Have you ever noticed how so many games put the player in the role of a tycoon? It’s one of the oldest settings, going all the way back from Monopoly to classics like Acquire and the 18xx series. It’s a simple concept: the most money wins. In modern designs, it’s more common to represent amassed wealth and power in the form of some kind of victory point, like in Imperial. So the structure changes, the settings shift, but the message is always the same: financial success translates directly to victory. Of course, most of these games aren’t really interested in making any kind of economic or societal comment. Games are usually about competition, so money is just another metric by which we can compete, like taking over the world in Risk. But what if a game actually used that trope as a way to reflect back on our society, all while still making an absorbing game experience? That’s exactly what Greed Incorporated does, and the result is impressive.
Greed Incorporated has a familiar setup. You play an enterprising businessman who is the CEO of a major corporation. You will create new industries, trade commodities with other players to create new ones, and then sell them at a tidy profit. As the game goes on, you will become an executive at different companies owned by other players as well. So far, so familiar. But shareholders are a demanding lot, and they want to see growth every year. If your company posts a loss in one year, heads are gonna roll. Fortunately, the executive on hard times can always walk away with a handsome severance package. And what’s to stop you from becoming the CEO of another company, and ruining that one as well? But buyout cash isn’t enough. You need to flaunt that wealth. So the winner is literally the guy with the most toys. You spend your buyout on important executive perks, like lingerie models and private yachts. After all, you’ve earned it.
It’s the best case I’ve ever seen for the board game as satire. However you feel about capitalism, it’s impossible to miss what the designers feel. At no point is failure to run a successful company ever punished. The real question is not IF you should tank your company, but WHEN. There’s no personal gain in creating a profitable business. Building a nice little economic engine won’t get you anywhere. You’ll need personal wealth to do that. And it’s far more profitable to force a company to fail than it is to be responsible to your shareholders. You don’t even need to agree with its assessment of large corporations to appreciate how well the game succeeds in this regard.
But all of the thematic spin would be meaningless if the game wasn’t well-designed. But for the most part, it absolutely is. One of the key aspects of the game is the huge range of commodities available, and how their prices rise and fall as the game goes on. Early in the game when there aren’t a lot of production chains started up, prices might go through the roof. But as you develop more industries and buy more private jets, it hurts everything else that’s happening. It starts with the basic goods like land and coal. But then the crash begins to affect more valuable things like houses and loans, and before you know it, the price of everything is in free-fall. Not coincidentally, this is when you buy most of your fancy gewgaws. It draws a clear line between the excesses of the player and the collapse of every market in the game.
The most fascinating part of the game action comes in the trading phase. As players build companies, they produce different goods that will be needed by other companies around the board. You also have several investments that will combine cheaper materials into something more profitable. At one point in the game round, everyone produces raw materials and the game opens up to trade and sell goods to each other. This is a pretty amazing sequence, because of how little economic trends play out organically. In my game this weekend, one player produced all of the land in the game, something required by the other players. He had an enormous amount of leverage. Not only that, but you can actually be the CEO of multiple companies at once. Maybe one of your companies needs something that your other company makes. It’s easy to cut a favorable deal to get what you need when you own all of the supply lines. It’s one more way that you are forced into what can only be considered a highly unethical business practice. My only issue here is that the game can become one of optimization as people try to analyze what deal is the best for them. Besides that, it’s a bit ungainly for all of this trading to happen at once. It’s like a game of Pit where everyone knows exactly what everyone else has. In practice it works, but it can be cumbersome. I’m willing to tolerate it though, because the end result is one of the best economic games I’ve ever played, because of its uniqueness, its execution, and its biting cynicism.
Regretfully, Greed Incorporated is not an easy game to find. Published in 2009 by Splotter Spellen, a boutique design group in Europe, it got one small print run and that was it. This is common for Splotter, whose other designs include the fascinating civ game Antiquity. It’s not like copies aren’t out there, but you’ll almost certainly need to spend over $80 to land one, and it’ll probably be closer to $100. It’s probably the biggest knock on the game, which looks quite nice and makes itself surprisingly manageable despite all the cards and player boards spewed all over the table.
But perhaps you’re one of those wealthy CEOs who can afford regular $100 board games. If that’s the case, Greed Incorporated is the most immersive economic game I know of. It’s satirical edge is sharp and distinct, and it doesn’t just bolt it on. It arrives at all of its little observations organically while still delivering a compelling strategic experience. You don’t just play Greed Incorporated. It engulfs you, and that’s something that very few games can pull off.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.