Published by Winning Moves
Designed by Tom Kremer and Phil Orbanes
Reviewed by Ken Tidwell
I really wanted to like Priceless. Rumored to be the 20-years-later third edition of Cartel, one of Gamut of Games's shining moments, Priceless came up short.
The basic theme is 'stuff' collecting: cars, paintings, odd piercings, that sort of thing. The more you manage to dominate a particular field of collecting, the more items in your collection are worth. Similarly, if your collection has cohesion overall, its value increases. The player with the most cash at the end of the game wins.
The types of items to be collected are laid out on the board with four groups in the center flanked by two additional groups on each of the top, bottom, right, and left to form a large cross. Each group is composed of a 4x4 square of more specific collectables (such as Jazz Age Automobiles or eyebrow piercings). A player can acquire a specific collectable by playing a card, framed by a clever device that marks it in their color, on the appropriate square.
At the start of the game each player is issued nine blank checks (but, perhaps, these should be thought of as shares in their collecting company as the checks increase in value as the collection grows), $20,000 in cash, a free collectable that is immediately placed on the board, and a hand of four collectables.
The problems begin here. Not all of the collectables are created equally. The ones in the center square of the collectable cross are worth more than those out on the limbs. A good draw of a central collectable and a hand of central collectables to follow up with can more or less end the game before it starts. But more on this as we go.
On their turn a player may pay to place a collectable from their hand on the board. The second collectable in a set costs more to place than the first and so on. The value of the collectable is determined by the number of other collectables in the set the player owns, its position on the board (central or out on a limb), and the number of collectables the player owns adjacent to this new collectable (actually, you try to form unbroken threads of collectables - sort of like roads in Siedler - the longer the thread the more valuable collectables attached to it are). The player scores points based on the value of the collectable.
Players quickly burn through their initial $20,000 and have to start cashing checks. Checks start out being worth $10,000 apiece. As a player accumulates points their checks become more valuable and they collect more cash from the bank at the beginning of each round. This, of course, makes it possible to place more collectables in choice spots on the board which, in turn, raises the player's point total. If experienced gamers don't hear the folks in River City warming up for '76 Trombones' yet then perhaps its time to review your Sid Sackson books. Priceless rapidly degenerates into a parade, that most painful of game situations in which one player moves ahead and the others drop into line but can do nothing to change the order.
There are mechanisms built into the game system to prevent this parade. Players can trade collectables and even exchange cash so the trailing players should be able to cooperate to pound on the player in the lead. Other game mechanisms prevent this, however. The number of checks a player holds is kept secret. Without that little tidbit of information it is impossible to calculate the other players' net worths. No one I played with was willing to count checks. Since it was so difficult to calculate which player was in the lead, no one cooperated. The same sort of problem cropped up in Alan Moon's Santa Fe. Unless the game is built around the suspense of not knowing who is in the lead, the players should be able to easily glance around the board and spot the leader.
Then there are problems of presentation. Each player's point total is displayed on a small standup card placed to hide their checks. The point total is displayed on the outward facing side of the card. This is awkward for the player as they are constantly peering over the top to check their total. And, because the cards are covered with a glossy coating, the glare prevents anyone else from casually sizing up their opponents. It was definitely a squint and lean across the table sort of affair.
Which was almost as challenging as reading the collectable prices on the backs of the score cards. The prices have been cleverly printed in the same color that identifies that type of collectable. Unfortunatly, some of the colors are so pale and the lettering is so small that the prices are only legible once you lean over them and have a good squint.
And speaking of colors, the only indication of a collectable card's type is its color. And the designer has chosen a number of shades of blues/greys and browns/yellows that are virtually indistinquishable. Yikes! And all this from some old hands at the trade!
It might improve the game to add a single track around the board showing point totals and check values. Each player could have a single token that is moved around this track in plain sight. Checks should also be kept out in the open. Finally, the collectable type should be printed on each card.
But, at the end of the day, you still may have spent too much on Priceless...
PS Piercing isn't really one of the collectable types. But you knew that, didn't you?
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell