Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Automobile

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. And while I am a fan of many of Martin Wallace's games, cars do nothing for me. To me, they are little more than a means of transportation from Point A to Point B. But then again, it is refreshing to see a form of transport that is not trains that is being modeled.


The Overview:


The box cover. While not amazing, it does have a certain elegance to it. 



Box contents: a board, a cloth bag, paper money and oodles of wooden bits. 



Automobile is an industry/manufacturing economic game based around the early automobile industry. There are no victory points in this game. Whoever makes the most amount of money at the end wins. However, there is a speculation mechanic in which anyone who produces more cars than they can sell through that turn's demand will be penalized and end up losing money on their endeavor.

The game is for 3-5 players and takes between 2-3 hours to play. The game is played through four turns and each turn allows a player only three actions. So at the end of the game, every player will only have had taken 12 actions. Each turn, however, some actions are almost a given, giving the players even fewer "unscripted" actions. However, despite the limited number of actions a player can take, there is a variety of difficult decisions to be made and a variance of strategies and reactions that a player must make.

Here is a bit of a lengthy breakdown of the game's turns. Feel free to skip over this section and move onto the next if you do not want a breakdown of the game's turns:

At the beginning of each turn, every player randomly draws "Demand Tiles" that are numbered from 2-5. These are hidden from the other players and at eventually all of the players tiles will be put together to determine the total amount of demand for each kind of car in a round.

Players then each select a character in player order. Each of the characters offers a special ability and also determine the play order for that round. The characters offer additional actions or abilities that make an impact on that round's play, although players need to factor in the importance of player order as well as the abilities offered by a character choice. Choosing a character each round may seem odd, but I see it more as taking that industry leader's tactic that round. In other words, my company is not run by Ford this round and Chrysler the next, but rather my company is adopting Ford's tactics this round, then modeling their business practice after Chrysler the next.

After character are chosen, each player takes turns taking actions, one at a time until every player has taken three. Available actions include Building a Factory (which can later produce cars of a specific type (High, Mid or Low Range) depending on the space it is built), Placing Distributors (which are guaranteed to purchase cars directly from you, allowing you to make and then sell more cars with less fear of overproducing and creating waste), Taking R&D Cubes (which can be spent when building factories to develop a factory further along the track), Produce Cars (which lets you build cars at each of your factories; you need to pay for the cars you build, but if you are able to sell them, you make a profit on each car spent) and Closing Down a Factory (which lets you reclaim some of the money spent on building the factory, but, more importantly, cuts down on losses as factories back further along the track are considered to be inefficient and collect loss cubes that cost money throughout the game). Now, most turns will involve building a factory and producing cars. This leaves you really with just one "unscripted" action in most rounds. This shows the importance of character selection, as some of their abilities can essentially give you a "free" action. Also, it shows the tightness of this game, which seems to be almost a signature of Martin Wallace's games.

When each player finishes their three actions, the players can then sell some of the cars they produced. Whoever has Howard as their character that round can sell two cars directly through him. Then whoever placed distributors can sell cars directly to them. If you do not have enough cars to sell to your distributors, you remove the distributor and take a loss cube for each one you cannot satisfy. The cars remaining unsold will be sold later in the round, but only to a number based on the demand for that kind of car in that round.

Next, players take "Executive Decisions" in player order. This continues until everyone has passed. Player order for the next turn is determined by the order in which players passed. There are only a limited number of these decisions available as well. Players can opt to Close One Factory (this allows the player to immediately close a factory, but only one of this option is available), Purchase Bonus Sales Markers (These markers let multiple cars be sold from a factory each round, but cost R&D cubes) or Take Reduced Price Markers (which let you sell multiple cars from a factory, but at a reduced price).

Finally, the Demand Tiles are revealed and players take turns selling their cars, one at a time from each factory in order along the track until the demand has been met. Any cars that remain unsold at the end of the turn are removed and the player takes a loss cube for each car unsold.

At the end of the turn, players have to pay money for each loss cube that they have, and the penalty for each rises each turn. Then the board is reset, leaving distributors and factories in place, and everything starts over again.


The Theme:

Automobile is an economic and manufacturing game, so the economic engine created is really the theme. I don't feel like I am running General Motors in a tense CEO simulation, but that isn't the game. For creating a tense, tight economic model, the game succeeds greatly. Because of the limited actions, there is a tenseness in your decisions and every action you take is that much more important. The game is designed so that newer models of cars sell before older models and there is a mechanic to show the inefficiency of older factories. In that respect, I find this to be one of the best market models in any of the economic games that I have played.

Having only a portion of knowledge pertaining to the upcoming demand is the only mechanic that fails to simulate something in an inventive way, in my opinion. Since every player has a demand tile numbered from 2-5, you only know a fraction of what the total demand will be. In a three-player game, you have one-third of the knowledge. In a five-player game, you have one-fifth. So there is a bit of an advantage in three player games. However, in three-player games the other players tiles could total 4 or 10, so even then there is a huge difference that is there. It's not a bad thing per se, to have a portion of the knowledge of the upcoming demand. However, it seems to be all but pointless in its effect. I think our games would play roughly the same even if we didn't draw Demand Tiles prior.


Learning the Game:

The game is actually fairly easy to learn. A few rules are easy to make errors on a first play, but overall, the rules are presented very clearly and defined and there is an extended example of play that illustrate two turns of a four-player game... That's pretty good considering it's a four turn game, so the game play example plays out over half of a game.

While the game is easy to learn, repeated plays are necessary to pick up on the intricacies of the game and its strategy. For a game that has few actions and even fewer "unscripted" actions on top of that, there really is a lot to learn and a lot to figure out what exactly to do to maximize your potential, while at the same time, minimizing your inefficiencies and loss.


The Components:

These are the wooden cars pieces. Most everything else is a disk or cube.



Cars and factories.



What I have is the Treefrog edition of the game. I do not know what, if anything, will change in later editions. The wooden bits are fine and functional. The cars that are produced each round are modeled to be little cars and the distributors that you can sell to are modeled to be little silhouettes of a head and shoulders. Everything else is a disk, cube or flat rectangle (representing the factories). While I appreciate the sculpted cars for each player, I would have been content with little cubes to represent them. That being said, I wonder why the decision was made to sculpt them, but leave the factories as just flat rectangles. It does not affect game play at all, but I just wonder why one would over-produce one component and under-produce the other.



The paper money is nothing to write home about. 



Wooden money is currently available at treefrog's site. 



Also, the game comes with paper money. It is the standard one-sided printed paper money. It is of similar quality of any other game's paper money. I know this bothers some people, but I would prefer to use cheap paper money rather than have to pay more for each of my games to come with their own set of poker chips. But Warfrog is offering wooden money that can be used with the game for those who it really bothers. The wooden money costs $22. That is a cost that I am glad was not added to the price of the game initially and I'm happy to use the paper money.



Is the board ugly and busy, or is the color scheme of pink on mustard genius? You decide. 


Finally, I need to comment on the board. While it is completely and fully functional. It is ugly. The color schemes marking High, Mid and Low Range cars are terrible and altogether the board looks less like a finished product and more like a play tester's board. I suppose the color scheme backgrounds for the cars is useful for the patterns for colorblind players, but overall, it is not aesthetically pleasing to look at.


Playing the Game:

The game play is very tight and tense. For the limited amount of actions that you have, you realize how important and decisive each one is. This makes for a strong game, but also can bring out the AP in players who are normally not that bad with it. I highly suggest having a calculator or two available at the table for less mathematically friendly players to use. It will speed up their turns considerably as you need to determine how much money you can spend on building cars, buying factories and so on throughout your turn. The math is basic, but for some people it can slow it down when they have $1100 and are trying to figure out how many mid range cars at $70 each to build and how many low range cars at $50 each to build, when the mid range cars sell at $150 each and the low range cars sell at $100 each to figure out the mix that will best maximize their profits while minimizing the risk of losses.

This is also a game where you need to watch the other players actions throughout. What they build, which factories they open and close and their turn order all impact your profits and losses. I don't mind the downtime of other players turns because for the most part, I need to be watching what they are doing at all times.

In the end, you really feel the tightness of the game and I do not find a single action that I take to be automatic or thoughtless. Even the "scripted" actions, like producing your cars (it is scripted because you know that you will be taking that action each round since it is how you make money) is still thoughtful as you have to try to guess at demand while at the same time calculating either how many cars your opponents have produced or will produce to minimize losses.


Scalability:

More players makes the game a lot tighter and a lot more intense. However, even three player games are incredibly tense and tight. I've played a two-player variant of the game posted on boardgamegeek to try to learn the game with my wife before introducing it to others and I enjoyed it. We played it twice two-player before playing it with more. Since playing it with more, however, I realize that you really need more to make the game shine. Still, I would not hesitate to grab this game to play if I only have three players, so I think it scales well from 3-5.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. Unfortunately, she's not a huge fan of the game. She doesn't like a lot of tense, "thinky" games like this one. She burns out from the heavy math and planning throughout the game. Still, she tends to win most every game that we've played. Her strategy is pretty basic and straightforward, but it works. Despite her aversion to most economic games like this one, she does have an innate knack for them.

However, when the group is in the mood for a tight manufacturing/economic game (and we do so love them) and the suggestions for games like Chicago Express, Steam, Wealth of Nations or Brass come out, she will usually pick Automobile over the others. So while not her favorite genre, this is probably one of the ones she minds the least in it. Though Power Grid will usually be chosen by her before this one if it is included in the mix.


The Pros:

*A very tight, tense game play.
*You really feel that every decision you make is so important.
*Very function components and board.
*A surprising depth of strategies despite the few actions.
*Plays nearly as tense and scales nearly as well with 3 players as it does with 4 or 5.
*It is refreshing to end the game with money making the winner, not victory points.
*It's a game about a mode of transportation that isn't trains.


The Cons:

*While functional, the ugly board feels like it is a play tester's design.
*Can create AP in players who are usually quick and decisive.
*The Demand Tiles process is a little pointless and does not give a good enough look into the final demand to make it feel anything but random.
*Can be too mathy for some who don't like the economic model.


Overall:

Automobile is tight, tense economic and manufacturing game that has some innovative ways of modeling the appeal of newer model cars while at the same time showing the inefficiency of older factories. While there are few actions that a player can take in a turn, each one is vital and important. Out of the games that fit into this genre, Automobile is my favorite of them. It is also my favorite of Mr. Wallace's games. Although it really shines with more players, I still have no hesitation in trying to get it to the table with only three-players. And even though there are limited "unscripted" actions that you can take in each game, I have found each game I've played to be vastly different and see the game with a vast amount of replayability in it.


9/10

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