First released in 1964, Acquire casts players as ruthless CEOs fighting for cold, hard cash. Now it’s back in a new and updated edition. But can this game of cutthroat capitalism hold its own against younger, flashier contenders?
Designer: Sid Sackson
Players: 2 – 6
The world of high finance might not seem like the most obvious source of inspiration for a game. It’s hard to see the fun in long meetings, endless paperwork and quarterly performance reviews. But Acquire, by revered designer Sid Sackson, deftly strips away the boring bits of corporate life to leave only the kind of high-stakes wheeling and dealing we see in the Hollywood version of Wall Street.
First published in 1964, it casts you and your friends as hot-shot investors vying for control of rival companies. Now it’s back with a new edition, promising a fortune to be made for ruthless traders. But with a huge selection of more recent releases to choose from, is there really any reason to revisit a game that debuted in the same year as the Rolling Stones?
Acquire’s blend of greed, guts and brinkmanship plays out across a square-grid city board that gradually fills up with buildings as you play. You’ll start the game with a random collection of plastic building tiles placed secretly on the table in front of you, and on your turn you’ll choose one to add to the board. Each tile corresponds to a space on the grid, and placing two or more buildings next to one another means that they become the headquarters of a newly-formed corporation.
It’s here that things get interesting, because once you’ve founded some corporations, you’ll be able to invest in them. The cost of shares depends on the size of the company, so while stock in a startup made up of two or three buildings might cost you a couple of hundred dollars, shares in larger companies can go for thousands. With companies constantly growing as players add buildings to the board, your investments can balloon in value.
To make real money, though, you’ll want to get into mergers and acquisitions. Whenever two companies’ buildings come together on the board, the larger one consumes the smaller. When that happens, shareholders in the now-defunct company get a cash reward. But the size of your payout depends on having more shares than your rivals. It means you’ll want to aggressively invest in businesses that look likely to be bought up – the Instagrams and YouTubes to the emerging Facebooks and Googles – and it sparks some fierce battles for control of the hottest properties.
It’s tense, taught and competitive. But judged by modern standards, Acquire’s faults soon start to stack up.
First there’s the fact that while it touts itself as an urban planning game (tagline: “Plan, build and own the next super city”), in reality its city-building element is paper-thin. There are no neighbourhoods to build, no transport routes to plan, no public services to provide. There’s nothing to scratch your SimCity itch in the ways the box seems to promise. Instead there’s just a landscape of ever-expanding corporate headquarters. If that’s really the city of the future, then it’s a grim, dystopian hellscape that I hope I never live to see.
Then there are its looks. From its identikit blocky buildings to its grey-on-grey-on-grey colour scheme, the game has all the flair and visual panache of an Excel spreadsheet.
And beyond its aesthetic flaws, there are moments when Acquire’s gameplay just feels clunky. You’ll repeatedly have to divide shares of revenue, round up awkward figures, cross-reference scoring tables. At times it feels uncomfortably close to actual corporate drudge work. It’s the kind of inelegance that subsequent games have spent decades trying to eliminate.
Greed is good
Acquire undeniably suffers when you compare it to some of today’s best games. Even this 2017 edition, with tweaks designed to speed up play, can feel seriously dated and sluggish.
So I’m deeply confused by the fact that I love it.
Its physical design isn’t just ugly, it’s actually unclear to the point where it impedes my ability to follow what’s happening in the game. Its rules for merging corporations are a source of horribly jarring admin and arithmetic that completely derail the pace of play. It even comes with (trigger warning) Monopoly-style paper money. But in spite of its flaws, I haven’t stopped thinking about Acquire since I played it, and I badly want to get it back to the table.
Maybe that’s because it offers such a rollercoaster ride of emotional peaks and troughs. There’s the early game, where players cautiously stake out their positions, establishing companies and making small, speculative investments. There’s the middle portion, where one or two corporations start to dominate the board and everyone clamours to invest in plucky startups before they’re snapped up by larger competitors. And there’s the endgame, where players fight to become the biggest shareholders in the remaining blue-chip organisations for a final massive payout.
The game genuinely makes you feel like a savvy, sharp-elbowed venture capitalist. It rewards you for spotting the potential of a company and getting in on the ground floor before its value starts to rise. It challenges you to buy low and sell high, setting up a chain of investments where the proceeds from one deal go towards funding the next. It creates moments of triumph where the risks you’ve taken pay off and you’re showered in cash. And it sets you up for disastrous failed investments that hit like a lead weight in the pit of your gut.
Old school style
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Acquire is that it generates all of this drama from such an abstract set of rules. A more complex modern design might include special abilities for each player, or one-off effects triggered by investing in particular companies. But while it suffers from some rough edges, at its core Acquire keeps things remarkably simple.
For a comparison, look at 2016 release New Angeles, which I raved about over at Ars Technica. It’s another game of avaricious schemes and corporate machinations, but it takes a very different approach to painting its world of dealmakers and oligarchs. It comes with tokens to track supply and demand in various commodities. It features a board full of city districts that threaten to erupt into rioting. It throws a succession of unpredictable events at players and forces them to react as best they can.
Acquire, on the other hand, has a turn structure that doesn’t change at all over the course of the game. You’ll build things, then you’ll buy things. And while its rhythm is interrupted by mergers and flurries of calculation, you’ll only need to play a couple of turns to get the hang of its mechanical core. It’s fascinating to see how two games representing similar themes can create similar atmospheres out of such wildly different rules.
Above all, though, it’s incredible to think that this game was first released in nineteen sixty four. That’s long before the emergence of Dungeons & Dragons or Cosmic Encounter or Settlers of Catan or any of the titles now credited with kickstarting modern game design. At a time when players faced a choice between mass-market offerings like Mouse Trap and Cluedo and complex, cumbersome wargames aimed at hardcore enthusiasts, this game combined twists, turns and tough tactical decisions with straightforward, accessible rules.
Those strengths are still there more than half a century later, and Acquire is still worthy of a place on any gamer’s shelf. It marks its creator out as one of the hobby’s great visionaries. And it serves as a reminder that while shiny new releases are coming out at a rate that’s hard to keep track of, there are some enduring gems buried in gaming’s past for anyone who cares to look for them.
- Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.