Bear Market: EXCHANGE review

So many times when playing a new game, I will get a tug of memory from an earlier experience. Not the same game, mind you, but almost a deja vu insight from another game we have played. For instance, in our recent play of Chocolate Factory, I felt a little excitement when drafting the cards and running the factory because it reminded me of the good experiences we have had with Furnace.

It’s a generally helpful recollection. We can see how some games build upon strong foundations laid in other games. Or see how designers themselves tweak and twist and pull at a certain game mechanic or idea until they stretch it into the proper shape, and then hone it into perfection.

But sometimes it is a hindrance, because the earlier experience trumps anything you want to do with the game on the table. That’s unfair to the designer, perhaps, but the heart wants want the heart wants.

Foretelling? Perhaps.

The folks at Bicycle Games over the last few years have moved from the production of playing cards to a full fledged board game company. We had Eric Slauson on Gumbo Live! a few years back to talk about one of those games, Tattoo Stories, and it was a big hit with the Chat Krewe because of the theme. But they make more than just party games or games based solely on cards. Spencer from the Lighten Up Initiative helped us review The Alpha, a game with a pretty cool theme that both of us enjoyed.

Bicycle also sent us Exchange, a game about building up the engine that would become the New York Stock Exchange, trying to pump up prices of various stocks but getting out before the bubble bursts. Exchange is designed by Eric Sillies, and the artist is uncredited, and is geared for three to six traders with a play time of about a half an hour.

In Exchange, players bet on whether they think certain stocks will go up over the course of the five rounds of the game. One of the strengths of Exchange is that you are not just mindlessly betting on random events causing the stocks to go up and down, but contributing to how they do using cards representing the commodities. And that you are essentially playing each other, not the game itself, because the winner will likely be the one who predicts what the other players are doing based on their past actions.

The twist is that players will see what you do, but only see part of your action — because each round you will have to show the other players (a) what you are interested in that round; (b) whether you are buying or selling; and what kind of shenanigans you are doing to the prices. Those are the kinds of decisions and mechanics that normally get me juiced up.

But, the problem in Exchange is that so much of this game feels like a blander version of better games.

Take Stockpile for instance. Am I being unfair, comparing Exchange to one of my top ten games of all time? Of course I am, but that’s the experience I bring to the table when playing Exchange. Stockpile is an economic betting game done right. There’s just enough information present in Stockpile to make everyone think they know what is happening that round, just enough player interaction to force people to make decisions that go against what they wanted to do, and just enough randomness to balance out both predicaments.

And if you play Stockpile like we do, with every single expansion thrown in, you’ve got a meaty game that can still be taught to the newest gamer at your game night. Exchange does not have that meat, and in its lightness, sacrifices depth in an attempt at speed and surprise but delivers neither.

Or take a game like Ponzi Scheme. Again, like in Exchange, you are playing the other players. Everyone thinks that they know what you are collecting and generally how much money you have on hand. But are they really on to you? Maybe your goal this round is just to survive long enough to force someone else to go under. Visualizing when the “bust” happens in Ponzi Scheme and in Exchange are just two different levels of experience, one more satisfying then the other.

I liked the idea of Exchange. It is a relatively simple game, hampered by an unintuitive rule book, that was supposed to introduce stock simulation and player interaction to a wider audience. Unfortunately, other games do this better. Exchange never delivered those stand up moments where someone wins and someone loses but everyone laughs together at the outcome. At least for me, Exchange is a bear market, and I will always pull out Stockpile or Ponzi Scheme instead.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

** Our thanks to the publisher for providing this copy.

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