“Just follow your dreams,” they said. “Do something that will make you happy,” they said. So I did. I went to the best wizard school in the country. Graduated top of my class. I can sling spell with the best of them.
But now what? The hex market is all but dried up after the Locust Incident of ’99, and my internship at the largest enchanting firm in the city couldn’t even get me in the door. So I was good enough to get your coffee and plan your appointments, but I’m not good enough to get an entry level position in the mail room?! I can’t even afford to tinker in my own spare time. Essence of newt ain’t cheap, and don’t even get me started on student loans!
But maybe I’m going about it all wrong. Maybe instead of trying to get paid to do magic I should try using magic to get paid. I’m sure Merlin would go on and on about being true to the magical arts or something. But if Merlin was still living at home with debt collectors breathing down his neck, I’m pretty sure he’d understand. Now if I remember right, there was a chapter in one of my text books about manipulating the stock market. Let me see, let me see… Ah yes, here it is: So You Decided to Sell Out? A Chapter on Prospectus.
How it Plays
Strip away the magic potions and silly hats, look past the large crystal ball and tumbling cubes, and what you have is a game about cold hard cash. For all of it’s wizardly trappings, Prospectus is a stock market game where your goal is to buy and sell potions and walk away with the most cash by game’s end. In order to do this, it’s key to understand two things on the board: the Price Machine and the Future Track.
The Price Machine, as one would expect, tells you how much a particular potion is worth and how many of that potion can be bought in a single transaction.The more valuable a potion is, the less of it you can buy at once. The Future Track is a row of cards that will dictate how the prices of the potions will increase or decrease. There are multiple cards shown at any one time, but only the furthest one to the right will be used per round. This allows for some planning as you can see how the prices might fluctuate in the future.
You begin the game with some money and some potion cubes, and on your turn there is a strict order of operations. While most steps are optional, they must be done in order. First you can sell to the High Council by placing a potion cube on a matching space on one of the Future Track cards. Doing so gives you a special bonus based on the type of potion you sold, and the effects are randomized each game. Next you can do a transaction which involves either buying or selling potions based on the prices indicated by the Price Machine.
Following these steps, you will be able to play a spell card to manipulate the game state, and this is where things get interesting. You see, everyone has an interrupt tile in front of them. When it’s not your turn and another player has selected a spell card to play, you can flip over your interrupt tile to immediately do a transaction of your own, thereby interrupting another player’s turn. You won’t be able to interrupt another player’s turn while your interrupt tile is flipped, but you can turn it back over by discarding a spell card on your turn instead of using it for its effect.
Next the rightmost future card will be resolved. The top of the card has potion cubes that were sold previously to the High Council. If the High Council’s demands were not fulfilled, they get angry and the price of the unfulfilled potion is lowered by one. If it was fulfilled, it is instead increased by one and the potion cube that was on the card is placed in the Council Chamber located underneath the crystal ball. The Council Chamber is sealed and its contents won’t be revealed until the end of the game.
The next portion of the future card will dictate how the prices of all the potions may change. You will gather the number of potion cubes indicated on the card from the general supply and toss them into the crystal ball. There are openings on the top and bottom of the crystal ball as well as offset cutouts within where cubes can get caught, so it’s possible for cubes to remain inside for multiple rounds. You’ll gather the cubes that fell out the bottom and adjust the prices of the cubes as indicated on the future card.
The final portion of the future card shows a specific potion which builds up to the payment of a small dividend to all players who own that potion. Once you’ve fully resolved the future card, you can do a final transaction and your turn comes to an end.
Play continues until a set amount of rounds and the potion cubes contained in the Council Chamber are revealed. If you have any potion cubes that match those revealed you will get a cash bonus and then you will sell all of potions for the prices indicated on the board. You then simply count up your cash and determine the winner.
The Rules of Attraction
With the vast number of board games titles being released every year, it becomes harder and harder for any individual game to stand out and garner attention. Even good games can get lost in the shuffle if it doesn’t find a way to attract players. A game needs something to capture an audience’s attention. It needs a hook. And if you need a hook, you could do much worse than a large crystal ball.
You might argue it’s just a gimmick and, for the most part, you’d be right. But you know what? I like gimmicks. They’re fun and I’m always willing to give a game a shot if it has an interesting gimmick. I’ll keep playing if the gimmick is good, and I’m glad I can say that the crystal ball in Prospectus is a good gimmick. It’s not a completely new concept; it’s essentially a randomizer, and cube towers have been employed in earlier games like Amerigo and Shogun, but even though it might not be 100% original, it nails the execution.
Prospectus is a game about speculation. You’re investing in certain color potions in the hopes that they will be worth more by the time you decide to sell them. It’s Wall St. 101: Buy Low, Sell High. The crystal ball injects a bit of uncertainty into every decision you make.
The game economy is mostly game driven, and the players react to it. Without uncertainty, the game would bog down into a exercise in addition and multiplication. But uncertainty is a dangerous beast. If the variance is too high and prices can swing wildly with little predictability, then the impact of individual decisions is diminished to the point where they hardly matter. The experience is transformed from an actual game to a slot machine. If the variance is too low and the prices change in an entirely predictable way, then there aren’t any real decisions to make. It becomes a contest of being able read the board better then everyone else. There would be no gamesmanship and no excitement. Luckily, Prospectus’ crystal ball hits just the right balance.
I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but it feels as if the placement of cutouts within the crystal ball are placed in such a way that 80-85% of the cubes thrown into it will exit the bottom. That includes the cubes that were already caught within the crystal ball from previous tosses. That means that you have an idea of what the results are before you toss in the cubes, but there’s just enough uncertainty to make it exciting. The fact that the crystal ball is clear also allows you to see what’s trapped inside adding another bit of excitement as you hope that the right cube gets dislodged. It wasn’t uncommon in our plays to put a little extra oomph into your tosses when there were some enticing cubes stuck inside.
Because of all this, the crystal ball manages to elevate above mere gimmick to a net positive in the overall game experience. I’m sure there could have been another way to randomize price fluctuations, but you know what? Throwing cubes into the ball is plain, simple fun. Much in the same way as tossing dice, there is a physical satisfaction of watching the potion cubes clink and rattle around the crystal ball and come spilling out of the bottom.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the artwork by artist Kwanchai Moriya. The crystal ball caught my attention, but it was Moriya’s art that sealed the deal. For my money, he is amongst the very best artist working in board games today. It’s distinctive full of personality. There are always lots of little details in his work that adds to the overall appeal. Even the cardboard money takes on his style with distinctive shapes and sizes. There isn’t a ton of art in the game, but what’s there is fantastic.
The crystal ball and artwork are great and are definite pluses to the experience, but without a strong underlying game design, they would be wasted. Thankfully, the game is a strong enough scaffold to support it all. The biggest decisions you’ll make in the game are which potions to buy and sell and when to do so. In order to make an informed decision, you’ll have to study the cards on the future track. Even though only the rightmost card is resolved per turn, there are always a number of cards revealed to give you an idea of what’s coming up in later rounds, so you’ll survey what’s likely to happen and make your decisions based off of that. You might notice that all the revealed future cards have the blue potions increasing in price, signaling you to buy as many of them as you can before you’re priced out. It isn’t always as clear cut as this example. Usually there is a mix of increases and decreases among the future cards. Coupled with the uncertainty of the crystal ball, you have a recipe for some large payouts and large losses.
Another wrinkle to consider are the spell cards. Everyone has their own deck of cards that are identical, but they will be shuffled separately so you never what order your opponents can play them in. Their effects are fairly varied and include such things as increasing the amount of potions you can buy in a single transaction, or discarding one of the revealed future cards. Every card can be useful in the right situation, but I found that some of the cards are more universally useful than others. It’s not a huge deal because none of the cards feel too powerful, and because any card can be discarded in order to flip over your interrupt tile. So, even if the cards you have won’t help you in the moment, you can still take advantage of them. Reactivating your interrupt tile may sound a little boring, but being able to jump into any other player’s turn and react to their actions is actually one of the highlights of the game. It forces you to pay attention to the other players, and keeps you involved in everyone’s actions.
Whenever you play a card, the rulebook states you are supposed to say the spell name aloud. They have silly names such as “Converte Cursum” and “Muta Impendium.” We quickly stopped doing that after a round or two through our first game. Ostensibly, you are a wizard using your magical abilities to manipulate the market for your own gain, but you never feel particularly wizardly. There’s a lot of window dressing to carry the premise. The potions have goofy names like Owl Spit and Frog Juice, but we quickly began referring to them as the blue cubes and the green cubes. There’s a even a functional crystal ball and it wasn’t enough to get us in character. It’s all very surface level. It doesn’t detract from the overall experience, but don’t expect it to feel like a spell-slinger either.
The main source of fun in Prospectus come from the jackpots. When you’ve loaded up on a particular potion and the crystal ball breaks your way, there’s a real thrill associated with it. I’m not a gambler, but I could imagine it’s a similar (if less higher stakes) sensation as taking a large pot in a game of blackjack. Cashing out and gathering a handful of coins is quite satisfying, and it doesn’t have to be a solitary feeling either. When multiple people are invested in the same potion, the elation of a good crystal ball drop becomes communal. Likewise, you can share your misery on a bad drop with your fellow investors. Group cheers and moans are common occurrences, and a sign that a game is doing something right.
The game also encourages some high risk maneuvers to really heighten payouts through the purchase limits on the Price Machine. When potions are least valuable you can purchase up to 5 of them, whereas you can only purchase 1 when they are most valuable. The potential earnings of 5 low value potions can far outweigh those of a single high value potion. It’s going to take some luck for that to happen, but when it does it’s a ton of fun.
The progression from the start of the game is also a good source of fun and satisfaction. You begin with just enough cash to buy 4-6 potions, but then you’ll be cash strapped for bit. Slowly but surely, you’ll sell a potion or two for a cash infusion. Buy some more potions to bolster your long term investments, selling every once in awhile in order to stay nimble. Then you sell big, and you’re swimming in cash! Enough to make some more investments and maybe take a risk or two. Where 50 coins meant the world to you, now it’s chump change. And then you do it again. And it’s fun again.
And then you do it again, and it’s slightly less fun. Prospectus’ largest flaw is that it goes on just a little too long. I always felt I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to do a round or two before the game ends. Sure you can make more money in those rounds, but all the long term goals I had were already accomplished. Maybe I should’ve made even longer term plans, but it was a sentiment shared amongst multiple people I played with.
All in all, Prospectus is just fun. It’s not the pinnacle of high strategy, and it’s not wholly original, but it executes on the ideas that it’s trying to achieve and provides some good old fashioned cheer. It’s sure to garner some attention based on the crystal ball alone, but don’t pass it off as a silly toy. There’s some brains behind the beauty, and the game knows how to capitalize on the endorphin rush of a good drop. Don’t let the idea of stock market game drive you off if you’re a lighter gamer, and don’t dismiss it as a diversion if you’re a heavy gamer. There’s enough on both ends of the spectrum to appeal to most players and at the very least make it worth a play.