(This article was originally published in "Games International", issue #1 (October 1988) and is reproduced here with the permission of Brian Walker, the former editor of GI)
HOW SWEET IT IS!
A Recipe for Success in SCHOKO & CO. by Alan R. Moon
If you ask a player what makes a successful multi-player game, he'd probably say that player interaction is the key. This is certainly true as far as it goes. However, the best multi-player games force the player to compete not only with his opponents, but also with the game system and himself.
How do you play against yourself? Well, all players have a game playing style; conservative, aggressive, methodical, harebrained etc. Sometimes this style mirrors their personality and sometimes just the opposite. A game which allows for different styles of play gives every player, no matter what his style, an equal chance to win. Of course, it also gives him an equal chance to hang himself. Showcasing playing style by rewarding good play and exaggerating poor play is one of the things SCHOKO & CO. does very well. So consider this article an attempt to help you avoid humiliation.
To understand how clever SCHOKO & CO. is, you must look first at how the sequence of play and the player balance are intertwined. There are eight steps to the turn sequence:
1) Looking at the Wirtschaftdienst card,
2) Hiring and firing employees,
3) Bidding for and buying cocoa,
4) Producing chocolate,
5) Selling chocolate by bidding for contracts at sales meetings,
6) Processing contracts gained at sales meetings,
7) Exposing the random event card,
8) Taking out or repaying loans and buying shares.
Each turn, there is a game leader and play proceeds clockwise from him. The order of play makes no difference in steps 4, 6 and 7; in effect these steps are performed simultaneously. The order is somewhat important in steps 1, 2 and 8, depending on the game situation and how you're doing. The heart of the game though is steps 3 and 5, and here the order is crucial.
Ideally, you would like to go first during both steps 3 and 5, but this would simply be too much of an advantage for the Game Leader. So the game lets the Game Leader go first in step 3, but makes him go last in step 5. the Game Leader is still left with an advantage but not an unmanageable one. In fact, in some ways, the second player has just as much of an advantage, playing second in step 3 and first in step 5.
Naturally, there are other factors involved in balancing the game like the amount of cash on hand each player has, the results of the previous turn, etc. but perhaps the only otherfactor that needs to be considered here is the length of the game. Because of the player order, the game length should be a multiple of four. An eight turn game is probably the best, though four turns is fine for those who want a shorter game. For longer games, 12 or 16 turns should be played. Don't let the rulebook's estimate of 3 hours for an eight turn game scare you. I have found that eight turns rarely takes more than 2 hours if the players keep the game moving. Step 5 will be the deciding factor. Move it along and you'll cut the game time down quite a bit. Allow players time to think at each bidding progression and you'll be in for a long game. A game length in a multiple of four though, is absolutely necessary for play balance.
STEP 1 - Peeking at the Wirtschaftdienst Card
To look or not to look, that is the question. $15,000 is a big hunk of charge just to look at a card. On turn one, you simply can't afford it. On later turns, you may have to bite the bullet. The 'Kakaoschock' card is especially deadly. Each turn it doesn't appear just makes it that much worse. If 'Kakaoschock' hasn't come up during the first couple of turns, spend the $15,000 each turn. If it's already come up, don't waste the $15,000 unless you won't miss it.
STEP 2 - Hiring and Firing Employees
Your first chance to blunder occurs with your very first decision of the game, where you must hire your initial workforce. Hiring two workers, two secretaries, and one bookkeeper is pretty standard, you'd hire more workers if you could, but you can't increase your workforce by more than two including the first. The decision here involves whether you should hire one or two salesmen.
Each salesman lets you attend four sales meetings. Since one contract is available at each meeting, on the surface it would seem like two salesmen would be better than one. This assumes more is always better though, and this is not the case here. Chances are at least one player will hire two salesmen and there will be eight meetings during the turn. This means if you hire only one salesman, you have to choose which four of the eight meetings to attend. No big deal. You probably won't want to attend more than four of the meetings anyway. So why pay the extra $12,000? Let your opponents pay it. You can then use the $12,000 to buy more cocoa during step 3.
Of course, there's a rub. If everyone feels this way and only hires one salesman, there are then only four meetings. With only four contracts to be had and four players each with an equal amount of money, chances are it will be tough to get more than one. And if you only get one contract, you only need one secretary to process it, and you've wasted $8,000 on the second one. So maybe it's better to spend the extra $12,000 to hire the second salesman so you don't waste the $8,000 on the second secretary. Hmmm, there has to be something wrong with that kind of thinking.
From the preceding, you'll notice that hiring two secretaries may not be so automatic after all. As further proof of this, remember that because you only have two workers, you'll only be able to produce six bars (or sixty tons) of chocolate. It's possible you'll have the chance to get one contract for all six, again meaning you'll only need one secretary. There are at least three possible problems with hiring only one secretary though:
1) Often two contracts (for three each, or two for two and four) will be worth more than one for six,
2) There may be no contract available for six bars,
3) It puts a lot of pressure on you to get a big contract and another player may have the same thing in mind.
Luckily, in this, like many of the other decisions in the game, the player order will help dictate what you do. Basically, if someone before you has hired two salesmen, hire one salesman, if you're the Game leader hire one salesman and two secretaries. If you're the third player and neither of the first two have hired two salesmen, you're in the toughest spot. Do you hire two salesmen? Do you hire only one secretary? It's a tossup. Perhaps you could try making a bargain with the fourth player. Perhaps you could just go by your knowledge of the fourth player's style. If you're the fourth player and no-one has hired two salesmen it's also a tough call, though my inclination would be to hire just one salesman and one secretary and use the $8,000 you save to your advantage in step3.
On later turns, you'll have the same kind of decisions. Plan well. In effect, every employee you hire but don't use costs you double the amount you paid. Saving $8,000 or $12,000 may not seem like a lot, but if used correctly during steps 3 and 8, it can make a lot more.
STEP 3 - Buying Cocoa
While you have your first chance to blunder in step 2, step 3 is the part of the game where you can really make a fool out of yourself. There are three basic decisions in this step.
1) How much cocoa should you place on the market?
The main considerations here are how much money you have, how much money you think your opponents have, how much cocoa you really want, and how much cocoa you think your opponents want. But the player order rears its ugly head again too.
Looking at turn one again; the most cocoa you'll be able to make into chocolate is six bars. Don't be too concerned by this. The price of cocoa usually goes up as the game goes along, as people tend to have more money each turn. How much you make available on turn one will directly reflect your playing style. If you're conservative, put up sixteen. If you're aggressive, put up none. If you're somewhere in between, find your number between the two.
I've already mentioned the 'Kakaoschock' card which means there will be no cocoa next month. If it comes up and you didn't know it was coming, it really will be a shock. Chance it on turn one. After that play it safe and look at the card.
2) How much should you pay for cocoa?
Here is where the game gets interesting; of course, you want to pay the least amount possible. So do your opponents. Two possible strategies are:
a) Use New York as a gauge, and possibly Tokyo too. See what your opponents are willing to spend and then use this information to bid on the cocoa from Frankfurt, Paris and London.
b) Go for it in New York. Bid $3 or $4 a bar. Chances are you'll surprise everyone because they'll be using strategy #1.
This is where the Game Leader has a tremendous advantage. In effect, he wins all ties. If you're the third or fourth player, don't try to be too clever. Put up the bucks. You simply can't afford to be shut out. You gotta spend to make it.
Is there a maximum you should pay? Yes, approximately. Using turn one as the example again. If you buy the maximum of six cocoa and manage to sell them all, chances are you'll be able to sell them for about $20,000 a bar in step 4, for a total income of $120,000. If you spend $50,000 on employees, that means that the maximum you can spend for six bars and still break even is $70,000 or about $11-12,000 per bar. But forget breaking even. You want to make money. You want to hire more employees next turn, try $5,000 per bar as the maximum you really want to pay. This will go up as the game goes on, but you should know the break even number at all times.
3) Should you buy more than you need?
It is always a good idea to have in mind the minimum amount of cocoa you want to buy at the outset. Don't be wishy-washy. Make you mind up and then make sure you get the number you want.
After you've met your goal, then you can forget it and start to think about being greedy. Unless you have got the maximum amount of sixteen cocoa bars, or don't have any money left, you should never sit back and let your opponents set their own price. If you had to pay $5,000 a bar, make sure they have to also. If they're not willing to pay the going price, you'll be glad to take more. The more you get, the less they get.
STEP 4 - Producing Chocolate
This is one step where you get a break. It's almost impossible to mess up here. Simply produce the maximum possible.
The tension really hits a peak during this step. This is make or break time, where you either make a profit, or see your see your hopes go down the tubes.
I like to think of this step as chocolate poker. So to start, let's put all the cards on the table. There are 23 contract cards, made up as follows, bearing in mind that ten tons equals 1 bar:
10 ton cards,
20 ton cards,
30 ton cards,
40 ton cards,
50 ton cards,
60 ton cards,
= $ 40,000
= $ 70,000
= $ 90,000
Earlier, I said you may be able to make more money by getting two contracts for three bars each, rather than one contract for six bars. One look at the above table should be enough to show you why.
The bidding can get pretty wild, and the tension tends to build as each contract is awarded and fewer remain. It can also be somewhat hypnotic, and you should avoid getting caught in the trance. Again, it is a good idea to have a number in our head right from the moment each contract card is revealed. Don't second guess yourself. If you're offered the contract for that amount, take it. If you're not, let it go. Alter the number in your head as the situation changes, not during the bidding for any particular card.
I've already said that $20,000 per bar is about the minimum you should accept. Chances are that on contracts for 1,2, or 3 bars you'll get more, and on contracts for 6 you may get less. Despite this people will generally go after the bigger contracts. This is a trap.
In the last game I played, I wound up with about six or seven smaller contracts after one turn, taking almost all of them for $20,000 + per bar. I could only process two of them two of them that turn because I had only two secretaries and one bookkeeper. On the next turn however, I hired two more secretaries, one bookkeeper, and did very little of anything else besides process most of the backlogged contracts. Myopponents thought I was crazy when I kept taking the little contracts for 1-3 bars, but crazy or not I won the game (it was a fluke-Ed.).
This strategy is pretty much a tradeoff. While four contracts for 3 bars each will earn you more money than two for 6 each, you will need either twice as many secretaries and bookkeepers, or else you will have to take an extra turn to collect all your money. But if you have lots of contracts, you don't need to buy so much cocoa and you van take the pressure off for a turn.
Price isn't the only thing to consider though. Keep a close watch on the number of bars your opponents have left for sale. If you have 4-6 bars left and nobody else has more than three say, you're in a good spot. If a contract for 4-6 bars comes up you get the best of both worlds; you get rid of a lot of bars at once, and at maximum price because you are the only one with the capacity to accept the contract.
Of course, waiting for this situation to occur can lead to disaster. Don't pass on a contract just because it leaves one of your opponents with the most bars left. Sure if a big contract comes up, it makes him look like the smartest guy around for sticking it out. But, if a big contract doesn't come up, you're the one looking peachy instead.
STEP 6 - Processing Contracts
This is the second step you can't mess up. Simply process everything you can. Get those bookkeepers and secretaries working!
STEP 7 - Exposing the Random Event Card
This will be a tense moment if you didn't have a a peek at the card during step 1, or a big ho-hum if you did. I've already said that 'Kakaoschock' is the worst, buts let look at the others in order of pain.
1) 'Der Kakao sitzt fest' (each worker produces only one bar of chocolate next month instead of three) - This is the second worst card. If it hasn't come up yet then you may want to pay the $15,000 for you can lessen the effects of this card by planning accordingly.
2) 'Schoko Protest' (everybody removes 5 chocolate bars). This costs you not only the money you spent for the cocoa, but also the salaries you paid the workers to produce the chocolate. You'll hate yourself if you have chocolate left and didn't accept a smaller contract during the turn.
3) 'Schock im Schokolager' (everybody pays $5000 per bar of chocolate) - Effectively, this doubles the price of the cocoa for those bars. This decreases the profit made when you do sell these bars.
4) 'Schokolade: Finanzielle Magenverstimmung' (contracts at the bookkeepers are cancelled) - This can be a horrendous card, except it is very unusual to have contracts at the bookkeeper from one turn to another. About the only tune this will happen is when a player has a bookkeeper that it is ill, or on vacation during a turn.
5) 'Arbeitsmarkt leergefegt' (no new bookkeepers may be hired next month) - This is usually no big deal, except for a player with a lot of excess contracts.
'Personal: Finanzzuschuß' (the player with the largest employee salary total receives $50,000) - $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but what this card really does is allow you to hire some extra employees during the turn if you look at the card. If you paid the $15,000 to look at this card, you could then increase your workforce by $35,000 and still brake even. And $35,000 of employees is a lot. For example, for $36,000 you could buy one each of the four types.
STEP 8 - Taking out or repaying loans and buying shares
Schoko & Co. must obviously use American banks because the interest on loans is a whopping 20% Obviously, at this price, you don't want to take out a loan unless you have to. When you have to is when you find yourself in either of the following two situations:
1) You don't have enough money to pay your employees salaries next turn.
2) You need to get cocoa and you're not sure you'll have enough money to buy all you want.
If you do take a loan, pay it back as soon as possible. Never take out more than one unless you are truly desperate. Better to fire employees than take out a second loan, though it doesn't matter much because you've probably lost whatever you do at that point.
I'm not sure why Wertpapier shares are part of the game. They really don't seem to have anything to do with anything else. Still, I'm glad they're included. You get an indication of who is winning by who is buying them because money that you don't need to pay employees or buy cocoa should be put into Wertpapier. The return is only 10% each turn, but that's a lot better than nothing if the money just sits in your company. Again here, an overall turn plan is vital to maximise your profits.
I've dealt mostly with turn one because this is the easiest turn to analyse. The same principles apply to every other turn as well. It's just that there will be more money, more employees, more contracts, etc, to think about. Here's a few other basic things to think about:
1) Don't waste the advantage of being the Game Leader or going second. You should be more aggressive during these turns. You may do as well during the turns you go third or fourth.
2) If you don't do well during one turn, don't panic. Chances are your opponents will make the same mistakes too.
3) Watch what employees your opponents hire and fire. This is the best indication of their plan for the future.
4) Don't underbid yourself out of the game in step 3.
5) Try to form a pattern of your opponent's tendencies in step 5. Most people find it very hard to randomise their actions. Most of the time, they'll stick with what they think works.
Few games allow players to use psychology as well as Schoko & Co. Bluffing, discerning your opponents' styles of play and tendencies, and using both tact and guile all play an important role. Luck is non-existent. You win or lose on your own.
I've made no bones about liking this game. The pieces fit together perfectly. You must have a sound domestic policy by which you run your company and a sound foreign policy to compete against your opponents' companies. Schoko & Co. rewards good planning, good execution, and good psychology. It punishes poor planning, rash decisions, and indecisiveness. It can be very intense, but it can also be a heck of a lot of fun.
Having said that I do have some minor quibbles (is there anything such as a major quibble?). The only real problem with the game is that experience is such an advantage. While it is relatively easy to teach someone how to play, it is not so easy to teach them how to avoid making a critical blunder. And this is a problem, because if a person does something dumb on turn one or two, they then often have no chance of winning from that point on. I would, therefore, suggest playing two turns with new players and try to show them all the pitfalls, and then start over.
Another problem is the Express Cards which I have not talked about. Unless you're a purist, don't use them. They are simply too unbalanced, some being very strong, some very weak. They add an element of luck into the game which should not be added. If you must use them, use my alternate mix of cards (see the optional rules section) which you should find more balanced.
My final quibble is with the Wirtschaftdienst cards. Why are there only seven? Nine would have been more logical, so that in an eight turn game, you would have enough to have a different event each turn and one left over. Or, for that matter, why not 13? Which is what I have created (see the optional rules section).
1) Advertising and Marketing
Add a fifth type of employee to the game: an Advertising Manager (you'll have to take some pieces from another game). His salary is $11,000 ($5000 if fired).
During step 5, you may send one or more Advertising Managers to any sales meeting one of your salesmen attends. You must state you are doing so before the bidding begins. More than one player can send an Advertising Manager to the same meeting.
The price of any contract you gain when you send an Advertising Manager is increased 25% per Manager, rounded up. For instance, if you accept a contract for $91,000 and had sent one Advertising Manager you would get $113,000. If you had sent two Advertising Managers, you would receive $137,000.
Each Advertising Manager can only be used once per turn.
2) Two Types of Chocolate
Add a second type of chocolate to the game: dark chocolate (you'll need to make up a whole set of bars).
During step 3, you may produce either or both types of chocolate from your cocoa. One cocoa bar will produce either two dark chocolate bars or one regular bar. One worker can produce a mix of both types.
Make a second deck of 23 Dark Chocolate Vertrag Cards.
40 Tonnen (x3)
50 Tonnen (x3)
60 Tonnen (x4)
70 Tonnen (x4)
80 Tonnen (x5)
During step 5, divide the maximum number of meetings in half and take that many cards from each of the two decks. Resolve all the Dark Chocolate contracts first, then all regular contracts.
This will change step 4 a lot and make the player order very important during the step.
3) New Express Deck
Use only the following eight cards (two per player) instead of the regular twelve):
Bedauerlich - Change to, 'Give one half of your chocolate bars (rounded up, to the bank'.
Skanalös - unchanged.
Rührend - Change to 'pay $3000 per employee to the bank'.
Schlapp - Unchanged.
Katastrophal - Unchanged.
Grosszügig - Change to, 'The player giving this card chooses which employee goes on vacation'.
Entsetzlich - Change to, 'Each salesman misses two meetings'.
Schmerzlich - Same as Grosszügig.
4) New Wirtschaftsdienst Card Deck
Add six more cards to this deck to make a total of 13. You'll probably have to make up a completely new deck so you won't be able to to tell if a new card or an old card is coming up.
The suggested new cards are:
1) Reduced unemployment - No new workers may be employed next month.
2) Secretaries go on strike - No contracts may be processed next month.
3) Cocoa crop damaged - Minimum bids for cocoa next month is $5,000 per bar.
4) Chocolate glut - Any contract for 50 or 60 Tonnen next month is discarded. Do not draw replacements.
5) Increased demand - There will be four extra meetings next month, beyond the normal maximum. All players must decide which to attend normally.
6) Tax increase - All players must reveal their cash on hand and then pay $10,000 to the bank. Don't count wertpapier, unprocessed contracts, etc.
5) 5-8 Players
If two people have copies of the game, it should be no problem to play with 5-8 players. Just use the proportionate amount of pieces from both games, and allow each salesman to attend a number of meetings equal to the number of players.
Although this article refers to the German edition, the game originated in France where it is known as Ambition, though the theme and production are exactly the same.