5 Curiously Instructive Games for Small-Business Owners

by Trevor Ferhman on January 30, 2012
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That old adage about too much work and too little play making some guy named Jack a less-than-scintillating character rings true to a point. But, as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining demonstrates, it’s possible to go overboard. For example, researchers currently are keen on bringing elements of game-design theory to the workplace [PDF] in order to engage employees and increase productivity, particularly when it comes to group projects.

Yet for all the academics out there who are trying to figure out how to incorporate play into work, few — if any — are talking about all the fun ways to inject work into play. Here are five curiously instructive board and card games that are ideal for small-business owners (or the budding entrepreneurs in your life).

Acquire. This title — the only one on this list that’s made in the U.S.A. — has been impressing gamers for decades. Acquire is a stock-trading game in which players take turns trying to predict which of seven distinct hotel chains will grow, which will stagnate, and which will become absorbed by a neighbor. As far-fetched as it may sound, this game makes balancing equity and liquidity not only fun, but also hilarious. Edging out your friend as a majority stockholder just before you initiate a merger will bring you devilish glee.

Ca$h ’n Gun$. This party game is worth its price tag for the sight gags alone. As a group of gangsters, players battle over a pile of cash with foam semiautomatic pistols (included in the box). Each round, players select a card from their hand and place it face down. These cards determine whether each person actually has a bullet in the chamber. Once that step is completed, everyone points their gun at someone else, and each combatant is given the opportunity to “chicken out.” Among those who chose to remain, the cards then determine who gets one in the kneecap — and who survives to become the last man standing. Whoever is left alive gets to keep the pile of loot, and whoever has built up the most cash at the end of several rounds is the winner. Thankfully, most of us don’t do business with firearms, but bluffing is a valuable tool in any business owner’s arsenal.

For Sale. For Sale is a timely little gem about bidding on property in an unpredictable market. The game has two phases: In the first phase, players draw from a deck of cards, each of which bears the picture of a house and a number from 1 to 30. Players take turns bidding on these “houses” (really you’re just bidding on the numbers) with cardboard coins and, once everyone knows which houses belongs to which players, values are assigned to the houses from another deck. Thus begins phase two. If you flipped over four houses in phase one, then you flip over four values in phase two. The player who won the bid for the house with the highest number on it in phase one now gets to pick from the available values before anyone else (followed by the player who won the bid for the second-highest number, and so on). The key is that, while players can make educated guesses about what values they’re likely to be able to choose from, they can’t be completely sure. It’s a casual, fast-paced simulation of the housing market. Just don’t explode the world economy while you’re at it, OK?

Modern Art. Modern Art is another card-driven bidding game, in which players assign prices to four suits of cards as represented by the works of four fictional painters. The name of the game here is to use the bidding mechanism to control which paintings your opponents find valuable and then to come up with clever ways to exploit those perceptions. It’s a fascinating simplification of the market pricing mechanism and an amusing send-up of the art world.

Puerto Rico. Considered by many to be the greatest board game of all time (take that, chess!), Puerto Rico can be a bit intimidating for newcomers to the hobby. It might take you an hour or more just to figure out how to play, but if you stick it out, you’re likely to find the experience rewarding. In Puerto Rico, you manage your own plantation amid a shifting economic landscape determined by players’ decisions. You’re responsible for worker availability, the building of facilities and infrastructure, the timing of production and shipping, and competition for commodities. At every turn, you get to make an excruciatingly entertaining decision between benefiting yourself and really screwing one of your friends.

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