I love tragedies. I prefer my art to imitate reality and nothing quite sums up reality like tragedy. I’m usually a fan of tragedies where the hero is beset by forces greater than themselves that they just can’t overcome; the gods in Greek tragedies, the societal institutions in The Wire. As a gameplay element though there’s something quite satisfying in a more Shakespearean tragedy. You are the clear good in the form of player one, the unquestionable evils are players two three and four and your failure is a cause of your own fatal flaws as a decision maker. There is nothing quite as tragic as looking down at an in progress game of container, and realizing that all your problems are your own fault.
Container is an economic sim with a semi closed economy and an incredibly high level of player interaction. Containers must go from being produced at factories, to being transported to warehouses to being picked up by massive ships, and then finally auctioned off at the main island. The wrench in that assembly line is that no player can get containers from themselves. You can’t transport containers in your own factory to your warehouse or pick them up form your own warehouse. Every step in the chain requires someone else.
The semi closed economy opens up in two ways. When infrastructure is build, money gets paid out to the bank. Money can only come into the economy when an auction is won at the end of the entire process. The winning bid is then doubled as a subsidy from the local government.
The final wrinkle in this semi-permeable economy is if the seller decides the winning bid is too low and pays for their own action, that money then exists the economy.
The tragedy of this all comes from hubris, from the thought that you’re going to be the one that buys low and everyone else buys high. Why? Because you’re smarter of course. You are player one and they are not! Imagine a game where every player thinks this way.
Things spiral out of control quickly. Early infrastructure spending leaves the economy, but that’s ok because you are set! Once those containers start rolling off the assembly line people will be buying from you. Only, everyone else had the same idea. No one has any money. With less buyers, that means you need to charge more, and make sure you buy up cheap crates. Only everyone else thought about that as well. Everyone is looking at each other thinking that they would have been the ones that snagged a great deal and as a result no one has.
The board plays out like a classic prisoner’s dilemma, if everyone kept their expectations in check and priced things modestly then there would be plenty of room for everyone to succeed. However, each player thinks that if they play the opportunist and someone else doesn’t, they can capitalize at the expense of others. The game didn’t tell us to do this, in fact it told us to do the opposite. Despite that though a common situation in a game of container is still everyone is sitting there with rows of expensive factories and warehouses, overpriced containers and small piles of money they’re stringent about spending.
No matter how catastrophic things get they eventually pick up. Containers are slowly bought up, eventually a few auctions are won, the pool of money slowly increases, growth becomes exponential and everything is back on track. The game systems are never completely locked out, a recovery is always possible.
Or maybe that didn’t happen, maybe you and your friends played modestly and efficiently all the way through and the game was fast paced, high stakes and tight. That’s the beauty of economic sims!
Container’s beauty as an economic sim may also be its downfall. At its core that’s what it is, but it isn’t much more. It’s a game for people that love the genre, it’s a beautifully representation. To its credit it’s also over twelve years old, the games that have long surpassed it came later and for its time this was a fantastic edition to board gaming. Comparing it to SNES RPGs it would be on the level of Breath of Fire or Lufia. One would almost always recommend the titans of the genre first like Chrono Tigger, Final Fantasy 6 and Secret of Mana. Comparatively games like Brass, Concordia and Food Chain Magnate should always be considered before Container. However, for those that love the genre and have the desire to go further then this is still a fantastic addition to their collection.
I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t mention the current edition’s price. You’re look at around $100 for this game and it’s mostly because of lavish components. I won’t lie, giant resin boats are FUN to push around and add a tactile element that makes the game better, I just don’t think it’s worth potentially doubling the cost of the game for. I got my copy at a store that had it on sale for $83 Canadian dollars, and I don’t know if I would have been ok paying any more than that. For those people who don’t consider price an issue then you can ignore this criticism. To people looking for more efficient purchases, this game cannot be considered one of them.
Container seems to have a very targeted demographic, people who love economic sims and have a desire for more games in the genre; and people who are ok with a price tag that unnecessarily exceeds $100. You can probably get both Concordia AND Brass: Birmingham for that price, and if you don’t have them you probably should. However, if you own both those and want another game that takes player interaction to new levels in a fun streamlined set of rules with a luxury feel that instills a childlike glee, then this game will satisfy.