At one of my first gaming conventions I attended a discussion about game design. There, I first heard about the double/halve rule. So many people think that board game design is about fine tuning values to achieve that perfect level of balance. Instead, the speaker said, when you want to change something either double or halve the number. Go big and see what happens. Maybe it collapses upon itself, but usually you’ll be surprised by the results.
Q.E. was made in the spirit of this principle. It encapsulates the spirit of “let’s find out what happens”. It’s bold and playful and hilarious. It brings to mind the fact that I have fond memories of playing Mousetrap as a kid even though I haven’t the slightest clue of how that game is actually played.
Q.E.’s Rube Goldberg machine exists in the minds of its players. If you don’t know the high concept pitch, it’s simple: Q.E. is an auction game where your bidding instrument is a blank check. You can bid whatever you want. The twist is that whoever spent the most total money at the end of the game automatically loses. This Damoclean sword strung over a game of uncertain wagering certainly paints a dramatic picture of monetary policy, though I don’t think the thematic link holds up under scrutiny.
I mean, have you ever read the minutes of a FOMC meeting? I have. It’s dull as a brick. That might be unfair to bricks. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about monetary policy, having studied a bit in a sort of niche tradition of economic thought, but outside of Zimbabwe-esque madness the day to day stuff is relatively mundane. Of course CPI went up 7%+ last year so get back to me in a couple of years. It’s not that monetary policy isn’t important, it’s that it’s so important that being dull and predictable is actually part of the calculus. Like politics generally it’s simultaneously incredibly important and so not important.
That said, a game of partial-information chicken is thematically broad enough to find refuge in a variety of contexts so it doesn’t bother me too much that they picked this one. More than anything the game serves to simply remind us that, yes, the government does essentially print money to pay for a good chunk of its budget.
Theme aside, the psychology of Q.E. is fascinating. It’s sure to drive people who seek to quickly comprehend games batty because you can just do something insane they didn’t account for, and doing that may actually be strategically wise. It’s a game that lays down some parameters and then gets out of the way. What you do with that, collectively, is an exercise in subtle (or blatant) navigation of the game’s stark parameters with unfocused and incomplete information. I’m absolutely certain there are many game groups out there whose plays of Q.E. look radically different from my own plays.
Outside of the high concept, the scoring system is nothing to write home about; it’s serviceable. You get some tokens that are worth a bit more to you than to other players to help drop in a bit more information about what people might do. I suspect the scoring might have been simpler in early versions of the game but playtesters found that there was too much uncertainty.
Even then, you get so little information about what’s going on. Each round you see what the rotating auction-setter establishes as their bid. That person then secretly sees everyone else’s bid and reveals who won. The secrecy creates an air of paranoia, especially after the first third or so of the game. If someone takes an early lead you’ve all got to figure out what to do with that fact. That person is certainly losing, insofar as they’ve bid the most money, but how do you jockey for first place without bringing that player back into the race?
I have no clue how to sort through some of these predicaments, but I can’t wait to explore them more. I suspect Q.E. might be broken (and I don’t use that term lightly), but I also don’t really care. I love that I get to explore that question every time I play. I love that I get to see people’s faces of surprise/concern/confusion when I explain the rules to them. I love that something this unhinged exists; it opens the imagination to what might be possible in game design. If after 10 or 20 plays I untangle Q.E.’s webs of lunacy, I’ll still have memories of the untangling.