|From:Wizards of the Coast Cost: $25 Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 45-60 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 5 Complexity: 4 Reviewed by: Matthew Baldwin, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
How do you follow up a phenomenon like Magic: The Gathering? Richard Garfield chose to release first a "gamers‘" game (RoboRally), then a light-hearted card game (Great Dalmuti). Now he brings us Filthy Rich-- a family strategy game for 3-5 players. While Filthy Rich does not entirely succeed, it does showcase the creativity and originality that put Garfield at the top of one of the most prominent game companies in the world today.
A word of warning before you actually open the Filthy Rich box: if you buy into the game’s tagline (“The 3-D Game of Capitalism”) you are going to be profoundly disappointed when you actually see the components. Nothing in this game (except the polyhedral dice) is “3-D”. The game comes with two decks of (flat) cards, a bundle of (flat) money, and a three ring binder. Indeed, when I first opened the Filthy Rich box, I was sure some components were missing. Where was the game board? Where were the rules? And why was there a three ring card binder in the box anyhow? Assuming this was just some promotional stunt (“Buy a copy of Filthy Rich, get a Magic card carrier for free!”) I tossed the binder aside and continued to sift through the box, searching for those 3-D pieces.
Surprise! The Binder is the game board, and it introduces the 3-D element into the game The binder contains four transparent pages, each of which has a number of pockets which allow you to place nine playing cards ( in a 3 x 3 matrix) on each page. The cards come in five different types. Banner cards and Luxury cards are sorted and set off to the side in face-up piles. The Action, Asset and Business cards are shuffled together and each player is dealt five. Players take the role of small business owners, all of whom have set up shop in the same narrow alley. These owners are in pitched competition, not only to attract the most customers but also to flaunt their wealth. The object of the game is to be the first to purchase three “luxuries”, thereby proving the superiority of your own business sense and earning the envy of your peers.
Indeed, buying the top luxury card is the first thing a player may do on his turn. After buying a luxury (or opting not to), a player must play two cards from their hand. Action cards (which are “one-shots”) and Asset cards (which remain in play and have lasting effects) are of the “play a card, do something cool” variety, like receiving a loan from the Yakuza or taking over an opponent's business. But the game really centers around the Business Cards, which show the various stores that players can open. A player may play a Business Card if he immediately pays the associated launch cost to the bank (from $0 to $12). The player then takes the Banner card(s) that correspond with his business. The banners of most businesses consist of a single card, but some businesses have banners of two, three, or even four cards. The player then “hangs” his banner by placing the Banner Cards into open card pockets on the current page. If there is not enough room on the current page for the given banner, the player cannot play the Business Card, nor can he play it if another player already owns that establishment. This is where the gimmick of the game comes into play. Often, by placing a banner, a player will be wholly or partially covering up a banner on a previous page. Players must pay “covering costs” if they eclipse any other person’s banner at a rate of $2 per card.
After a player has played his two cards, he rolls a number of ten-sided Business Dice -- one die if you are on page one, two dice on page two and so on. For each number rolled, the business that occupies that spot pays off. If a player rolls a five, for example, the owner of the business in the “five spot’ -- dead center in the 3 x 3 grid -- gets cash. Most businesses have a fixed amount they pay off per “hit”, others have special payoffs or effects. The trick is that a business card pays off if you can see it- it doesn't necessarily have to be on the current page. So if I own a business in the eight spot of page one and we are currently on page four, the roll of an “8” will counts as a “hit” for me, so long as you can see my sign through the transparent pages. If someone else previously hung a sign over mine in the eight spot, I don’t get a dime. This is the 3-D element of the game- there are four layers of banners, and the composition of visible signs depends on which page you are currently on.
Most Business cards, Asset cards and Luxury cards have a couple of coins pictured on them, which are used for calculating taxes. Whenever a 10 is rolled on the business dice players count up all the coins they have on all their face-up cards and pay that amount to the bank. Players also have the option to sell businesses to the bank (for $2 per business) before they pay their taxes, which simultaneously nets them some cash and reduces the amount of tax they will need to pay. After all businesses have paid out and/or players have been taxed, the current player rolls the six-sided Page Die: if a 1-4 comes up you turn to the page in the binder, if a 5-6 comes up you remain on the same page.
If you’ve played Settlers of Catan, the whole “throw some dice, rolled numbers pay off” element of Filthy Rich will be instantly recognizable, with “taxation” vaguely analogous to the thief. That having been said, the use of the transparent pages to constantly change the game’s layout is a genuinely clever idea. The game also makes liberal use of humor, from the businesses (“Squat & Gobble” sells turkey fritters, while “Murphy's Fish House’ boasts “Amateur Clogging Nightly!”) to the Luxuries (you can snag a Senate Seat for 16 bucks). All this adds up to a game you really want to work.
And it does ... sometimes. The game contains a number of balancing mechanisms to keep things even-keeled. Having a card on the first page means that it may be visible regardless of what page you're currently on, but it also means it could get covered. Conversely, putting a card on page four means it can never be covered (and with four dice rolled on page four, its very likely to get a hit or two), but it's only in play when you're actually on page four. Unfortunately, games tend to get “stuck” on a page, which subverts this whole idea. Since you only have a 50% chance to changing pages at the end of a turn, you may go two, three, four rounds working with the same tableau.
Richer folks pay proportionally more in taxes than the little guys (which I guess puts “Filthy Rich” squarely in the category of fantasy games). But the taxes, ostensibly there to balance things out, can also derail a game entirely if they show up at an inopportune moment. A player who has to pay taxes and doesn't have the cash is knocked out of the game. Even a player who isn't knocked out but is forced to sell most of all of their businesses to pay tax is in for a world of hurt: no businesses mean no income, and you never know when that 10 will crop up again. And the “multiple 10s require multiple taxation” rule has got to go. The roll of double (or, heaven forbid, triple) 10s could easily cause the game to grind to a halt, as all players scrap their businesses or go under.
All this lends itself to the ever-infamous runaway leader problem: someone gets ahead early in the game and nobody has a chance of catching him. Actually, the game suffers more from a runaway loser problem: someone gets in the hole and just languishes there. Each game I've played saw at least one player with zero luxuries when someone bought their third. The luxury cards themselves contribute to this problem. Each Luxury card has a different cost- the first (“Personal Trainer”) costs $6, the next one costs $7, all the way up to the Space Shuttle with a cost of $45. This is nice in that it makes for difficult decisions: It is important to snap up the early (read: “cheap”) luxuries, but its also vital that you maintain enough pocket money to stay afloat. But if you find yourself short of funds early in the game, you may find your first luxury costing you $15, which will put you right back in the poorhouse.
About halfway through each game I played, I realized that I was trying to enjoy Filthy Rich more than I was actually enjoying it. And for me, personally, there were two tell-tale signs that something was amiss. First, sometimes when rolling the business dice I found myself praying that taxes wouldn't get rolled, not because I was at risk, but because I didn't want the trailing player to suffer any more abuse. There's something wrong with a game on capitalism that has you pitying your opponents. Secondly, I found myself making semi-random and less-than-optimum plays just to liven things up- never a good sign. Add to this the fact that you are almost required to adopt a house rule or two to keep the game moving, and you've got a pretty good indication that the game could have used some more refinement. Filthy Rich has a great idea, but the execution doesn't always live up to the potential. You've got to admire the cleverness behind the game's gimmick, but even the "3-D" element doesn't prevent Filthy Rich from falling flat.