Life is Money
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Valentin Herman's games share a common aspect with those of Friedemann Friese - they almost always surprise you with a new take on gaming. Herr Herman introduced us to the cube and block voting games of X-Pasch and Konzern, the business delights of ITC (transport), the internet card game X-Net and large box games such as Brauerei (brewing) and Waldesfrust (environment). A pretty wide set of themes, and all of them feature some interesting ideas and mechanisms. More recently, the games have been produced in desk top publishing form, which has reduced the price, and also (I suspect) the audience. Ave, from Essen 2001, was about building Rome while keeping the senator factions happy and maintained the quality of new ideas. Why do these new ideas matter? For me the answer is that they are part of a new gaming experience and when someone presents a new idea in a good way, the game is an automatic buy. Valentin Herman and Friedmann Friese are inventors that have shown these qualities over the last few years, so their games are always worth buying from this viewpoint.
The concept for Life is Money is that making money during your life is important, but ultimately money is worthless and it is the other areas of life that make you happy. The objective is to accumulate as many points in these areas as possible.
Each player receives a set of action cards numbered 0 to 7. On their turn the players simultaneously select two of these and play them face down. Going in clockwise order each player selects one of these cards and plays the action. Only one of each action card with the same number can be played, so in larger games (4 or more), it is likely that a player cannot play. When this happens the person receives some compensation, which is usable later in the game. As the first player turn order moves clockwise each turn this is not a major problem.
The actions allow a player to improve their position in one of 6 areas - money, work, education, relationships and your spiritual well-being.
Each player has markers which are set to the lowest level in each of these areas (except the money). By selecting the relevant card for each, your markers move up the chart, simulating time spent on this activity. Work and education also improve your money as each turn you receive your salary which is based on the level of your work and your education. At higher levels education provides a multiplying effect as well as an addition to the basic salary, so this makes education a popular choice.
The most complicated aspect to the game is money. Each player has two bank accounts. The high street bank deposit account generates 10% interest (I wish!) each turn, while the black market bank account generates 50% interest. However, the black market interest is only earned when you choose action card 2. When action 1 is chosen the high street interest earned rises to 20% and only by choosing action 1 or 2 can you transfer money between the accounts. However, you can choose where your salary is paid each month. Action 1 also provides the option to buy an improvement of one space on the relationships or spiritual well-being tables. The cost is 1,000 times the number of victory points on the space you move to. So a player carrying this out moving from 1 victory point to 2 would pay 2,000 money.
Action 2 also provides a secondary option as well as the black market interest. You can purchase a status symbol from a table with the money in the black market bank account. This table starts off with low cost and low victory point status symbols on the left hand side and has more expensive, higher victory point status symbols on the right hand side. In addition, the squares on this table can only be covered by one person's marker, so the better victory point per cost squares tend to be taken first.
The final two options are card 0, which represents frugality and card 5, which allows the purchase of 2 status symbols. The self-denial of card 0 is absolute, so you receive no interest on your high street deposit account and no salary, but this virtue allows you to move up two spaces on the relationships or spiritual well-being chart.
Card 5 allows you to accumulate more status symbols from the chart. However, you are not free to choose which to buy. You have to select them from the available left hand column, then the next column so that you have a status symbol from successive columns. Subsequent use of this action will allow you to move further and further right across the table. However, each column will have high and low value victory points for each $1000 spent. So you have to be quick on this or you may get stuck with buying some junk.
The scoring system is clever. You add up the points from each chart and add the value of status symbols. If any two (or more) of these areas yield points that are one or less points apart, you double the point values of these areas because of your balanced life. For example, if you have 7 points in relationships and 8 in spiritual well-being, you would score (7+8)x2=30 points. If in addition you had 6 points in education, you would score 36 points altogether as you can only use each doubling effect once. In this situation you would try to get your education up to 7 or 8 points as they would then double too.
And that's it. You play a series of rounds determined by the number of players and the number of times that the 2 action card is selected by everybody. So if 3 players select the 2 card, the marker moves forward 3 places. After 40 occurrences (in a 3 player game - more for more players) the game ends.
My initial impression at Essen was that the game sounded right up my street. I like numbers in games and the mechanics for choices seemed good. This was confirmed after some 2 player games which featured some tight finishes.
But having now played with 4 and 6 players, I am less impressed. The game is dry, so the interest has to be self generated. And with 4 or more players, there is a reasonable chance of selecting the same action cards as a person earlier in the round. Which is annoying, but not too important as turns take place pretty quickly. The dryness seems to be accentuated with more players and though down time is low, there isn't much to get excited about while you wait for your turn. The player interaction is more to do with what you think other players will want and avoiding or hoping to match their actions, depending on where you are sitting in a round. Other player interaction is over the choice of status symbols and how you can move yourself onto a better position while restricting others. But the choices are fairly easy to make as money and the best option are often limiters.
Games like Outpost have a similar feel, where you are essentially playing the system and not directly affecting other players. The components are acceptable and after laminating quite agreeable, but the game won't be in most games stores so your best choice is to contact Fanfor direct at www.fanfor.de. The game costs 18 euros.
I'm still pleased I bought the game, but I think it will make appearances only with 2 or 3 players and with players who are content to play a game where the main fun comes from the manipulation of the ways to score points.