Their games featured innovative component and graphic design, years before such emphasis was common. Their game designers included a Hawaiian Prince. And despite a brief lifetime, several of their creations still exist today. I'm speaking of a company called Gamut of Games, a shooting star in the drab night sky that was the American gaming industry in the early 1970's.
Those were dark days for gamers whose tastes did not run to wargames. The adult game field had been invigorated (some would say it was practically invented) ten years earlier by the introduction of the marvelous 3M Bookshelf games. But by 1973, the supply of game ideas from the Minnesota magnate had nearly run dry and there was nothing to take its place.
But suddenly, a new set of products appeared on the shelves of game stores. They didn't look like the other available games, or, for that matter, like any commercial game that had ever been produced. They were remarkably inexpensive. And the games were good. It didn't take much to be considered a good game in 1973, but the best of their creations still hold up today, twenty-five years later.
The games came from a variety of different fields, but their appearance was quite similar. And the driving factor behind the games' unique look was to reduce the price. Instead of a large rectangular or bookcase style box made of heavy cardboard, the Gamut of Games products were housed in slender, squarish (they measured about 10" x 10" x 1") boxes made of flexible cardstock. The boxes only opened at the top and the game components were slid out. Most of the boxes had a front flap; inside the flap were the rules or an illustrated game aid. In order to fit inside these small enclosures, the gameboards consisted of four separate pieces which fit together in interlocking jigsaw fashion. No doubt this flimsy packaging cost them some sales, but it did have its desired effect: the games retailed for about $7.00, which even in 1973 was remarkably low for an adult game.
Six games were introduced all at once, and they did indeed cover the gamut of game fields. Realm was a set of five games of abstract strategy that used common equipment. My Word! was a two player deductive word game that was a first cousin of Jotto. Infinity was a counter placing game.
Without question the most renowned of the six games was Bridgette, a two player bridge game invented by Prince Joli Kansil, the aforementioned member of Hawaiian royalty. It is universally considered to be the best two-handed bridge variant ever created. In 1986, it became the 15th game to be inducted into Games Magazine's Hall of Fame. It is still available, in a stylish package produced by Mayfair Games.
One of my personal favorites among the GoG games was Montage, a partnership crossword puzzle game for four players, also created by Kansil.
Finally there was Cartel, the game that will not die. A financial game created by Philip Orbanes, it was the only member of the GoG brood that today would be classified as a gamer's game. In fact, I feel it can hold its own against the best games being produced today, a remarkable achievement for a game introduced so many years ago.
Cartel's game board consists of 52 companies arranged in an 8 by 7 rectangle, with the four corners removed. The companies range in value from $10 million to $250 million. Each company also has a yearly profit, which tends to be about ten percent of its value. Companies which are orthogonally adjacent on the game board have a bonus profit shown between them. A player who owns two adjacent companies also gets to add the bonus profit to his total yearly profit. Finally, each set of four companies which form a square on the board has a special profit shown in the center of the square, which is given to any player who owns all four of the companies.
Each player begins the game with $10 million, 11 markers of his color, and nine blocks of stock. They each also begin with one randomly chosen $10 million company, which they identify as their own by pushing one of their markers into the hole in the board next to the company space. Finally, each player is dealt three of the less expensive companies face down to form their beginning hand, and three more of these companies are placed face-up on their squares on the board.
The game is played over ten one-year rounds. During a player's turn, he can perform only one of the following three actions:
The game's principal innovation is the way in which companies are paid for. There are three methods available and any combination of the three can be used. First, there's good old fashioned cash, but there's never enough available to buy everything you need to. Second, a player can float a bond. Bonds come in denominations equal to exactly half the printed value of the companies. If you decide to use a bond to help with the purchase of a company, you take a bond of the appropriate value. For example, if you bid $120 million for a company with a base value of $100 million, you can take a $50 million bond to help pay for it. You now only need to come up with $70 million. But there are two drawbacks to bonds. First, and most important, the player only receives half of that company's profit each year (bonus and special profits are unaffected). Second, bonds must be paid back at the end of the game, at a price 20 to 50 percent higher than the bond price.
The third way to pay for a company is to cash in one or more blocks of stock. Stock blocks have a variable worth which, logically enough, is tied to a player's total yearly profits. At the beginning of the game, they're only worth $10 million apiece; by game's end, they can be worth as much as $250 million. The big issue with stock is, once you sell a block, you can never buy it back.
Much of the game's strategy comes in how you use these three methods of purchasing. Obviously, you want to use your available cash whenever possible. This can dictate how much you bid for a company; if you go as high as $60 million, for example, you might be able to finance the purchase with a bond and a single stock block, but a $61 million bid might mean you'll have to sell two blocks of stock. Of course, your opponents are aware of this as well. The choice of bonds vs. stocks is an agonizing one. Using bonds for purchases means that your profits are reduced; not only does that mean you receive less money each turn, it also lessens the value of your stock. But stock is always worth more as the game goes on, so you want to delay cashing it in for as long as possible.
After a player buys a company, he adds the new profits from the purchase to his running yearly profit total. After every player has taken their turn in a round, each player receives their yearly profits in cash. They also adjust their stock price if their profits have gone up sufficiently. Then the next round begins.
After ten rounds, the players add together their cash on hand, the printed value of their companies, and the worth of their unsold stock (based upon their final yearly profit total). They subtract off the repayment price for all their bonds to get their Net Worth. Whoever has the greatest Net Worth wins the game.
There's a couple of reasons why I and quite a few other gamers are so impressed with Cartel. First, at the time of its release, an American money game meant only one thing: a Monopoly clone. Period, end of sentence. That Cartel was so completely different than its peers is quite surprising. Second, look at all the elements of modern game design it has. A set game length (most of the popular games at the time were open-ended). Players choosing between a limited number of restricted choices. A greatly reduced luck factor. The tension provided by trying to accomplish two conflicting aims (in this case, bonds vs. stocks). An innovative subsystem (the purchasing methods). A game board which uses its layout to display a great deal of information. No player eliminations. And all this from a game created more than a generation ago! To say that Cartel was ahead of its time is practically damning it with faint praise.
Another element Cartel shares with current games is its striking use of graphic design. One of GoG's stated goals was to produce games with a distinctive appearance and they certainly achieved it with Cartel. The printing on the game board avoids sharp corners by having lines flow into each other for a very avant garde look. Each of the companies has its own logo, all of them attractive and many of them clever and amusing. For example, the "O. H." of "Occidental Hotels" are arranged to form a room key, while the "B" of "Beef Las Pampas" is distorted to resemble the head of a bull. All the player displays are clearly laid out in each corner of the board, a very efficient use of board space. The fonts used on the money, stocks, and bonds are all stylish and unusual. Even the ownership markers are cute little dollar signs. All in all, quite a stunning design and absolutely mind blowing for the early seventies. Of course, because of cost cutting the stocks and bonds are mere slips of paper (and originally come on a pad) but they are still perfectly functional and hold up well over repeated game play. Besides, waddya want for $7.00?
The game plays very well with both 3 and 4 players (the game for 2 being pretty much a loser). Every auction usually brings important decisions: how much do I bid; do I try to block my opponent's master plan or tend to my own knitting; do I use a stock block or a bond to finance the bid; do I try to grab companies in different areas of the board or hope that lucky picks will allow me to own one glorious connected whole; and if the latter materializes, will I be able to afford it? You can only buy 11 companies in 10 turns, so each choice of what to buy is crucial. It's absolutely essential to plan several turns ahead. For example, if I bid so much for Company X, I can buy it with cash and a stock block and still have enough left so that next turn I can buy this $100 million company in my hand for cash and a bond. I can bid higher for Company X and finance it with a bond, but that will reduce my profit and means I'll have to use stock next turn. Judy over there doesn't have enough money to block the lower bid without using two stock blocks; I doubt she'll do that. Fred's got the bucks to top the low bid, but not the high bid; can I sneak the lower bid by him?
At the beginning of the game, you have next to nothing, but each purchase raises both your yearly income and your stock price, allowing you to buy more expensive companies each turn. Ideally, by game's end, you can finance those $250 million beauties that can really send your stock sky high. It's a piggyback operation, but delicate timing is often required. Its implementation is influenced by the companies you pick, whether you succeed in buying the companies you desire, how much your opponents interfere, and whether you have to interfere with your opponents, whose master plan might be working out better than yours.
The only real reservation a serious gamer would have with Cartel is how it can be influenced by luck. A player who is drawing companies next to those he already owns or which are in his hand figures to have an easier job than a player who keeps picking companies in different areas of the board. I've played in games where one player's picks were so good that it was almost impossible to stop him and others where a player's draws were so bad that he was never a factor. But those extremes are quite rare. Usually, the breaks even out over the course of a game. And of course, a player who hits a good streak will attract more than his share of attention from his opponents. I would say that skill plays far more of a role than luck does in this game.
I said earlier that Cartel is the game that will not die. Well, to be more accurate, it's the game that keeps getting resurrected. The original disappeared from game stores, along with the rest of the GoG line, a couple of years after it was released. In the early eighties, however, it resurfaced under the name of Dallas. The company names and logos had been changed to better reflect the television show, and an event deck, which was best ignored, had been added, but under the paint job it was still Cartel. Ironically, many current gamers, particularly those from Europe, know Dallas better than the original. (Keep in mind that several different games called "Dallas" have been released--it was a popular show.) I seem to remember that another disguised version of Cartel came out sometime during the eighties, but I wouldn't swear to it.
Finally, in 1996, Winning Moves released a game called Priceless. I remember when I first saw this in the stores, I was outraged--another Cartel rip-off! But when I saw that Philip Orbanes was one of the designers (along with Tom Kremer), my anger turned to excitement. An updated version of Cartel, by the original designer! I bought it as a gift for a friend who is a particularly rabid Cartel fan and looked forward to our first game.
Alas, Priceless! I know Cartel, I have played Cartel, and you are no Cartel. First of all, the stock blocks remain (they are called checks here, which given their changing values, seems less logical), but the bonds do not, removing one of the principal dynamics of the original. The game board is different: the 48 companies (which In Priceless are collectable items) are arranged in twelve groups of four similar items. There are no explicit adjacency bonuses. Player's holdings are increased by acquiring items in long orthogonal "chains" and particularly by acquiring all four items of a group. There are two problems with this. First, the marvelous structure of the original board, which contained all the data needed to determine player profits, is lost. Second, because the emphasis is on long chains and on specific 2 x 2 squares on the board, as opposed to any adjacent companies or any square of four companies, the luck of the draw plays a much bigger role in Priceless.
The relationship between buying an item from your hand or at an auction is changed as well--in fact, it's practically reversed. In Cartel, buying from your hand was always preferable, because it was at the minimum price. While this did add to the game's luck factor, it also permitted planning and rewarded strategic play. The idea was to buy some innocuous looking companies at auction and then to plunk down a few companies from your hand in later turns that turned your scattered purchases into a powerhouse. In Priceless, however, the cost of buying an item from your hand depends upon how many other items of its group have been purchased. The fourth item in a group is particularly expensive. Moreover, there is no minimum bid for an auctioned item. Thus, the object now is to buy the first few items in a group from your hand and then buy the rest at auction, preferably for less than the base price, certainly for less than if you bought it from your hand. There are two problems with this new dynamic. First, the risky option has to be left for last. Thus, you may have spent the time and expense to purchase three items from a group, only to have it all count for nothing when you lose the auction for the fourth. Second, it makes defensive buying much more difficult. If an opponent with three items in a group puts the fourth up for auction, it is worth so much more to him than to you (because of the bonus for completing a group) that you have to take a huge loss in order to stop him from buying it. Thus, another crucial aspect of the game is lost.
There are a few other minor differences between the games. Priceless uses open bidding in its auctions, as opposed to Cartel's secret bids. Open bidding tends to be fairer, but it always takes longer, which is a problem in a game with this many auctions. Besides, the secret bidding in Cartel works so very well; there is so much information available about what your opponents might want to do that there is tremendous scope for outthinking them and anticipating their bids. And speaking of information, another difference is that Priceless explicitly states that players' cash and check holdings are kept secret. Although Cartel's rules don't address this, our group has always kept both pieces of information public and, as my previous comment indicates, it definitely enhances the game. Of course, this is an easy rule to change, but its inclusion is still annoying. Finally, Priceless allows players to trade items and cash, while in Cartel this is only an optional rule (one which my group never plays with). In this aspect, Priceless might have an advantage, since trading encourages player interaction. However, discussing trades reveals information about your hand, which makes trading more difficult and more hazardous than you might think. In Cartel, there is such sufficient scope for using whatever hand you're dealt that trading wouldn't really add that much. It would also make grabbing an early lead almost suicidal, since your opponents would trade among themselves to freeze you out.
To the serious gamer, the most distasteful part of Priceless has to be the Action Cards scattered through the Item deck. These are overly powerful and completely unbalance the game, making the luck factor that much greater. The worst of these is The Appraiser. When played, this card has a chance of rendering a just purchased item worthless. Imagine the joy felt by a player who has just spent the equivalent of the Gross National Product of Japan to buy the fourth item of a group from his hand, only to find that the card is now worth bupkis. Imagine as well the reaction of a player who saves an Appraiser card for just such a critical moment, only to find that it has no effect because of an unlucky die roll. Yuck. I repeat, yuck.
In conclusion, the differences between Priceless and Cartel are many and, in my opinion, crippling. My friend and her family still play it, so there must be something there, but to me it's a great disappointment. However, I can take solace in the fact that I still possess the original. In today's market, I would think there are plenty of better financial games than Priceless available for the money. But if by chance you stumble across a copy of Cartel or Dallas at a yard sale, break into the nearest piggy bank and complete the sale forthwith. The seventies are coming back and to those of us that lived through them, that's hardly good news. But even the worst of decades can produce some real winners and Cartel tops my list. Barely beating out my pet rock.