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GAME CLASSICS: BIG BOSS

[It seems that around this time every year, we check our collection for great games that, for one reason or another, have disappeared from the shelves of gaming establishments. This time around, we revisit one of the most beautifully produced games of the 1990s done by a great award-winning designer who created the game in homage to another great award-winning designer. The game? Big Boss]

Reviewed by Herb Levy

BIG BOSS (Franckh- Kosmos, 1994, 2-6 players, ages 10 and up, 90 minutes; out of print)

 

It can be argued (and I think successfully) that Acquire, the brilliant game of hotel mergers and stocks designed by Sid Sackson, with its mix of simple, sleek and sophisticated game mechanisms, marked the birth of what we’ve come to know as Euro-style gaming. Acquire, released in 1962, was a game designed for adults, a bold concept generally unheard of concerning gaming outside of the traditional classics such as Chess, Backgammon and Go. Acquire found its following and was successful, so successful in fact that, over succeeding decades, it went through many printings by several companies both in the United States and in Europe. (The beautifully produced Avalon Hill/Hasbro edition was featured in the Spring 2000 GA REPORT). Because of its groundbreaking and continuing success, the game influenced and shaped many of the creations that followed. Wolfgang Kramer, a top designer in his own right, acknowledged Acquire’s impact by designing a homage to it. He fashioned his own financial game: Big Boss.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Right from the start, you had a feeling that Big Boss was something special. Big Boss came in an unusual package: a tall, striking box with impressive skyscrapers emblazoned upon it. The insides were pretty impressive too. Within the box was a gridded board with a winding track (with spaces numbered from 1 to 72) and a “concern value” track around the perimeter and 92 attractive three-dimensional building blocks. There were 90 building cards of two types: a set of cards numbered from 1 to 72 to match the spaces on the board’s path and 18 “story” cards to allow for adding another level on buildings to be constructed. There were eight potential corporations (or “concerns”) in the game with a “scoring” chip and seven shares of stock available for each one. As might be expected in a financial game, there was plenty of money (in cardboard chips as opposed to paper). Property “flags” (that looked like small birthday candles), two in a player’s chosen color, were given to each player along with 30 million. After shuffling the building cards, everyone was dealt a starting hand of 12.

On a turn, player had two options: buy another building card for 5 million (no hand limit) OR play a building card from his hand. Playing a building card is the cornerstone to the game.

As mentioned, most building cards display a number matching one of the spaces on the board. By playing a card on a vacant space, you are “founding” a concern; a building block is placed on that space and two more blocks placed adjacent to it, one on either side or both on one side. This three block concern is now given a name (with the appropriate name piece placed on one of the blocks). A concern needs room to grow so there must be at least 3 spaces, on both sides, between it and any other concern already on the board. (Another restriction: the founding player may NOT be holding a card matching any of the spaces being covered by the additional two blocks.) The chip for the concern is placed on 3 on the value track. (The value of a concern is equal to the number of blocks in it.) The player now receives a “founding” reward; the player receives the concern’s value (that is 3 million) as a one time payment. But instead of founding a concern, a player may expand it.

Expanding a concern also involves the play of a building card. The interesting thing here is that a concern may grow either horizontally OR vertically! Playing a building card with the number of an adjacent space to a concern adds a block to it, growing the concern by 1. The value of the concern also grows by 1 (charted on the value track) and the player will collect that new value in cash. Should the player play a card with the number of a space ALREADY covered by a block, the concern builds UP a level. (Story cards work in a similar fashion except you cannot use a 3 story card, for example, until a second story has already been built.) When expanding, the value of the concern rises an amount equal to the additional height so that a second level block raises the value by 2, a third level block by 3 and so on. And again, the player receives the new value of the concern as a one time payment. Playing a building card also gives the player the option to buy shares.

Players are free to buy shares in ANY concern that has been founded irrespective of whether they have contributed to its growth. A purchase of 1 or 2 shares, in 1 or 2 companies, is allowed. Each share is priced at a minimum of 5 million OR the current value of the concern, whichever is higher. Once bought, shares are yours. They are never sold or traded. But, rather than buying a share, a player may “acquire” it by using one of his two property flags.

A property flag may be placed atop any unclaimed concern and counts as three shares in that entity. The flag is “planed” atop the concern’s name piece block. No matter what the current value of the concern, the first property flag costs 15 million; the second costs a considerable 30 million! Once used, flags remain in play until the end of the game or until a merger occurs.bigboss2

As in Acquire, mergers form an important part of the game’s dynamic and happen in a similar way. When a building card is played linking two separate concerns, a merger happens. The active player decides which concern gets increased by one (with the merging tile). The smaller concern is taken over by the larger. Players who own shares in the smaller company turn them in, receiving their current value in cash for each share they own. The value of the smaller concern is now added to the larger concern and the player who triggered the merger gets that value in cash from the bank! (Concerns can never go past 50 in value.) Shares and a property flag (if there is one) on the now defunct concern are permanently removed from play.

Play and mergers continue until either all building cards have been bought and all players have passed because a legal card play is not possible or, more likely, the last building block has been placed. Now players cash in. Stock shares are worth the final values of all, still operating, concerns and this amount is added to a player’s cash on hand. However, players must PAY 5 million for each building card left unplayed in their hands. The player with the highest final total wins and is the Big Boss!

In Big Boss, payouts for growing concerns are the lifeblood of the game as it is the only semi-steady revenue stream. You can’t depend on mergers for a cash flow. Mergers are like striking oil; great when you hit a gusher, not so good when you’re trying to make ends meet. Money can be tight. The benefit of founding and expanding concerns is that it can give you the money needed to make the necessary stock purchases you need to score BIG at the end of the game even if someone else gets a short term boost from your expansion. This makes for some tough decision-making throughout the game. It has been said that Big Boss is a “linear Acquire” and that’s sort of true. The growth of hotels (or corporations, depending on the edition) in Acquire can go North, South, East and West while in Big Boss, the main flow is East/West as building blocks follow the board’s path. But Big Boss adds a third dimension; buildings go UP! The high class production gives these high-risers a wonderful look and only adds to the pleasure.

The game plays best with four to minimize downtime between turns and, more importantly, give you a bit more control over your financial future. Buying building cards is a risky but sometimes necessary strategy in order to make the most out of your investments. Pulling the right card to force a merger can give your a needed cash influx to be able to afford planting your “flags” where they will do the most good. But buying a card costs you a turn and that lost time can be hard to make up. Another thing: players can find themselves tumbling from a first place finish if left with a fistful of unplayed building cards. Judicious hand management is critical.

Wolfgang Kramer is firmly entrenched in the top tier of game designers. His credits include many wonderful and award-winning games both with partners such as El Grande (with Richard Ulrich), Tikal, Mexica, Java and Torres (all with Michael Kiesling), Tycoon (with Horst-Rainer Rösner) and on his own such as 6 Nimmt and Daytona 500. But of all of his solo creations, Big Boss stands out for its gorgeous looks and satisfying gameplay. Pro Ludo had planned a reprint of Big Boss with a new theme and few twists under the name Altura: Die Hauptstadt von Alturien but the reprint was cancelled. The latest news is that Kosmos will produce a new themed version of Big Boss under the name of Alcazar sometime in the future. But any new version will find that it’s a tall order to top the skyscraping presentation of the wonderful game of Big Boss. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

 

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