Why Acquire is Like James Bond

I enjoy new games, but it takes years to properly appreciate a classic. I recently had a chance to renew my love affair with Acquire, and it reminded me that when you get a game design right, it’s timeless. It can also be like a British superspy, but we’ll get to that.

Sid Sackson‘s masterpiece is over fifty years old, and the 3M edition I chased down in Half Price Books a few years ago is easily identified as a product of the sixties. It’s got the bookcase box, a rich white businessman on the cover — you can tell he’s smart, because he’s got glasses, and that he’s determined because he took them off so he can Beat You At This Game — and the background has those light pastel building outlines that just screamed exotic destinations back then. The pieces are equally striking, with simple line drawings and typography that fit right into the Mad Men era.

(Acquire has had several other looks over the years, and some of them are quite nice. The much-loved big hotel pieces of the 1999 edition are certainly fun to play with, but nothing comes close to the simple, iconic look of the original.)

The look is distinctive, but not dated. Like James Bond’s Savile Row suits, it’s stylish and easy on the eyes even after half a century. That’s not the only way Acquire is like a British superspy, either. Like Bond, Acquire is smooth, smart, and utterly ruthless.

Acquire maintains a cover as a hotel management game, but it’s really an abstract game of stock manipulation. The earliest edition of the game had players placing tiles on a world map, but this was quickly abandoned in favor of a simple grid. (Someone must have wondered why they were placing tiles in the middle of the ocean.) Each group of tiles represents a growing hotel chain, but the connection between business expansion and occupying an irregular area on a grid is tenuous at best.

It’s also deceptive. New players usually found a hotel chain, identify themselves with it, and try to make it grow. This is the first reason new players usually lose to old players. Like Bond, experienced players only care about their mission, and will kill off any company on the board in search of profit. They know what the new players don’t: the most basic formula for success is to build up a controlling interest in the second biggest company, then sell it off for big bucks.

Experienced players also know that they have only so many bullets in their financial Walther PPKs, and they have to make every shot count. You have to buy stock to improve your position, but the game only gives you more money to when a company gets bought, and you have limited control over how and when that happens. It’s painfully easy to run yourself out of cash and lose ground to your opponents while you wait for a merger. I still struggle with this, and when I master Bond’s icy self-control I will be the better for it in both Acquire and real life.

Of course, James Bond would never be seen playing Acquire. He’s a man of action, and if the game doesn’t involve gambling or electrical shocks, he’s not into it. He would have looked great at the table, though, and I would have enjoyed seeing Auric Goldfinger tell him, “No, Mr. Bond, I want you to buy!”

(A tip of the cap and thanks to megacquisitions.com, which has some great bits of history on the early versions of Acquire.)