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Open and Closed

Kevin Maroney

July, 2000

One of the things I like about the newsgroup rec.games.board is that its users are relatively polite and well mannered. Like every newsgroup, it attracts some trolls and spammers and an occasional flame war; but there is one subject that, surprisingly, causes a flurry of disagreeable posts almost every time it comes up and has led to at least three distinct flame wars in the last year.

It all starts with an innocuous question: "Are players' holdings in Acquire open or closed?"

In Acquire, Sid Sackson's classic game of hotel chains, first published by 3M in 1963, players are hotel tycoons, establishing hotel chains that grow and merge on an abstract board and using their own limited funds to invest in the various chains. The number of shares of stock available in each chain is limited to 25, and the strategy revolves mostly around gaining shares. At various points the hotel chains pay dividends to the players with the most and second-most shares. The battles for shares are closely contested, so it's vital to know who holds what. It's heartbreaking to discover at game's end that you're one share short of second place in Luxor, costing you tens of thousands of dollars and the game.

Here's the question: The original 3M rules did not specify whether players had the right to examine the other players' holdings during the game—whether you could ask someone, "How many shares of Luxor do you have?" Various groups adopted various positions on this issue. Later, publisher Monarch/Avalon Hill included an explicit statement in the rules that players could not examine each other's holdings;

Sackson has said that this is his preferred method of play, but that open holdings "is a perfectly good variant, too."

So the question is settled, right? Well, no. Many of the original 3M copies of Acquire are still floating around, and periodically someone will pop up on rec.games.board and ask what the "real" rules are.

And then the flames start. Someone (often me) will answer the question as I just did. And then someone who hasn't been through this before will say something like, "Playing with open holdings is for babies. You should only play it the real way." And whoosh! The flame-throwers are out.

So What's the Big Deal?

This seems like a minor issue to get all worked up about—one small rule in a classic game. (Almost without exception, the people who argue about this love Acquire.) And it's a question that borders on the moot: All stock transactions in Acquire are public knowledge: when Fred buys a share of Luxor for $700, everyone knows that Fred has one more share of Luxor and $700 less cash than he had a minute ago. There are no secret transactions; players can't buy random shares or make secret deals to swap stock for money. (There is secret information in Acquire, too—every player has tiles that allow building hotels—but money and stock transactions are open.). Anyone with pencil and paper or a good memory can easily track everyone's holdings. These holdings, though nominally hidden, are trackable.

Many multiplayer games have this type of hidden but trackable information. Reiner Knizia uses it in many of his games, including the justly lauded Euphrat & Tigris, Samurai, and his most recent major release, Stephensons Rocket. In all three, the information is the number of victory points a player has earned. Knizia has said that he hides victory points to reduce "analysis paralysis," which can slow a game to a crawl as players carefully calculate the potential effects of their moves.

But this device can have perverse effects. The object of Samurai is to capture cities and towns and figurines representing power among farmers, priests, and warriors. In general, capturing a figurine is good. However, Peter Sarrett has pointed out (The Game Report #19) that taking a figurine, under uncommon but plausible conditions, can actually cost a player the game if he isn't careful to track all other players' victory points.

Wolfgang Kramer, one of Germany's most celebrated game designers of recent years, perpetrated a particularly silly version of hidden, trackable information in his otherwise brilliant game El Grande. Players can hide some of their tokens (caballeros, knights) in the castillo, a wooden tower. At several points in the game the castillo is upended and the caballeros in it are counted. The balance of power in the tower can have a significant effect, so it's important for players to have a good sense of how many caballeros are in it. This seems no different from stock holdings in Acquire. But since every player has exactly 30 caballeros at all times, someone who really wants to know how many are in the castillo can just count all those held by the players—any not on the board are in the castillo. Of course, this is time-consuming for the counting player and stunningly dull for the other players, but the option is there.

Some games of pure negotiation depend on hidden, trackable information. Sid Sackson's It's A Deal (published in Germany under the unfortunate title Kohle, Kie$ & Knete, a.k.a. KKK), Reiner Knizia's Quo Vadis?, and Colovini and Vitale's Europa 1945-2030 all hide the players' victory points. Scoring points in these games is close to impossible without cooperation from the other players. If everyone knows precisely who has the most points, the leader will not be allowed to advance. By the end, either no one will negotiate with anyone else or, worse, a player who has no chance of winning will be forced to choose the winner. (This, the "kingmaker problem," deserves a column of its own. Trust me for now: It's no fun to win a game this way, and it's even less fun to lose it.)

Why is this a problem? Why not just play the game with hidden holdings, as the designers intended?

Some people don't have that option. They track this information perfectly and effortlessly, or nearly so. One member of my regular gaming group does this. For him not tracking hidden information would be like playing poker blindfolded.

But every player has this ability to some extent. Everyone has their own estimation of who is collecting Luxor or who has the most victory points. The perfect counters do it better than others, but most players can learn to do it if they feel the need.

In most games with hidden, trackable information, the better you track, the better you will do. In a game of Acquire with closed holdings, the most accurate tracker is likely to win because the others will waste more time and money buying stock that can't help them. In many of these games, if you don't have a good sense of who has what, you might as well be playing randomly.

Counting Counts

Every game presents challenges. In a game with hidden, trackable information, one of them is the tracking itself. In many such games, the memory element is completely unconnected to the other portions of game play, and many players would just as soon do without them.

One reason these arguments get so heated, no doubt, is ego—players who are good at tracking information would be reluctant to give up their superiority. But that seems rare; in the several flame wars I've seen on this topic, the best trackers usually argue against hidden information, because they don't consider it an interesting challenge.

A bigger reason seems to be simply habit. For someone who has always played Acquire with closed holdings, that's just the way the game is played. Anyone who suggests playing it differently is—well, just not playing it right.

Unfortunately, for some games, the final explanation is the fact that the hidden, trackable information was introduced to fix a problem. Some games are unplayable with fully disclosed information. But the problem is still there, for players who are good at tracking. Others might play the game lightly and enjoy it, not seeing the flaw that is clear when it's played with open holdings. Worse, they seem to resent those who point out to them that the game falls apart if someone is tracking information. The defenders of hidden information claim that it is the trackers, not the game, who are responsible, and that they shouldn't be paying so much attention to the game that they break it.

I can't accept that. I believe it's a poor game that becomes less playable the more attention is paid to it. Lots of games have problems; using hidden, trackable information to obfuscate the problem doesn't make it go away.

Fortunately, Acquire is a very good game indeed. There's no hiding that.

Addendum

As this column was going to press, my editor received a copy of the new edition of Acquire from Hasbro/Avalon Hill. They read, in part:

Players must now decide as a group whether the money and stocks they acquire will be openly displayed. An open display is strongly recommended for new or inexperienced players. If money and stock are not displayed, the game is even more challenging because players must try to remember how much stock each player has purchased.

Note: At any time during the game, a player may ask how many stocks of a company are still unpurchased.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

- Kevin Maroney

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