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Acquire Review

Kyle

What does this rating mean?

Posted by Kyle on Sep 1, 2015

I’d like to propose an interesting puzzle to budding and established game designers. I’ll dub it the “Acquire Challenge.” Try to design a game as good as Acquire, with a rule set no longer than Acquire’s- early editions printed them on the inside of the lid! I truly believe what Sid Sackson accomplished with his magnum opus was utterly remarkable. Eurogames did not exist at the time. Strategy games for adults were limited primarily to classic abstract and traditional card games. While everyone else was busy designing chess variants, early wargames, and bridge knockoffs, Sackson set out for the new frontier. Every Eurogame in existence owes this little game (from 1962!) a debt of gratitude. But what’s more remarkable is that Acquire blows almost every one of them out of the water even today.

The game is smartly done from start to finish, creating tension, a narrative and agonizing decisions every round. Take for instance a seemingly simple aspect of the design: the turn structure. Since players must first place a tile and then purchase stock, they are forced to carefully time key takeovers of the sprawling hotel chains on the board. Rather than being able to simply jump into the majority shareholder’s seat and then gobble up their own company for the payout, they must wait a whole round before triggering the merger. This causes extreme agony as you sit around fretting that someone else is going to get in on the deal before you can send the company into buyout heaven.

The restrictive three-stock limit for purchases on a given turn adds to the tension as well. It can take several full turns to gain a comfortable lead on other players for a lucrative chain’s controlling share. All the while, other players are scheming and building up their leads, so smart tycoons will need to figure out which chains are likely to get bought out and which are money sinkholes. This is where the real game is, as players eyeball one another and try to see a few turns ahead to know if an investment will be bountiful or a bust. It’s a delightful game of jockeying for position, with every purchase potentially meaning a victory or a big defeat when the final scores are tallied.

But the board is no afterthought. If the stock purchasing is the meat of the game, the tile play is the potatoes. I’ve never seen two sides of the same game so seemingly distanced and yet necessarily intertwined. This is no hodgepodge of mechanisms slapped together to check a bullet point on the back of the box, but rather two sides of the same coin. Both wise stock buys and creative, calculating board manipulation are crucial for a winning strategy in Acquire, and understanding how the two aspects influence one another is essential.

Sackson included one final, brilliant nuance that can be overlooked at first blush. Good Acquire players will watch their cash flow and stock buys, and maybe even set up a few good tile plays for the late game. But great Acquire players will find the competitive edge in how they manage leftover stock after a buyout. There is huge opportunity when a firm gets purchased to leapfrog the majority leader in the bigger firm, set yourself up for ownership of the next startup, or infuse your business empire with some much-needed cash. Learning how to give yourself these options, and which is the correct one to take, is a delicious decision each and every session.

If the tiles & stocks idea at the heart of Acquire were dreamed up only today, it would likely either be implemented as a microgame stripped of all depth or a bloated 4-hour optimization marathon. Sackson was instead smart enough to design the game to end at just the right time: about 75 minutes, every single game. It’s long enough to carry players along a full story arc and short enough to not outstay its welcome. Perhaps more importantly, the game’s pace takes players on an enjoyable ride. From the early game of fledgling startups to the final rounds of shoring up leads or making the final push for the upset, there is rarely a dull moment. Its upbeat rhythm is simply addicting.

All these elements make it a very good game, but there’s something else that pushes it into greatness. It’s a game that’s not afraid to let players fail. Poor investments, risky tile placements that don’t pay off, and yes, even a little bit of bad luck can sink the would-be tycoon’s hopes and dreams. The flipside of this of course is that the game greatly rewards those who avoid these pitfalls. In many lesser designs, everyone is equally, gradually working toward victory without any big leaps--so a win is cheapened, and a loss does not teach us anything. Acquire, on the other hand, creates a space in which players can work toward big moments, mammoth payoffs that they’ll feel truly responsible for.

The fragile, conflict-averse gamer should steer clear. Those afraid of a little bit of luck should likewise pass. Everyone else should experience, cherish, and yes--acquire Acquire. It’s a rare specimen of game design that not only influenced everything that followed but also remains unsurpassed by pretenders to its title.


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