This One’s a Bear
Posted by Dan Thurot
I like it when a publisher has an ethos. I’ve never really thought of BoardGameTables — which I can’t quite bring myself to write under its full name BoardGameTables.com, because blech — as anything other than a table company that happens to publish a few games on the side. Not unlike Ultra PRO and card sleeves, come to think of it.
Peculiar branding aside, writing about a portion of their catalog this past week has given me a more concrete sense for their internal logic. The defining trait is focus. Whether it’s Bites, On Tour, Q.E., Kabuto Sumo — yes, even Loot of Lima — these games pick one thing and try to stick the landing. More often than not, that one thing is offbeat. Outside the norm. Neither a mishmash nor a retread. They hone a single concept to a cutting edge. Even when the result is mixed, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a carefully curated selection.
And then there’s Bear Raid. Bear Raid may be offbeat, but it lacks the tidiness of those other titles. It even lacks the tidiness of designer Ryan Courtney’s upcoming game Trailblazers, which I wrote about last week. In that respect, it’s closer to Pipeline or Curious Cargo. This here is a big old mess. And I think that’s why I have so much affection for what it’s trying to do.
Not unlike Bites, Bear Raid is about speculating on and manipulating stock values. Very much unlike Bites, it refuses to sugarcoat the spoon to help its medicine go down. It’s cluttered from the very first moment. More than cluttered, it puts its clutter front and center, like a barked challenge. Or a warning, lest anybody wander past the table and find themselves sucked into its orbit. Company boards display holding pens for stock chits and their base price. The tracker behind your player shield requires explanation, and probably more than once. The rumor cards display a grid of outcomes that, even for experienced players, take a moment to parse. There are handfuls of dice, just enough that their sums don’t add up automatically.
This clutter, I suspect, is deliberate. The same goes for the game’s stubbornly unintuitive play structure. The short version is that players are both buying and shorting stocks to earn as much money as possible, while leveraging insider info to nudge company valuations upward or downward to either inflate the price of shares or bankrupt a company and divest any shorts.
If I knew Margot Robbie, I’d pay her to sit in a bubble bath and explain stock shorting like we’re pubescent middle schoolers. But I don’t know Margot Robbie. Her loss? Sure. Her loss. The gist is that stocks are worth the share price of their company. That part is easy. Shorts, on the other hand, are us betting against a company. They’re the antimatter of stocks, the antipope of stocks, negatively equal to a company’s share value. If I need liquid cash — and in Bear Raid, we’ll need regular infusions if we want to keep purchasing — I can go to a company board, check its share value, and buy shorts at that value. I track that negative value behind my screen in exchange for cold hard cash. The rub is that I’ll have to pay back those shorts later. If their value has appreciated or, heaven forbid, multiplied, I’ll have to pay them back at that price. Hence the desire to bankrupt companies every so often. When that happens, all shares go up in smoke — whether positive or negative.
Here’s the problem. Bankrupting a company isn’t a trifling affair. Everyone at the table sees insider info about each company, both this quarter’s crisis and the next. Maybe the CEO’s ex is scheduled for a public interview. Maybe the company is petitioning for a bailout. Whatever the rumor, we roll that company’s dice, compare it against the rumor card’s grid, and adjust the stock value up or down. But! The company’s pool of dice is fungible. We can bury dice. We can keep dice hidden behind our screen. Or we can flood a company with dice, potentially (but not guaranteedly) altering its value.
I’m dumbing down the process to avoid getting too rulesy. Even then, it threatens to become impenetrable. That’s appropriate; more than once, we’ve played an entire session that never clicked for somebody. There’s a clear line of cause and effect, but that line is buried inside one of those knot puzzles you find on the back of a kid menu. It also doesn’t help that Bear Raid rambles on for a while. The generous part of me wants to say it’s a commentary on the relentlessness of finance, but my nose smells “give everyone equal turns” as the culprit.
The clutter, though, that’s deliberate.
Here’s why. Bear Raid’s simulation is somewhat delicate. Every company’s available shares reset between rounds, preventing it from reaching a situation where nothing more could be bought or shorted. But within that limited and fragile representation of the stock market, it’s possible to get burnt. Something about playing with fire or flying too close to the sun. Even the shrewdest avenues are treacherous. Maybe you want to tank a company’s share value, so you pump a bunch of dice into the ecosystem, only for them to not get drawn from the communal bag. Or worse, they are drawn, but they roll low. Just like that, the company’s value soars, everybody’s shares double, and your desperation to get out from under a crushing negative score just doubled with them. Another hypothetical involves using particular companies as short-seller cash cows, then using the proceeds to repeatedly split the value of a third company, only to watch as your rivals decide to team up to bankrupt your retirement fund.
Point is, there’s just enough wiggle room that players can craft novel moments. Team-ups. Collaborations. Crashes. Raids. One time, a friend shorted stock to depreciate its value from bull to bear market, which increased the share value — doubling both his debt and his significantly more expansive positive shares. In a game about messing with share prices through rumormongering and coverups, he was getting rich playing by the rules. Rude.
None of those surprises would be possible in a clearer environment. The uncertainty of the dice, the conflicting aims of players, even the occasional hiccup in the system’s parsability, these are essential drivers of Bear Raid’s capacity to upset. They aren’t so capricious that sure things become unknowns. But they do spoil the occasional sure thing. Those are the hinges upon which Bear Raid turns.
Bear Raid isn’t as crisp as Courtney’s Trailblazers. Nor is it as playful as its sister title Bites. But it’s a worthy addition to the catalogs of both the designer and the publisher. I love a game that does the unexpected. This one transforms clutter and impenetrability into strengths, and crafts a deliciously unexpected and confounding play experience in the process.
A complimentary copy was provided.
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