|Cost: $26.95 From: Winning Moves: 1-800-578-2468 Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: Family strategy Complexity: 6 Skill level: 7 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 4.2, Winter 1996|
I was ready to love this game.
Everything about it screams quality. The box is slick. The components are lush and colorful, from the plastic art frames to the game board itself. The rules read well. But somewhere along the line, something went awry.
The object of the game is to finish with the most cash. This is accomplished through the accumulation of prize points awarded for securing collectibles of various types— gems, art, cars, etc. There are four items in each group of collectibles, color-coded and arranged in a cross on the game board. The groups are valued differently, with the most valuable at the board's center.
Each round, players can choose to buy a card from their own hand (there's one card in the deck for each space on the board) or put up for auction one of a set of cards dealt face up. The price of an item bought from your hand depends on the group the item belongs to and the number of items in that group which have already been bought. Items get much more expensive as the group fills up, leading to one of the game's biggest problems. But hold that thought.
Putting a face-up card up for auction involves a round of open bidding with the card going to the highest bidder. There are no minimum bids, so cards which would cost a bundle if played from someone's hand can go for a song from the board.
When an item is bought, the new owner puts it in a frame of his color and places it on the matching space on the board. Now he collects prize points for the item, and it's these which drive the game. The number of points an item is worth varies according to the item's group, number of owned items in that group, and the length of the "chain" that item fits into. A chain is any group of items owned by the same player which connect to each other orthagonally. Five items in an L shape, for example, would be a chain of five. A hefty bonus is given if a player picks up all four items in a group.
Prize points, in turn, increase the value of a player's checks. Everyone starts with ten checks worth a nominal amount, indicated by a sliding marker along the edge of their cardboard "wallet". The marker rises as more points are earned, raising the value of the player's remaining checks. An interesting mechanism encouraging players to hold onto their checks for as long as possible, since they're worth more later in the game. Much, much more.
At the end of each round, players get cash according to their current prize point total. The game ends after any round in which one player uses his last colored frame, at which point everyone gets their income and a bonus check, converting all checks to cash for the final tally.
Sounds fine on paper, right? But in practice... The first problem is with the random nature of the initial card distribution. If you happen to get a bunch of connected cards, you're guaranteed extra income from the chain bonuses. If your cards are scattered, you're in trouble. Unless you trade. The rules allow for dealing between players, including the exchange of unowned cards. And a fair amount of this occurs. But the tendency is to not trade unless you're getting something which also helps you, leading to something of a stalemate.
The next problem is with the prices of buying things from your hand. The third and especially fourth items are prohibitively expensive, effectively requiring that checks be redeemed for the purchase. Whenever a check is spent, there's an additional hidden cost of the lost increase in the check's value by the end of the game, making the purchase of a fourth item unlikely to pay for itself unless it's picked up very early in the game— in which case your checks will still be valued so low that you'll have to spend more than one to make the buy, rendering the purchase cost ineffective again.
That leaves buying the fourth in a group at auction, possible only if the item happens to be dealt face up. This presents a problem for your opponents, who in all likelihood have no interest in the item except to keep it out of your hands. But to do so, one of them must be willing to pay much more than it's worth to them (because you're willing to spend quite a bit for it), taking a huge loss and effectively knocking themselves out of the game. This dynamic soured the game for us, as the game mired in negotiations amongst the other players to share the cost of the card (the rules are unclear about the legality of such deals).
Lastly, the deck includes a handful of cards of which few TGR readers will approve, effectively negating strategic play and tossing the game to the winds of chance. The cards which force a card being bought from someone's hand to instead be sold at auction are fine enough, if of questionable utility. But the Appraiser is right out. With a roll of a special die, it can declare a just-purchased item a forgery and thus worthless, forcing it to be discarded. Could you blame someone zapped by this card after buying that fourth automobile from his hand for ripping the board into shreds? Certainly a fun-spoiler, not an enhancer.
When I played Priceless for the first time, I was excited by the fine-looking bits and pieces. But as gameplay unfolded (and speaking of folding, the "wallets" are absurdly designed so they neither hold your checks nor display your current check value effectively), the flaws emerged. If one player gets a good draw, there's little opponents can do short of collusion, which isn't much fun. It seems like there's a good game in there somewhere, but not in the rules as given. If someone digs it up, I'd love to hear about it. Until then, Priceless stands as a major disappointment.