Exchange Review

This is the first time I’ve seen it. One of the joys of our little hobby is that it’s still small and scrappy; individuals with good and original ideas can still bring those ideas to fruition. There’s money here, and in total it’s a lot, but compared to other media it’s still a drop in the bucket. The corporate suits with their focus groups and glossy ad campaigns hardly bother. Sure there’s the big names like Hasbro and Mattel but we largely let them do their thing and they let us do ours. Even though production expectations have increased, weird titles can still find their niche. I mean, I didn’t like it very much, but look at bizzaro Cosmic Frog. Sidereal Confluence got a 2nd edition! Food Chain Magnate, quirky and expensive, is widely respected. We’ve got it pretty good in hobby board game land.

But this–with humble Exchange, a little stock game that would otherwise be completely innocuous, one of the first titles from Bicycle (the playing card company)–this is the first time I’ve seen that corporate sheen of mediocrity on our turf. It reeks of stand up meetings and “circling back” and passive aggressive emails. When I look at it I see a game that someone once called for to look “professional”. When I play it I feel nothing.

This review isn’t fair. It’s not fair to those who made it, who are probably nice people, and it’s not fair to the game itself, which is too mundane to warrant this level of ire. But boy did it rub me the wrong way.

The problems begin with the rulebook, which often reads like a mishmash of words that have no relationship to each other. I’m looking at it now and struggling to figure out what’s going on, and I already know how to play! Such a simple game does not require an 11 page booklet for its rules. Each player makes three decisions repeated five times over–there’s not much else to it. Someone with more experience writing rulebooks might be able to break down exactly what’s wrong–all I know is that my brain became unnecessarily jumbled.

Exchange is a simple stock game with three different stock types (securities). Each of the five rounds you’ll signal three things in sequence before resolving: which of the three securities you’re buying or selling, whether you’re buying or selling, and how you’re manipulating the price of one of the securities.

It’s a yomi game. The winning player is the one who better predicts what their opponents are going to choose. And of the Thoughtful Gamer group, I might be the biggest champion of yomi games. I’ve defended Dungeon Lord’s simultaneous-reveal worker placement mechanism a couple of times; just the other day on the “Top 100 Games” podcast I argued that yomi is used perfectly in For Sale. Exchange takes it a step too far. 

The biggest issue is with the “bubble” system, where if a security reaches either end of the value track it loops around to the other side. In the right game this could be a catalyst for hilarity. Here it’s combined with other sources of chaos to create a sort of board gaming “hat on a hat” scenario. Even if you can predict well what an opponent is going to do, your ability to capitalize on that is frustratingly limited. Each successful prediction can be neutralized by any other opponent–double if that person is the “lobbyist”–or the random card that gets thrown into the mix.

Fortunately Exchange is a relatively quick game unless you get one of those people who thinks they can solve it and overthinks everything. The game is best enjoyed with wild abandon, trying daring feats of market gambling. Success and failure are less important than the drama of it all.

In that sense Exchange can function as the slightest bit of commentary on the dangerous volatility of high-risk stock trading, if you really want to look for it. Other than inserting a handful of names from the Buttonwood Agreement, the game isn’t at all interested in exploring that theme. Instead it’s a squeaky clean example of a genre, polished down to sterility, at once chaotic and dull: the aesthetic of the mundane.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Score: 4/10

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