Long Short

Designed by Thomas Stamm
Published by Hexagames
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2-6 players
60 minutes

I make no apologies for the fact that this game is two years old. In fact, it is probably closer to six, since this is a reissue which appeared at Essen in 1994 and I vaguely remember the earlier edition in a larger box from years ago. Whatever its age, this is a rather good business game. It fits squarely in the Broker and Speculate camp where players use cards to move prices, while trying to turn their initial capital into a huge fortune. You'll either like this sort of game or you won't. Personally, I like them.

If you'd have asked me about this game before I bought it, I'd have said it was German published but British designed, and themed to the futures market. It seems I'm only half right, as Thomas Stamm does not sound as if he's from Romford. However, it is about the 'future' buying and selling of commodities - cue images of the movie Trading Places or nasty young LIFFE traders in coloured jackets, shouting their heads off and doing hand signals. Very similar to a game of Pit, in fact. Thankfully, Long Short is somewhat more sedate than that and allows you to carefully think and plan your strategy, drawing on the information in your hand and playing the markets without risk of a sojourn in Changi prison.

Play is simple enough. You are given a stake of £10k and a hand of ten market movement cards and must try to make as much money as you can. Each card moves one or more commodities up in price, and similarly one or more down. You will get no more cards throughout the game, so you are effectively looking at all your information. There are six commodities in play: wheat and copper are low risk, sugar and soya are medium and gold and coffee are highly speculative - simply put, you can gain or lose more in the latter category since the price moves in £2,000 steps rather than £500 or £1,000. Each commodity requires a 'margin' or cash deposit to buy or sell contracts; the higher the risks/rewards the higher the deposit. In practice, as the margin is always refunded when you close out the contract, this is really a neat game device to prevent you from entering into contracts all over the place. The sequence of play is: enter or close out contracts; play a price movement card; roll the dice (usually resulting in a random price movement or action card draw).

The nature of the futures market is that you take positions based on whether you believe a commodity price will go up or down by some time in the future. If you think the price will rise, you buy or go 'long' of the commodity hoping that by the time the contract matures, you can sell them back at a profit. Conversely, if your hunch (or information) is that prices will fall, you sell or go 'short' thinking you can close out the deal at a lower price, again making money. So the logic is that whatever way the market moves, you can make profits - if you get it right. What Long Short cleverly does, to keep the game as a game, is to remove the time restriction from the equation so you are allowed to trade freely at any time. Your choice then, once the contract is in place, is to decide how long to hold it there before crystallizing the profits or losses. If your information is good enough, you can hold out through even huge losses waiting for the price to recover, and you may even decide to double up at more favourable price levels. When the profits seem as good as they are going to get, or the losses seem as if they will never stop growing, you close the contract and settle up with the bank.

An example may help matters. Nick holds three cards showing that sugar is going to drop six spaces (-1,-2,-3) once the cards are played. Sugar is currently priced at £12,000, so he can move it to £6,000, ceteris paribus. He therefore decides to take a 'short' position in sugar, and is willing to punt strongly because these cards are reasonably powerful. Each contract will require a margin (deposit) of £3,000, so with £42,000 cash he buys ten contracts leaving some money for other deals. He places the contract chips on the £12,000 space on the 'short' side of the price table. He then plays his -1 card, moving immediately into profit. The random roll adds to his fortunes, with a further fall by £2,000. The next player, Mike, likes the look of this so he too buys some short sugar contracts at the current price of £9,000 hoping to piggyback some easy profits. There are no more sugar movements until Nick's next turn, so he decides to buy another ten contracts, selling some profitable coffee contracts to raise the cash. He places these on the £9,000 level and plays his -2 card, making the current price £7,000 - a healthy profit for all the sugar traders involved. However, Mike decides to bail out to move into soya, and his event card moves the sugar price up by five - sugar crop failure! Orville, the third player, moves it up a further three and his event card moves all prices up two. From a position of profit, with the price at £17,000, Nick is now looking at a loss on all his contracts. He can bring the price down to £14,000 using his remaining price card, and then he has to decide whether to close out and cut his losses, or hang in there and see what happens - a risky prospect.

An interesting kicker is the Day Trade card. These enable you to trade out of your turn, so if a big profit is spotted, or a loss is starting to build, you can escape when it suits you. Day Trade cards are picked up by way of the die roll at the end of each turn. As each player has only ten cards, and you may not buy contracts on the last turn, the game is over after ten rounds. This takes around an hour, or sometimes less, and as such represents an ideal filler or closer.

As can be seen, there is a lot of money to be made and lost in the game, and much of this happens when the wider influences (other players and the event cards) move the market. Your card information is useful, but far from complete, and you can always rely on your rivals to do what they can to stuff a large position. What this leads to is slightly more gambling and volatility than you'd find in rather more inactive trading games, and it is this speculative element that distances it from the slightly dull quality of a game like Speculate. Yes, you can lose a lot, but you can also come from behind to win. What it also means is there is a sizeable random element in the game, which in turn might put some of you off. I will play my whinging card now, saved unused from last year in fact, and say that I would have won the first game in style were it not for a sequence of disastrous events - a net movement of £120,000 on three cards, admittedly combined with a huge, make or break position in Gold. However, this level of randomness is not out of place for the commodities markets and adds much spice to your decisions. Inevitably though, with more than the three or four players we had, you can also start to lose control of your positions. With six players, there will be five market cards played plus say two or three action cards, and the prices may well have gone south by then - and too far for you to react. My hunch then is this one will be best with three or four players, five at most.

Given the relative complexity of the subject matter, the rule book is a distinct liability - one of the perils of a trilingual game (and yes, the event cards are in English). Nowhere is the contract mechanism explained carefully, and they add confusion by introducing price 'points' as well as cash value - a quite needless distraction, as far as I can see. The rest of the translation is pretty vague, but with effort and a gradual readthrough of the examples, you can work out what is meant to be going on. Production values are good, if not outstanding, and the game has something of a seventies feel. Not sure why, but it has. Perhaps this is why it escaped my attention for so long.

If you like the type of game where prices move up and down with you in at least partial control, and you try to make piles of fantasy money, then Long Short will undoubtedly appeal. It offers little more than Borsenspiel/Broker by way of mechanics, but the large amounts of money to be won and lost, and the volatility of the markets and the event cards make it that much more fun. The decision to place up to thirty contracts on a risky commodity, or to let an already profitable position run, are what makes it a winner. And it's quick. One would hardly term the game original, but it has taken a complex subject and made it accessible to both gamers and the public and offers another slight, but welcome. tweak to the business game genre. Again, one wonders how many other decent games slip through the net, but as long as we keep picking up good games like Long Short there isn't too much to worry about.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell