Quod Erat Whatum?
Posted by Dan Thurot
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the best auction games are about managing bid inflation. What’s bid inflation, you might ask? Good question. It’s how the value of a good increases over the course of the game. Think of a popular artist’s work in Modern Art. Early on, that artist was unknown and their paintings weren’t worth much. But as they become more and more popular, the value of their work skyrockets. By the last round, everybody is breaking the bank to nab a single painting.
Here’s the proviso: I didn’t say auction games were about bid inflation. I said they were about managing it. After all, if you’re spending all your money on the most popular artist, your profit margins are probably slim. Everybody has their eye on so-and-so’s latest painting. The cheques practically write themselves. It therefore behooves you to dole out your resources more cleverly. Sometimes it’s the bet on second place that both plays it safe and pays big.
Now imagine a game where your pool of money has no ceiling. You can bid anything. Five dollars, yes. Half a million pounds, why not. Sixty trillion yuan, now you’re talking. Welcome to Q.E.
One of the best things about Q.E. is that it’s the type of game you can explain within a single breath only to spend the next four hours playing and playing again and still not reach its click point. Here’s the short version: every round somebody reveals a disc, everybody bids on that disc with any quantity of cash they desire — written on dry-erase cheques that prompt the question of how one major world government goes about paying ninety billion dollars to another major world government — and then, at the end, whoever has spent the most money plunges their nation into such crippling hyperinflation that the Weimar Republic’s financial crisis looks like you once overpaid for ice cream during a beach vacation.
There’s more to it, of course, and it’s in those granular moments that Q.E. finds its footing. But the overview is solid, especially as a hook. Here’s an auction game where you can pay whatever you want. I have yet to teach the rules without somebody questioning whether they heard me right.
The longer version starts in 2008 with the crash of the stock market. Major world governments are now bailing out various industries, and printing massive quantities of brand new money in the process. There you go. Infinite money. In game terms your goal is more tangible, if only slightly: you want to place hatch marks on various bubbles of your dry-erase board to indicate that you’ve secured domestic industries, secured either runs or sets of industries, earned a bunch of points, and so forth.
Bad news up front, this bubble-filling is one of Q.E.’s weakest elements. Unlike the uncertain conclusion of High Society, the fluid valuations of artists in Modern Art, or the testy money-pit housing developments of The Estates, every play of Q.E. places the exact same elements up for auction. There will always be three industries of your nationality in the five-player game, or four in the three- and four-player games. There will always be four manufacturing gigs and four financial sectors and four agricultural conglomerates and four… well, you probably get the gist.
This is not an insignificant ding, in part because it places a cap on Q.E. that might not otherwise exist. When you know with a certainty what will appear — or worse, know so specifically that you’re waiting for a stab at the UK financial disc worth 4VPs — the game loses that maverick edge that drives the best auction games to pinnacles of tension and uncertainty. You don’t know exactly when the stock market will take a turn, but you know every major note it will hit today.
Then again, maybe Q.E. doesn’t need more uncertainty. It manages to produce plenty with the way it doles out only the barest snippets of information.
Here’s how. When somebody reveals a disc, they become its auctioneer by revealing a starting bid. Again, this bid can be anything, and often sets the tone for the game’s gradual inflation. $104,000 early on, $360,000 by the mid-game, a desperate half million on the final turn. Or ten cents. Bid how you like. I’m not your mother.
From there, everyone else bids. Except these bids are passed to the auctioneer in secret. The auctioneer looks them over and awards the disc to the player who bid the most — but not before scrawling their bid on the back of the disc they just won, a permanent record of how much money they churned out.
Here’s the critical takeaway: most people know very little about what just happened. Oh, they know something. Anyone who bid nothing is publicly revealed, and everyone else certainly bid more than the auctioneer’s base value. When playing with five people, everybody also gains a onetime ability to peek at a winning bid. But most of the time, the auctioneer alone knows how desperate everybody was to scoop a particular offering.
Between your turns as an auctioneer, the auctions you won, and a few stolen glimmers, it all stitches together into a broad subjective tapestry. You know some things. Enough to feel around the edges of how people are bidding. Enough to guess that you’ve spent less than somebody else. Enough to make an informed decision.
Not enough to avoid making the occasional stupid decision.
Q.E. is a humorous game, and it’s best played in such a way that revels in that humor. As the value of each successive disc is inflated by gradual panic, the occasional scrawled insult is like air released from an overfilled tire. When points and expenses are finally tallied, it’s a moment of equal tension and laughter. Oh, you overbid on that one disc by triple of what anyone else offered. Oh, you won a few bonus points by spending the least. Oh, turns out you suck at blind auction games. These revelations land softly because Q.E. is over so quickly. Blink and you’ll miss it, provided your blink was a power nap.
The result isn’t a perfect auction game; its auction items are far too drab to earn that distinction. But a good auction game? A fresh auction game? Definitely. More than merely evaluating how much things are worth, it’s about evaluating fragments of information to massage the game’s inflation, to manage its tempo and pacing. There’s nothing quite like forcing a rival to severely overpay for a slim handful of points. Enjoy those dozen Fort Knoxes of worthless paper money. Q.E. is nothing if not funny like that.
Especially when you write insults to the auctioneer. To some, that will be the crux of the game. Don’t worry about it. That’s the best part anyway.
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