Martin Wallace

Artists: Mike Atkinson, Czarnè, Peter Dennis, Klemens Franz

Publisher: Mayfair Games

Wow, no AC and no heater? Driving must suck back then (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

The recent plays of Railroad Tycoon has renewed my appreciation for Martin Wallace-designed games. It’s not that I am a stranger to his games. After all, I also own and love Liberte, London and Brass. Everyone knows of his genius but I have tried only a slice of his games and I wanted to try a few more. Both Automobile and Liberte were high on my replay list and Automobile just managed to nudge Liberte tall the way to the top.

First, let’s get this cleared out of the way: You can get a loan in Automobile. There. Done. It’s a true Martin Wallace game. Unlike Railroad Tycoon, in Automobile, you can only get two loans throughout the entire game, each worth $500. It costs $50 for interest per round and you pay back $600 at the end of the game. Unlike RRT, truthfully, I am not even sure a loan is always needed in automobile.

Anyways, the goal of Automobile is to earn the most money by selling cars. Well, producing cars and then selling them. There are 4 rounds in Automobile and each round, players have 3 actions. A grand total of 12 actions. That’s it. I guess making each action counts sounds like a cliche at the moment. In Automobile, players get to become American car designers, manufacturers and salespeople to sell different cars and generate profit. There are three classes of cars that correspond to the low, mid and upper tier markets. Of course the lowest tier mass produced cars cost the least to build but yield the lowest profit. Similarly, the high end luxury cars are expensive to produce, the factories costs more on average to build but the profits per sale are quite handsome. Players will vie to produce and sell these three types of cars in their respective markets over 4 rounds of game play.

The rules in Automobile are too many to recount and the interactions, both direct and indirect, are just too complex to catalogue. In brief, each round, players go through 9 phases in which they draw demand tiles, select an Automobile tycoon to play and perform 3 actions. After performing these 3 actions, they will then select an executive decision to carry out before finally selling cars. There are 5 actions to select from. They are associated with building factories, producing cars, placing sales personnel in showrooms, investing in R&D and shutting down factories to prevent inefficiencies. After players perform all the 3 actions, the cars are then sold in two separate markets.

First, cars are sold via their sales network in the showroom and then once again through direct demand. These two phases are distinct in that the amount of cars for sale in each of these two markets do not overlap and the demand are separate. However, gauging the combined sales between these two markets is critical if you want to prevent a surplus of inventory at the end of each round.

In the first phase, players place sales personnel in showrooms designated by car type. For each sales person placed, one car of the appropriate market can be sold at full price assuming there are show room slots left for the sales. More slots are made available as the game progresses. Sales personnel can be shuffled around by one market level. So a sales person in the middle market can sell a luxury automobile or one in the lower tier market while the luxury and lower tier sales person can sell only in their market as well as the middle market. Cash is immediately collected after all the sales in the showroom are completed.

Any cars remaining and not sold via the showroom can still be sold based on direct demand. This is the second phase of selling and it depends on demand tiles drawn in the first phase of each round. Here, every player will have partial information on the total demand for the three market segment. By pulling out demand chits from the bag that range from 2 to 5, players will know at least the range for demand. For example, if you pull out a chit with a value of 2 for the middle tier market, then you know that in a 4 player game, the demand will range from 8-17 for car sales in the middle market. Chit pulls are also performed for the cars in the low-end market while the high end luxury market chits are displayed for all to see. The market information is critical as each player needs to assess how much risk they are willing to shoulder and how many cars they want to produce for a particular market type. If you underestimate demand, then you leave profit on the table; and if you overproduce, you will accumulate inefficiencies.

Most of the tension from selling cars via demand comes from two different fronts: first, cars from each class are produced by different factories that are incrementally more advanced and also more expensive. These cars are generally favored by the public to sell first. So if you factory for a particular type of car ( low, middle of high end) is the most advanced on the circular track, your cars will be first in line to sell. In addition, executive decisions made prior to the sale for placing ads or giving discounts will boost car sales. All this is done to maximize the number of cars sold to fulfill demand. Once the total demand is satisfied for each market, that’s it. Surplus cars from factories are not carried forward to the next round and are considered as inefficiencies, with each car earning a black inefficiency cube.

At the end of each round, factories that are aging will also earn inefficiency cubes, along with surplus cars or sales personnel in showroom that weren’t utilized to sell cars. All these efficiencies will snowball and earn you black cubes which you will have to pay a monetary penalty at the end of each and that penalty will increase from each round. Luckily, there are ways to reduce the back cubes by picking auto tycoons with specific abilities that can reduce black cubes or to shut down aging factories.

Writing about the procedural steps of playing Automobile is already challenging but describing the subtle and emergent interactions between players is even harder. There is a lot, perhaps even too much, layered information. Mind you, these are not hidden information but more nuanced and conditional. As much as one can predict the next move, for yourself and others, these moves are contingent upon a specific scenario and deviation from the scenario will trigger a cascade of unanticipated changes. This is perhaps the brilliance and Achilles heel for Automobile. This emergent interactions will thrill the lifestyle gamers who gets off on unraveling the complex web of interactions just to find an opportunity worthy of exploitation. For the light or casual gamer, this game can be an accounting nightmare. There is quite a bit of math on par with Power Grid as one needs to figure out how to allocate money for different tasks. The math is probably more acute in the first two rounds. Once money is more plentiful, it does get easier. So if you find Power Grid a hassle and a chore, Automobile is not for you.

There is always something about Martin Wallace designs that makes you go “wow, that’s a clever mechanism.” In Automobile, for me, the inefficiency cubes is this wow factor. The accumulation of inefficiencies throughout the game is not only a great mechanism that enforces progression, it also rewards careful play and penalizes errant decisions. The progressive penalties makes the game less harsh overall and you know how much to risk as the penalties are clearly stated up front. The system is also thematically coherent. It makes sense that you are losing money for surplus inventory or aging technology. As a result, even though the game does have some fiddly steps, the overall structure and flow of the game is relatively smooth as the game phases are intuitive.

I don’t think that Automobile is for everyone. Clearly, the people who don’t like the math is going to be turned off. That is certainly going to be the case in a mixed group of casual and lifestyle gamers. However, if you can tolerate the accounting, then the game becomes an intriguing exercise of piecing together the layered information on the board to optimize your profit. The game is as good as the collective decision-making. For example, if everyone is pushing the factory track to improve production, then one cannot stand idly as the factory will rapidly age and your sales will be stagnant, earning you a ton of inefficiency cubes. I love emergent games with simple rules as there is more game than meets the eye (or rulebook) and I think Automobile fits that profile. The game begs to be explored at multiple levels but the entry level is high. Do expect the first few games to be exploratory and to test the boundaries of interaction. Otherwise, I consider this Martin Wallace design to be nearly as good as Railroad Tycoon or Brass. Nearly.

Initial impressions: Good

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