Trump: The Game

When Trump:The Game first appeared in the UK a while ago there were isolated rumblings of approval. Not only was it sumptuously produced but apparently there was a game in there as well. Considering the cover features a horrible photo of the man and it is made by Milton Bradley (and thus is mass market), I found this distinctly hard to believe. Whatever, with a £30-40 price tag worthy of Mr Trump himself, it wasn't something I felt like checking out in a hurry.

Roll on several months. Certain gamers fortunate enough to be in Woolworths at the right time see Flying Carpet, Capital Adventure and Willow on sale at funny prices. In some select branches, with no apparent pattern, Trump is also to be found for a mere fiver. Predictably, Siggins buys in size and finally plays the game with some friends. Utter amazement ensues. It proves to be a very good game, quick to play, well designed and fun. Its only foible is that it plays only with three or four. Either way, Trump is one of those sleepers that almost got away.

Although I'm not allowed to get excited over production values these days, Trump still has some of the very best I've ever seen. Everything is made from top quality materials, the box is glossy with quality gold print and the artistic design is excellent throughout. This is a luxury production. I did hear a suggestion that Trump was involved in sponsoring the game but give this little credence, but whoever paid for it certainly went to town. As a publicity stunt for Trump, it must have had the desired effect of conveying opulence but, as we know, the man himself remains irredeemably tacky. Proof that money does not give you taste. Either way, congratulations to the MB design team on this one.

Anyway, I was talking about the components. As usual, you get a board, a deck of shiny Trump Cards (witty eh?), four 'Big T' pawns, eight plastic property sarcophagi, money in a neatly designed dispenser and a rule book. The rule book (in marble effect finish, of course) is another minor triumph. The game is explained very clearly and, for at least the half-a-dozen games we've played, the rules have proved to be complete in every way. Every game situation seems to be well covered and explained which suggests in depth playtesting.

Trump is a game in two phases. The first is in the Monopoly style where all the players whizz round the board buying up properties and gaining cash and cards. These are then used in the second phase that concerns itself with wheeling and dealing in the Trump tradition. Both sections are a little above the norm of these things and the resulting game is surprisingly tactical.

The basic turn is quite novel. You take a Trump card and then either play it OR roll the die to advance around the board. Cards are the most useful item in the game whereas landing on the right space can bring in cash or trigger auctioning of properties. Unusual in itself, this movement system means that from the first turn you have to decide whether to build up cards for later in the game or to try and take your profits there and then. I haven't yet worked out which is best but I guess a balance of the two works well. Either way, try to keep the deal and bidding cards played to a minimum as they are always useful to have in your hand later on.

The Trump Cards are the most important part of the game system. There are several types of these and they either show deals that can be done or assist in achieving them. Much of the game is dependent on open bidding and some cards enable you to forcibly take someone out of the bidding, or put yourself back in. This means nothing is certain, even if you have the most available money. With the right cards and a little cash, properties can be picked up for way below their normal cost. With the useful Outside Investor cards bumping up your disposable cash, it can often be a case of 'who you know' being vital rather than a fat wallet.

The value of the properties is one of the neatest features of the game. Each property (represented by its plastic box) starts the game with ten million dollars inside. As the game progresses, more and more cash is added to build up a secret value and it is up to the players to remember what that approximate value is. This establishes a growing base value that is collected at the end of the game by whoever ends up owning it. What is interesting though is that, throughout the game, properties come up for auction and the prices paid are always well over any possible nominal value - we established a broad average of about 200-250m per purchase. I suspect the reason for this is that players, consciously or otherwise, work out the intangible benefits of holding properties and thus the ability to do deals and collect deferred income, thereby pushing the price up to these levels.

Once all the properties are sold, the game moves onto the deals phase. By this time, each player will have cash, cards and hopefully some properties. Neatly, the fact that you don't have as many properties as other players doesn't cut you out of the action as we shall see. What is important is your number of good cards, and to a lesser extent your cash on hand. Basically, each player takes it in turn to play a card or propose a deal to another player or group of players. This deal can be based on cards in his hand or other knowledge.

Deals can include buying, selling and trading cards, cash, properties and, importantly, borrowing properties from other players. In this way, holding a card such as 'Receive $200m if you own both the Casino and the Hotel' has value even if you own just one or even neither. Through negotiation and suitable payment, you can rent the required properties for a period and claim the cash by playing the card. Alternatively, you could simply sell the card to an interested party. Of course, the other players will want a return from these deals and it is here that the game really starts to get interesting.

A deal is proposed by suggesting a complete package such as 'I'll pay you $60m for the use of the Cruise Liner next turn, the Sports Complex in two turns for two turns plus I'll give you this card'. The other player(s) considers this and then simply says yes or no to the deal. A negative response closes your turn but this is no problem as you can always come back later with another proposal. Circumstances can change even in the second phase because players can retain the Forced Sale cards to hit other players and the play of the potentially disastrous taxation cards can result in changes of ownership. Who mentioned Leona Helmsley? We allow only minimal haggling during the turn to give an indication of what might be possible in the future, but that is it in terms of time allowed. This keeps the game moving along at a good pace, even in the face of complex deals involving such whizzo stuff as deferred multi-turn rentals, options and performance related profit splits. I haven't yet seen an off balance sheet deal, but you never know.

Obviously, a good knowledge of negotiation skills is very useful in the deals phase. The underlying rule is that anything goes during the dealing round except that no lying is permitted. Ah, bliss. This means the players will often resort to showing the other player the deal they are planning and this, to an extent, puts the other player in a privileged position and perhaps more likely to deal. Again, this is neatly done. Otherwise, the player relies on his cards and information gleaned to put together profitable transactions. The cards clearly indicate what you need to do and how to go about getting it - arranging and valuing the deal is up to you.

Often, you can put together a package that clears you $100m or more while still making the other party pleased, on others you will work for round after round to make $20m. That's the life of a dealmaker I suppose. Sometimes a deal will even be worth doing if it makes more for your opponent than you, as long as you allow for overall game placing. $80m to the last placed man and $50m in your bin is better than nothing at all late in the game. Another nice feature is the uncertainty of one's position. Even if you are sitting smugly with four properties (half those available) and getting ready to lay the killer $200m income card, you can still be forced to sell, be hit by a tax claim or need to spend cash elsewhere first. This is a game that keeps you on your toes.

The number of cards in play at the start of the deals round is a clever check on the time spent dealing and therefore finishing the game. Once the cards have all been played, that's it and if no-one will deal with you on your terms you can forget any cards you may be holding. Negotiate, compromise and close some sort of deal or the cards are wasted. The cards and the quick refusal/acceptance of deals also cuts out all those time wasting arguments. The other party is either going to go for the deal or he isn't, you don't spend twenty minutes convincing some whining git that the deal really is worth his while. At the end of all this, the hidden cash is removed from the properties and the player with the most total cash wins.

Games tend to be close but it is possible to go nova and end up with less than you started with. In one game, I had too little cash starting the deal round and the taxation cards finished me off completely. As a rule, we have completed most games of Trump in just over the hour. Considering how much is packed into each game, this is very respectable. The balance of luck and skill is good enough for a game of this type and the game can turn for or against you in one duff card or turn. With skill, this sort of luck can be minimized and as you play the game more and more, the nasty or good events will become known.

There is no doubt that Trump is an excellent little game. It packs a whole load of neat design ideas, of which the cards/deals system is the best. I know one shouldn't prejudge a game just because it comes from a mass market manufacturer. Trump is living proof that even the MB's of this world can now put out a game that gamers, as well as the public, can enjoy. Trump was a very pleasant surprise and the designer (who isn't credited as far as I can see) should feel justifiably proud of his work on this one. Definitely one to buy now (as it seems to have disappeared) and a game that will offer much gaming value in the future, especially if you find it for a fiver.

Back to the Republic of Rome or on to Speedway Challenge.

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