Swimming With Cybersharks

Capitalism, a CD-ROM game, tests entrepreneurial mettle

Paris was where it all came to an abrupt end for 21st Century Corp. The tiny food processing concern was certain it could trounce well-established competitors in the City of Light by selling a pricey new chocolate bar. 21st Century easily raised $25 million in a public stock offering to build new manufacturing plants and a cocoa farm. But the bold plan by the plucky upstart quickly turned into a massive failure. Shortages of the key ingredient and inadequate worker training and equipment maintenance caused quality-control problems. The final straw: An established food packager began importing a cheaper but better product and spent heavily on a lavish marketing effort.

Within five years, 21st Century was out of cash. Incensed stockholders were demanding the head of the CEO--me.

Thankfully, it was all just a game. Welcome to the world of Capitalism, a computer simulation that challenges players to build and run virtual companies. Created by Hong Kong-based Enlighten Software and published by Interactive Magic Inc., a tiny software company in Research Triangle Park, N.C., the CD-ROM is sold at most software outlets for around $50.

Capitalism isn't just for those who aspire to be the next Michael Dell or Sam Walton. It can be a fun and useful exercise for anyone who wants to test their entrepreneurial mettle without, for once, taking any risk. Players can choose to compete against computer-controlled rivals in four different industries: farming, manufacturing, raw material mining, and retailing. For a truly adventurous and time-consuming game, players can mix and match industries as captains of giant conglomerates. As in the real world, players compete locally, in one city, or fight it out on the global stage.

To help players maneuver through such a complex simulation, Capitalism comes with a 130-page handbook (a welcome treasure these days; most game makers don't bother with costly manuals anymore). The manual shows how to set up different corporate units such as factories, mining operations, and department stores. Eight tutorials on the CD-ROM teach the basics of the game, such as how to read the various corporate, financial, and product reports and use the stock market for financing growth.

With so many possibilities, Capitalism is an intense strategy game, much like chess, where players must constantly think ahead. As such, it could easily overwhelm novices. But by adjusting several factors--competency and managerial style of the computer-controlled rivals, for example, can be varied from very aggressive to conservative--gameplay can be suited to various styles and speed. The game even allows a player to hire presidents to manage the day-to-day operations of different divisions so the player can concentrate on the big picture.

KILL THE KING. You can also choose the type of game to play. If you don't have the time for global domination across several different industries--a game that can take days or weeks on end--Capitalism includes 17 corporate scenarios that are much more goal-oriented. Small-business owners may want to start, for example, with a scenario entitled "Entrepreneurial Spirit," which challenges you to build a $100 million company from $10 million in startup cash. In "Catching the Fashion Wave," you have $20 million in venture cash to build a fashion powerhouse with $20 million in annual revenues. My favorite is "Fortress of the Beverage King," which challenges the player to topple the market leader, $152.8 million King Corp., with only $25 million in startup cash. Winning in this scenario means not only staving off bankruptcy but also beating King--and six other computer competitors--to the No.1 spot, all without the help of Wall Street.

Capitalism will run on any Apple Macintosh or IBM-compatible PC, including those using old Intel 386 chips. Interactive Magic plans to release an updated version by yearend. It will feature larger game maps with more cities, more goal-oriented scenarios, and new "random events"--labor strikes, riots, scandals, even earthquakes. Just like real-world capitalism.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.