Friday, March 11, 2011

A rather positive review of Black Friday...

Black Friday, the new game from Friedemann Friese, has been getting some real flack in gaming circles.  And rightly so.  The rulebook is one the worst I have ever read or seen.  Horribly organized, full of useless examples, and missing tons of information that is required to fully finish a complete game.  And yet for this game, I've ended up going to the trouble of typesetting my own FAQ with information gleaned from the net and BGG.  This is something I have never bothered doing for any other game.  And there's a reason - it really is worth the effort.  Where Friese's classic Power Grid is a brilliantly stark and analytical economic/auction game, Black Friday is what I would call the stock market equivalent.  And although it's lighter and shorter than PG, or maybe even because it is, I think it may be an even better game.

So what do you do in Black Friday that makes the game so interesting?  Well, you basically have 4 simple options each round - buy stock, sell stock, buy silver, or pass.  The prices of stock and silver are evident on the board so these actions resolve very quickly.  In addition, you can take government subsidies up to the current limit, which you'll have to do as all players start with zero cash.  Purchases and sales of stock move directly to and from the market ("pile of briefcases beside the board") so certain colours of stock will be more or less available at various times during the game.

What drives the brilliant market engine is what you do after you pick one the four actions.  It's a bit hard to describe here but in play it's quite simple and quickly makes sense.  There are essentially three tables active at any time - the stock purchase table, the silver purchase table, and the current sales table.  When stock is purchased from the market, a corresponding briefcase, usually of one of the colours purchased, is placed FROM the market on to the stock purchase table.  When stock is sold, the price in that colour is moved lower and a briefcase is taken from the sales table and added TO the market, thereby flooding the market with more of that stock.  Get it?  When silver is purchased, the player can pick any coloured briefcase they want and add it to the silver purchase table.  In addition, when any colour is completely removed from the market or 3 of that colour show up in a sales table, the value of that stock increases.  So the choice of what briefcase to move after your action is an important, albeit relatively simple, decision. 

Eventually one of these tables grows to 5 briefcases or drops down to 5 which causes a price adjustment.  This is the fun part.  Players must pay interest on their subsidies and then the active player draws a certain number of briefcases from the bag.  Depending on how many of each colour get drawn, prices can increase or decrease.  These price changes can also cause the game to reach new levels which allow players to purchase and sell more, take more subsidies, and draw more briefcases out during the next price adjustment (which, of course, causes the market prices to swing more wildly for good or bad).  The pulled briefcases then go into the market and the briefcases from the table which caused the change are thrown into the bag.  In addition, a few black briefcases may be tossed in as well.  These are always bad.  They cause the price of silver to increase as well as possibly lowering the prices of stock when they are pulled.

Okay, so what's the point?  The point is to buy as much silver as possible because in the end that is all that counts.  Unfortunately as the game progresses, the price of silver only increases.  Ideally, you've invested early in cheap stock, sold the stock while the price is high right before the market crashes, and then grabbed as much silver as possible.  The one who's manipulated the system the best wins.  It's all rather cynical, I must say, especially since you don't have to pay back any subsidies at the end of the game. 

In terms of mechanics, the game is very different than Power Grid.  But the comparison is interesting, I think, not only due them both being designed by Friese, but also since they are both very number-crunchy and timing plays such an essential role in strategy.  Like PG, in Black Friday you really need to wait it out for the exact right moment to attack.  Sell stock too early and you get cheap silver but you've permanently invested your funds and they'll never grow.  Sell too late and the price of silver may have skyrocketed.  Just waiting the one extra price adjustment and watching the price of all your stocks bottom out is heartbreaking.  And hilarious.  And often foreseeable.  Although the choices are simple, one can really pay attention and make the right purchases and sales at the right time.  There is some randomness to the price adjustments but you know exactly how many coloured briefcases are in the market, on the tables, or behind your screen.  The rest have to be owned by other players or are in the bag.  And you can always count exactly how many of each black briefcase is in the bag so it really is possible to make informed, interesting decisions.

Having played with 2 players all the way through to 5, I can say this game works for every group although I'd say it's probably best with more than 2 players, 4 seeming to be ideal. And it's fun, a lot of fun, partially because it plays pretty quickly.  But it's even more fascinating as the market is so responsive to the player's actions.  It's enthralling to watch the slow growth of the stock prices when everyone cautiously buys silver or to watch everyone start selling off their stocks out of fear and seeing the prices hit rock-bottom quickly after that.  The more silver that gets the sold, the quicker the silver price goes up.  The more red stock is purchased, the more red briefcases end up in the bag for later price adjustments.  It's simple and elegant and way too brilliant.

And it's this simplicity of play that leads us to the major complaint leveled at this game.  The rules as explained in the rulesbook suck.  They're awful.  They take a fairly simple game and make it seem convoluted and overly complex.  As well, there many situations not covered in the rules that have shown up in play.  The worst thing for a game is to have it stall as no one knows how to deal with a rule.  The players then argue about what should be done as we did or, in some cases, give up.  Take a look at the BGG threads, if you don't believe me.  It doesn't help the situation when the inventor and publisher suggest online to the players that they really should have figured it out.  In Friese's defense, he seems to have changed his tone and is a lot more helpful now that he's realized that no one can play the game with the useless rule-set provided.  This is the only game where I've had to read online references after browsing the rules the first time and saying, "What the....?"  And I have three university Mathematics degrees (you think I'd win games more often...)

So where does that leave Black Friday?  Well, it's a great game, brilliant even, and one of the most cunning market simulations I've ever seen.  And it's surprisingly simple to learn once someone knows how to play and has covered their bases by reading the errata online.  It's sad, really, because this game deserves a much wider audience and would be a great contender for the Spiel des Jahres (strategic but not too heavy, simple gameplay, plays in under an hour) but I think the shoddily written rules may disqualify it.  If you like market simulations and extremely clean and elegant game designs, or if you just feeling like reliving the highs and lows of the recent economic crash on a smaller scale, pick this one up.  It's worth it.  Just make sure you do your homework before you dive into your first game so you've got your bases covered.  Or email me your questions as I'd be happy to clarify, too.

We've played this 8 times now in the last month and will again tomorrow.  Excuse the pun - but it's definitely worth the investment.


  1. I bought my copy the other day and I'm trying to learn it now so I can play it tomorrow night. Now that I'm aware the rulebook may be confusing . . . I'd like to read your FAQ before I start making false assumptions. Is there any way I could read it or have you already uploaded it to BGG? (I didn't see it there when I checked just now).

  2. Hey Jacob, I haven't uploaded it but there's an even better one. Check out this spreadsheet that someone posted. It seems to answer all the questions I had and it's quite well organized:

    This will help you with pretty much everything, I think.

  3. Thanks, Eric. That is a nice player aid. The rules are confusing, but I tend to get lost in many rule sets I've read. I try to do that kind of flow chart for every game I'm learning.
    I have yet to play the game, but the mechanics just sound like the kind of game I like - reminds me of Thebes, actually. Kudos for highlighting, what I hope is, a game that deserves to be ranked much higher than it is.

  4. Just had a request to bring it to games night tomorrow night. It's the latest hot thing...

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