28 December 2011

Automobile (boardgame review)

Automobile is a game about the emerging car industry in the early 20th century, a 3-5 player game where you take the role of a car producer struggling with rival companies to produce and sell the most modern and desirable cars on the market.

It's a economically oriented game that gets lots of things right which makes for a great experience. It combines the feeling of competition, have great mechanisms for market demand for certain car classes and a couple of other things which I will get into detail in a moment.

Let's just have a quick rundown of the game components. The board itself looks damn good, the outer area is covered in various car models, running from pretty much the first car to car models up in the 40's. There are 3 classes of cars, "middle class" (brown square), "mass-market" (silver oval) and "premium cars" (golden frame).

The other game components are paper money, divided into 8 values - they look very nice but are a bit thin for my taste. You have wooden cubes, white for Research&Development (R&D), black for losses, round white for advertisement, round grey sale symbols, 2 turn markers, and 2 round flat markers for each of the 5 players to keep track of their current player position and if they have any loans. The remainder of the game components are very thick and sturdy good looking cardboard pieces (perfectly punched with no marks).

The cardboard pieces are player factories, cars and salesmen - as well as closed down car factory markers, car industry characters and demand tiles.
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How the game works:

The game lasts 4 turns, after 4 turns the player with the most amount of money wins.

Each turn the players will draw  1-2 "demand" tokens which they will keep to themselves for the time being. This will tell each player a little about the market demand for middle class and mass market cars. No one will have the full picture until later - so you will have to make calculated risks based upon what you know and what you think the others might be hiding. Each demand token has the value of 2-5. During turn 3 and 4 the game also generates 1 single hidden token of demand for premium class cars.

After demand tokens have been drawn it is time for the players to pick characters and decide the turn sequence for the remainder of the turn. Characters come with various abilities that will allow players to cut losses, aid them with additional R&D cubes and allow them to build car factories out of sequence. The player who picks the character closest to the top will go first, and everyone below will fall in line accordingly. This will now be the turn order, for now.

We then move on to the "action phase" which is divided into 3 rounds. Players, starting with the 1st player, take turns in performing 1 action each before moving on to the next round. Each round allows the players to perform a single action that ranges from: Building 1-2 car factories/reserve part factory, placing car salesmen in the car saloon area, pick up 2 R&D cubes, produce cars or close down a production space on the board and all the factories on that space belonging to you with it.

Building factories cost 1 R&D cube if you are building a factory that is first or closest to the latest researched car model. If you want to skip ahead and gain an advantage over the other players you will have to pay multiple more R&D cubes for the privilege.

Depending on how many factories you have (1-3) in a single production space affects how many cars you will produce each turn. Not only that but the type of production space also affects the minimum and maximum number of cars that can or have to be produced in a single space depending on the amount of factories. Cars cost money to produce, but if you sell them you will earn twice the invested money per car. You can increase your revenue by building a spare parts factory in a single production space - this will reduce the cost of cars built in that space by 20$. Such a factory is best built in the mass market production spaces since those have the cheapest cars meaning you will pay almost nothing and make almost twice the amount of invested money per car sold.

These actions are repeated 3 times, which will give players sufficient time to build factories, place salesmen and produce cars in a single turn if they have to start from scratch.

Now comes the time to sell your cars, the player who picked up the "Howard" character, starts by selling 2 cars of his choice to this character for the maximum price. Players then look at the car saloon where they have placed their car salesmen. Starting with the first player the players take turns in selling 1 car of their choice per salesman. The amount of cars sold by salesmen will increase as the game progresses and will peak at turn 3.

The above mentioned methods will only allow the players to sell a fraction of their cars however, but a well planned production/sales plan will have to take this step into account. What happens next is the "Executive decision phase". Starting with the first player the players may make certain decisions before the remainder of the cars are sold towards the hidden demand.

The decisions include , 1 player being able to close down a production space, 3 sets of advertisement tokens and 3 sets of car-sale tokens.

Closing down the production space is self explanatory, but you also get back the money invested in each factory -100$ for each factory sold. The advertisement markers can however be used to sell 1 additional car from 1 production space each round of car sales. The same goes for car-sale tokens with the difference that you will increase the amount of sold cars but will also sell them at a reduced price. If you skip taking an executive decision, you will be able to skip ahead on the player turn track of someone who did take an executive decision - and will be able to pick characters before that player next turn.

Final stage for selling cars is the so called "selling through demand tiles" phase. Players now reveal their demand tiles and place them in the appropriate demand space on the board (middle class or mass market). If it is the 3rd or 4th turn they also flip the single "premium car" demand token. Players look at the total demand for each class of cars. This is the limit of how much cars of a certain class can be sold during that turn. If the players have more cars than there is demand they are out of luck and will take losses. Selling cars through demand works similar to how it worked selling cars through the salesmen in the car saloon. With the difference of not going in player order but rather in the order of selling the most advanced car and going backwards towards the most outdated cars produced.

Each player will be able to sell 1 car at a time from every production space passed, 1 additional car for advertisement or car sale tokens (they do come in handy late game). When cars have been sold down the whole line, and there is still a demand, players start over and repeat this sale step until all cars are sold or the demand for cars runs out.

Final step of a game turn is the "Losses" step.

This is where the game punishes bad decisions, bad planning and bad luck. You receive 1 black loss cube for each car salesman who did not sell a car (he is also removed from the car saloon). You also receive 1 black loss cube for each unsold car, and finally you also receive loss cubes depending on how outdated your factories are. Players look at the board to locate and identify who has the most modern factory of a certain class. The player with the most modern factory take no loss cube, but every factory behind will take as many loss cubes as they are behind the leading player. The oldest factories will as such soon start to lose money - which is the main reason to sell them. Depending on which turn it is, players will have to pay 10-40$ per loss cube. Loss cubes can only be removed either when a factory is closed down or with the help of one of the characters that you pick at the start of each turn.

After losses have been calculated players pay up, but keep the black loss cubes for next turn. All characters are returned, unsold cars discarded, demand tiles removed and car salesmen who had sold cars return to the car saloon area - or if they did not sell any cars - are removed from the board.
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The game mechanics in this game are well thought out, the board has charts and turn tracks to help the players keep an eye on what actions they are about to  perform, how much cars they can produce at what price, who has taken loans and what the player turn sequence is.

I usually complain about games like this being a bit too short (Merchants & Marauders and Carson City comes to mind as I feel both those end rather abruptly). This game however is perfectly paced at 4 turns. It neither feels too long or too short. With the amount of actions and decisions you are able to take each turn you always feel as if you have done lots of stuff each turn to remain in control of your situation - even if you gambled with car production or factory building.

I really like how all the steps in this game affect each other. Picking the character affect if you are able to perform an extra special action or add additional R&D cubes. R&D cubes that are either used to skip ahead and force your opponents to take losses for having older car factories or use the R&D cubes for advertising and selling cars more aggressively in the phase where players sell cars towards the market demand. Salesmen are perfect to sell off cars from factories further back in line saving you the trouble of receiving loss cubes for old cars. The hidden demand tiles work amazingly well allowing you to make a somewhat calculated risk involving your own knowledge, the amount of salesmen you have and the amount of cars you are willing to produce in combination with the current location of your factories on the board.

The theme of being a car producer certainly is there, and the ebb and flow of car production and market demand each turn makes the theme even stronger. However I don't think that you have to be into the theme itself to enjoy this game as the game mechanics are so strong that anyone who enjoys games based on economy, math and brutal rivalry with his fellow player will enjoy this game a lot.

Automobile is, compared to most other titles I've reviewed in the past, "affordable" I would even class it as "on the cheap side". The setup time is no longer than a couple of minutes and playing the game with 3 players took us approximately 1.5 hours. We managed to squeeze in 2 games in one evening - the other 2 players being my non boardgaming parents whom I talked into trying it and who to my surprise both grasped the rules quickly and liked the game. Previously I had also tried it out with my sister with the same result, so I think it is safe to say that this is a game that you can play both with your friends and with your family - and perhaps most importantly it being one of those games that has a wider audience.

I think this has to do with the absence of rolling of dice or having numerous piles of cards that have to be read and played. But it might also have something to do with the theme being a little more universal than other games in my collection.

You can get this game over at GameManiacs

2 comments:

  1. Interesting post. I Have Been wondering about this issue, so thanks for posting. Pretty cool post.It 's really very nice and Useful post.Thanks
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