A lot of writing about games is having the right connections to learn about stuff before it’s big news, and to experience new stuff before everyone else. I’m at a distinct disadvantage here for a couple reasons. First of all I don’t know a ton of people who design games seriously. Most hobbyists will mess around with little designs but nothing comes of it. Secondly, I’d usually rather just play published designs. Playing someone’s home-grown design is a little like proofreading a term paper, except I know less about editing in this case. I would much prefer to play something that has probably been polished and developed properly than some pasted-up trainwreck, thanks very much. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Mow Money is a big exception to mine.
Mow Money is a card game designed by Matt Saunders, one of my many gaming friends in the Kansas City area. The idea is that each player runs a landscaping company, seeking to land the most lucrative contracts. You begin with a single push mower, but you will eventually make the necessary money to purchase an entire fleet of lawnmowers and land some of the really big fish. You can also buy improvements for your company that will give you a little bit of an edge. The key aspect of the game is the bidding process for the contracts. You submit a bid, and the person who can undercut the other people most effectively by submitting the lowest bid will win the contract and the reputation associated with it. Worried you’re bidding too high? You can actually turn in some VPs to lower your own bid, essentially staking your reputation on your bid. When all the contracts are sold off, the player who has won the most prestigious contracts wins the game.
Let me state up front: my experience with this game can hardly be called playtesting. I did play a prototype, but I didn’t play countless games in an attempt to break the game. I simply took it for a spin a couple of times. But I like what I see, and it could very easily be picked up by a publisher and maybe see some success. The version I’ve seen has been developed for a while, and it has a good core that is intuitive and fun. It’s also important to note that the game isn’t finished yet. It’s still being playtested and development, and there are a couple of sharp edges that I still think could be sanded away. But truthfully, I think it’s better than a lot of published games I’ve played. It reminds me of some of the work that John Clowdus has done with Small Box Games, and I mean that as a compliment to both Clowdus and Saunders.
The best thing about Mow Money is the way that it uses abstractions to keep it simple while still remaining true to it’s setting. There’s no “lawn-mowing” subgame, and the bids are actually limited by a series of cards that you draw, depending on what kind of mowers you have. Those factors never feel gamey though, and they keep everything pretty streamlined. Most importantly, they never get in the way of the feeling the game gives. There’s a certain satisfaction in creating your own little empire and finding ways to make some more cash to buy bigger and better equipment. It taps just a bit of the Agricola feeling, where you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something even though you’ve just been playing a game. I also like that the game is pretty approachable. This is not a difficult game to explain, and players can get off the ground in a hurry. You don’t spend the game battling against the system or trying to grasp counter-intuitive processes. It’s able to get forth it’s setting without difficulty, all while providing some good strategic choices and quick satisfying gameplay.
Those who normally read my stuff will say “That’s not much of a review!” And they’re right, this isn’t really a review at all. How could I review a game that isn’t really finished? I also haven’t had all of the experiences I would normally give to a game that is getting the full review treatment. For example, I haven’t played it with more than two people, and one of my plays got one rule pretty catastrophically wrong. But I do think that Mow Money is a promising game, and if you’re even a little interested it’s worth your trouble to download the files and print them up. Matt’s still seeking feedback, and you might just find yourself with a print-and-play game that you play quite a bit.