It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The turn of the 21st century saw the rise and fall of the great dot-com phenomenon. Companies appeared out of nowhere, came up with horrible business models that consisted of nothing more than spending venture capital as fast as it came in, then disappeared into the haze of bankrupcy.

In 2002, Cool Studios released their new dot-com card game, Burn Rate. With it, two to four players can sit down and relive the disaster again and again and again. Each player is the CEO of a dot-com startup, and the goal is to be the last company to run out of money. The title comes from the term for the negative cash flow a new company sees when spending its venture capital faster than it can generate any money coming in; essentially the rate at which a company burns through its startup cash. And with some of the ideas that came out of the great dot-com boom, it might as well mean literally burning large piles of cash, which would have been a quicker and less painful means of achieving bankrupcy.

The cards are divided into three types. There is the labor pool, consisting of sets of color-coded cards for each of four departments: Finance, Development, Human Resources, and Marketing. These represent the staff each company can hire, and they have differing levels of competence and different salary rates. Next are the play cards, also color-coded to show which department they are played against, and each having one or more skill levels on them indicating the necessary skill level of the department head they are played against. Among these are the cards you play on your own company, hiring and firing employees and releasing projects, and cards played against opponents, including bad hiring decisions, employee poaching, and the dreaded Bad Ideas. Finally, there are the contractor cards, representing the limitless pool of contractors you may need to hire to work on your projects.

The game mechanics are very simple. Each player starts by hiring four employees from the labor pool. They don't have to hire one for each department, but it is a good idea to try to do so. Then six play cards are dealt to each player. A tally sheet is started to track the remaining capital of each company, and each starts at 100.

On each turn, a player may play up to four of his or her play cards, or may discard up to four of them. When the dust settles from the play cards, the comany's total burn (the sum of the burn value of each employee and contractor) is calculated and deducted from the remaining capital. Finally, the player draws play cards to return his or her hand to a total of six. Play continues around until all but one of the companies has reduced its capital to zero or less. The winner is the last company to go bankrupt.

As a developer who (more or less) survived the dot-com bust, I have to say that the guys at Cool Studio who put this game together really knew what they were doing. It was designed by a dot-com insider, and he really brought forth how the dot-coms worked, with incompetent managers, even worse vice presidents who came in and couldn't be dismissed, and all the absolutely horrible ideas that seemed so good (to someone, anyway) at the time. Pets.com, the :Cuecat, online sporting goods and grocery stores, and free computers are all ably represented in the game, though my personal favorite Bad Idea they included has to be "name your own price auctions," a card that features a man in a Star Trek uniform singing with a guitar. They also poked fun at them selves, including "Dot Com Card Game," which has pictures of cards from the game itself.

A quick and easy game, Burn Rate promises a few minutes or a couple hours of fun for anyone who lived through the dot-com crash. For those who weren't directly involved, it can serve as a quick and dirty education on all of the idiocy we had to endure as we watched everything we had coded fall apart around us due to the bad decision of the morons running the company. The first time I played, I had several moments of déjà vu, when the cards mirrored exactly the projects I was forced to work on.

The important thing is I'm not bitter.


Sources
The Burn Rate card game and associated website: http://www.burnrategame.com/

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