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AUTOMOBILE

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

AUTOMOBILE (Warfrog/Treefrog Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, 2 to 3 hours; about $70)

 

While I often bemoan the reuse – over and over again – of similar themes in board game design, I am occasionally impressed by an original theme that I had either previously never considered, or thought would be far too boring a subject for an entertaining design. A board game based on the early years ofthe automotive industry was one of those themes I had never previously pondered, but upon learning of Martin Wallace’s impending design, I immediately thought that it would prove an interesting subject. In the masterful hands of Wallace, this has proven the case.

What Automobile is not is a highly detailed exercise in the economies or politics involved in the automobile industry. While such a game could certainly be fascinating and highly detailed, Wallace has opted to not dive so deeply. Still, he has incorporated some of the economies and critical decisions that must be made into a game that is easy to learn and fun to play, yet still quite challenging.automobile

Each turn players will choose assistance from a variety of historical automotive giants, including such luminaries as Henry Ford, Billy Durant, Walter Chrysler, Alfred Sloan and others. Each of these individuals gives the player specific advantages. Players must choose carefully so as to enhance their particular strategy and goals for the current turn.

The choices continue during the action rounds, during which each player takes three actions. Players can build factories (which are needed to produce vehicles), place distributors (which help sell cars), perform research and development (which gives the players cubes, which are needed to produce more advanced vehicles), produce cars, or even close factories.

BUILD FACTORIES – Ringing the board is a track depicting forty historical cars, most of which have long been forgotten by all but auto aficionados. Anyone remember the Duryea or perhaps the Crane-Simplex? Cars are divided into three classifications based on price: low, medium and high. Each vehicle block depicts the auto’s classification and the cost to construct a factory, which begins at a low of $200 and increases to a whopping $750 for the luxurious Cadillac 452. Factories are required to produce cars, and a player may construct up to two factories per location (which increases production) and one parts factory (which reduces the cost of production). If a player chooses to construct a factory for a vehicle that is more than one space beyond the last factory built, research and development cubes must be expended. These cubes can be acquired by choosing the “Take R&D cubes” action, or by selecting certain characters.

PLACE DISTRIBUTORS – Players may place pawns into the three distributor boxes. Each turn, there are a limited number of distributorships available, and players will claim these distributorships later in the turn. Distributorships allow players to sell cars outside of the current demand, so are usually highly coveted.

TAKE R&D CUBES – As mentioned, R&D cubes are needed to construct factories that are further along the track. A player takes two cubes with this action.

PRODUCE CARS – This is perhaps the toughest action, as it requires players to calculate how many cars they feel they can sell later in the turn. This will be dependent upon numerous factors, including the demand for the three classifications of cars, distributorships, and the types and numbers of cars being produced by opponents. While this does require some calculations, there is also a degree of guesswork, as the demand is uncertain, as is the production of one’s opponents.

The quantity of cars that can be produced is dependent upon the number of factories and personal finances. There is a fixed cost per vehicle dependent upon its class, but this can be reduced if the player has constructed a parts factory. This requires some financial acumen, which again requires some calculation. This is one of the complaints some have leveled against the game: it can be prone to some dead-time as players perform these necessary calculations. That may be true, but the overall experience is well worth this occasional downtime.

Of course, production costs money, as does the construction of factories. Money can be in short supply, but players may take up to two loans during the course of the game. Interest will be paid each turn, and any outstanding loans will have to be repaid at game’s end.Produced cars are placed directly on the respective factories, and will be potentially sold later in the turn.

CLOSE DOWN FACTORY – Eventually others will likely be producing more advanced cars in a particular class, meaning they will have the opportunity to sell first. Further, losses will be incurred by older factories due to obsolescence. At some point, it will likely be wise to close older factories, which does recoup a portion of the initial factory investment and prevent further losses.

The selling of vehicles begins following the Action phase, forcing players to make many more choices. During the Distribution phase, players must slot the pawns they earlier placed into the three distributor boxes into the actual distributor slots. These are limited, and the pawns can only move into adjacent boxes. As mentioned, cars are sold to distributors first, so there is a significant advantage to having pawns in these locations. However, any pawns that cannot be allocated to distributorships cost the players loss tokens. Thus, players must judiciously allocate these pawns.

Before cars are sold to the public, players can make an “executive decision” by acquiring tokens which they can allocate to specific factories, allowing them to sell cars quicker from that factory, but sometimes at a price. The more valuable decisions cost R&D tokens. Passing early during this phase allows the player to obtain a more favorable turn order position for the subsequent turn.

Now it is time to sell cars to a demanding – or not so demanding – public. At the beginning of each turn, players randomly draw one or two demand tiles. These tiles are kept secret, and ultimately determine the demand for the three classes of cars. In the early turns, there is no demand for luxury cars, but this demand will surface during the final two turns. Players can play the odds due to the mix of numbers on the tiles, but one can never be fully certain of the total demand. As such, there is some guesswork involved.

Once the demand for each classification is determined, players begin selling cars. Beginning with the most advanced car, one car is sold from each factory matching that classification. Additional cars can be sold from a factory before moving to the next factory if a player has placed one or more executive decision tokens there. Cars continue to be sold in this fashion, one factory at a time, jumping back to the beginning and repeating the process until the demand is fully satisfied. Any excess cars go unsold, and the player suffers one loss point for each unsold vehicle.

After the first classification of cars is sold, the process is repeated for the second class and finally the third class. As above, cars are sold until the demand for that particular classification is satisfied. Again, any unsold cards result in losses for the owners. Thus, it is critical that players correctly estimate the number of cars they will sell when deciding how many to produce. Not only will this maximize their profits, but also reduce their losses.

Next, players suffer losses for older factories. Each classification is examined. The most advanced factory on the track suffers no losses, but each factory behind it suffers losses in increasing amounts. Thus, the factories producing older cars will cost the player losses. Players must pay for the losses they possess and the only way to get rid of loss tokens is by closing down factories or via the selection of either Alfred Sloan or Walter Chrysler. Thus, as the game nears an end, these two individuals will be in high demand.

Each of the four turns plays in a similar fashion, with adjustments made in the demand for the different classifications of vehicles for each turn. As the game progresses, there tends to be a greater demand for more luxurious cars and less of a demand for mid-range models. Players must factor this into their construction and production plans.

At the end of the fourth and final turn, players sell their factories and parts warehouse for full value, and then satisfy any outstanding loans. The player with the most cash wins, and becomes an automotive industry legend.

While there are exceptions, I tend to not enjoy economic games. I usually find them to be dry, too calculating, and just too much work. While there is a fair amount of calculations necessary in Automobile, I find these to be exciting, and they have an often dynamic result on the game. The swings of fortunate can be dramatic, with a slight over-or-under estimation in production spelling the difference between victory and defeat. Tough decisions must be made throughout the entire game, and there appears to be a wide variety of strategies players can pursue. This is a rich game that will challenge players game after game. Sadly, if a player’s automobile company falters, there is no government bailout available. Perhaps that will be an option in a future expansion! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


 

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