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Last night I played a traditional Italian card game, Mercante in Fiera (Merchant at the Fair) with a big group of friends. While everyone had a great night, as the auctioneer was very entertaining, and everyone was very committed to having fun, the game itself struck me as being mostly random luck. I couldn't figure out a reasonable strategy, and in the end chose to be very conservative in order to minimise my losses. Some players lost huge amounts of money, having bought as many cards as possible. Of course, the fun in bargaining and bidding for cards has its value, but if you are focused purely on winning, what is the optimal strategy?

In our group, there was around 20 players, who paid €5 each for the first card, and then everyone bid on the remaining 20 cards. The final pool was over €500, divided into 5 prizes (ranging from €25 to €250). I would estimate that the average price paid during bidding was €20 per card (the prices rose as the game went on and people became more excited).

What strategy recommendations would people make?

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There are only two strategic decisions over which a player has control: the amounts bid in auction and the quantity of cards traded. A winning strategy requires paying less on average for one's cards than (all) the other players; and then having a bit of luck.

So, based on whatever patterns seem to be discernible in the merchant's average choice of how many cards to auction off, only bid less per card than the expected pot divided by the total number of cards (40 or 55 depending on edition) in play. Posture all you want to mask this strategy, but adhere to it strictly.

Second, never trade down on the quantity of cards held. Again, mask this strategy by posturing with and to the other players, but adhere to it strictly. You want to posture as an "active trader", in hopes of occasionally leveraging another player's superstitions to trade-up on card quantity; but don't expect doing this more than once or twice an evening.

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    Thanks! So, basically you need to keep a running total in your head of the average card price, and never exceed that. – TrojanName Jan 5 '18 at 18:35

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