20 November 2018
Unable to contain our excitement
It’d be quite easy to dismiss Container as seeming a bit dull. There’s the name, for a start, stamped in tarnished metal caps on the box. Below, the artwork of a ship being loaded with the huge steel boxes – not exactly most people’s romantic fantasy of a life at sea. This, the 10th anniversary edition, proudly proclaims an 'exciting' new add-on: the investment bank. It’s how much? Over a hundred quid? You’re kidding!
Let Container pass you by like a ship in the night, though, and you’ll miss out on one of the most fascinating and truly unique games out there.
What makes Container so captivating is its creation and simulation of a player-based economy. In-game economies are everywhere, from Power Grid to Monopoly, but you’ve never seen one like Container. Where most games artificially stimulate their economy to keep players able to buy and sell goods – for instance, by giving players money from the supply at the start of a turn, or in exchange for an almost always available action – Container puts total control of the economy in the hands of the players. With keeping things afloat crucial, the straightforward gameplay vanishes and you’re left totally absorbed by a highly social experience about reading the market you and your fellow players have created.
This matters because, in a strange unconventional twist, players can’t directly exchange the containers they produce for points – a problem, when you’re chasing specific colours to rack up points according to your personal secret scoring card.
Instead, it becomes a matter of selling containers by road to other players, who can then offer their purchased goods for sale via their harbor – requiring you to sail your ship across and collect them, before heading to a central island where the ship’s entire cargo (up to five containers) goes up for auction, resulting in a potential windfall of points or cash. The whole way through, it’s up to the players to set prices and manage their money – it sounds complicated, but things quickly fall into place and you’ll find yourself captivated by reacting to a sudden demand for purple containers or dealing with a saturation of beige. It’s player interaction at some of its purest and finest, and it’s a complete blast – nothing like the yawnful first impression given by the box.
Even Container’s gameplay flaws are fascinating in their own right. With the game’s progression tied to players’ production of containers and few built-in failsafes, Container can come grinding to a halt if things go south – easier than it sounds if players only chase points. This revised edition attempts to soften the impact of financial crisis on less experienced players, with the optional investment bank add-on offering a way out of previously near-inescapable bankruptcy and decreasing the total number of containers available, triggering the end-game earlier than before.
With the gameplay so breathtakingly accomplished in its player interaction and ambitious economy-building, it’s a shame that the game’s visuals can’t quite live up to the awe-inspiring experience of playing. The player board artwork is, frankly, awful, with muddy, ugly graphics and bizarre scaling. Happily, the ships and containers themselves are a delight, with the weighty resin vessels (the reason, for better and worse, for the similarly hefty price tag) a complete joy to sail around the wonderfully vague rulebook definition of the open sea as anything that isn’t a piece of cardboard. The side-by-side extreme over- and underproduction makes the set's components a mixed success overall – with nothing else quite like Container out there, the steep price of entry is an unfortunate barrier to an experience that every gamer should have.
A decade on, Container remains a singular triumph of board game design. It feels timeless in a way that few games do, something to spend a lifetime admiring and mastering. What’s actually in the containers? You don't know, and it doesn’t matter – but there’s magic in this box.
The artwork is a letdown in an otherwise gloriously supersized anniversary celebration of a spectacular gaming experience that continues to stand alone 10 years on.
Designer: Franz-Benno Delonge, Thomas Ewert, Kevin Nesbitt
Artist: Christopher, Tuazon, White
Time: 75-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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