|From:Cheapass Games Cost: $6 Players: 4-10 Playing Time: 90-120 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 6 Complexity: 6 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
Like many of you, Iíve become leery of the Cheapass brand. Their hit-or-miss catalog has been far more of the latter for me. Whatís most disturbing is that these titles often have good ideas or neat mechanisms in them and yet donít hang together as a game. They feel somehow half cooked, served up just a bit too early from the development oven. But the graphics are professional, theyíre usually good for a few laughs, and the price is right. A shame about the actual games, though. But there are signs of change. Cheapass is slowing down, releasing fewer games than before. The latest batch of products arenít just playable, fully-formed games for your shekels- they are, as a group, markedly stronger designs than their predecessors. Standing tall among them is Parts Unknown.
As with all Cheapass games, Parts Unknown comes in a white envelope and requires you to provide your own pawns and counters. Your five bucks gets you a deck of cards, rules, and a four-piece cardstock game board. The game occurs in a town full of mad scientists in constant need of body parts for their experiments. Players assume the roles of shopkeepers eager to supply their demand. I didnít choose those words lightly. Above all else, Parts Unknown is a superb economic model (says someone whose knowledge of the field extends no further than Econ 101) in which supply neatly influences demand. More strikingly, the game effectively simulates the cutthroat world of retailing with deep discounting, undercutting, and price fixing. There arenĎt any rules governing such tactics per se- they simply arise naturally from the simple, elastic system.
Commodities in the game come in four basic types: brains, extremities, leftovers, and gizmos. These types in turn come in multiple varieties, some of which are of higher quality than others. That quality is reflected in the range of prices each item can be sold for. A brain merchant might offer mold for anywhere from 2 to 15 bucks, but cheese can go for 10 to 28.
Each player starts the game with four empty shelves in their shop which they can fill with wares from their hand. Each card shows an item as well as four possible prices. When the card gets put onto a shelf, the shopkeeper sets a marker beneath the price he decides to charge. Itís an open capitalist system, so each merchant is free to set prices as he sees fit.
Purchases are triggered by a token (Viktor) which moves around the board via a die roll each turn. When Viktor lands on a space, he creates a demand for a type of part (brains, gizmos, etc). The degree of demand depends on the space landed on and the size of the town, which starts at four. Landing on an Extremities space marked X+1 near the start of the game, for example, creates a demand of 5 leftovers. The way this demand gets met is what drives the game. Itís a little tricky, but absolutely crucial to understand properly.
Viktorís a tight-fisted mad scientist. He doesnít much care which extremities he buys, but heíll only buy the cheapest of each variety in town. Heíll happily buy them from every store offering them at that price, but if he buys hands at 12 heĎll refuse to buy them at 15 on the same turn. But heĎll happily buy feet at 14 if thatĎs the cheapest price at which theyĎre offered-- assuming his demand for extremities isnít met by the available hands.
If there arenít enough extremities at the going rates to meet Viktorís demand- even if there are unsold extremities at higher prices- a shortage is created equal to the difference between supply and demand. The next time a demand for extremities occurs, it gets reduced immediately by the amount of the shortage. But if the shortage exceeds a certain level, the shopkeepers have little choice but to harvest townsfolk to satisfy the market. In exchange for wiping away the shortage, the townís population decreases by one. Since demand is often dependent on town size, this means future demand will be reduced. If the town disappears completely, the game ends.
If, on the other hand, Viktor buys more extremities than he needs (remember, he buys all cards currently at the lowest price, even if that exceeds his demand), thereís a surplus. Future demand is reduced immediately by the amount of the surplus. Excessive surplus gets converted into new townsfolk, increasing the townís population by one and raising future demand.
The object of the game is to make money, so you want to sell your wares for as much as possible. But if you set your prices high, a competitor might decide to undercut you. If Viktor stops twice on the same side of the board (each side creates demand for only one type of part), you might both sell out. But if he only stops once, your expensive parts will remain unsold. And once someone cuts their prices, other players are likely to follow suit or risk being left out.
Prices therefore have a tendency to drop- which opens the door for a little bargain hunting. If you spot a bargain in someone elseís shop, you can pay the asking price and scoop it up into your hand. Is an opponent drawing all of Viktorís brain business with his deeply discounted molds? Buy him out, and then jack up the price on your cheeses which are now the only brains in town. Itís a tactic to use sparingly. Your opponent gets the same amount he would have gotten from Viktor, so heís happy. But if Viktor doesnít buy your cheeses right away, the next player is likely to stock his shelves with cheaper brains and leave you back where you started- but poorer.
You can only restock your shelves at the start of your own turn, after youíve had a chance to buy new cards from the deck (using a Fibonacci pricing system that makes it far more economical to buy fewer cards at once). Thatís also when youíre allowed to reprice your existing stock. Ideally, you want your shelves to be empty when your turn comes back around. This frees you to size up the current market and stock items most likely to sell. What you canít do is take items back from your shelves into your hand. If you decide the market for an item isnít good, your only choice is to dump it into your parts unknown pile. When Viktor passes either of two corner spaces, all such piles get sold at thrift prices- half whatever the going rate is for each item. Not as nice as selling it at full price, but better than letting it languish on the shelves.
Stores can be expanded through the purchase of additional shelves. As with a third field in Bohnanza, the earlier such expansions occur the better theyíll pay off. The game ends after Viktor makes twelve laps around the board (or prematurely if the townsfolk die out). Shelves get cashed in for a fraction of their cost and the richest player wins.
The margin of victory is often not very high, which makes every decision count. Slashing your prices can be vicious- an opponent might not just lose out on selling something, but thereís an opportunity cost in his not freeing up a shelf for more inventory. In a recent game in which one player routinely undercut rivals in the brain market, we joked about Russellís House of Mold (ďHow do we do it? Volume.Ē). While a really shrewd player can win with a few astutely priced sales, for most of us turnover is the key to victory. That means knowing when to dump items into your parts unknown pile, when to buy out rivals, and when to discount your obviously defective merchandise. If your shelves are still full when your turn rolls around, youíve clearly missed some opportunities. The player who turns over his inventory most often stands a good chance of winning.
Parts Unknown claims to play with 4-10 players, but this is a clear case of egregious optimism. Under no circumstances do you want to play with more than six players, and even thatís more than Iíd like- four or five is ideal. More than that and youíll find yourself sitting with empty shelves waiting for your turn to come around. Unlike many Cheapass games, this isnít a quickie. Expect your first game to take about two hours, with repeated plays dropping into the ninety minute range. Reducing Viktorís lap count yields a shorter game without making the game any less satisfying.
The artwork by Brian Snoddy fits the theme nicely, but be warned that Parts Unknown is a rather dry game of market mechanics. Itís plodding by German standards with lengthy lather-rinse-repeat cycles. This isnít so much a criticism as a warning label-- if you like quick, exciting games with new factors to consider at each juncture, this isnít for you. Parts Unknownís strength lies in that very repetition of actions, allowing the economic system to ebb and flow. This cyclic quality allows players to correct their mistakes and explore the nuances of the system.
The Cheapass business model seems to call for churning out a new game every month. Thatís a shame, because Iíd happily wait longer if it meant getting more games of this quality with robust systems and solid gameplay. Parts Unknown may well be the first game to realize the potential of the Cheapass concept, delivering true value for your gaming dollar.