When I first came to Illinois, I moved into a house where I had three roommates. The roommates bonded over several shared experiences—the change-jar meals at Outback Steakhouse, watching Boston Legal, the near losses of the Indianapolis Colts—but none as much as the game Acquire.
I hadn’t played Acquire before moving to Illinois (despite its age—it was first printed in 1962—and its many iterations), but it soon became one of my favorite board games. We played often, and while I seldom won, it is a fun game to lose, one of the marks of a good game.
How It Plays
For the sake of simplicity, I will discuss my favorite version of the board game, the one pictured above, published in 1999 by Avalon Hill. (After a few years of watching eBay, I finally acquired this version, but it cost a hefty sum.) Acquire can be played with two to six players. It comes with a game board (a 9×12 grid, each space bearing a number and letter, 1A through 12I) and tiles corresponding to each space, seven chain markers (representing publicly traded corporations), twenty-five shares of stock for each of the seven chains, paper money, and reference cards for each player (to chart the price of stocks). The goal of the game is to end the game with the most money. The way to earn money is through the clever buying and selling of stocks.
Each player has a “hand” of six tiles that correspond to spaces on the board. Each space represents a single business. When two spaces connect orthogonally, the single businesses become one of seven corporate chains (the player who plays the connecting tile chooses which). The hotel chain values come in three tiers: two at the bottom (Zeta and Sackson), three in the middle (America, Hydra, Fusion), and two at the top (Phoenix and Quantum). Low value means a cheap buy-in, but it also normally means a lesser payout. An expensive chain means a more difficult investment, but generally greater gains.
A turn consists of four parts: playing a tile, resolving the tile, buying stocks, drawing a new tile. Resolving a tile can mean one of several things: if the tile is played adjacent to an isolated tile, the tiles become a corporate chain. If the tile is placed connecting to an already formed corporation, the corporation grows (stock is more expensive to buy and more lucrative to sell). If the tile connects two chains on the board, a merger occurs (I’ll tackle this on its own later). If the tile isn’t connected to anything, there is no effect.
After the tile has been resolved, the player may buy at most three shares of stock in any corporation on the board, even if he didn’t start that company. (There is no exclusive ownership in Acquire; every corporation is publicly traded.) The ultimate goal of the game is to have the most money; the shorter-term goal is to balance your portfolio, having the most shares of stock in as many companies as possible, both in corporations that will be swallowed by larger corporations and in those larger corporations (which pay off in the endgame but not as the game progresses). Buying stocks is the crux of the game.
Stock and corporation values are determined by how many tiles connect to form the corporation. Each tile added to a company generally adds $100 to the price of stock . So, for example, one share of Sackson (bottom tier) is worth $200 when there are only two tiles in the chain. But if there are three, the price jumps to $300. Two tiles in Hydra (middle tier) means stock is valued at $300; with three tiles, $400. Two tiles in Quantum (top tier) starts the value at $400; three tiles = $500. And so on. The trick is to buy low and sell high. But remember: there are only twenty-five of each stock in the game, so you may not have a choice when to buy in order to secure the favored stockholder positions.
So, what’s a corporate merger? This is where the meat of Acquire takes place. Players start the game with a limited amount of money, and that money can run out quickly. The only way to get more money as the game progresses is to sell stock and collect investor bonuses. But the only time this money is doled out is when there is a corporate merger. When a merger occurs, the smaller company (by number of connected tiles) merges into the larger company: at the end of the merger, only the larger corporation will remain on the board. (If there is a tie, the player who placed the tile that connects the corporations chooses which stays and which goes—this is a significant point of strategy!) When a merger occurs, all players count the number of shares of stock they own in the soon-to-disappear corporation. Whoever has the most shares receives the majority stockholder bonus; the player who has the second most receives the minority stockholder bonus (which, to put it in perspective, is half of the majority bonus). Players may then liquidate their stocks for their current value, or they can trade their now defunct stocks, two for one, for shares in the larger company. A third option is to hold on to their stocks in the hope that the corporate chain that just got swallowed reappears on the board. This is a gamble, though: if the company reappears, a player who has held stock will have a significant advantage in the company. But if the company never returns, the stock is valueless at the end of the game.
Players continue to take their turns as illustrated above until one of two conditions is met (normally in around 60-90 minutes of game time): a) all the corporations on the board are “safe” (whenever a company reaches eleven tiles, it cannot merge into other corporations); b) a safe corporation reaches 41+ tiles. Once one of those conditions is met, any player can end the game at any point on his turn. Players collect bonuses for being majority/minority shareholders in all of the surviving corporations, liquidate all of their stocks, and count their winnings to determine the champion.
Do These Stocks Sell?
What do I like about Acquire? Well, first of all, it’s a math game in many respects, and I love math games. (Show me the money!) I like that winners and losers are hard to guess until the very end—a player who has several small holdings in frequently merging companies may have more money showing during the game, but the players who have their assets tied up in the high-rolling corporate monoliths should not be discounted. I like that there is give-and-take in the game, that there has to be a balance between companies that are profitable during the game and companies that are profitable in the end game. I like the aspect of most things being public—all the corporations are equally accessible to the players, and players can publicly count the remaining stocks of any corporation at any time—but there also being a private element (players keep their own stock stashes secret; they have insider information based on which tiles they have—can they merge two cash cows? can they build an empire out of a tiny corporation?). There is a good balance of luck and strategy, heavier on the strategy.
I like that the game has a high tension level, which typically keeps players engaged. There can also be an element of spite, which keeps the game interesting. I once played a game where one player was quite cocky, planning his empire that was soon to appear on the board. Well, with one tile cleverly played, my wife was able to effectively ruin that player’s strategy. Acquire is a game of calculated risks; betting the wrong way can be devastating, and you never know exactly what is going to happen (but that doesn’t make it random).
That being said, there are some things about Acquire that people may not like. There is a steep learning curve. I was destroyed my first time playing it because I didn’t diversify my investment. I try to help newbies learn the strategy, but the first game is still difficult. Also, the newer edition of the game has lower-quality pieces, and the version I’ve been explaining is expensive, even secondhand. (I got a steal at $60; the game normally goes for $100+. The 1962 version, though, is a good alternative, and you can usually find it between $20 and $30 on eBay. The 1999 version is my favorite because of its 3D pieces and high-quality components, but even the newest edition of the game is worth the buy becaues this game is awesome.) And while the game doesn’t eliminate players a la Monopoly or Risk, players can be effectively eliminated if they are forced to keep their holdings until the end of the game. This is especially a problem for newer players.
Acquire is one of my very favorite games, if not my favorite outright. It is a sleek blend of risk, luck, and strategy, all wrapped up in a fun and exciting package—and it lets you count and recount money to boot. I can’t recommend this game highly enough, unless you absolutely hate math—even then, though, you still might like it. High adventure in high finance, indeed!
[Ed Note: This review is modified from a version originally written by @Farmerlenny on Tongue Fried Goat.]