Euro games stand out from more pedestrian board games because Euros tend to have a lot less luck involved, and even when Euros do feature luck, they usually offer some way to hedge against a bad outcome. When I reviewed Khora, I lauded how nicely that game provided you with a way to buy your way out of bad dice luck. Plutocracy takes things one step further, eliminating all luck. The game features no chance whatsoever—no dice, no cards, etc…—the closest you can get to the luck of the draw is if you choose the optional starting conditions that randomize prices and players’ starting planets.
Games with zero luck in them tend to be dry and themeless—think Chess as the Urspiel here—but from the moment you open the box, Plutocracy’s board (a colorful solar system on the black background of deep space) makes the game pop with intrigue: ooh, what is this game?
The Tagline for the game is “Space is Time is Money is Power” and that does a pretty good job of summarizing what Plutocracy turns out to be: a fancy Pick-up-and-Deliver game with some interesting wrinkles.
Each player represents an interplanetary corporation headquartered on the planets beyond Earth’s orbit, each vying to control the Plutocratic Council (“The PC”) on Pluto. You get control by old-fashioned bribery (along with a bonus based on what you have in your inventory if you pay timely visits to Mother Earth) and you get money from carefully planning space flights to maximize commercial opportunities across the five productive outer planets (Mars through Neptune). Get the most Power by getting the most Money by using Time most efficiently as your travel through Space and you’ll probably win Plutocracy. Luck certainly won’t be an issue.
Over the course of the game, you fly your spaceship through the solar system, buying and selling goods and choosing the right moment to siphon off some of your working capital to buy seats in the parliaments of the five outer planets, which increases your chances of getting votes in The PC. It might sound a little like an old-school Hanseatic League trading game, but Plutocracy has two super-cool twists that definitely put the game into outer space, thematically, and also give it a unique and intriguing mix of mechanics.
The first is how Plutocracy uses a Time Track. If you’ve played Uwe Rosenberg’s Patchwork, for example, you’ve encountered the Time Track concept. Players move their tokens forward on a track or perhaps a rondel, and whoever is last in line takes the next turn. If that player is frugal in her use of time, so she is still last in line after spending the next time increment, she can take another turn, and keep going until she finally uses up so much time that she passes someone; the turn then passes to whoever is now at the back of the line. Players must choose whether to take the best available action, even if it would consume so much time they have to wait (seemingly forever) for their next turn, or instead to take a potentially lesser action so they can take another turn right away. Ah, the sweet tension of tough choices.
The first modern Euro game to introduce this neat mechanic seems to have been Peter Prinz’s “Jenseits von Theben” (Beyond Thebes), released in 2004 by Queen Games. Many games have used it since because it’s a nice mechanic generally, but Claudio Bierig, Plutocracy’s designer, has innovated on this mechanic by adding three neutral action tokens onto the time track, and each one triggers when all players have passed it on the track, as if they were players themselves. After this, each moves a certain number of time spaces forward, ready to trigger again in the future. This lets the players control when the prices will reset, when the planetary parliaments hold elections for The PC, and when the entire board rotates. When the WHAT?
Yes, that’s the other cool feature of Plutocracy that sets it apart from run-of-the-mill Hanseatic League simulators, and really takes advantage of being set in space. Because the game takes place in a rotating solar system, every piece on the board is transiting around the sun at a different speed. The clever Time Lord will take advantage and travel 6 “time” to where Jupiter will be when the rotation occurs, saving 6 time over traveling 12 “time” away to where it is now and then sitting idly while the next rotation brings you half the way back. Manipulating these celestial orbits becomes the key to distinguishing yourself from the other Monarchs of the Supply & Demand Curve.
Beyond those two hooks, Plutocracy is very simple: each planet sells one good and demands a different one. Each purchase raises prices for everyone else; each sale lowers prices, but another one of the neutral events (triggered on the Time Track) will offset the impact of player sales, raising potential profits three times per game.
You can plow your profits back into the next commodity and travel to the next planet, but eventually, you need to turn Money into Power. Seats on each Planetary Parliament translate into votes in The PC, with an election three times during the game, again based on a time token. So do you buy one more Plant on Neptune and sell it for more profit on Uranus, or spend that money instead to buy a seat in Neptune’s Parliament, in hopes of winning Neptune’s vote on The PC in the upcoming Solar Elections? Ah, the dilemmas of modern space corporate management.
The game adds in some other elements to encourage you not to just buy/sell/bribe the whole game. You can swing by Earth and get as many as 12 votes in The PC based on meeting certain goals, but only the first two players to meet each (and get to Earth) will get those benefits.
As each player’s time token approaches the end of the time track, you really need to get your money and goods converted into votes on The PC before the final vote, which can often mean planning ahead to land on Earth just prior to the final token triggering THE END so you can claim enough of the bonus seats on the Council to tip the scales in your favor. Mess up, and you’ll be cursing Hades himself. Time it right and it’s heavenly.
I desperately wanted to love Plutocracy because it is so darn clever. I adore the way the board rotates and the extremely cool mechanism for having the game’s events triggered by the player’s own choices of how far to travel along the time track. As a small-time designer myself, I wish I could come up with cool concepts like these for my games. But despite these, I found the game itself was good but not… wait for it… stellar. Perhaps because there was no luck involved, no dice, no cards, etc., it almost felt to me like Plutocracy was the engine of a bigger game, but the bigger game had been stripped away, and all that had shipped in the box was the extremely cool timing function of some larger grandiose game by a designer like Alexander Pfister or Vital Lacerda. I wanted to draw a card when I landed on Neptune to trigger an event or gain a randomly assigned specialty that let me fly faster or trade Oxygen cheaper, or just give the game a little more texture. Instead, it was like playing the inside of a Swiss Watch. So pretty, so elegant, but ultimately a little cold to the touch.
Upon reflection, I realize what I wanted from Plutocracy was to be able to play it against other people but also when I was alone. If something is going to be an extreme exercise in efficiency, it’s not what I necessarily want to invite my neighbors over for, for Sunday afternoon gaming. But by myself, say, via an online, turn-based gaming system like Yucata.com, where I can plan out each move taking as long as I want, Plutocracy could be an enjoyable exercise in Vulcan logic, where I can let my inner Mr. Spock out.
Rare are the times when I’ve managed to lure someone else to play games with me in person, and when I do, I want our games to have more spice to them. Plutocracy offers the joy of a perfectly planned move, but it seems like a dish better served when everyone is playing from their respective planetary bases and/or households. I’d encourage the folks at Doppeldenkspiele to develop an online outlet to connect their gamers together this way.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars (Though if you happen to be a Vulcan, consider it a 4!) – This is a beautiful clockwork robot, amazing to see in action, but less fun to play with than it would seem on first blush.
• The game’s perfect information and lack of luck made for a cold experience as a face-to-face game.
• Intellectually more interesting than fun.
• Perhaps designer Claudio Bierig could bolt additional game onto Plutocracy to make something warmer and more fun, adding some flesh and blood to the extremely cool mechanical skeleton of Plutocracy.