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Games Investors Play

02/28/01 03:03:21 PM PST
by David Penn

Investing in stocks and mutual funds is serious business. But two companies have turned the rough-and-tumble world of stock trading and money management into two exciting (and educational) new board games, Mutual Mania and Take Stock.

Ed, sales manager for Working Money, had had enough. He'd put all of his capital in Asia-Pacific mutual funds and, after a few rounds of losses with no gains, had figured out that he was through with Asia-Pacific mutual funds. "Here," he told the broker, handing over his purple fund certificates, "I'm selling. Take 'em all."

Such a monumental trade might have raised a few eyebrows at the table had not Ed twice before decided he had had enough of Asia-Pacific mutual funds and cashed them all in -- only to buy back most of his old holdings a few turns later. The eyebrows did go up, however, when the game ended an hour later and Ed, with his strange-but-profitable strategy of "Asia-Pacific or bust," came in second place with a 28% return.

Linda, credit manager for Working Money, was stunned -- as were the other players, WM staffers all, who'd gathered around a pair of heavy wood tables for a friendly after-work game of Mutual Mania in the back of the Elliott Bay Brewing Co., just across the street from the Technical Analysis, Inc., offices. After all, Linda -- like many of her cohorts -- had developed a strategy of building a diversified portfolio of bonds, US equities, and even utilities stock. She did well, finishing up with a 17% return (in fact, everyone who played the game that evening "made" money). But after Ed's surprising showing, it seemed as if the means to making money in Mutual Mania had proved to be almost as mysterious at the end of the game as at the beginning. It was almost enough to make the players wonder just what these financial board games were trying to teach us in the first place!

MUTUAL MANIA

Mutual Mania is a board game in which players buy shares in mutual funds in an attempt to build (and keep!) their wealth. Whoever has the highest net worth in total cash and stock holdings at the end of the game wins, but to reach the end, players must guide their portfolios of stocks, bonds, and money market funds through oil discoveries, inflation spikes, and earnings reversals, as well as the everyday chaos and competition of the marketplace. To a degree, Mutual Mania resembles Monopoly in the way players travel around the board, buy assets (in this case, mutual funds), and respond to Chance-like cards that feature events that can have dramatic and unexpected consequences for players' portfolios.

When asked how Mutual Mania was invented, Chuck Hopkins, vice president of sales and marketing for Competitive Edge Enterprises, Inc., and coinventor (along with his sons, Tom and Greg) of Mutual Mania, credits his younger son, Tom, for getting the idea going. "Tom had gone to school for 20 years, and after that, he had taken a break and gone down to Florida with some of his pals," Chuck explained. "When they were down there, he realized, 'I've just heard about mutual funds and I've gone to school for 20 years and never heard anything about them. There should be something out there to teach people about mutual funds.' " So, according to the Hopkins legend, Tom began developing Mutual Mania right there on the beach. Although his father, Chuck, and brother, Greg, helped Tom refine the original idea, Chuck said, "Basically, what you see is what he thought of originally."

One of the most important things the Hopkinses considered in designing Mutual Mania was game play. "We said to each other: When you get a new game, what do you want to do? You want to play it, right?" Chuck asked. "So I said, what we have to do is ensure these rules are as short as they can be but as concise as they can be, so that it's very easy to play."

To be sure, given the potential complexities of nine different investment categories, fund tracking, and monitoring changes in fund prices, Mutual Mania could have been a much more difficult game to play than it turned out to be. After a few minutes of setup and one last quick look at the rules, our Working Money group was able to get into the game very quickly.

Game setup, however, is one area that can take more time than necessary the first few times Mutual Mania is played. This is largely because of the fund certificates (nine types with two different denominations) and the play money that each player starts with. Mutual Mania comes with a plastic stand that makes it easy for whoever is playing the broker to arrange the various fund certificates into easy-to-find groups; that plastic stand proved so useful that a few players wished they had some way of better organizing their own cache of mutual fund certificates.

Mutual Mania is designed for up to six players and comes with a suggested age range from 11 to adult. One of our players, a well-diversified Working Money marketing executive who finished up well but not nearly as profitably as others, suggested that Mutual Mania would be an especially good game for adolescents. Chuck Hopkins noted that Mutual Mania has been popular among high school students and teachers. "They use it in economics, business, and even math. I was at a convention that had business teachers from the US and Canada, and everybody who played just bought them like crazy" because they could see it was an excellent way to teach students about investing in mutual funds.

Another of our players agreed with the educational potential for the game, noting that "[Mutual Mania] could be a good learning tool for mutual funds," though "people need to have some general investment knowledge to have fun with the game." While this is certainly true, Chuck suggested that the game could also spur interest in mutual fund investing. "I've heard so many people who play the game say, 'We played it for four hours' -- you get into it and you don't realize time is flying." Afterward, Chuck said, people have told him: "Gee, we're going to get a financial planner. These things [mutual funds] look pretty good to us."

TAKE STOCK

Compared to Mutual Mania, with its changing stock prices and diverse array of mutual funds, Take Stock almost has no learning curve at all. But to talk with Deborah Wallace, who developed the Monopoly-like stock investing game with business partner D'Alene White, that's just about how she wants it.

"We visited the New York International Play Fair and wandered through hundreds of aisles," Wallace said in a recent telephone conversation. "We saw two other financial games and thought they were just too complex."

In developing Take Stock, Wallace and White wanted a more fast-paced, interactive game. As big board-game players all their lives, it was important to them that Take Stock be both nonintimidating and something that would "keep everybody involved."

Wallace and White became interested in stocks and finance when they started an investment club five years ago. Soon afterward, they began helping others start their own investment clubs. Both women were so good at introducing and explaining the concepts of investing to others that they started giving classes at local community colleges on how to start an investment club. All the while, they wondered what tools they could use to better impress upon people some of the basic concepts, terms, and jargon of the stock and investing world.

The answer? A board game. "We just wanted to introduce the concept of investing," Wallace said. "We weren't trying to teach people to be investment geniuses or brokers." Once the idea was set, actually developing the game took "only a few days." In fact, she claims that very few graphics in the current game were different from the prototype.

Playability is certainly one of the chief features of Take Stock, which on first glance (and subsequent glances, for that matter) is very close in format to Monopoly. Players are given $25,000 in game money and move around the board buying shares in companies, with the goal of cornering an entire industry and driving opponents into bankruptcy by making them pay dividends when they land on companies you own.

One of the most popular features of Take Stock with our WM game-testing group was the Day-Trading square. Players who landed on this square could elect to take a chance and buy a prized stock right out of the portfolio of another player. With a roll of the die and a 50-50 shot, the Day-Trading square truly made the game for our group, entertaining even those whose experience in daytrading with Take Stock was less than profitable.

"That's the way we wanted it," explains Wallace. "Daytrading is very risky and we wanted to show that." She also pointed to the Day-Trading square as an example of how even an ordinary board game can take advantage of interactive components.

The recommended ages for playing Take Stock are from eight to adult, and up to eight people can play the game at one time.

TRY 'EM OUT

Both Mutual Mania and Take Stock are available at toy and game shops, as well as at Wizards of the Coast. Mutual Mania is also available through mutualmania.com, while Take Stock can also be purchased through wallaceandwhite.com.

David Penn may be reached at DPenn@Traders.com.




David Penn

Technical Writer for Technical Analysis of STOCKS & COMMODITIES magazine, Working-Money.com, and Traders.com Advantage.

Title: Traders.com Technical Writer
Company: Technical Analysis, Inc.
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Seattle, WA 98116
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Website: www.traders.com
E-mail address: DPenn@traders.com

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