After a limited 2009 release, famed game designer Martin Wallace's Automobile has been picked up for wide distribution by Mayfair Games. Automobile is a highly strategic economic game, though the subtitle "Wheels to Wealth" is a bit of a misnomer. As a manufacturer of cars in the early 1900's, you and your competitors will produce plenty of wheels over the course of this game's play, but the wealth is never guaranteed. The theme plays perfectly into such unforgiving economic gameplay, but how does Automobile stack up against other deeply strategic euro-style games? Read on for the full review:
Just the Facts:
Playing Time: 120 minutes
Age: 12 to adult
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Release: February 2011
The premise to Automobile is that you take on the role of various auto industry pioneers from the years of 1896 and 1930. Throughout the game, you will go through the process of of building factories, producing cars, and then selling them for profit. Money is the bottom line in this game, as it is the only factor for victory (whoever has the most will be the winner). Automobile only lasts four turns, but each one is broken down into many complex phases, so you must make your actions count when you can take them.
Early in each turn, players are allowed to select a role as one iconic figure from the time period such as Ford, Chrysler, or Durant. The choices follow a basic worker placement scheme, where each role has both a special ability and an impact on player turn order. Which is more important, to execute your strategy with some rule-bending ability or to go first this turn?
Play will then go around the table three times, with players allowed to choose from a pool of five actions each time. Taking a peek at the variety in this list should give you a feel for just how complex this game can get. Without diving too deep into a full-on reading of the rules, I'll give an explanation of how each effects the gameplay:
- Build Factory: Allows you to claim the production rights to one specific model of car for a set fee.
- Place Salesmen: Gives players an additional method to sell cars. Early in the game, this may be the only way to sell certain cars.
- Take Two R&D Cubes: Increases the player's R&D supply, which can be spent to build factories that produce more advanced car models.
- Produce Cars: Activates factories to produce cars. Each car must be paid for individually.
- Close Down a Production Space: Obtain a partial refund on a factory (cost minus $100) to free up production capability (players are limited to six factories each) and to avoid penalties for producing outdated cars.
Players are then able to begin selling cars. Generally, a player can double their money on each car they sell. However, it is very important to not produce too many since cars that go unsold will not only be unrecouped costs, but will also accrue penalties. Selling starts with the player who selected Charles Howard, who grants a special 2-car selling ability. It then progresses to salesmen, who jockey for a limited number sales spaces on the showroom floor. Again, players must be careful not to over-commit, as unused salesmen will be fired at the end of the turn and also accrue a penalty (do we notice a theme here? mistakes will be punished!).
If players feel that their first two opportunities to sell did not go as well as planned, they can now choose to discount their cars in return for selling a higher quantity, or they can spend R&D cubes to advertise cars, thereby selling additional quantities sans penalty. The last round of car sales will come from demand tiles drawn out of a bag. Numbered 2 through 5, the sum of all tiles dictates the final number of cars that will sell. Sales will start with the most modern car and work backwards. If the total number of sales has been achieved, but older cars are still left on the board, they are all penalized as unsold cars.
Sales are also segmented between mass-market, middle-class, and premium class cars. This process of drawing demand tiles and processing sales will be done for each class of car, and as the game progresses, more cars of each will be sold. This brings an interesting mechanism to the game, as the class of car plays a big role in your decisions. You may find yourself in a position to stretch your capital and R&D in order to produce cars of a class that other players have been under-producing in, thereby securing a large portion of that class's sales for yourself with little risk.
Finally, we come to the penalties. Each penalty accrued during the turn results in a black loss cube assigned to that player. At the end of each turn, players must pay a fee for each loss cube in their possession. The real pain is that they do not go away after being paid for. Instead, they will get increasingly expensive on each turn! The only way to remove them is to close down factories or choose a role with a special ability to do so (bypassing other powerful abilities in the process).
The game is quite a bit more complex than this high-level overview of the rules, but hopefully it has given you enough taste to determine whether Automobile is the sort of game you might enjoy. It does have a lot to offer the strategic mind, so be sure to read into my personal impressions below.
- 1 Board
- 250 Cardboard Markers
- 149 Wooden Tokens
- Paper Money
- Components Bags (1 cloth, 9 plastic)
- Rules Booklet
Automobile have come under a bit of scrutiny among the hardcore euro-gaming community. While the limited edition came with wooden automobiles and salesmen, I must set the record straight by saying that these new components are of the highest quality cardboard I've ever seen. Not only do they have a high-quality double-sided print, but the cardboard is so thick that you could practically level out furniture with these things. They're also more functional than a car-shaped wooden token would be anyway. During the complicated "selling via demand" phase, players move cars into the sale areas one by one to match up for demand, followed by a group payout. I can't imagine fitting 20 cars in one of those areas, but with cardboard tokens, each player can have their own stack.
Paper money usually elicits a few groans as well, as most hardcore gamers prefer tokens or chips. This is some serious paper money though. Again, each piece is double-sided and printed in full color, but the artwork is worth noting. This money is seriously detailed! It's styled to look like knock-off US dollars, and it succeeds in that goal all the way down to serial numbers and watermarked images.
The board here is a huge improvement over the original, which was downright hard to look at. Amateur graphic design work has been replaced with a consistent visual tone that fits perfectly with the theme's time period. As expected, the board is also cut and flush mounted, so no issues to report there. If you've notice the differently shaped and colored symbols surrounding each car, know that those denote the class. Play starts with building in the upper-right corner and play progresses clockwise. The center of the board is used to help track sales, in-turn progress, and to store cost charts.
The only knock on these components is an extremely minor one. Whatever fabric the cloth bag is constructed of refuses to stay shut even with its drawstring top. If you wind up leaving the demand tiles in there, be prepared to have the bag empty out inside the box if you transport it anywhere.
Automobile is a gamer's game. It definitely ranks high on my list for such titles, although the mechanics can be a bit fiddly at times. While the most skilled players will appreciate the intricacies of building parts factories or strategically placing salesmen in certain lots, these are the sort of mechanics that are more likely to bog down a game by causing "analysis paralysis" in players. Having a small peek at the demand tiles early in the turn also seems to be a dispensable rule, especially in a 5-player game. Is there really enough advantage to be gleamed from analyzing one fifth of the total car sales, or does this just unnecessarily extend the game?
Those complaints withstanding, Automobile is a solid game that as I mentioned in the intro, has the perfect theme for it's complex gameplay. The use of a light worker placement round to select a one-turn role as an iconic car industry figure is brilliant, especially when you consider how the benefits of each role tie in so well to their real life accomplishments. The long list of turn phases following that selection may seem daunting, but many of the resolve rather quickly, such as selling cars via Howard.
Since the board game industry is so widespread, with a variety of different genres and play styles, there is no way to describe the perfect game. Instead, there are certain criteria that a game can fulfill to make it a great choice given the right situation. For instance, a game may be perfect for gamers and non-gamers alike, meaning you can get it to the table quite often, thereby providing high value to your dollar. While that does not describe Automobile, this game does indeed hit it out of the park with one of my key criteria: you will never mentally detach from the strategy during a game.
There is nothing worse than a game where players lose interest when it is not there turn, but Automobile avoids this common problem. The game does not have direct player interaction, yet each move deeply impacts every player at the table. It is important to have a strong overall strategy, but you will have to constantly employ on-the-spot tactics as your opponents shake up the situation on the board. Your mental gears will be turning for the entire duration of play.
If you have never played a euro-style board game before, maybe you don't want to start here. Perhaps one of Mayfair's other games, the ubiquitously recommended Settlers of Catan, would serve as your starting point down the rabbit hole. Automobile will chew you up and spit you out if you're not used to using your brain in a board game but trust me, that's a good thing. Even as an experienced gamer, you will likely not pick up on all of the intricacies in this game. You will, however, want to play it again and again in attempts to master it.