iOS/Android (out now), PC/Mac/Linux (coming Friday) •
There was a time, not long ago, that I dreaded any game that included a stock market mechanism. Something in my brain convinced me that games with stocks and money were the purview of the business-inclined, which I’m definitely not. [For example, look around this website and see how well he’s monetized it. -ed.] Luckily, a little game called Imperial changed my mind and, while I’m terrible at stock games, I discovered that they’re fun as hell. If you’re not aware, stock trading is a (the?) major component of the 18xx family of board games which readers will know I’m currently in love with.
Stock games tend to fall into two categories: those that treat stocks fairly realistically and those that don’t. The 18xx games, for example, deal with it somewhat realistically with your stock price rising and falling based on demand and the profitability of your train company. Stockpile falls into the unrealistic camp in which stock prices are randomly in flux. Both are fun, and while I doubt we’ll ever see an 18xx game make its way to our phones, (unless Playdek ever gets around to developing 1846 from GMT) today Stockpile makes its grand entrance on the digital stage.
Released for tabletop in 2015, Stockpile is an auction game with a stock market theme. You don’t actually buy stocks directly, but instead have to win them via auctions with your competitors. To make matters more convoluted, you aren’t always even sure what you’re bidding on. Each player is dealt two cards per round and will place them into “stockpiles”, the number of which equal the number of players. One of your cards will be placed face-up and the other face-down. These cards can be any of the six available company stocks or can be “take-that” style cards that force the winner of the auction to pay fees or give them the power to bump up or drive down the price of any stock of their choice. Thus, when all players have played their two cards, you’ll have several piles of stocks and other cards, visible and hidden, to bid on.
Luckily, you’re not bidding completely blind. The current stock price for each of the six companies is tracked on the main board allowing you to see their current worth. Also, there’s a little insider trading going on. Before each turn each player is dealt both a company and a card that indicates how far that stock will rise or fall at the end of the turn. Thus, you know something about one of the companies that your opponents are clueless about. Of course, each of them have info about a different stock. It becomes a game of poker, watching to see who is selling what, what stocks are visible in each of the stockpiles, who’s bidding on what pile, and who put what where. Sure, that pile of computer stocks also has a bunch of fee cards on it, but is that because someone knows they’ll go up and is trying to scare off potential bidders? Or maybe that’s what they want you to think? Vizzini would have loved this game.
Big money comes into play when companies split their stock or go bankrupt. If a stock hits the leftmost position, the company goes bankrupt and all stocks of that company are worthless and must be discarded by everyone around the table. If a stock hits the rightmost space, it splits meaning that each share currently owned by a player is worth two shares. After either incident, the stock price is moved to a central location on its track and the process continues. If you’re lucky enough to have a stock split while you already own split stocks of that company, each one will pay you $10K in cold hard cash. Considering that the richest player wins this multiple-split combo is what’s sought out by every investor.
The digital version does everything is needs to do to make Stockpile work as an app. First of all, every mode and variant you could hope for has been incorporated in true Digidiced style. Not only are there 3 levels of AI and a robust asynchronous multiplayer system, but the game comes bundled with all the variants of the base game as well as all the modules of the Continuing Corruption expansion all for the price of entry [he means there’s no IAP. Dave and words don’t mix well -ed.]. All these variants mean you can play with either the generic base stock price board or the far more interesting “advanced” board in which each of the different stocks have unique tracks and increase and decrease in value at their own pace. There are also business leaders which give each player a special ability throughout the game as well as a slew of other variants all which can be turned on or off by the game creator as they wish.
There’s an extensive six-part tutorial that covers every bit of the game and all the expansion variants as well which is good because there’s no in-game manual to check on, instead the app gives you a link which sends you to an external pdf of the rules. Not ideal but, luckily, Stockpile isn’t a very complicated game.
The UI, unfortunately, makes Stockpile feel a lot more complicated than it actually is. Stocks are rendered as circular badges showing only the industry’s icon. This is fine, but being used to talking about Epic Electric or Cosmic Computers while playing the tabletop version is easier than remembering which symbol is which. In fact, that’s the issue I have with the UI in general, everything is reduced to an icon. I wonder if this won’t be as big an issue for those who haven’t played the cardboard version, but for me I have to check and double check every transaction just to make sure I’m thinking of the right company. It doesn’t help when the icon is half-covered when that stock is in one of the stockpiles or that the stockpiles themselves obscure the stock board showing their current price (you can toggle them on or off, but it would be nice to see the stockpiles and prices all at the same time). None of this is game-breaking by any means, and is probably more of an indication that I’m an old, old man, but there are times playing the digital version that I stare at my screen in confusion wondering what’s happening, which isn’t something I expected from a game I’ve already played and with this lower level of complexity.
This isn’t the first Digidiced game I’ve had this problem with. Their Terra Mystica is an incredibly well-done app, but I find that opponent turns happen quickly and there are so many icons flying about the screen that it’s hard to determine exactly what just happened. Again, I’m old and after a few plays I (kind of) got used to it. Of course, the icons are necessary to fit a lot of information onto a phone screen. The game will be coming to Steam later this week, and I wonder if the UI will be less compact when the bell rings on the big screen.
Stockpile is a fun board game and the app has done an admirable job bringing that fun to our devices. The app itself is polished and amazingly well done with a decent AI for solo play and the aforementioned async multiplayer. The only true issue I have with the digital version is that it’s not the cardboard version. Of course, many digital games have this issue but as an auction game with some take-that mechanisms, Stockpile just seems more fun when you can rub it in your friends’ faces as you bust one of their stocks, making their portfolio worthless. Yes, I’m that kind of player. The digital version seems a bit sterile, if that makes any sense.
I’m not saying the app isn’t worth getting, it very much is. I’m just saying that playing Stockpile on my phone really, really makes me want to head to the basement and grab my cardboard copy and throw it on the table with my family or friends and talk some smack, probably more than any other digital board game I have other than, maybe, Galaxy Trucker. Considering that the purpose of digital board games is to increase sales of the cardboard versions, maybe Digidiced has crafted the perfect app here: one that’s fun to play on the phone, and yet has you combing Amazon to pick up a physical copy.