Showbiz by Avalon Hill

31 May

Showbiz is a game I first came across after I bought it.  I should explain.  A few years ago, at Buckeye Games Fest, I bought a “Grab Box” of games in the auction.  The box cost me $2 sight unseen, and came with about 20 games in it.  Most of the games were really poor children’s games.  There were, happily, a couple surprises in the box – well worn copies of Hansa and Medici, and Showbiz.  While Medici and Hansa have gotten some play… Showbiz languished on the shelf.  Maybe it was because of the utterly uninspiring box art?

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When I sat down to plot the direction of this blog, Showbiz quickly rose to the top as a game I should write about.  If for no other reason than to actually open the box after 4 years of ownership and see if it even had all its pieces (it does).  When I dug in a bit deeper, I discovered a game that ended up much simpler and much different than I was expecting.

Showbiz started it’s life in 1985 as a self-published game by the designers: Prestige Games.  The German company Hexagames made a version in 1988 that played up to 8 players!  Avalon Hill’s version came along finally in 1990.  I will say right now, that nothing inside this box looks like it came from 1990.  From the Cheers-esque font on the cover, to the art work on the cards, I would have guessed that this game actually came from the late 1970s or very early 1980s.

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The gist of Showbiz is that the players are talent agents trying to sign acts that the public will find popular in the upcoming cutthroat theater seasons.  Of course, as we all know, public opinion can sway wildly from year to year.  One year, they may love Animal acts whereas the next year Animal acts could be completely unwanted.

At the start, piles of 6 act tokens equal to the number of players are randomly chosen and placed near the middle of the board.  These tokens show the performers you are trying to sign.  Then, a set of 6 cards are dealt into the “Public Demand” area of the board.  This is the collection of acts that the public will want to see during the first turn of the game.  6 more cards are dealt into the “Forecast” area, these are the cards that you MIGHT be dealing with in turn 2 of the game.  You then roll the black die, and place the white die on that matching number next to the Forecast cards…we’ll come back to that.  The catch here is that the cards have an even color distribution: 9 cards of 6 different colors, but the tokens you are bidding on do not.  Animal acts, for example, are much harder to come across than Ventriloquist Acts, for example.

Players will gain a stable of acts through a series of blind bid auctions.  Each player has 15 resource tokens that symbolize the dinners, interviews, and various other methods you’ll use to try and wine and dine talent to your team.  When it is your turn, you choose one of the tokens on top of a stack to put up for bids.  If nobody objects, you get to bring them onto your team for free.  If somebody else wants that act, however, you each choose a hidden number of resource tokens, place them into your fist, and show them at the same time.  Whoever bids the most wins the act, but regardless, both players lose all their bids (you can’t get dinner back!).

286Once you do gain a token, you place it on your board in one of your 6 “alleys.”  These alleys show just how long of a contract you are going to sign that act to.  You are allowed to keep an act up to 5 years.  However, you can sign them to contracts as short as 1 year, meaning they will go away after this turn.  Why would you want to do that?  Well, the whole goal of the game is to match your acts to the acts shown in the Public Demand area.  If you get stuck with an act that doesn’t match this year, and doesn’t show up in the Forecast area, then you probably want to unload that act.

Once all players get a full roster of acts, we move to scoring.  That’s right, the entire game portion of the game is a series of auctions to gain act tokens.  That’s it.  Showbiz is a very simple game to explain and get into.

Scoring is also very simple.  You count up the number of matches you make, and check the scoring chart.  If you match 1 act, you get 1 point.  If you match all 6, you get 26 points!  You then move each of your acts down 1 space on their contracts…removing expired contracts from the board.  You now may also remove any other contracts you don’t want to keep at a price of 2 points and 2 resource tokens per year of the contract you are buying out.

Now it’s time to set the Public Demand for the second turn.  Remember that black die you rolled before?  Here’s where it comes back into play.  Before you move the Forecast cards up, you roll that black die again, and compare it to the white die on the board.  If you roll equal to or less than the number shown, the Forecast moves up as normal.  If you roll above that number… chaos.  All Forecast cards are shuffled back into the deck, and then all new Demand and Forecast cards are dealt out…you’re stuck with the luck of the draw now!

The first turn of the game is by far the most intense, because you have, in a  full 6-player game, 36 auctions to fight through.  In subsequent turns, there are only as many auctions as there are empty spaces on the board.  Also, if you have no empty spaces, you get to sit back and relax.  Just before the next round of auctions, you remember all those resource markers you spent trying to get those acts?  Well, they all get redistributed to all players evenly.  So yes, the more you spend to get a certain act, the more resources you are giving your opponents on future turns.

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The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.  When the game ends is (almost) never a sure thing.  It absolutely will end after 12 turns (there’s where the almost comes in).  There’s a 1/3 chance it will end after 10 turns, and a 2/3 chance it ends after 11.  I typically dislike the idea of random game length, but it really works here.  Are you going to blow your last few tokens on an act in turn 10 that you most likely will only use this one turn to get 6 points?  Or will you save them in hopes that there’s an 11th turn that you’re set up to score 18 points on?  You will likely be making 1-2 tough decisions every turn.  So the game play may not be deep, but there are plenty of meaningful decisions to make.

Showbiz is far from a perfect game.  The 1st turn can take forever.  I really wish that each player had a separate player board.  The contract areas are needlessly cramped together, and it can be tough to discern where one players’ area ends and another begins.  Plus, the auctions are all that really go on during the game.  If someone doesn’t care for blind bidding games, they will not enjoy this one at all.  I think some kind of trading mechanism could be interesting.  Something where you can trade contracts and resources with the other players to add just a bit more spice to the game.

That being said, I like Showbiz quite a bit.  I am a fan of blind bidding in games, and this game delivers that mechanic in spades.  If you like blind bidding, or would like to explore the mechanic further, I also suggest Revolution, For Sale, and Money.  I think Showbiz is going to find a more regular spot in my board game rotation.  I’m glad I spent that $2.

Next time, I’m going to cover a recent release.  Most people will be interested in it because it is based off a popular tv show.  I was more interested in it because of the game it is based on.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

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