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Ponzi!

Ponzi!

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Ponzi!
Beads.jpg
Designer: Ben Henley; developed with Holly Gramazio and Kevan Davis
Players: 4-6 (also, spectators can predict the fraudster)
Stuff required: A large number of tokens, one colour per player
Crew required: One.
Preparation: 10 minutes
Time required: 40 minutes
Place required: indoors
Activities: Trading, bluffing
Discuss this game
This is a playable game - it's finished, tested and ready to play.
Cc-by-nc.png
This game is made available under an Attribution-Noncommercial Creative Commons licence. (What does this mean?)

An allegorical game of high finance; players strive to trade tokens advantageously. But some of them are fraudsters secretly trying to dump worthless assets.

Overview and theme

The players represent financiers (hedge fund managers, investment bankers and the like). They must increase their assets (total number of tokens) as much as possible before the inevitable market crash.

One or more of the players is secretly a fraudster, whose starting tokens are all worthless.

Optionally, spectators can represent market analysts, who must try to work out who is the fraudster, based on their trading patterns.

Preparation

The game requires tokens, available in as many colours as there are players. 100 of each colour is plenty.

Assign each player a unique colour. Give each player 30 tokens of their colour. Also giving them a matching badge/sticker to remind the other players of who had which starting colour would be a good idea if available.

Prepare as many playing cards as there are players - aces for the desired number of fraudsters. Two fraudsters seems to work well with six players - a lone fraudster seems to have a big advantage.

Hand out cards and ask the players to look at them in secret, remember them, then give them back. Make sure the moderator knows who got the ace(s). Announce that any player with a ace is a fraudster.

Prepare the Invisible Hand, a mechanism which randomly indicates the Will of the Market, ie which combinations of tokens can be traded for other tokens. The simplest version is just a hat, out of which to draw tokens.

Have chocolate coins (or choccy gold/silver bars, or Ferrero Rocher) on hand as a "performance bonus". It is a good idea to have a fruit option on hand, because not everyone can eat chocolate.

[IF AUDIENCE ARE TO BE ANALYSTS, provide a "stock chart" with vertical markers for each round. Provide stickers in the same colours as the tokens, for use by spectators to make their predictions about who the fraudster is.]

How the Invisible Hand works

Each round, the moderator of the game, representing the Will of the Market, will exchange a particular combination of token colours for a SUBSTANTIAL NUMBER of tokens of a particular colour.

For example, the Market might desire two yellows and a blue, and in exchange return 6 reds.

The simplest way to generate this is to have the moderator pull two or three tokens out of a hat; it is up to the moderator's discretion which colour the market is "selling" and what the exchange rate is.

Generally, the Market should only pay out 4 to 6 tokens; perhaps larger amounts in the early rounds if players are reluctant to swap.


Gameplay

Sequence of each round:

Phase 1. The players trade tokens among themselves - whatever deals they want to strike are up to them. Set a time limit of about 2 or 3 minutes to keep things moving.

Phase 2. The Invisible Hand indicates the WILL OF THE MARKET: the set of tokens, and what they can be traded for.

Phase 3. The moderator swaps sets for tokens according to the will of the Market.

Repeat until a set number of terms or time limit has elapsed. At this point, the Market crashes: see Endgame below.

Finish with Phase 1.

[OPTIONAL IF AUDIENCE ARE BEING 'ANALYSTS': At any time, a spectator can predict who the fraudster is. To do this, the spectator writes his/her initials on a sticker and affixes it to the turn counter on the current turn. Each spectator can make only one prediction.]

Optional stock tips rule

At the beginning of the second round, and on all subsequent rounds until the last, offer players the chance to buy "stock tips" - pieces of paper with true statements such as "THE MARKET WILL BUY WHITE" or "RED CHIPS ARE SAFE" or "BLACK CHIPS ARE BAD". Note that the moderator should rig the Invisible Hand so that any predictions about what the market does come true.

Initially the stock tips should be straight predictions of the next market trade (obviously the moderator rigs the trade to fulfill the prediction) or statements about which chips are valuable (the number of tips which out fraudsters should be severely limited, perhaps one or two per game).

In later rounds, it is fun to sell tips like "THE VALUE OF YOUR INVESTMENT MAY GO DOWN AS WELL AS UP" or "GREED IS GOOD" or "YOUR HOME IS AT RISK IF YOU DO NOT KEEP UP REPAYMENTS" etc. etc.


[from an idea by Nina Steiger]

Handout thumbnail for Ponzi-tips.pdf.
Download Ponzi-tips.pdf
Sample sheet of stock tips to be cut up with one tip per strip of paper

Ending the game

Reveal the worthless token colour(s) and make every player discard all the worthless ones.

The player with the most tokens remaining is the winner.

Announce that the winner (or winners if there's a tie) gets a bonus for steering their company through the crisis, and reward them with chocolate. Then announce that this is banking, everyone has to get a bonus anyway, and give all the other players the same reward.

Making it more theatrical

The moderator can dress like a "businessman" with a bowler hat, red braces etc.

The Will of The Market could be a bingo machine with coloured balls, instead of just a hat. [idea suggested by Natalie Catchpole]

If spectators are making predictions, the turn counter and predictions could be projected on a big screen. Maybe spectators could text in their predictions - the colour and their initials - and clever software could put that onto the "stock chart". Ideally the chart would show the numbers of tokens in play, somehow (RFID?).

Variants

Team Ponzi! - to scale the game to a larger number of players, you could group players into small teams who all share the same token colour (but still have their own allocation of tokens to trade). Make clear that the reward for success goes to an individual and not a team. A member of a fraud team who manages to get rid of the worthless tokens might be tempted to betray her team members by admitting she's a fraudster - although she has no way to prove it. [suggested by Kevan]

Shopping list

For N players:

Essential:

  • Nx plastic trays to keep tokens in
  • Clear plastic cups to store the moderator's tokens in and display trade combos
  • Top hat to draw trade combos from (or bingo machine with balls the same colour as the tokens)
  • Tokens of N colours - 50 to 100 of each (poker chips or beads)
  • Playing cards
  • Chocolate coins (and fruit option)
  • Stopwatch


Useful:

  • Coloured badges/stickers/hats with stickers on, in the same colours as the tokens

If spectators are predicting:

  • Stickers of N colours (matching tokens)
  • Stock chart

Chrome:

  • Suit/bowler/red braces etc. for moderator

Play history

  • Ponzi! ran at Sandpit #10 at the ICA, after a test at the Pembury Tavern.
  • It ran at the Soho Theatre, in June and July 2009, as part of the "Everything Must Go!" season.
  • The game ran at the 2009 Hide&Seek Weekender's "Beyond Werewolf" night.

Flickr photos

A photo on Flickr

(These are the ten most recent Flickr photos of Ponzi!. To add your own, just add the "ludocity:game=ponzigame" tag to your Flickr photos.)