Schrödinger's Cabernet: Imperfect Information in Auction Games

Felix, The Car in the Sack - Scatola

Played Felix The Cat In The Sack last night once again and I remain just as enamored with this clever take on hidden information in an auction.

In the game, each player has an identical hand of cats with point values ranging from the negatives to positives, plus some dogs. During setup, one random card is removed from each player's hand. Each turn, players offer one card face-down from their hand for auction then place bids on the lot. One card is revealed to start the round of bidding. Each time a player passes, she takes a small compensatory reward and reveals one more card. The little dog removes the lowest cat in the lot. The big dog removes the highest cat in the lot. Two or more dogs remove each other from the lot.

The thing I love is how information gradually gets revealed while also raising the stakes. In time you may realize you've overbid on a real stinker of a lot. If you put down a high-value cat in the lot, you may also find yourself simply bidding more than that cat is worth, simply to keep another player from taking it. Very much a dollar auction experience, all with cute cats and doggies.

The auction genre is one I haven't yet cracked, but not for lack of trying. You may recall last year I was tinkering with a wine collection auction game. That had some issues with card-counting and somewhat complicated role-selection mechanics shoe-horned in. If I were to take that game and refine it with Felix's mechanics, it may look something like this.

Schrödinger's Cabernet

Players are wine collectors putting their own bottles up for auction. Some bottles are fraudulent counterfeits, but this is only confirmed once the bottle is open.

Stuff Needed
  • Cards: Bottles are represented by cards. The face shows a bottle and its actual value. The back shows a potential value range. Each player starts with an identical hand of cards, minus one randomly removed from play.
  • Claim Markers: One unique marker for each player. Perhaps a cork?
  • Bidding Chips: Each player starts with fifteen.

Round Start

Oldest player starts, turns continue clockwise around the table.

Each player places one card face-down in the middle of the table forming the lot for auction. Based on the back of the cards, players know the potential value of the lot, but can’t be absolutely sure.

Then each player takes turns placing bids, trying to win the whole lot.

The first player to state "Pass," removes herself from the auction and instead puts a claim marker on the highest bid on the table.

The next player to pass puts a claim marker on the second highest unclaimed bid.
Bidding continues until all but one player has passed.

This remaining player does not earn anyone else's bid. Instead, she wins the lot and sets it aside in her collection. Players do not yet know the true value of their collections.

All other players collect the bids to which they've laid claim.

To earn some quick cash, a player may "open a bottle" at any time and reveal one card from her collection to all players. She earns that card's value in chips. That card is then removed from the game.

The new round begins with a new lot up for auction.


The game ends when the last lot has been auctioned off. Then players reveal their collections. Total the value of each player's collection plus each chip. The player with the highest total wins.


  1. One element to this would be to add some randomizer cards into a pouch, like Clue, so there are some bottles that will later be revealed to be forgeries (or legitimate, depending on the direction of the game), but only when the game is finished. So you may be bidding on something that isn't revealed until much later to be bunk (or worth double).

  2. So it's basically like an extra hand of cards set aside, at the end of the game reveal one and any matching bottles turn out to be counterfeit?

  3. yeah, or any number of them. Could even have two different envelopes: one for counterfeit cards, and one for doubling the price of the cards inside.

  4. One other mechanic would be to have the randomizer cards be a separate deck, where you can spend some of your points to learn more about one of the wines. You could then deduce which bottle (or bottles) are known forgeries (or potentially more valuable)

  5. In the earlier prototype from last year, I included an option to spend a certain amount of money to "appraise" a bottle, revealing its identity only to you. Perhaps that's something to include in this newer iteration? I worry about adding things that would make it needlessly complicated though.

    That said, the notion of auctioning for the *appraisal* as a separate auction from the *acquisition* is an interesting dilemma.

  6. My only concern for having the separate randomizers is some of the added complexity, and the realization that through no fault of your own a certain bottle isn't worth nearly as much as you though because of a random event.

    But then again, random events can be interesting. :)

    I don't think this would complicate things too much, and you could limit the number of appraisals either by turn limits, or making them expensive for players to perform in lieu of actually bidding on an item. But, it would also allow for more information to flow through the game.

  7. One thought that just occurred to me too would be to have a separate "value" deck that has three of each of the wines: one for above value, one for average value, and one for forgery. The first card that is turned over of that wine bottle is the value of the wine throughout the game. I'm not sure how to integrate it to the game though, as it would require folks to toss out subsequent cards of the same bottle as the game progresses.

    Or, it could be another "screw your neighbor, screw yourself" and add some market fluctuation to the game (whatever card is out on top is the current going-rate for the bottle).

  8. What's the motivation not to open every bottle as soon as you get it?

    I think that knowing your own score is far more useful than preventing your opponents from knowing that score. You can use that information to determine whether to play a high risk or low risk strategy, conversely it would be hard to effectively punish the leader if an opponent were worried about the score.

  9. I adore auction games. Nice blog sir.

  10. Ah! Good point. If this were to more closely resemble the theme, then bottles should be worth something when they're NOT opened. A baseline value, from which the actual value may deviate. Hm!

  11. OK, I know I'm all about the separate deck, but this thread gave it some more flesh:

    There is one deck of actual price cards for each bottle of wine. There is a separate deck that the players pick from for the auction that has the original price listed. That is the baseline price for which each wine can deviate. Wine actual prices can fluctuate based on the following ladder:

    Vintage (most expensive)
    Excellent (++)
    Great (+)
    Good (Original price)
    Fair (-)
    Poor (--)
    Counterfeit (none, or lowest value)

    Some bottles are considered safer (lowest deviation from original price), but the more expensive wines are more volatile in pricing, and more likely to have counterfeits.

    At the beginning of the game, one of each of the wine bottle cards is placed on the table. Players then proceed with the bidding as above.

    Bottles may be opened, but the opened price is two shifts down (so a great wine would become a fair wine). The card back would have just a picture of the bottle. The face of the card would have the randomized price, and the randomized opened price). I.e.:

    The original price for the 1905 Fluffernutter Merlot is 1,000. The randomized card has a great value of 1750. The opened price drops it to the fair value, or 750. (Not sure of the scale for the numbers).

    At the end all of the bottles are opened (A toast!) and their values (or non-values) revealed.

    The scale of how well you bid on the wine could also be a winning factor. If you bid a fair price for a great bottle of wine, you get two points, but if you bid a great price on a fair bottle of wine, you'd lose two points.

  12. This sure sounds promising, but I'm not sure I completely get the initial setup. Are players choosing the value of wine or also choosing the wine that will be available for the auction?

  13. At the beginning of the game one card is drawn from each of the wine decks. That becomes the value of the wine throughout the game.

  14. So there are separate wine decks as well, plus a "value" deck that sets the baseline value for each individual wine deck?

  15. Yes. Sorry, I wasn't more clear on that. There's a deck that the players pick from that represents the wine bottles they are bidding on, and own. The other decks are used to determine the real value of the wines, with one card drawn for the real value of the wine (one card per bottle).

  16. That's a lot of decks! I tend to shy from anything that doesn't cycle through most of the cards in a single game, unless it's a big deck-builder or something. Rarely do I find solutions to my design problems by adding stuff. Usually the solution comes from removing things and making the game tighter.

    Not sure if this is relevant, but you might look at the "price drafting" mechanics in Quarantine, Key Harvest or Loot. Basically, commodities are up for sale. On your turn, you establish the price for those commodities, but you do not buy them immediately. Instead, a complete round of continues wherein other players may purchase that commodity for the price you set. If no one has purchased that commodity before your next round, then its yours.

    It's a clever way to have an auction without baking in the costs of the goods in the game itself. If we stick to a simple deck of bottle cards, with risk on the back and actual value on the front, then players could in turn set their own price on those bottles. The trick is setting the price at an amount that it seems tempting.

    Not sure if that's the right mechanic for this game in particular, where a simple auction may be the better method, but it's one way to solve a design bug without adding new decks and stuff.

  17. How about we bake them together. :)

    On the back is the original value of the bottle. On the front is the actual value, the opened value, and the position on the ladder. The deck comprises of the same idea that I had for the separate decks, with 5 - 7 cards of each bottle of wine scaling between the extremes for each bottle (more expensive bottles being more likely to be counterfeit, or vintage, less expensive bottles having less variation.

    Keeps it less complicated, but does have the disadvantage of setting the prices in advance. Perhaps the shifts could take the place of actual values of wine?

    The only reason I went with separate decks was to make sure nobody had the information about each of the bottles until they were opened. But you're right, it adds more complication, while only bringing some minimal benefit.

  18. You could actually keep this model of "ladders" in value on the cards in terms of pluses and minuses without establishing a number beforehand. On the back, you have a range such as "0 through ++" or "-- through ++" or "+ through +++". That's the range of adjusted values once it's opened, but the actual buying price of the bottle could be determined through price drafting, like in Quarantine or Modern Art. When the bottle is opened, you earn back the adjusted value, whether that's a gain or a loss.


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