I'm not sure I can explain why or how Big Boss latched onto me. Somehow it found a little corner of my psyche and moved in, murmuring soft pleasantries and endearments. It's certainly not a spectacular game, nor an original one. It has no innovative mechanisms to speak of. In fact, it is nothing so much as a simplified version of another, more well-known game. And yet, whenever we get together to play games these days, a powerful voice inside me whispers "Big Boss!" insistently.
Perhaps it's the wonderful components which won me over, giving this game a tactile quality similar games lack. Maybe it's the game's simplicity itself which charmed me. I'm at a loss to explain it, because if I examine the game objectively there's no escaping its derivative nature.
Big Boss was designed by Wolfgang Kramer (Wildlife Adventure, Daytona 500) who has admitted that the inspiration for the game came from Sid Sackson's classic Acquire. Where Sackson's game looks at the wild world of the hotel business, Kramer sets his in the world of big business. But since the theme in both is just window dressing, it's a moot point.
The game comes in an oddly-shaped box about triple the width of most games, but standing upright— imagine a large unabridged dictionary on a shelf. The board and a cloth bag of building pieces occupy much of the box, with a pull-out drawer holding the rest of the bits— plastic pegs, a deck of small cards, and thick cardboard money chits and corporate tokens. The building pieces, brown molded plastic (lucite?), are a pleasure to handle. They stack well and give Big Boss an elegant look.
The board has a single winding path with 80 numbered spaces, each of which has a single corresponding card in the deck. In one of the game's better touches, the path is recessed a bit into the game board, forming a track just wide enough for the plastic building pieces. As buildings grow during the game, the track prevents them from sliding around.
Players start with a sum of cash and a hand of cards. Play consists of founding companies by building headquarters for them, expanding existing headquarters, and purchasing stock in the companies. On each turn a player must play a card if possible or buy one from the deck for 5 million. When a card is played a building piece is placed on the corresponding number, expanding an existing HQ or founding a new one. The HQ is marked with a corporate capstone and the matching stock marker is put onto the stock track at 3 million.
When a piece is added to a HQ, the builder earns money equal to the HQ's new stock price, which increases as the HQ grows. Wild cards allow second, third, fourth, and fifth stories to be added to any building, boosting HQ values even more.
After building, up to two shares of stock may be purchased. These shares can never be sold or traded, and there are only 7 shares of each company. The value of each share never decreases, so there's a strong incentive to buy as much as possible as soon as possible. On the other hand, using up all your money can be a big problem when you run out of playable cards, so make to keep some in reserve.
If you're really confident in a company, you can pay a little extra and plant your flag— a colored rod— in the top floor of the company's HQ. You can only do this twice. The first time sets you back 15 million, the second time twice that. Flags are worth 3 bonus shares in the company.
When a piece is played connecting two HQs, the larger company absorbs the smaller one, increasing its value by the value of the company it swallows. The gobbled company is removed from the game and all shareholders are paid off. And the player who caused the merger receives as income the value of the new megacorp.
The game ends when all building blocks have been played. Every card left in your hand costs you an additional 5 million. All owned shares and flags are paid off and the player with the most money wins.
For a simple game, Big Boss offers its fair share of tough choices. Because cards earn money according to the size of the building they become part of, payoffs increase as the game progresses. You very much want to hold onto cards which you think will be worth big bucks in the endgame, but the shortage of cash at the start exerts tremendous pressure on you to play them early.
Deciding which shares to buy is a crucial and often agonizing process. Only two shares at a time means each one counts. You want to invest in companies which will succeed, but you don't want to invest too heavily lest your opponents conspire to keep that company from growing. The trick is to be just a share ahead in as many different companies as possible.
The timing of the purchase of flags is a fine art, like an old west shootout. Everyone at the table eyes that up-and-coming company. The only question is who's going to be first on the draw. Holding onto a card which lets you build on a promiising company at the right time to buy in can be critical. Again, unless you've got a lot of cards for a single company, it's best not to buy a flag in a company for which you've also got a majority holding.
Not every card gets played, and holding a card which blocks off a corporation's growth puts you in the driver's seat. If you know you can cause a merger, you can hold onto your key cards for bigger payoffs later on while opponents squander them earlier.
The above notwithstanding, Big Boss is not exactly a brain strain. One-dimensional instead of two, dead companies can't be revived, shares of a merged company must be sold and can't be held or traded— Big Boss sounds a lot like Acquire's younger, simpler brother. Why would anyone choose to play it instead of Acquire? I've heard that question from a lot of gamers. Maybe it depends on what attracts you to games. Some people prefer games where the theme is an intergral part of the game, not just a grafted-on afterthought. Some prefer games with high production values that make for a pleasing tactile experience. Some don't care how a game looks or feels, as long as it offers good gameplay and interesting decisions. Big Boss's appeal— especially considering its price— will certainly depend on where you fall in these groups. For me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If you don't like Acquire, you're probably better off giving this one a pass. If you're a fan, then Big Boss offers more of not-quite-the-same. And some really nice bits.