Trading Board Games

We talk a lot on this site about how various games are related to trading. Poker is our favorite example, but we’ve also mentioned Agricola, Magic: The Gathering, fantasy drafting, and even video games. One may notice, however, that we’ve never mentioned a board game that involves trading. Why is that?

The reason is because most trading games share little in common with financial trading. Take Monopoly, for example; Monopoly has earned the reputation of being a classic, and trading is featured via the exchange of properties and money. Unfortunately, very little strategy is involved in Monopoly. Gameplay is dominated by the roll-and-move mechanic, and most of your decisions are of the form “Do you want to buy this property?” (Hint: the answer to that question is usually “yes.” The optimal Monopoly strategy is to own as many things as you can without going bankrupt.)

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The trading component in Monopoly is perhaps the only chance to make interesting decisions in the game. But are they that interesting? Most players want to obtain monopolies, and most players don’t want to give their opponents a monopoly. This yields to everyone trying to bid for the things they want with items their opponents don’t care for. Trading becomes rare, and when a trade does happen, chances are it’s because a player is filibustering and their opponent just wants to move the game along. Does that sound like an active financial market to you?

Let’s try a different game: Settlers of Catan, or “Catan” for short. This is a game where players build settlements connected by roads in order to earn victory points. Each time you want to build something, it costs some combination of wood, brick, sheep, wheat, and ore. These materials make up the resource cards that become the game’s currency. Resources are collected based on the location of your settlements, but they can also be — you guessed it — traded.

Settlers of Catan game
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Trading plays a larger component in Catan than in Monopoly, and players face a larger decision tree as well. More decisions mean more freedom of choice, and it provides a richer puzzle on how to optimize your play. So did we find our trading model? No, I would argue that we have not. Trading is active in Catan, but it’s easy to find where the best trades are. On top of that, the game tends to play itself out. At any given point, the number of good moves in Catan that a player can make is tiny. Tiny enough for gameplay to feel deterministic. Trading at SIG, on the other hand, offers a massive decision space, and sometimes the best trades are hard to find.

Before going forward, I want to pause and say that I respect these games. Their popularity is impressive, and both have successfully created thousands of happy memories for players. Some people will say that these games offer strategic depth. I am not one of those people, but I recognize that there are great gamers on both sides of the fence here. No matter what side you take, I think you’ll find this next game to be the favorite.

One major limitation that prevents Monopoly and Catan from modeling financial trading is their turn-based design. For example, if it’s Carl’s turn, Carl can trade with Alice, Carl can trade with Bob, but Alice cannot trade with Bob. Carl can take as much time as he pleases coming up with trade structures while Alice and Bob wait for their turn to begin. In finance, however, everyone trades simultaneously, creating a fast-paced and dynamic environment. Are there any board games that simulate that experience?

Enter Chinatown: the board game gem that features trading in one of its purest forms. In Chinatown, players are Chinese immigrants trying to build their new careers in New York City. The object of the game is to earn the most money, and money is earned by laying tiles of the same type on adjacent properties. Everyone starts with a random assortment of tiles and properties, and none of them match up to what people want. Once everyone has their starting materials, someone yells, “Go!” and the markets are open.

Chinatown game
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Chinatown has no turns, and everything is up for grabs. People start to talk fast, think faster, and scramble to get the best deals from Alice and Bob before they make their trades elsewhere. The free form of Chinatown allows for plenty of different trading techniques. Do you conduct a triangle trade, or do you do the trades as separate pieces in hopes of some arbitrage? If you have a valuable tile that multiple players desperately want, do you conduct an auction or do you give a particular player an immediate offer? Your strategy will depend on your board position, the initial allocation of resources, the trading styles of your counterparties, and your long-term game plan. In other words, the best move in Chinatown will be situation-dependent, just like actual trading.

There is still a significant gap between Chinatown and financial trading, but it comes closer than the vast majority of other board games. If you want to play a game that replicates the information flow and quick decisions that SIG traders face every day (or if you simply want to play a game that is deeper than Monopoly and Catan), give Chinatown a try. I recommend playing this game with a full set of five players. Once you and your friends get the hang of the game, put a timer on each round (7 minutes per round seemed to be the sweet spot in my gaming circles). The timer will keep things interesting by adding extra pressure. But be warned: you might get hooked on this form of trading in games, and the only trading game I’ve found that’s better than Chinatown is what we do here at SIG.

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  • Philly Jewish Voice

    “At any given point, the number of good moves in Catan that a player can make is tiny.”
    Couldn’t the same be said of poker and many other intellectually challenging games

    • Joey

      Thanks for your question! And yes, you draw a good point. There are plenty of challenging games where the number of good choices at any specific point is, say, between 1 and 5. What makes these games different from Catan is the difficulty in picking apart the good plays from the bad. Catan was made to appeal to a wide audience, so the designers made it straightforward for players to determine how good each potential move is. Streamlining Catan made it a blockbuster success, but it came with a cost of feeling deterministic for gamers who are looking for something more challenging.

  • Yojimbo

    Have you tried Reiner Knizia’s classic “RA”?

    It’s an auction game, not a trading game, but despite it’s simple procedural mechanic, there is enormous subtlety to the decision making.

    • Joey

      Hey Yojimbo! Yes, I actually have Ra in my collection. I’ve only played it a few times, but I do like it. I enjoy thinking about when to call auctions and how long I should reserve my bids. I’m curious, what do you think are the subtleties of Ra, and what makes them enormous? I would love to hear your take on it.

      For everyone else following along, Ra is a wonderful game if you haven’t heard of it. Players try to score points by bidding for tiles, but each player only gets three bid tokens per round (or four per round in a three-player game). The meat of the game is maximizing the value out of each bid while making your opponents overpay for their tiles. There are a few other things about Ra that make it special, so I’ve included a link below for those who want to learn more.

      If you want to see if you’d like Ra before making the investment, give “No Thanks!” a try. It’s like a basic version of Ra for a fifth of the cost. Both are great auction games, and I’m glad I own both of them.

      More information on Ra:
      More information on No Thanks:

      • Yojimbo

        Hi Joey,

        The subtleties in Ra are multi part.

        What’s on auction is constantly changing.
        The point value of tiles has a probabilistic element to it
        Often the value of what is on auction is not common to all players.
        The positional value of the Sun Dials changes as each epoch progresses.
        It’s difficult to predict if an epoch will be abundant or poor
        It’s challenging to know if you are ahead or behind the other players

        Some of the decisions are no brainers, but in an hour long game you face enough complex decisions that the better players win more than their share of the games. It’s also complex enough that it won’t submit to minimax analysis, so game play is fluid and quick.

        It really is a gem. Much better than Catan but just as approachable.


        • Joey

          Nice! Thanks for this. I like how you mentioned that the added complexity actually increases gameplay fluidity, which is counterintuitive. I agree, though. Fewer moving parts would invite players to think more levels ahead, potentially causing analysis paralysis. In Ra, players must rely on a simpler heuristic to make decisions, and that makes each turn quicker and smoother.

          Gosh, I can’t wait to play this game again…