THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POND

by Larry Levy
TRUMP: THE GAME (Milton Bradley, 1989)
Designer Unknown

The playwright W.S. Gilbert, who had been known to turn a phrase or two, once wrote, "Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream." These are very sagacious words which apply to many walks of life, not the least of which are games. We have all encountered designs which, even though they bore all the hallmarks of greatness, turned out to be as exciting as solitaire Uno. Conversely, think of the games which you were certain would be stinkers, which you were forced to play only upon threat of divorce and/or excessive whining, which nonetheless turned out to be true gems. Makes you doubt your powers of judgement at times.
The specific reason I bring all this up was the appearance about a dozen years ago of a production modestly called "Trump: The Game". To properly set the scene, this was at a time when it was difficult to find any example of the written word, including fortune cookies, that didn't blare out the name of Donald J. Trump, Real Estate Mogul Extraordinaire. Like many right-thinking citizens of the world, I was sick to death of him. Anyway, I was innocently walking through my local game store when I spotted this very large, oddly shaped box. Rarely have I seen a game so uniquely qualified for stinkerhood. Not only was Trump's name emblazoned all over the box (in approximately 97 point type), there was an enormous leering photo of The Donald himself right on the front--signed yet! There were also clever quotes, presumably from the shy and retiring D.T., such as "It's not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!" and "Live the fantasy! Feel the power! Make the deals!". The bottom of the box showed the game board and it looked like a somewhat simplified version of Monopoly. And, oh yes, the game cost about $45. In 1989! I proceeded to run, not walk from the game store, lest dementia should suddenly set in and I might possibly be tempted to buy this loser.
Evidently, I wasn't the only person to have this reaction, since the game stacks in the stores seemed to scarcely diminish throughout that entire summer. The situation must have been so bleak that, for once in their existence, the game companies took notice and slashed prices like they never slashed before. Actually, I can't be sure of exactly what happened--all I know is that during the next summer, T:TG began appearing all over town for $10, and sometimes even $5 a copy. Well, hell, I'll buy a bucket of chicken scraps for $5 if it comes with a gameboard and a rules book. Soon copies of the game began vanishing from store shelves and appearing in the closets of bargain-hungry gamers. And, like me, they probably figured if they'd bought it, they might as well try it. And damned if didn't turn out to be a pretty good game. Ol' W.S. Gilbert would have made a hell of a game publisher.
Trump is a negotiating game masquerading as a property game, no doubt to make it more palatable to the average American game player. The game revolves around eight properties, ranging from Sports Complexes to Casinos, all of them appropriate to the glitzy world of Donald Trump. The properties themselves are shallow, hollow, two-part plastic containers which can hold the game's currency. Each property has a slot in the side, so that money can be added to it without revealing its contents. At the beginning of the game, each property begins on its spot on the game board with $50 million in it. Each player begins the game with $400 million. The game also uses a deck of 72 Trump cards (what else?); each player starts with five of these.
The game is played in two distinct phases. During the first phase (the Buying phase), each player on his turn first draws a Trump card and then has the option of either rolling the die and moving their token, or of playing a card. The die is a special one, with a "T" replacing the 6. If a player rolls a T, she chooses an opponent and draws a card at random from his hand and then rolls again until she gets a number. If you keep rolling T's, you keep swiping cards from your opponents.
The board consists of 18 spaces. Eight of them are the property spaces. If a player lands on one of these, $10 million from the bank is added to that property's container, whether the property is owned or not. Four of the spaces allow the player to put the property of her choice up for sale. On three of those spaces, the property must be unowned; on the fourth, any property, whether owned or not, can be selected. Another space lets a player trade a property they own for any other property, whether owned or not. Three spaces direct the player to add money ($30 or $50 million) to any unowned property. One other space gives the player money from the bank; another lets the player take a card from each opponent.
So most of the spaces deal with the properties, either adding money to them or changing their ownership. Before I get to the procedure for selling a property, which is one of the game's central mechanics, let's take a look at the Trump cards.
Half of the 72 cards in the deck are profit cards, which let the person who plays them collect money from the bank if they meet the conditions listed on the card. Some are based on owning single properties (for example, if you own the Tropical Island, collect $50 million). Others pay off only if the player owns both of the two listed properties (one card, for example, awards $110 million if the player owns both the Cruise Line and the Hotel). Yet others give you cash if you own any property (to the tune of $40-$50 million). The most lucrative profit cards pay off if you own any three properties ($160 million) or any four properties ($200 million). So a big part of the game comes from trying to acquire properties which match the profit cards you have in your hand and holding them long enough to cash in.
Besides the profit cards, there are tax cards, which require the player you play them on to hand over $20 million per property he owns, and cards which force the sale of any property, whether owned or not. There are also the most interesting group of cards, the ones that are used during property auctions. The simplest way to show how these work is to describe how a property is sold.
Properties are put up for sale due to a player landing on an appropriate space or playing an appropriate card. The amount of money in the property is not revealed prior to the auction. First, the players conduct an in-the-fist auction. This establishes a high bidder. Then, beginning with the player who initiated the auction, each player takes a single action. One obvious action is to increase your bid so that you are now the high bidder. However, no bids can be increased until at least one player has played an "Outside Investor" card. These cards add from $20 to $60 million to your bid, which you get to keep if you lose the auction, but there are only eight of them in the deck. Once an Outside Investor card has been played during the auction, any player can make their bid the highest one, either by adding cash, playing Investor cards, or both. Another popular action is playing a "You're Out of the Bidding!" card on an opponent, which means that for the moment, her bid doesn't count. Often, this makes another player the high bidder. The only action an ousted player can do is to play an "I'm Back in the Bidding!" card on herself. Since there are 13 Out of the Bidding and only 5 Back in the Bidding cards in the deck, auctions tend to get pretty bloody.
The auction continues, with each player in clockwise order either increasing their bid over the highest active player, kicking out an opponent, or climbing back into the fray. Players can also pass if they can't do anything else or if they just want to await developments (which is often very wise). The procedure continues as long as the players keep adding money or playing cards, but once everyone passes in succession the auction is over. The active player with the highest bid wins the property and pays their bid to the bank, if the property was unowned, or to the previous owner, if an owned property was auctioned off. If the auction for an owned property is won by the original owner, they add their winning bid to the property itself. In any case, the new owner of the property reveals how much money it contains and then seals it back up.
The Buying Phase ends when either all eight properties are purchased or when the last Trump card is drawn. In the latter case, each of the unowned properties are put up for sale one by one. The game then continues with the Dealing Phase.
The Dealing Phase is simplicity itself, but in point of fact, the game's first phase has merely served as prelude to this endgame. During the Dealing Phase, each player in turn must either play a card, propose a deal, or pass. Card play is exactly as in the Buying Phase. Deals can involve just about anything in the game: cash, cards, properties. These items can be sold, traded, or loaned. You can promise to carry out future actions or not to perform certain actions. Basically, just about any deal you can imagine can be proposed. The only restriction is that both players must try to honor the deal. The player to whom the deal is offered either accepts or rejects it; then the next player takes his turn. This process continues until each player has passed in succession (which usually doesn't happen until the most stubborn player is convinced that there are no more deals to be had). Then, each player counts up the money they have, plus all the money in any properties they own. The player with the most money wins.
Trump: The Game is basically an embryonic version of the classic negotiation game, Kohle, Kies & Knete. Obviously, the Sackson game is a more refined design with wilder card play, but T:TG has the same basic feel and requires the same skills to play well. Considering the high regard that many aficionados of the gentle art of persuasion have for KKK, this is high praise indeed, particularly for an American game of the eighties.
One of the game's small brilliances is the fact that all the die-rolling in the Buying Phase, which seems so Monopoly-like, actually yields very little benefit to the active player. Adding money to properties and triggering sales are important game functions, but it really doesn't matter whether you land on those spaces or an opponent does. Collecting lots of cards is good, but that simply makes you a target for opponents rolling T's. The principal purpose of the Buying Phase is to gradually distribute cash to the properties and cards to the players. The game accomplishes this using a familiar mechanic that holds the players' interest. It also means that the die rolls don't particularly add to the game's luck factor.
Of course, there is luck in what Trump cards you draw. But like most negotiation games, T:TG is more about making the best of what you have then riding a lucky streak. The most important and enjoyable part of the game is the auctions, and here card play is very important. First, however, you have to make your opening bid, and this is not as straightforward as it may seem. Bid too much and you may wind up needlessly spending cash; you also make yourself a likely target for "You're Out of the Bidding!" cards. Bid too little and you may never have a chance to win the property. It all depends upon the desirability of the property and the cards you hold in your hand.
Once the opening bids are made, things really get interesting. There are only eight "Outside Investor" cards in the game and unless one is played during the auction, no one can increase their bid. So waiting for the right moment to use one of your Investor cards is essential. Of course, you can always force your way to the top by putting the top bidders out of the auction. But patience can be a virtue here as well. Knock too many of the high bidders out and the fellow behind you can do the same thing to you and walk away with a bargain. "I'm Back in the Bidding!" cards can help you avoid this fate, but there are only five of them in the entire game. You've got to pick your spots, know when to fold 'em, etc., etc. All of this should sound very familiar to the KKK veterans out there.
By the way, the rule about how to resolve an auction in which a player purchases his own property handles a thorny and common situation better than any other game I've seen. Traditionally in auctions of this kind, the owner of the property is paid unless he is the winner, in which case he pays the winning bid to the bank. This puts the property's owner at a considerable disadvantage in the auction: his opponents can lowball him in the bidding, because if he wins the auction, he has to pay and gets nothing additional for it. In Trump, a player who successfully bids for her own property adds the winning bid to the property's cash holding. Since she'll get this money at the end of the game if she holds onto the property, she is essentially breaking even (just as if she had lost the property to an opponent making a fair bid). Of course, she could still take a bath if she loses a subsequent auction for the property for a cheap bid--say with the judicious use of "You're Out of the Bidding!" cards. This merely adds spice to the original auction. Very, very nice.
Trump saves the best for last with the high-stakes Dealing Phase. Here is where those Profit cards you weren't able to cash in during the Buying Phase come into play. The advantage goes not only to the player with superior negotiating skills, but also a vivid imagination. There really is no limit to the number of different types of deals that can be proposed; I can't think of any other game of its time that so encouraged creative dealmaking. In this regard, the game is quite reminiscent of the much more recent Chinatown or Traders of Genoa. This phase also works as an equalizer for the players who weren't able to match their cards with their properties, or who simply never owned a lot of properties at all. With the right deals, you can still make plenty of money and never touch a property throughout the whole game.
The end result is an enjoyable game, particularly for those who love wheeling and dealing. Played with the right crowd, Trump is a blast, highlighted by the auctions and the big finish. It can really be a kick seeing the crazy deals some players come up with--particularly when they're accepted! The game also plays quickly, with literally no down time. On the negative side, luck can still play a sizable role, particularly with the Trump cards. Good draws really simplify your life, and a series of mediocre ones can make you work pretty hard just to hold your ground. The game can also bog down in the Buying Phase if the For Sale spaces don't get landed on. And the auctions become much less interesting if a lot of the good cards get played early. Still, this is quite a good game for its time, and serves as a fascinating precursor to some of the great negotiation games of the Nineties.
The components for Trump are fantastic. Everything is much bigger than it needs to be, much like the larger-than-life subject of the game. The board is brightly, but not garishly colored, with the background brush-stroked to resemble marble. The properties are big (5" long), sturdy, and work quite well as a hidden depository for the money. The paper currency is functional and holds up well (three guesses whose picture is on each bill). The cards are nice and stiff, easy to read, and fashionably illustrated. Best of all are the instructions, which are a model of clarity and contain numerous examples and illustrations--they could easily pass for the best rules sets of today. This was quite unexpected at the time of the game's release and really helped new players easily understand a rather unusual game. Milton Bradley clearly went all out in the physical design of this game--which certainly goes a long way toward explaining its original list price--and they add considerably to the pleasure of playing it.
In spite of the fact that it is a genuinely good game, it wouldn't surprise me if I never played Trump again. The more recent games I've mentioned in this article (KKK, Chinatown, Genoa) are better designed and include more bargaining/cardplay bang for the buck. Such, sadly, is the fate of a trailblazer. I do feel that Trump could do an excellent job of introducing more passive players to the wonderful world of negotiation games (after all, you're rolling the die and moving around a board--how nasty can it be?). It can also serve as a good bridge for exposing your stodgy American gaming buddies to the concepts of German gaming (and since the game itself is American, they probably won't even realize they're being indoctrinated). Of course, if your gaming group includes any Donald Trump haters, you might have to warn them not to jump to any quick conclusions. After all, it isn't necessary to have written HMS Pinafore to know that you can't judge a book by its cover.

Comments

Popular Posts