Reviewed by Pevans

TULIP BUBBLE (Moaideas Game Design, 3 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 45-60 minutes; $40)


I understand that there is some debate whether the early 17th-century tulip mania in the Dutch Republic was actually a bubble. It was demand for an actual product and had no wider economic repercussions. Be that as it may, the prices of tulip bulbs certainly escalated to crazy levels and then crashed (in February 1637). Which is where the game Tulip Bubble designed by Kouyou comes in. This is essentially a card game as it is centred around the deck of large format cards. Each of these is nicely illustrated with a particular tulip in the style of the contemporary catalogues.

In this game, tulips come in three colours (red, white and yellow) and three ranks (A, B and C) – with some ranks sub-divided into specify varieties. The colour and rank of a tulip lets players find its current market value, as shown on the price matrix on the game’s small board. Markers in the three colours show which column to look at and the tulip’s rank gives the row to find its price on. When players buy a tulip card, they’ll be paying at least the market rate. When they sell a card, they’ll generally get the current value. Prices can go down as well as up! It will come as no surprise that players’ aim is to buy low and sell high.

How players buy tulips is the heart of the game. Each round there will be a row of available tulip cards – plus any sold to the market earlier in the round. There’s also a second row – the next shipment – which can’t be bought, but allows players to see what’s coming and plan for next round. Players have three bidding chips in their colour. First, going round from the start player, they can place up to two chips on cards. Then, round from the start player again, they can place up to one more chip.

Once chips have been placed, the tulip cards are auctioned off, working along the row. Where just one player has bid, they get the card at market value for that colour and rank. Otherwise there’s an auction. The starting bid must be above Market price and bidding continues round the involved players until there’s just one bidder left. They pay their bid (from the cash – cardboard coins – hidden behind their shield) and get the card. However, the difference between what they bid and the market value is shared between the unsuccessful bidders. This gives players an incentive to get involved in auctions just to pick up a bit of cash. Especially if it’s an auction that comes up before a tulip they do want to buy.

The second clever bit about the auctions is that players don’t need to have the cash they bid. They can borrow from the bank. A tulip financed this way stays in front of the player’s shield and has coins on it – to show the amount borrowed – along with one of the player’s bidding markers. A loan can be redeemed at any time by paying the amount shown (from the player’s own money, of course). This is the only way to get their bidding marker back, which may be vital at a later stage of the game.

Selling tulips takes place at the start of the round, before buying. Players only have one chance to sell, so there’s no waiting to see what other players are up to. The owner gets market value for the tulip and the card is placed on the “sold” row, where it may be bid for. If there’s a loan on the tulip, the seller effectively gets – or loses – the difference. Making a profit thus depends on how the market has moved.

However, there are also “collectors” who want tulips and they will pay over the market price for the right ones. In game terms, these are a set of cards, several of which are available. Each shows the tulips the collector wants (say, a C1, C2 and C3 in the same colour) and the bonus they will pay over the market value. When a player can meet the requirements of a collector (and they won’t take financed tulips), the tulips and collector card go out of the game. These bonuses are well worth having, but bear in mind other players may be collecting the same set and turn order can be crucial when it’s time to sell.

After selling and buying, the remaining tulip cards (unsold and the next shipment) affect the market prices. The colour/s with the most cards on the table goes down in price, those with the fewest go up. As only one colour marker can be on each column of the price matrix, this may result in substantial changes. However, players can plan for this, based on what cards are visible and what is likely to be bought.

What can’t be planned for is the event card drawn at the start of each round, which also affects the market. Players do know what’s in the complete set of event cards, but one is removed at random at the start of the game. There is also a “bubble bursts” card. This is shuffled with two random events and the three cards go at the bottom of the deck. Thus, the game will last 8-10 rounds. At which point all remaining tulips are worthless (!), loans – including låna pengar options issued to Swedish players – must be repaid and the player with the most cash wins.

The game can finish early if one player had enough money to buy the legendary black tulip – a special card. If so, the round is played out and, if more than one player has the requisite amount, whoever has the most money wins.

I have found Tulip Bubble fascinating to play – especially as I’ve introduced different groups to it. Players have enough information to make informed decisions, but must also play the odds. Selling to collectors is clearly something to aim for (especially if you can achieve the one card with a 20-guilder bonus). However, you will have to outbid your opponents to get the right cards. What’s more, you will need to build up funds by buying and selling other tulips – remember, collectors won’t buy tulips with loans on them (they’re held by the bank as collateral!).

It’s a tricky game that requires keeping a careful eye on what other players are up to as well as planning your own moves. Despite this, it moves along at a good pace and a four-player game should not take more than 90 minutes. I must also mention one neat part of the physical game. There is a plastic insert in the box with spaces to hold the cases and makers. Okay, nothing special about that. However, this game also has a clear plastic lid that slots over the insert and keeps things in place while the game is carried around. Brilliant!

Tulip Bubble gets a solid 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. (My thanks to Moaideas Game Design and David Liu for letting me have a review copy.) – – – – – – – Pevans

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