A game of For Sale, an auction game in which players bid for properties (valued 1-30) using coins and then sell those properties back for more money.
The very first property bid begins and players are presented with houses valued 3, 22, 25, and 28. No one wants to get stuck with the 3, but you also don’t want to overbid and waste a lot of money at the very start. Best case scenario you get second place and snag the 25 for only half of the coins you pledged. Do you start with a low bid, hoping it swings back around to you for a reasonable sum so you can pledge again and get a high number? Or do you start high, hoping that someone outbids you, but not everyone (leaving you with the choice between an incredibly high payout likely for the 28 or the 3 for too much money)?
Let’s say you start with a modest bid of 1. The next player might bid 2, but pretty soon someone’s going to ramp up the stakes with something like a 6 bid. After that the last player has a conundrum: they either have to raise with a bid of 7 or pass, gaining the pitiful 3 card and letting you and the player to your left the 22 and 25 cards for a measly 1 coin (half of their bid rounded up). That’s too much so they bid 7. Now it’s back around to you and you either have to commit to 8 coins (nearly half of your total!) or take the 3 card, giving the player to your left a bargain.
Suppose you begin with a 6 bid. Now if everyone raises the player to your right has committed 9 coins. You pass, spending 3 coins for a 3 card, which doesn’t feel great, but everyone else has spent a good amount of money also and the player to your right has wasted half of their money, leaving them hamstrung for the rest of the auction.
Finding that sweet spot that lands you somewhere in the middle is the name of the game, but this is the first bid and you don’t know how risk-averse your competition is…
The inverse occurs: three low cards and one high card. The 6, 8, 10, and 26 stare at you all, inviting a game of chicken. Just how high will someone bid for that 27? The first player feels compelled to begin with something, so they throw out 2 coins. The next player decides to not get involved and takes the 1 card. Now you have a choice: do you take the 6 card for free, knowing that if you get involved in the bidding war you will have to commit a sizable sum of money and still might not end up with the high card, or do you dive in?
Maybe you try to scare everyone with a 6 bid. It works for the player to your left, who snags the 6 card for free, but the starting player already has coins committed so they raise you to 7. Now both of you know that someone here is losing big by spending too much for a single-digit card, but if the pot goes too high both people lose, taking each other down by their mutual stubbornness.
We’re now selling properties with simultaneous blind bids, and you’ve managed to have a slightly above average collection. The first set of sale cards comes out and a high $14 card is followed by $6, $4, and $0. Do you bid high for the top card, knowing that lacking the top valued property you’re not guaranteed to get it? If you bid low you’d like to get one of the two middle cards, but how low can you go to still beat one other person? Is it worth it to play conservatively at this point in the game since you have a decent hand of property cards?
And what of the other players? What do their sets of properties look like, and how will that factor in their thinking. If everyone decides to play conservatively someone’s getting that $14 for a bargain. If more than one person bids high someone’s out of luck. Have your opponents shown a tendency to take chances so far in the game?
A lot of money is on the table. The top $15 card is out, as are $13, $8, and $7. Even the loser this round will end up with a good amount of money. Your first impulse is to play your lowest card, be fine with the $7, and move on. However, you hesitate when you realize that everyone will have the same idea. With a 2 as your lowest valued property you’re not going to sneak into a high money card, so maybe you play your 15, hoping that everyone else throws in single-digit properties and you can get some major value.
But, of course, everyone else is playing this exact same scenario in their mind. You don’t have the advantage of superior knowledge, because the information in For Sale is so straightforward and easy to digest. You instead have to dive into that primal, gut part of you that looks people in the eye and simply decides. Will your gut make the right call? Is intuition a real phenomenon or just something we make up after the fact to explain everyday coincidence?
For Sale is a couple small decks of cards and some cardboard coins. It’s over 20 years old, which in his hobby makes it seem like a relic of ancient history. For Sale is a swingy game that often comes down to the slimmest of margins borne from wild speculation. But how much control over our destiny do we need to have for a game to have compelling choices? For Sale might just answer that question: this much.
I’ve lost many games of For Sale where I felt like I was put into impossible positions from which I couldn’t escape. I’ve also won on occasion, and every time I felt like a mind-reading genius. When I ask my gut if this small, fickle box contains a good game I only remember the victories.