How a Board Game About Shipping Taught me more Economics than all my College Courses Combined

I understand the pros and cons of college and higher education. The costs, the degree, and that often you need it as a baseline to get a foot in the door at companies. Like many, I was told that the safer path was to get a college degree which would allow me to get a good secure job. I’m not sure I disagree.

My purpose here is not to rehash or debate the topic but to share my story about the most spectacular and rare moment I had while playing a certain board game for the first time, and why I believe I had stumbled upon greatness when playing it.

Perhaps some experience when they read Whitman, Little Women, Moby Dick, or <insert famous author here>.  Or watch Pulp Fiction. It’s one of those life experiences that lights you up at your core that you just don’t forget.

As I play board games once or twice a week, there is nothing as fun for me as being immersed in a well designed strategy or social deception game. Now as a gamer, while I believe there are many advantages, benefits, and learnings to take away from board games, this particular game is like the MERYL STREEP of games in how well it teaches CORE ECONOMIC PRINCIPLES, many of which I would consider necessary for success in life and business.

Which is why I title this article “How a Board Game About Shipping Taught me more Economics than all my College Courses Combined.

Listen, while I’m not trying to overemphasize how great this game is, I certainly do not want to underemphasize how great this game is.

That being said..

it’s a really (!**#$*(@$) great game.

ENOUGH! WHAT IS THIS SO-CALLED MAGICAL GAME? Because that’s truly the only word that does justice to the game and mechanics.

The game..is.. CONTAINER.

Front Side of Container Board Game Box

I bet you were hoping for something more exciting.

Well, the game is sexy in its own way.

When I played for the first time, I literally found myself asking, how can this be happening?

Incredulously, all of the economic principles I learned in college were like unfolding in front of my very eyes. It was kind of super hero-ey in its abilities.

BUT HOW??!! How did a game do that?!

Well, the game sets up a realistic scenario around a free market, with supply and demand, an auction-based selling model, the ability to take out loans, and a few other mechanics that simulate a real competitive economy of goods.

Don’t believe me? Here is it what one online encyclopedia had to say about Container:

The game is themed around the shipping industry, and the primary pieces in the game are shipping containers. The players produce, buy, sell, ship and store containers with the general goal of maximizing overall profits. Economic considerations such as supply and demand, cash management, return on investment and efficient use of resources are natural consequences of the game's buying and selling rules.

Wikipedia also calls Container an economic simulation board. Score! Bingo!

Precisely. This is why it’s so great. Instead of reading about how supply and demand works, like in a textbook, or sitting through a lecture, you are the supply and demand.

By the way, in case you were wondering, Franz-Benno Delonge designed the game and Container is barely 10 years old, released in 2007. Mercury Games reprinted it this January a la Kickstarter for the 10th Anniversary Edition, and the campaign brought in a total of $106,499!

Now that we've covered some of the introductory elements of the game, let’s talk about How To Play, and Concepts that Delonge perhaps wanted to demonstrate in this game.

How to Play

First, every player (between 2-5 players, best with 4 or 5 from my experience), has their own Player Board (see below) and Shipping Container (e.g. a plastic ship).

Player Board for the board game Container

The board can be used to do a few things. One, a player may purchase Factories.

Second, a player can produce goods (e.g. containers) using his or her Factories, and sell them in their Factory Store.

These containers may be put up for sale to for $1, $2, $3, or $4 (see the numbers on the board).

<Players must choose which color factories to buy, which affects which color containers he/she can produce. For example, if Player A purchases a gray Factory, they will produce a gray Container. Players may want a certain color Container or colors to be produced, which I’ll get to later.>

Likewise, every other player may go through the same mechanic. They can buy factories to produce containers, and put these containers up for sale.

Above the Factory, on your player board, are Warehouses. Players may purchase Warehouses to hold containers that they have purchased from other players (e.g. like in real life, a business would buy a warehouse to store their goods). Once purchased, players can sell these containers for $2, $3, $4, $5, or $6.

In some instances, you may buy low and sell high. You may purchase a container for $1 or $2 from a player’s Factory Store, and sell it for a minimum of $2 and perhaps as high as $5 or $6 in your Harbour Store.

How does a player buy containers from a Harbour Store? As opposed to the Factory store, where I can buy any other players containers outright, in order to buy from a player’s Harbour Store, I must move my Ship into a player’s Harbour (see the blue water on the board) in order to purchase containers from their Harbour Store.

Ship sitting in Player Harbour Store

Got it?

Let’s quickly review.

You produce containers. You sell those containers to other players.

All other players produce containers, and sell their containers to you and other players.

Purchased containers are placed in Harbour Stores by the dock for other players to purchase and place on their ship.

(JFF, let’s say containers = headphones, instead.

I produce headphones in a factory. You - a middleman - who has an import/export business purchases headphones from my Factory. You then sell these headphones in your Harbour Store to another buyer.

At each stage, the price goes up. Sound familiar?)

Now, for the LAST STAGE. It’s a good one. I dock my ship at another player’s Harbour and purchase an orange, black, and white container from the Harbour Store. I can now go to the open market, e.g. the Island in the pic below, with my ship full of containers, and put my containers up for sale by Auction.

Auction of Cargo depicted for the board Game Container

All players may place a bid on my containers. Once all bids are placed, the bids are revealed, and the highest bidder wins.

Let’s say the highest bid for my 3 containers was $17. The seller has 2 options. They can sell to the highest bidder and receive double the winning bid, e.g. $34 (the bank subsidizes $17) OR they seller can pay $17 and purchase the containers for themselves. 

Note: This is the only scenario in the game where you may purchase containers from yourself.

In the instance where a seller chooses to buy their own cargo, instead of adding money to the overall economy, the seller pays the bank and that money ($17) leaves the game economy. If the seller decides to go through with selling to another player, $34 stays in the economy, $17 of that is newly added from the bank, $17 was from the seller’s reserve.

While there are rules and idiosyncrasies to the game, the general gist is that you want to buy containers from other players in this last auction stage so you have the most points at the end of the game. However, in order to have the means to buy those containers, you have to have money. How do you get money? From selling your ship’s cargo, (e.g. containers) to other players.

FYI, remember when I said players may want certain colored containers to be produced? Players receive Value Cards which indicate a point system for how much each colored container is worth, and they are different for each player.

This is probably a good time to discuss 6 of the Economic Principles that are demonstrated by the game.

-Supply & Demand
-Competition
-Auctions
-Cash Flow Management
-Value Creation
-Strategy

1 - Supply & Demand 

I have something you need, and you have something I need. How do we both get what we want?

If I need black containers and everyone is producing black containers, I get to buy them for cheap. They are cheap because everyone wants to sell their containers and earn money. If their black containers are priced too high, I’ll go buy from someone else.

On the other hand, if I need black containers and only 1 player is producing black containers, I will probably pay more because there is less supply.

2 - Competition

I just provided an example of how competition comes into play in the game. Players compete when buying and selling their containers. Players also compete when buying and selling containers in Harbours.  Finally, players compete against each other during the Auction part of the game, where secret bids are placed on the lot or cargo of a player’s ship.

3 - Auctions 

In this game, the big money comes from selling the cargo on your ship at ‘Auction.’Players make secret bids to decide how much they are willing to pay for your Containers. Players must factor in things like, how much do I want or need the containers, how much am I willing to pay, how much do I think other players are willing to pay, etc. 

Auctions are held for things like, well, homes, or art. I would argue there are other applications that follow the auction model like, applying for a job, and negotiating an offer, or when vying for a boy or girl’s attention in the short term or in a relationship.

4 - Cash Flow Management 

Part of the game is managing your cash flow to be able to buy and sell containers, win bids for cargo e.g. the containers on the ship at auction, and also use loans to your advantage. Players may take loans in the amount of $10 , and must pay interest on their loans at the rate of $1 each turn, until they repay the loan. Players who can manage their cash correctly, will have more cash, and therefore more options and leverage at many points in the game - buying containers, buying warehouses, buying cargo, etc. Thus, cash management is a critical component of the game.

5 - Value Creation

Value is constantly being created in this game through the buying and selling of goods. 

Players start with money and from then on are buying, producing, and selling, and thus creating value. For example, I pay for a factory and produce a container. I pay you for a container to sell in my Harbour Store and so on and so forth. 

In one particular instance, a player has a choice to create value , or not. When a player chooses to buy their own cargo, instead of selling to the highest bidder at auction, the seller pays the bank and that money leaves the economy. If the seller sells, money stays in the economy and more money is added to the overall economy as the bank subsidizes that sale.

6 - Strategy 

Strategy in this game starts the moment the game begins, and will ultimately determine who prevails. Players may consider which factories to buy, which determines which containers will be produced. Are you going to purchase more factories or more warehouses?  It is impossible to do everything in the game, similar to life, so choices have to be made, and certain strategies work better than others.  Players must also consider what the other players are doing.

Conclusion

One strategy that worked for me I observed in a previous game. I did not produce as often from my factories as other players, because I could 1) buy containers from other players which would allow me to 2) sell them for more in my Harbour Store 3) I could still purchase from other player’s Harbour Stores with loans and 4) make it all back and then some when I sold my cargo at Auction. This saved me both money and time (turns). 

Of course, there were many other factors involved that aren’t described here. Like what the other players were doing, and what my value card looked like. What my player position was in terms of where I was sitting, and the timing of my auctions, and a few other factors that played a role in the outcome. Like what happens in real life (IRL).

So, not satisfied with my description of the game Container? Here's another review.

I guess you will just have to play and see for yourself. I hope you do so you can firsthand about all this mumbo jumbo is about.

For the rules of the game, see this pdf.

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