Dicke Kartoffeln

Dicke Kartoffeln ('Fat Potatoes') is easily the best of the new Abacus Spiele range announced at Essen last year and it is now becoming available in the UK. Abacus is a new and interesting company, specialising in limited print runs of unusual games that will sell perhaps 500 to 1,000 copies. Their prices are correspondingly high (Dicke sells for DM 50.00, or around £20 to £25 here) but their quality and variety of subjects should be worth looking out for if this one is anything to go by. The appealing idea of Abacus being another quality house like Hans im Gluck or Moskito comes quickly to mind.

Dicke Kartoffeln is a business game, in the mould of Schoko & Co and Executive Decision, but this time the subject matter is farming potatoes. The game handles two to four players who each own a smallholding with five fields. These fields are farmed throughout the game with the aim of producing large numbers of potatoes. These come in three varieties and, once produced, are sold on the market for hard cash. The victory conditions however are rather unusual; it is possible to win in the normal fashion by earning the most money, but there is an alternative in being able to win as the most environmentally sound farmer. It is very tough to do both, so the win is usually split between two players, one of whom sticks fertiliser on everything, churning out sacks of Konig Edwards and the other who grows a few, top quality spuds in rich, organic soil. Green attitudes seem to be inbuilt in Germany rather than the afterthoughts prevalent in England at the moment. The concept of having two winners caused some consternation among the more competitive gamers at the GLC club, but to me this seems perfectly reasonable. The big challenge is, of course, to win the game under both criteria at once.

The game system revolves around the 'Farming Year' chart which guides each game year through a series of logical steps. Each one involves decisions that will incur costs, decide strategy for that turn and sometimes have longer term impact. It starts with deciding how many fields you wish to plough and use for planting. You then buy one of three seed types from the market (more on this below) and 'plant' the field. The next crucial decision is whether to fertilise and/or crop spray. Fertilising can boost production substantially and insecticide prevents attacks by pests in the event card phase. The drawback is that, once 'dunged', the field can no longer be used to grow organic potatoes and this will make a big dent in your ecological victory points. The motto is that fertiliser really screws you up.

Linked to this is the constant need to monitor the quality of your earth. This is symbolised by worm counters, sunflowers and, if you cock up badly, skull and crossbone counters. Worm counters show the 'goodness' in the fields which directly affects production. Worms can also be taken away to be doubled up on the compost heap for longer term field regeneration. As each crop is harvested, a worm is lost to indicate that a little goodness has been used up, so there is a gradual decline in soil quality - basic field rotation helps here.

Sunflowers indicate clean fields and thus won't grow in contaminated soil or fields without worms, yet three are required to grow organic potatoes. This immediately precludes any use of fertiliser or insecticide on organic fields. Of course, it is possible to split your fields between organic and artificial production to hedge against any changes in the market, or to grow normally without fertiliser (at a reduced yield) thus preserving the soil for future organic use. Additionally, sunflowers take a while to appear so it is impossible to grow organic potatoes in the first couple of years, prompting at least some initial normal production.

Production is calculated by consulting a simple table. The type of potato seed is cross referenced with the number of worms in the field and a number of sacks is generated. Production is affected, often in a big way, by whether the field is fertilised with each potato variety displaying different characteristics, ie some grow well in poor soil, others benefit greatly from 'dunging'. Organic production always generates fewer sacks than normal production. Total production is noted and secretly nominated for sale. In my view, this is the area that could probably be improved a little by adding some unpredictability to the production table. Perhaps a die roll could be used to vary production slightly up or down? The event cards can do this, but more often that not the output level is cut and dried once the seeds are planted. Not a great drawback, but a bit more spice would not go amiss here.

Having decided all the above, an event card is flipped to show general effects for that year. These can be quite varied. For instance it could generate a subsidy, a pest infestation, bad weather leading to a crop disaster or a shift in demand. The latter leads us to the neatest part of the game; the Kartoffelborse or potato market. This shows the current demand level for the six types of potato (Amalie, Biola and Chris - both organic and normal) and their current price. This is instrumental in deciding your choice of seeds for planting, whether to produce organic or normal potatoes and how to sell them - sometimes the market price or potential supply (from rival farms) dictates that even potatoes grown organically should be sold as normal, but this is unusual.

The market works as follows: all the players simultaneously reveal their total production to be sold in each of the six categories. This total supply is compared to the current demand indicator for that type of potato. If supply is higher than demand, the price falls and vice versa. The degree of price movement relates to how much adrift the supply and demand figures are. The prices are all adjusted in this way, the demand level is adjusted to the supply level to become the demand for next turn (a neat balancing device, this) and then the players sell at the new price. Seeds are bought at the prevailing normal potato price, whether they are intended for normal or organic crops.

This is where a lot of strategy comes in. The choice of potato type is made when you seed, so the need to forecast how the other players will sell their production (ie organic or normal, which potato type and how much of each) is pivotal to the game. Prices move around quite gently but it is possible to spot the trends developing and produce accordingly - of course, everyone else is trying to do the same! This market mechanic is clever and would work in any number of business games - it always surprises me the number of economic based systems that take scant account of demand and supply. The ability to play and predict the market movements is very real and must be considered at all times.

The game continues in this way for a number of game years - I would suggest four as an absolute minimum, eight as a maximum and six as about right for a ninety minute/two hour game with enough opportunity to establish longer term strategies and profits. The cash flow throughout the year tends to show a big outflow early on as most actions cost money (particularly buying seeds) and then, hopefully, a profit after the harvest. For this reason, it is possible to borrow cash at any time at 20% interest (but free if paid back within the year), so liquidity remains high throughout. The game also tends to be inflationary so it is rare, but quite possible, for debt to be outstanding at game end.

The final add-up combines money, debt, 'good fields' (with at least three worms and two sunflowers) and total worms less the starting worth for the economic winner and worms, compost, sunflowers, good fields and dead fields for the ecological winner. Games tend to be close but in general the player who has managed the farm well and played the market will emerge as the economic winner. The green route is more a matter of keeping your farm 'clean' and maintaining good quality earth, with production output taking second place. Your production in terms of sacks will be low but the organic quality will be high and prices normally reflect this. You should always be able to make enough cash to keep it ticking over.

For a limited run product, Abacus have cut no corners on production standards. The box has a distinctive picture of, logically, a potato field and the four farm boards are all different and are made from glossy, coloured thick board. You even get little brown squares to show which fields are ploughed and which are fallow. The counters are high quality and the charts and rules are printed on good quality stock. Graphically, Dicke is superbly done and this was instrumental in my spotting it in play on the stand at Essen. Overall, an excellent production.

Dicke has been notable for generating an unprecedented number of 'good, but badly flawed' rumours. I suspect most of these are based on some extremely ropey rules translations that are floating around (consumers should use only the official Green/Siggins set), but there are a couple of criticisms that need answering. The main one, which always appears moot to me, is that you can win ecologically by simply doing nothing. Two points spring to mind. Firstly, I can't imagine anyone being that negative, but who knows what desperate competitors will do? That way of thinking is alien to me. Secondly, I don't think this is true of the longer game (ie over four years). By that time, if you've played it well enough, the green points earned should be enough to overhaul the starting level in the shape of good quality fields. I may be wrong, but even if this complaint holds up, surely a slight rule tweak would solve it? The second accusation comes from a gaming group (names changed to protect the stupid) who believe that it is possible to win by farming and selling only worms. This one is easier to correct. The mistaken belief may well be due to their rules showing DM 800 per worm sold (this is an option) whereas the German rules actually say DM 80.

Perhaps as an indication of the enthusiasm generated by the game, workable variants are already starting to appear. The most interesting I've heard so far was a suggestion that you should be able to hold back some of your potato production to provide seeds for the next year. This option cuts both ways as you would lose the sale revenue but would be aware of the cost of the seeds, while also giving away your likely planting strategy for next season. It could be interesting, but use would obviously depend on the market prices and game situation.

In the business game stakes, Dicke Kartoffeln takes some beating. It makes Schoko & Co appear rather average and gives even the best of the others a good run. Its main strengths are the clever bourse mechanism, the multitude of important decisions which have long term effects and the theme is one that can be related to and enjoyed. The idea of having two winners is not new but I feel it adds another interesting dimension to what would otherwise be a straight money-grubbing contest. The components are nicely done, the game is not overlong at a couple of hours, good play is rewarded, luck doesn't play a major part and the result remains unpredictable throughout. Judging by what is coming along, I feel Dicke will be one the best games of 1990 and it, and Abacus, are therefore deserving of your support.

Just Games can supply this one from stock. Ring Mark Green on 071-437 0761.

Mike Siggins

Sumo - Mike Siggins