Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Driving Along In My...

Tuesday gaming came at us fast and furious, this time centered on the great metropolis of Sherwood and Chris' house. JD, Mike, Chris, and myself showed up to give the latest from Martin Wallace a try, in this case Automobile.

If you've played any of Wallace's latest offerings from his "vanity" imprint, Treefrog Games, you'll get what you're expecting. Lots of wooden bits (cute little cars, distributors, and even some sheets of plywood they call "factories"), effective but slightly amateurish graphics, and a ton of mechanisms with no immediately obvious correlation between them. I'm not trying to be coy, here, that's just how I've felt about everything I've seen that Treefrog has put out, from After The Flood to Steel Driver to Waterloo. They all seem like well crafted games, but the require multiple plays to enjoy and I always seem to be left with a lack of interest in giving them that commitment. Unlike Thunder's Edge.

So would Automobile break the mold for me? Not really.

Not that it isn't a good game, mind you. Wallace always does an excellent job with theme, and this is no exception. The oeuvre is the beginning of the 20th Century and the birth of not so much the car, but the car as a salable and profit-generating appliance. There are lots of descriptions that go into greater detail on the 'Geek, but I'll give a nutshell description here.

Each turn, players choose one of the seven personalities, which give various boons for that turn as well as determining turn order. Each player will take one of three actions allotted to them in turn, being able to build factories on the next new model car on the track running around the board, creating distributorships owned by the manufacturers, building cars, and occasionally closing factories that support older cars or increasing R&D budgets. At turn end, cars are sold based on a mix of how distributorships fall out and demand generated for the three tiers of car quality (luxury, standard, and budget) done in a largely random fashion. There are Executive Decisions that players can take to get their cars out the door as well, which is important because otherwise you not only spent money on cars that didn't sell, but you also take losses that add up as the game goes along for unsold cars, unbusy distributors, and obsolete factories. Do this for four turns, with some changes to demand as time goes on. Whoever ends up with the most money at the end wins.

For the mathematically astute among you, you've noticed that each player gets three actions a turn for four turns. That's a surprisingly small number of things you do, at least on the surface. It's a tight game, no question, and understanding how each car model fits into the greater scheme of things is pretty important. For example, if you build a factory for a luxury car when there aren't any more spaces for luxury cars within seven or eight models, it's more valuable because of the selling sequence than if there was another model two spaces down, because you'll have primacy for a longer time (in theory) than otherwise.

However, as it turns out there are lots of decision points. Which personality you choose determines player order, and sometimes being later is better (in fact, very often later is better, as selling order is determined by whose factory is farther ahead). Your executive decisions will also be important, as Chris learned when he didn't take the free "close factory" choice that would have saved him four loss cubes in the first turn. Even trying to guess which distributorships people will try to take at which tiers is a tough decision. The game requires a high degree of efficiency, no question, so it's by no means a light game such as Toledo or Mordred. We had four experienced gamers starting with little idea of how the various elements would fit together, and there seem to be a lot of them (and they have a fairly high degree of complexity). I'd put this game at or above the level of Brass in terms of it's complexity, so be warned if your group has members who prefer lighter games.

I had a very strong start in our game, leading by a small margin for the first two turns. My strategy was to get some distributors on the board early as I went early and thus build a factory that was third in line. Where I went wrong was going for the Luxury factory in the end game and sticking with it whereas everyone else had two factories at that point. I was thus pinned into a specific strategy, which Chris upset nicely by jumping ahead to get the next luxury factory that had been four spaces ahead on the board when the turn started. As in the third turn, I was stuck with one extra car at turn end, partly because I thought Chris would focus on his lower tier car sales instead of on the luxuries as a spoiler, and he placed a distributor in the luxury area that screwed me up.

Not that it mattered. You have to spend money to make money, and I should have purchased a second factory rather than buy twice with the luxury models. They do have a larger margin, but the demand is so much smaller (and almost completely random, compared with the regular demand process) that it's very dangerous to put your eggs all in that basket. Since you get all of that money back for unclosed factories at game end, it would have made a lot more sense to do. As it was, I came in last with $31xx, while I'm fairly certain Mike came in at nearly $4000, with JD in second and Chris behind him in a pretty even spread.

To be fair to the game, I was tired after having company for the past couple of days, plus personal drama has taken it's toll on me for the past couple of months, and I'm not sure this was the sort of thing I was really itching to play. Still, none of the Treefrog imprinted games has even sort of grabbed my interest, even on a second playing. It may be partly the graphic quality, which is what I'd expect from someone with a good computer and software and a decent eye but no formal training in human factors. The information is all there (mostly - would it have killed them to put a list of legal actions on the board somewhere?), and it's mostly effective, but at the same time it's missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. If you've ever had a professional stager come in and set your house up for sale, you know what I mean - Treefrog games look like the "before" picture instead of the "after" picture. I could make the same comparison between the way Decision Games' titles look and GMT Games' titles look (minus the crazy posterized art that MacGowan favors). Again, it isn't just Automobile, it's *all* of the games I've seen from Treefrog. It's certainly a distinctive look, it's just not a look that calls out to me.

Also to be fair, Euros just aren't what they used to be for me. I have a stack of ten or twelve Euros sitting at home unplayed, partly because I live on the moon and very few people come out to play games anymore, but also because I haven't even set them up and run through a turn or two to get the overall gist of how they work. Back in the day, I'd spend an entire day or three doing this after a big order. Now, I can't be bothered. Call it Euro-ennui.

It also doesn't help that Wallace rarely puts out a theme that I'm interested in. Many of them center around the Industrial Revolution and it's aftermath (including Automobile), a period that holds considerably less interest for me. Tinner's Trail, Automobile, Steel Driver, all were set in that general period. I did, however, like Brass quite a bit, although that was five titles ago and who knows if it will ever see table time again. Maybe that's the problem - too many Wallace games where they all fit their theme nicely but at the same time all feel similar.

In the end, like most of the other Treefrog titles, I'd play this again, and perhaps I'd like it more, although that was not the case with Tinner's Trail, the only Treefrog title I've played twice. I'm certainly unlikely to sign up to buy any of these games, which shocks even myself when it comes down to it.

Oh well. I was never a car nut anyway.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Yes, I'm a big fan of Wallace's games because they just seem to hit the spot for me, and Automobile is no different. A typical Wallace structure, with few turns, but a lot happening in those turns, and a lot of inter-dependent actions, it wasn't that hard to grasp, I thought, but I'd had the advantage of reading through the rules once before playing.

I'm not entirely sure what I did to win, but I think it had a lot to do with me being the only person building mid-level cars in the final turn. I was able to build the maximum possible and sold them all for mucho bucks. Not being in the race for the high-level cars certainly didn't hurt me, and being able to sell all my low-level cars helped as well. All this played well with my decision the previous turn to take a loan (euphemism for I'd screwed up so badly I'd no cash left to build cars). This gave me plenty cash to build the maximum possible, and I got a good return on that loan in the end. Plus my retailers were in the right position to sell cars for me.

I really thought I was doing poorly going into the last turn, but knew I'd do well when I saw what y'all were producing, although the end state surprised me with how far I was ahead.

By Cooley's Law I liked it, but I was predisposed to like it from the start, so no great surprise there.