I have the sneaking suspicion that at some level, everyone imagines themselves to be a sort of stock picking savant. With a bit of capital to play with, they would inevitably turn out to be investing geniuses, passing the time (profitably) at the local coffee house while cackling over their Scottrade account on their laptop screen. Well, wonder no longer. Stockpile is here. Soon, you too can sit on the beach and shout out to your pals on passing yachts.
For all the apparent accessibility of the stock market theme, there are surprisingly few games that focus on it. Moreover, too many of these games are ponderous behemoths with complicated rules and relatively long playtimes. Thankfully, Stockpile boils all of that nonsense down to the simple visceral satisfaction of buying low and selling high by means of some thoughtful and streamlined mechanisms. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a stock market game quite so sleek and elegant as Stockpile.
Games are all about moments. Create enough fun moments, string them together into something of an arc, and voila, there is a game. It’s not enough for the broader goal of a game to be compelling, the individual moments that make up the journey must be fun or else there is not much point to playing. The old road-trip maxim “getting there is half the fun” needs a slight modification when applied to board games: “getting there is ALL the fun.” Stockpile is a rare game that truly understands both of these concepts. The end goal is worth the trip and the action stays fun throughout every phase of the game.
Stockpile takes place over a number of rounds in which players will get a bit of information about how stocks will move, have an opportunity to buy and sell stocks, then discover how each stock moves. Unsurprisingly, the player with the most money at the end of the last round is the winner. At the beginning of a round, each player will receive information on what one of the stocks will do at the end of that turn. This info comes in the form of a pair of cards: one of the six company cards and one of six stock movement cards. Each player has a pair that only they can see and additionally, there is a pair face up on the center board. Of the six stocks, each player knows for sure how two of the stocks will move: the one he or she received hidden at the start of the round and the one on the main board. Regardless of what is actually showing, each company card will be paired up with one of the six movement cards every turn, which ensures that every stock is going to do something on every turn.
Next, players create the stockpiles of cards on which they will bid. One card is dealt face up to a number of “stockpiles” equal to the number of players. Each player will end up with one of the stockpiles of cards at the end of the bidding phase. Cards represent one of three things: 1) shares of stock, which make up most of the cards, 2) “trading fee” cards, which cause players to pay additional money to the bank, and 3) “stock boom/bust” cards which allow a player to directly manipulate up or down a share of his or her choice. After seeding each of the stockpiles with one face up card, each player is dealt two more cards. In turn, players place one card face up and the other card face down on whichever stockpile they choose.
Once the stockpiles of face-up and face-down cards have been created, players bid to acquire them with an eye towards cheaply acquiring stocks that they believe will increase in value. After the stockpiles have been bought and paid for, players have a chance to sell shares for the current value shown on the board. This is a player’s last chance to get out of a stock that he or she knows will decrease in value or perhaps bust out completely. When each player has had a chance to sell, the information on each stock is revealed and the stocks move.
Making all six stocks do something on every round was an excellent design decision. First off, it streamlines the game tremendously. There’s no need to determine which stocks move and when. They all move. Every round. There are six pricing tracks, there are six stock cards and there are six movement cards. Shuffle them up and pair them off, nothing could be simpler. No tables to consult, nothing to draw from a bag, no chips to count or tracks to maintain – nothing to keep track of except the price of the stock.
I really enjoyed the auction aspect of this game – every player is guaranteed to get one stockpile so if you end up with the stockpile that you didn’t really want, at least you got it for free. The fact that players buy stocks via this auction method freed up the game to move only the “selling” price of the stock. A pesky problem that stock market games are often faced with is how to tie buying and selling prices together. Usually, selling something causes the price to go down (thus making the stock cheaper to buy) and there are separate mechanisms to move the price up and down to create some movement. I’ve never found this to be very thematic since individual investors are usually not significant enough to move the market. Stockpile’s very clever response is not to tie the two together at all. Instead, the game creates miniature demand economies within the auctions themselves, thus setting bundled prices for the various stockpiles and leaving the price tracks to define the selling prices only.
For such a streamlined game, the depth of the theming was remarkable. Perhaps counterintuitively (because designers always seem to overcomplicate stock market games), I think the unobstrusive mechanism does well to support the theme. The actual stockmarket moves around everyday all on its own, so the less you have to work to make this happen, the more the game feels like an actual working market, something Stockpile does very effectively. I loved the little moments and surprisingly real emotions the game created: the envy of watching a stock skyrocket when you don’t own any, the stress of a stock you’re heavily invested in teetering on bankruptcy, having some good information but not the information you want.
To me, the most interesting mechanism in the game is the price track, which is simple, unobtrusive and very clever. Whenever a stock moves past the highest point on its track, you simply bring the price marker back to the octagonal space on the track and continue upwards. Then, you move any shares you own to your split portfolio where they are worth double the price indicated. If you own split shares and the stock splits again, you get an immediate cash dividend. However, if you buy a stock after it has split, it goes into your regular portfolio as opposed to the split portfolio (you got in too late!). It’s impressive the way it creates the feeling of getting in on the ground floor with a high-flying stock. On the other hand, if a stock ever reaches the lowest spot on the price track, it immediately goes bankrupt and all shareholders are wiped out. All shares of the stock are then immediately discarded for zero dollars, even stocks from your split portfolio (the horror!).
Stockpile sets up a compelling dynamic between long-term goals and short-term profit taking off inside information. Players have to decide between buying and holding stocks for splits and end game majority (each majority holder in each stock gets an end game bonus) and what amounts to day trading, which is bargain hunting on the auction track and selling anything except what you know to be going up. Both strategies are viable and the interplay of these incentives is interesting and fun.
The advanced side of the board, in which stocks have different features, creates even more tension between these strategies. By changing some small aspects of the price track, stocks are made to be more volatile (faster splits but more chances to bust), high cash flow (paying regular dividends), faster price appreciation, more predictable and less prone to bankruptcy. I had played a few games on the beginner side of the board (where all the price tracks are identical) before switching to the advanced board – without any increase in complexity or anything extra to keep track, the added depth was pretty impressive.
Another nice touch was the ability to play as investor “characters”, which conferred special abilities and adjusted the starting capital for each player accordingly. I wasn’t as big a fan of this part of the game as it really felt a bit unnecessary, and even a bit theme breaking – why should an actual stock investor have a special ability? We already have inside info, isn’t that basically our “special ability?” In any event, it is fun to mix the game up (especially after a lot of plays) with the various characters. On a separate note, I personally believe representation is important in games, so it was a bit disappointing that the slate of a dozen or so characters was 100% white and included only two women. However, I was very glad to hear the game designers plan for a more diverse cast of characters in future expansions. I’m happy that Nauvoo Games is committed to creating games that include a broad base of boardgamers.
As a gateway game, Stockpile is remarkably, almost shockingly strong. I suppose it should come as no big surprise as it stealthily hits almost all the hallmarks of a great gateway: familiar theme, simple mechanisms, continuous player engagement, hidden information and an overabundance of those unique little moments that make boardgaming great. Combine all that with quick gameplay and significant depth and you have an excellent family game that belongs in everyone’s library.
Designed By: Seth Van Orden
Published By: Nauvoo Games
Ages: 13 and up
Time: 45 Minutes
Mechanics: Economic, Auction, Stock Holding