Review: Stockpile02 Oct 2018 0
Released 23 Sep 2018
I must admit that a game based on the stock market doesn’t really float my shares. In fact, it sounds drier than a scrunched-up ball of The Financial Times tumbling through Death Valley. However, the original board game was very well received, so a digital version by those experienced guys at Digidiced is certainly something worth further investigation.
In Stockpile players are striving to become the richest stockbroker by dealing shares and manipulating the market to their advantage. Each round players will bid for stocks and action cards, sell shares and adjust the markets. In a standard game, players begin with a starting capital of $20,000 and a single share in one of the six different companies that make up the stock exchange. At the beginning of every round, some public information about one of the six companies will be revealed. In addition, each player receives some secret insider information. Both sets of information will show which of the companies will increase or decrease in stock value and announce any dividend payments.
Next up, each player is dealt two market cards. There are various card types that offer additional shares, trading fees or adjustments to stock value. Players take it in turns to place these cards into piles on the board, preparing them for auction. The only restrictions are that there can only be as many piles as there are players and that one action card must be placed face up and the other face down. Each stack has a bidding ladder that is marked out with values from 0 to 25 and players take it in turns to place or increase their bids. The auction finishes as soon as all players have bid on different stacks. They now claim the stack that they have bid on; paying the cost that may include additional trading fee cards that are often hidden in the stack by your crafty opponents. In the final stage of the round, players have the option to sell any of their shares for the current market value. The insider information that players received at the start of the round is now revealed and the markets are adjusted accordingly.
In the basic game, each of the six companies has the same standard track to record their value. Hit the bottom of the track and the company goes bankrupt, rendering all shares worthless. Reach the top of the track and the shares split, adding even more to their value. The advanced game introduces a more volatile trading environment by having tracks of different lengths. This means that some companies will have longer tracks leading to more stable values, whilst others have short tracks with the potential for wild swings from big profits to bankruptcy. There are also four different expansion modules that can be added to the game. The forecast dice make the market more unpredictable, whilst bonds offer a safe investment but tie up your money until the end of the game. Adding commodity trading and taxes to the stockpiles brings even more tension, whilst the investor cards give each player extra cash or a unique ability which they can use throughout the game.
At the time of writing there does appear to be a nasty intermittent bug that makes selecting and selling shares unresponsive. It’s a pretty major fault that should have been spotted before release, but I’m sure that we can rely on Digidiced to resolve this issue quickly. Other than that, the developers have done a decent job, but, as you can no doubt tell from the screenshots, the game does look rather boring. To be fair, there is little room for graphical flair when the whole game is basically just a spreadsheet. The music is also instantly forgettable and destined to be turned off at the first opportunity. Stockpile isn’t that difficult to grasp, and the tutorials teach the game in a clear humorous way. The screen layout is generally clear and comprehensive. However, it is a bit annoying that in the auction phase the stockpiles of cards are superimposed over the market table. This means that you have to keep switching screens. At the highest difficulty level the AI opponents provide a decent challenge but the game cries out for human interaction. That leaves us with pass and play or online matches, both work well, although the secret information does mean that extra care needs to be taken when your opponents are sitting next to you.
Despite my reservations, I found Stockpile to be an interesting and cleverly designed game. The auction works really well; adding cards to the various stacks makes for some interesting choices and leads to a range of sneaky manoeuvrings. Since players only have one active bid at any one time, the auction can end abruptly, which leads to some delightfully tension filled wrangling. The cunning mix of public and private information promotes player interaction, with bluff and double bluff being essential tools of the trade. Things can get very ruthless, as players gang up to bring down successful companies, wiping out the value of their shares and leaving you cursing and regretting that you didn’t sell when you had the chance. At the end of the game you will earn a bonus for each company that you are the majority shareholder in, so sometimes it can be prudent to hang on to those shares rather than cashing them in. There is some nice variety with standard and advanced games and the expansion modules, all being provided in the package at no extra cost.
Unfortunately, Stockpile does such a great job of promoting player interaction that the digital version ends up falling somewhat short. The bluffing needs that eye to eye contact, the insider information demands smug and knowing smiles. What you are left with is a rather dry and mathematical game that although initially interesting, ends up feeling like it is missing an essential element.