not be a game to play with a younger audience or at school. This is not say that the cards in question are anything more than mildly offensive, but in such situations, it would be better to remove the less tasteful cards in question. Slightly more problematic are the rules which are perhaps a little too concisely written for easy and quick understanding of how the game is played. This makes it a little difficult to impart the game to others because the game itself looks more complicated than it is. At least one good play through is required to understand how the game flows and plays.

What strikes you first about Crunch is its theme, which is very well done and to very humorous effect. It is not a design in which theme overly dominates as the game’s mechanics do support the theme very well. Coming a close second to the poking fun at our current fiscal state and how got into said state, Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers also explains and illustrates how we got here, which is where it might have an educational use. The contemporary nature of the game and its knock-out style play may well mean that in the future it does not come off the gaming shelf all that often, but this does not mean that Crunch is a bad game. Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers is a solid design, its satire is to the point, and its play perfectly illustrates its theme.

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