Thursday, 23 July 2009

Automobile

On 18 Jul 2009, two new players joined a game session at my home for the first time, Keith and Simon, both my colleagues. I have played games with them before separately on different occasions, but this was the first time they came for a game session. Han was also in town and came to play. I recently received Automobile, the new Martin Wallace game about the early car industry in America, a complex Euro game. This was the first time I have ever pre-ordered a game by myself. I was keen to play, but struggled about whether I should be introducing such a complex game to new players. Eventually I couldn't resist the urge to play it. But I did start with a medium complexity game - Traumfabrik (a.k.a. Hollywood Blockbuster / Dream Factory), as warm-up.

I have not played Traumfabrik for a long time. I have a home-made copy, which I made (with much effort) a few years ago before the game was reprinted. I quite enjoyed the game. I should play this more often. Keith and Simon enjoyed the game too. I think the movie-making theme helps draw them in. Han won the game decisively. He had one very good movie that won lots of awards. He had 90pts and the rest of us had 69pts, 68pts, 68pts.

One pleasant surprise was a few days later Simon asked to borrow Traumfabrik so that he could try it with his wife, whom he described as having a fear of boardgames. Simon likes trivia / word / party games, so maybe Grace dislikes boardgames only because she doesn't like trivia / word games, which rely on your knowledge in certain fields and your language skills. Eurogames tend to be quite knowledge- and language-independent, so maybe this will be an entry point to recruit a new gaming partner.

An old photo of my home-made Traumfabrik.

On to Automobile. We started Automobile at 10pm. Explaining the game probably took 20-30 minutes, and the actual game (first time for all of us) took slightly less than 2 hours. We ended at 12:20am. Automobile is an economic game about producing and selling cars, and, of course, making money. There are only 4 rounds in the game, and you don't get many actions each round, but every decision that you make has implications. Even turn order can have big implications. So you need to plan ahead and think about what you want to achieve.

There are three types of cars - high price range cars, mid range and low range. They have different demands throughout the 4 rounds, and you have to decide which range(s) you want to compete in. There are three ways to sell cars - (a) via Howard, a super salesman, one of the characters in the game, (b) via your network of distributors, and (c) to the general public. Each round there is a fixed number of cars in each price range that can be sold via distributors. So using distributors is a more predictable approach. However, because the number of cars that can be sold this way is limited, if the players employ too many distributors, some of the distributors will fail to sell, and will get fired (which is a bad thing, of course). There is also an interesting mechanism which slightly restricts the types of cars a distributor can sell. If a distributor is experienced in selling luxury cars, he will be able to sell mid range cars too, but not the el cheapo cars. Similarly if a distributor is experienced in selling el cheapo cars, he can sell mid range cars, but not posh cars. If a distributor is experienced is selling mid-range cars, he can sell cars of all price ranges.

As for selling to the public, at the start of every round, each player secretly draws some tiles with numbers on them ranging from 2 to 5. These numbers together determine the demand of the general public. This means you have partial information only. So you have to think carefully how many cars to produce. You can observe how optimistic or pessimistic your competitors are, to guess what kind of tiles they have in their hands. If you produce too few cars, less than what you would have been able to sell, you miss the opportunity to make money. If you produce too many cars, more than what you can sell, you lose the money that you have spent producing the cars. Cars in this game are like bread. By the end of the round, any that are unsold go bad and you have to remove them from the board.

There is an interesting concept of obsolescence. There are many different models of cars, and it is always better to be producing newer models. They usually sell quicker, and they give you less loss cubes (an abstract concept in the game, which I'll talk about soon). However the cost of building factories for producing newer models get more and more expensive, but the profit margins for selling newer models are no larger than those for older models. So when to spend R&D (research and development) on developing new models, and when to close down old factories, are interesting decisions. Are you willing to spend the money and (limited) actions just so that you can be producing the new and shiny models? Sometimes this is needed to gain a competitive edge. Sometimes this may even be necessary for survival.

One abstract concept presented in the game is the loss cubes. You gain loss cubes if you are forced to fire your distributors, if you are unable to sell all your cars, and if you own factories of older car models. At the end of every round, you lose some money per loss cube, and this loss rate increases from turn to turn. The only ways you can discard some loss cubes are closing factories and making use of some of the character powers. During the game I was probably overly worried about the loss cubes, which affected my decisions. I probably should have worried less about them. However, one mustn't completely ignore them. In Round 4, the amount you have to pay for loss cubes may be the difference between winning and losing.

The game allows you to take up to two loans. At first it didn't seem necessary. You start with $2000. But by mid game we gradually realised that you do need to borrow money to make more money. The automobile business is an expensive business. So much money is tied up in your assets - your factories. You need money to fully utilise the production capacity of your factories. Soon all of us had to take loans at some point in the game. Money is quite tight. For whatever amount that you earn in one round, you use most if not all of it to buy factories and produce cars in the next. Cash flow is very important. Be prepared to beg from the banks.

Competition among the players happens in many aspects of the game. Your distributors fight over limited slots to sell cars. Turn order is a constant consideration. Sometimes you want to go early, sometimes you want to go late, and sometimes you want to do both! E.g. going early gives you first choice for Executive Decisions (an aspect of the game that helps you sell more cars or allows you to close a factory), but going late allows you to build factories later which means you will likely be able to build newer models. There are six characters in the game who give you various benefits, and your choice of character determines turn order. So sometimes you are torn between getting the turn order you want and getting the character you want.

You have the chance to cut your price, which can help you sell cars faster, but at a smaller profit margin. Sometimes it can be painful to have to make that decision. You do not have full information about the market demand. If you cut your price and manage to sell all your cars while others fail to do so because demand turns out to be low, you'll be laughing at your competitors. But if you cut your price, and later find that there is sufficient demand for everyone to sell all cars anyway, you'll be kicking yourself. If you decide not to cut your price, you have to worry about losing sales to an opponent who cuts his price. It can be a game of chicken.

There is a lot to think about in this game, and yet you have very few actions. So it's quite an intense game. However, at the same time the actions that you do are intuitive and logical, so Automobile is easier to grasp than Brass, another recent Martin Wallace game which I like a lot. That one can be a little tough to grasp at first.

Simon, Keith and Han.

Small white cube - R&D cube. Reddish rown cylinder - Chrysler's special ability reminder marker. Green rectangle - my car factory. Brown rectangle - parts factory. Black square tiles - demand tiles. Green cars - cars (what else?). Green head-and-shoulder - distributors.

The gameboard looks a little busy, but every single thing on it serves a purpose, and it is very practical and functional. The outer track are the car models that you can build in the game. You build your factories and produce your cars on these spaces.

The drawings of the cars are very nice.

The view from where I sat. At the centre are the distributor pieces. Han (yellow) and I (green) competed fiercely in the mid-range (orange) and low-range (black) markets. Keith (blue) focused on the high-end (silvery blue) market.

At the start of our game, most of us had not much idea what we were supposed to be doing, probably except for Han. At least he started with a strategy of trying to go last in turn order, so that he would be building a factory later, and thus would be building a factory for a newer model. My first factory, which I had built on the 3rd space, suddenly seemed so obsolete. I had 3 car factories and 1 parts factory on that space. Then during the Executive Decisions stage of the round, I closed down my factory, which surprised everyone. In hindsight, that was probably a bad move and not a bold move (well, maybe a bold bad move). I was overly afraid of loss cubes and obsolescence. From Round 1 to Round 2, I earned a total of $100 (when you close a factory you don't recover the full cost). That's 5% (start money is $2000). Baaaaad investment.

Han and I competed in both mid-range and low-range cars. Keith was the first to go into the luxury car market. I think he sold either very expensive or very cheap cars. Simon joined the competition in the high-end market, and also had an interest in the mid-range market. The mid-range market was a killer. I produced too much and was burned in Round 3. We kept underestimating (or maybe underproducing for) the low-range market. There was a slight overproduction in the high-range market only in Round 4.

Han was first to build a distributor network, and soon we all started to see the benefits of a reliable sales channel. Competition was fierce in Round 3, and distributors started losing jobs. Things stabilised in Round 4, since no one wanted to escalate the distributor war.

The final scores were close and were mostly around $3000, which I suspect is not very good. Hopefully we'll do better in the next game, when we have a better idea what to do.

I think Automobile is a good buy and I am glad that I had pre-ordered it. I hope to get this played more often, which can be a challenge since I usually only have 2 players. There is a 2P variant, which I hope to try soon. If it works well enough like the Brass 2P variant, then I'd be quite happy.

4 comments:

Aik Yong said...

of all the games released this year, Automobile and Small World intrigued me the most. Since my friend is getting Small World, I am looking forward to buying this game.

Hopefully it gets imported in soon.
Only 12 actions per game? That's really brutal.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Yeah, only 12 actions. You only have 8 actions if you don't count producing cars. You will most likely be producing cars once per round, so that's 4 actions gone.

At the Executive Decision phase you do have the option of closing down a factory, which is one of the things you can do as a normal action. But only one player can choose that action, and it depends on turn order.

Lord of Midnight said...

Finally tried this game courtesy of Hiew's copy! Like it.. another Wallace game as good as Brass. Only problem is that it's OOP now.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

2nd edition of Automobile is coming, with a much flashier box cover. :-)