Dice are weird, huh? No matter how well you think you know probability, at some point your brain is gonna be yelling “BET ON 12” and despite your better judgment you will, and sometimes, against the odds, it pays off. Everyone else resents that you won based on such a “wrong” decision, but here you are with all the money, and there they are with a 100% probability that they just lost. I think that the urge to bet against the odds is somehow deeply embedded in the human brain, and games that take advantage of that are often intensely frustrating, but the payoffs are amazingly satisfying.
For me, the 2d6 roll in Settlers of Catan is one of the strongest, coolest elements of that game. It’s brilliant in that it keeps you engaged on everyone’s turn, not just in terms of collecting resources but in terms of the shared tension as players’ hands approach the 7 card limit. It gives different inherent values to certain board positions, but as anyone who has played the game has surely discovered, sometimes 6 and 8 don’t come up as often as they seem they should, and sometimes 12 and 2 get hit over and over. This is often a complaint but I mean it as a compliment; If the game used a flat die roll there’d be no reason to pick one board position over another, but if it paid off exactly as predicted (by using a deck of dice, as so often suggested) there’d be no tension, no frustration, and no shock turning to glee when the 11 space you got bullied into building on pays off THREE TIMES before your next turn.
The dice rolling bit of Catan is so excellent that Machi Koro went and tried to make a game out of it, but it sort of… didn’t work, at least for me. So when Leo Colovini’s new title from Mayfair Games got a comparison to Machi Koro from a con buddy at PAX East (sorry con buddy for forgetting your name) I was kind of like “bleh.” Then when I was at Mayfair’s booth trying to snag a copy of Patchwork when they finally showed up late in the second day of the Con, I saw a group of people demoing it. They swore at their dice, re-rolled them, and swore again. Any game that does that is worth a shot, so I sat down for a demo. Not even the uncomfortable stares from the animal people on the box stopped me.
In Flea Market, you and 4 of your closest inexplicable CG animal character friends are going to *yawn* bid on some stuff. You’re given 24 bucks. That’s not enough, though, you need 45 bucks, and you’re going to accumulate it by buying something at the flea market, then selling it for more at that same flea market. This approach was used with the maybe 3 copies of Dead at Winter that seemed to be present at PAX East. Instead of between-print-runs board games, you’ll be trading in odd pop-culture references like Flux Capacitors, One Rings, and the Wardrobe That Has Narnia In It, each of which is assigned a value between 3 and 18. You roll 3d6 to determine what’s up for sale, and then you bid for it.
Okay, but here’s the misery-inducing twist: You’re just a buyer’s agent, so you’re not allowed to bid whatever you want. You have to bid what you’re TOLD to bid. You see, what you can bid is determined by a 2d6 roll. You’re allowed to re-roll one of the dice, giving you a bit of control (though this often goes terribly wrong) but you’re locked in to that roll. Everyone simultaneously reveals the bid they’re disgusted to have rolled, and then, from high to low, each player can buy the thing on the block for the amount they rolled, or walk away. This has the effect of making every roll equally unfortunate: High rolls go first, but cost way too much. Low rolls are great, but you’ll rarely get to buy anything. If everyone passes, the active player gets the thing for free, so that won’t happen too often.
So why are you buying these things? Well, let’s say you bought the Ruby Slippers, item number 9. You’ll see a return on your investment the next time that number comes up again on the 3d6 roll. As anyone who’s played D&D knows, 10s and 11s are supposed to be common on 3d6, while 3s and 4s are supposed to be uncommon but inevitably aren’t. 17s and 18s are, of course, completely unattainable (at least when YOU’RE rolling.) Anyway, when your number comes up again, two things happen. First, you get free bonus, which gets larger and larger as the game goes on. Second, you put the item up for sale, and the person who buys it pays YOU, not the bank. The game’s a race to $45, so whenever you choose to buy an item, you’ve got a handful of things to consider. How long will it be before that number comes up again? How big will the bonus be? How much money are you willing to give to another player? How much will THEY be willing to give back to YOU when you sell it? There are a lot of simple factors bumping against eachother, with coupled with the barely controlled chaos of the dice rolls, ends up turning “buy low, sell high” into “buy high, sell higher” or “buy low, sell immediately for no profit” or “buy low, sell never” with an alarming frequency. You’re constantly getting screwed over, but don’t worry, it’s hilarious.
As you build a portfolio of movie references, you’ll find your initial money supply dwindling. 24 dollars turns into 3, but you’ve got the Holy Grail, the Ruby Slippers, and… Rosebud? and all you need is for your number to come up JUST ONCE for the purchase to pay off… and it doesn’t. And doesn’t. And doesn’t. And ARRRRRGH ANOTHER 6? Are you serious? 9 is WAY more common a roll than 6 is, but for some reason that Marcellus Wallace suitcase is bouncing around the table like crazy, so maybe you should just buy it, too… No matter HOW much you know about the “Gambler’s Fallacy” this game will have you swearing up and down that 15 is really on a hot streak, so maybe you should bite the bullet and buy it for 8. Surely you’ll make it back before the game ends, right?
Eh, probably not. Our games often end with a few players low on cash, but with quite a tableau of item tokens in front of them. Remember, it’s a race, so while buying stuff gives you more opportunities to maybe make money in the future, it also puts you deeper and deeper in the hole. If Animal Crossing has taught me anything, being in debt in the world of talking animals is not a particularly enviable position.
The game’s tons of fun, but it’s got a few issues that mean I can’t just give it the full two-thumbs up treatment. First off, this money. The money in this game comes with some of the least functional money I’ve ever seen. I’ve rarely felt compelled to replace money with chips, but this might change my mind. It comes in 1s, 5s, and 20s with designs based on US currency… the designs themselves are cute, but the denominations are nearly impossible to differentiate, resulting in a lot of “How much money have you got?” followed by “I….. I’m not sure?” By the way, have fun trying to give 5 players 24 dollars each in any kind of reasonable way. (A $20 and 4 $1s per player is pretty much it, which is annoying since most of the bids end up in the 6-8 range.)
The money’s not the only weirdly non-functional component. While the item chips have cute art and cuter references, the most important info on them, the NUMBER, is a white number on an off-white background in a stylized font with a thin outline. From across the table, the numbers are a bit hard to read. Expect at least once to search around for an item with a specific number, only to notice after a few seconds that it’s right in front of you.
Despite those couple of hiccups, I had a ton of fun with Flea Market. Re-rolling the dice to try and get a lower number but having it come up higher is painful and hilarious, especially when the bids are revealed and by some miracle you’re STILL not the worst off. It’s definitely a dice game, so anyone who doesn’t want to put up with luckiness should stay far, far away, but evaluating how much items are worth against your need to not give Mike any more money is an interesting enough decision, and for me, the dice turn what could be an agonizing (but long) decision tree into an equally agonizing (but shorter) yes/no. The game moves fast, at around 30 minutes no matter the player count. It’s a delightful little dice game with just enough to chew on, so if you like shouting at plastic cubes that don’t do what you tell them, give Flea Market a shot.