Some games are enjoyable for their fluffiness, an evening taken up by gaming that requires little more than good luck and a willingness to enjoy some gaming time with family and/or friends around the dinner table. Other games require deep focus and a commitment to strategy akin to the competitive chess matches. Still others require losing yourself into a role, from the fantastical to the mundane. Poleconomy is a game that incorporates elements of all three.
The first Poleconomy was published in Australia in 1980, and was subtitled, “The Game of Australia.” (Actually, the inventor, Bruce Hatherley, was a New Zealander, but I digress…) Since then, it has been modified and published in several member states of the Commonwealth, including New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Each time the subtitle changes to match its originating country. For example, the Canadian version is titled, “Poleconomy: The Game of Canada“, the U.K. version is titled, “Poleconomy: The Game of the United Kingdom”, and so on.
To understand Poleconomy’s success, some historical background is needed. The early 1980s was a period in which many countries’ economies were mired in economic stagnation. The United States saw a massive increase in bank failures: 42 banks failed in 1982, another 49 in 1983, and even the nation’s 7th largest bank, Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company, had to have Congress rescue it with a $4.5 BILLION bailout package. Meanwhile, the infamous Savings & Loan Crisis erupted, with 118 S&Qs – together holding $43 billion in assets – closed their doors between 1980 and 1983. Obviously, times were tough and money was tight. Yet Poleconomy sold well enough to warrant introducing into multiple countries. What happened?
Poleconomy was a capitalist’s dream, with a game board layout comprised of several companies and advertising properties that were not chosen randomly for inclusion; for each nation’s version of Poleconomy, individual squares were sold to interested companies and then their logos were printed upon them. For instance, the New Zealand version includes New Zealand Forest Products, IBM, Hallmark, and Pizza Hut; the British version includes British Airways, British Steel, and Barclay Card; and the Canadian version includes Kraft Foods, Molson, Bombardier, and the Edmonton Oilers. Companies saw this as an inexpensive way of advertising, or at the very least, keeping a positive image of their brands in the public eye.
So if a variety of companies purchased spaces on the game board, who sold them? Those stockbrokers with time on their hands caused by the banking and S&L crises, of course! For example, the Fraser Institute, a right-of-center think tank in Canada, employed stockbrokers to sell advertising space on 30 of the 45 squares on the game board of the Canadian version (the other 15 were sold by Michael Walker, its founder). In fact, the profits from the sales of those game board squares were credited with being sufficient to keep the Fraser Institute operational throughout those dark times (over a million dollars, according to their retrospective pamphlet, covering their existence from 1974-1999).
Poleconomy’s game play is much like other property management games, such as Finance or Monopoly, in that players have the option to purchase assets as they travel around the game board. Property value is determined by the inflation rate, which fluctuates, and the properties themselves can be subject to a hostile takeover. Players improve their cash flow by taking a salary, income from players landing on property spaces they control, profit from investments in insurance, and revenue generated from being the beneficiaries of advertising (not as a direct income, but, true to real life, as a recipient of channeling other players to their properties using an advertising space.)
An interesting twist to the standard property-acquisition-and-exchange model is that players can also become the Prime Minister by winning an election, thereby gaining some control of the inflation rate and taxation levels. Like the real Prime Minister, they cannot peg the exact inflation level, but can opt the direction the rate will move (up or down). As for the election, all players take a turn tossing both dice, and the highest roll wins the election. There have been a few elections recently that seem to have been run the same way, but I digress. An additional gameplay option is for each player to form a political party, and then seek to form the government, with the goal of becoming Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has much more power in this option, as they can also dictate taxation policy, appoint Cabinet Ministers and adjust their salaries, and can issue Treasury Bonds at need. (Should the Treasury itself run out of money, the country is declared “bankrupt” and the game is over – nobody wins!) In addition to the standard elections caused by landing on the appropriate square on the gameboard, the PM also has to watch out for non-confidence votes, which bring down the government and result in an unexpected and unwanted election.
All in all, Poleconomy was and is a great poli-economic simulation board game, and well worth investing some time in learning the rules and playing out a few scenarios. Warning, it is not a game for those who find depth in the standard TV movie of the week fare, as it requires a bit more intellectual commitment than a regular “let the dice fall where they may” board game. But given the chance, Poleconomy can impress, and remains as good a political and economic simulation today as it was back in the fret-filled 80s from whence it was born. Recommended!